Everything you need to know about becoming a video game designer including responsibilities, advice, and salary information.
Class Summary: What Does a Video Game Designer Do?
Remember that amazing feeling you got seeing your favourite video game location for the first time? Or perhaps you remember the emotion washing over you at a pivotal moment in your favorite game's story? Whether it was walking through Markarth (Skyrim) for the first time, exploring Rapture (Bioshock), or learning the truth about Darth Revan (Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic), video game designers were the people behind those feelings.
A video game designer conceptualizes and creates the storyline, characters, dialogue, and rules for a game. They will work with artists, sound engineers, and developers to set the visual feel, the audible ambience, and the mechanics of the obstacles players will encounter.
If you are interested in video game design as a career, read on. We have spoken with several industry professionals to bring you some great tips to get ahead of the game and find your ideal role.
Your Primary Quest
Video game designers can wear many different hats day-to-day, often depending on the size of the game studio they work at. In a large studio, they may focus on a specific area of design, for instance narrative or level design.
At an indie studio, however, they will probably cover several of these roles, maybe even dipping their toes into certain art duties as part of their responsibilities. Patrick Casey, Associate Designer at Poorly Timed Games, explains, "I am at an indie company, so it involves wearing a few different hats. Some days I have a design hat on and am bouncing between meetings and editing documentation. Other days I am making videos for a pitch and playtesting builds."
Above all, the game designer's main goal is to create an exciting, fun, atmospheric video game experience for the players, and they will use a wide variety of tools and skills to achieve this.
Shax Wahid, Level Designer for Rebellion, told us what a typical day can look like: "Sometimes there's fires to put out or sometimes new tasks arrive that will need prioritizing. I’ll grab the latest edits on Perforce (Software Configuration Management System) and then attend the level design daily stand-up meeting where we discuss what we will be working on that day so the team is informed on what everyone is up to. From there I could be spending the day whiteboxing my level, scripting gameplay or objectives, populating the level with AI, or working closely with my artists replacing whitebox sections with art (and that's only a handful of usual tasks!)."
In order to become a video game designer, you should look to hone some of the skills listed here, where we've broken down what's required at the junior, intermediate, and senior levels of your career.
The main skills you are going to need to succeed as a video game designer are heavily creativity-based. You'll need to be a natural storyteller, able to understand what makes a compelling narrative, and how that translates into the game world. You'll need to be able to take design ideas and turn them into crafted experiences that players are going to love.
You will also need to be analytical, with a superb eye for detail. You'll need to be able to critique your own ideas, as well as other's, and identify potential challenges, or problems. This means you will also need to be able to effectively communicate feedback to your team, as well as accept feedback on your own ideas without taking it personally. Shax reinforced the importance of this by explaining, "Another great skill to have is being able to constructively discuss and critique your own designs with team members in order to get the best out of your work."
Although to start out in video game design you won't need to know how to code games, as your career progresses you may find it helpful to learn one or two programming languages. "While you might eventually need to learn some languages, you can do an alarming amount of work on a game without ever touching a line of code," Patrick says. "You definitely should learn python or another simple language though."
Seeing as you're still reading this article, you're probably still interested in starting a career in video game design. In that case, you'll need to build your character profile to give yourself the best chances of success.
Don't skip the tutorial!
Patrick gave us his thoughts on formal training for a game design career, "For design, I don't think a degree is entirely necessary. I did go to school and got a BS in Photography, but I am pretty much only using theory and critique in my day to day job."
Shax reiterates this point, saying, "You don't need a degree to break into the games industry, however taking time out to learn the craft is a must. Gaining a degree would show skills such as people skills and being able to work successfully towards a deadline, however it's not necessary. There's so much game development information out there on the internet at the moment it's practically on the doorstep. There are really useful YouTube tutorials for game design, games art, etcetera. Unity and Unreal Engine are free to use and they are perfect for learning how to create games."
Here are some places you can find game design learning resources completely free:
- Unreal Engine (through its own tutorials)
If you're looking for some more refined guidance in learning the basics of video game design, you can find in-depth courses on Skillshare.
Do your dailies
While tutorials are great to help you learn the basics of how to play the game, nothing beats the regular EXP grind. As Patrick told us, "For design and other creative disciplines, what matters is that you are making stuff. Constantly be creating."
Practicing regularly will not only help you to continually sharpen your skills, but will also give you great material for your portfolio. (More on this later)
Clearing up myths
Don't be fooled, working as a video game designer isn't all play and no work. You won't be spending all day, every day playing games. You'll be in design meetings, collaborating with your team on new features and fighting fires when they go wrong.
When you do get to play through the games you are working on, you'll be focused on how to improve it, what works, and what needs to change. "When we play through our levels, we are always thinking of ways we can improve the level, how we can optimise the level better, and how certain changes could cause a knock on effect in other parts of the level if we were to make certain changes," Shax told us.
As always, you won't want to embark on this quest unprepared. You're going to need the correct equipment, and we're here to make sure your gear is min/maxed to perfection!
Skins mean wins (Make your portfolio stand out)
You wouldn't dream of hopping into Fortnite in a default skin, would you? You want to stand out from the pack, and how better to do that than with the classic Peely, or Tomato-Head? In similar fashion, you'll need to make sure your application stands out from the rest, and there's no better way to do this than with a kick-ass portfolio.
In any creative role, your portfolio will be one of your most valuable pieces of equipment, and you should make sure yours is levelled up to legendary status. "Keep working on your portfolio — keep it clean, clear, and straight to the point," Shax advises. "Remember you don't always have to develop first person shooters! Sometimes it's refreshing seeing a different kind of project."
Pack the right tools
Game design can require such a wide range of skills, you'll need to have the right tools to do each job. Try to have demonstrable skills in a few of the following:
- Drawboard PDF
- Unreal Engine
What's the best thing about being a video game designer?
So now you understand what a game designer does and what skills are needed to excel in this field. But why would you want to be a video game designer? What can you look forward to if you decide to follow this career path?
For Patrick, it's the endless scope of what his creations will resemble. "One of my favorite things about design is that whatever I am working on becomes a confluence of things that I have enjoyed. You never know what piece of media or craft will become an inspiration to your work."
Shax also values the creative aspect of the job. "I love creating environments and scripting so naturally I fell into a level design role. Being able to create a world and give it meaning is really cool, especially when working alongside talented artists, animators, audio designers, and more. Seeing the joy on people's faces as they play your game makes everything worth it. Also I can't find the right emotions that describe how you feel during a project launch — it's just bloody amazing."
So if you want a varied, exciting career where you'll constantly be creating and putting smiles on gamer's faces, video game design could be the perfect career choice for you.
Video Game Designer Salary
If you've read through this whole article, and have decided that video game design is the career for you, a logical question is what can you expect to earn in this job?
An entry-level game designer with less than a year's experience in the industry can expect to earn a base salary of around $40-50k per year, with salaries heading north of $100k for the most senior positions. On average, a game designer earns approximately $66k per year in the USA, according to payscale.com.
If this sounds like your dream career, don't waste another minute. Head on over to our jobs pages, and take a look at all the game design jobs we have to offer here.
Good luck, and remember that we're always here to help.
You can find Patrick's photography portfolio here: https://www.patrickcaseyphoto.com.