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Careers in Game Development

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Over the past decade, I’ve met a lot of people with a dream to make videogames for a living. Whether they want to design the characters or program, they want in. I can’t say I blame them, either. Video games have really come a long way since 1983 when the industry nearly fell through. What used to be something marketed for a select group of people has now become a part of everyone’s lives.

As a gamer myself, I’ve dabbled in the idea of making video games. I even considered applying for Digipen where the creative minds behind Portal came from. In the end, though, it’s not about where you go. It’s about what you can learn regardless of location and how you can apply it. If you’re curious to see what kind of careers in game development are out there, there’s no better time and place than to start here.

There are so many jobs in game development and many moving parts, especially at the larger AAA games, it would be impossible for us to list them all in one article. Instead, here are four of the most common job goals most young upstarts have: The designer, the programmer, the artist, and where many start: the QA tester.

 

Game Designer

Game Design

As the game designer, your job is going to be the crux of the entire development. What’s a game without its core elements – the mechanics, the setting, the characters, the plot, and all of the other things that make up the game? Typically, the responsibility does not fall onto one person alone. Within a company, there can be multiple designers who get together and collaborate on ideas. This means you’ll need to be able to work in a team environment.

To prepare yourself for this type of position, you’re going to need a variety of skills and experience. Classes generally offered in a game design major focus on storytelling, theories of game design, the psychological impact of games, economics, and leadership. You can find this type of degree offered at many colleges. I would recommend reading “The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses,” “Challenges for Game Designers,” and “Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art.” The last book obviously isn’t strictly a game design book, but rather it’s one what may help you understand how to analyze a medium and look at every little aspect and how that imparts meaning. Understanding mechanics-as-metaphors can make the difference between a fun game and a meaningful one.

 

Game Programmer

Game Programming

This is one of the more popular choices for the careers in video game development, rightfully so. It’s become so easy to learn computer programming languages for free off the internet, and these are the tools you need to know how to use for the job. Learning a computer language helps you both writing the code and developing an understanding on how to debug it, too.

Being a game programmer is more than just knowing your C++ from your Java, though. While you do need to be efficient in computer programming languages, the general programmer also has a specialty that fits his or her role in the programming portion. The programming department will have multiple persons with certain tasks, from managing the AI to network communications to the actual physics of the game play. It’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with each kind of specialty and focus on a couple that interest you.

Instead of trying to get a “game programming” degree, most people will tell you go for one in Computer Science. This encompasses the majority of software programming with extra tools to assist you in the field. The Computer Science degree will typically include classes on object-oriented programming, calculus, and data structures. I would also recommend reading “Mathematics and Physics for Programmers,” “Real-Time Collision Detection,” and “Real-Time Rendering.”

 

Game Artist

Halo Concept Art

This title is pretty self explanatory, but let’s get to the details anyway. The artists who work in the development team are overseen by a Lead Artist who monitors the other artists and ensures the designers’ vision is being met. As an artist, it’s good to have a multitude of skills with the work you can put out. Rather than sticking to one style (I’m looking at you, Japanese media fans), explore multiple styles from realistic to old fashion cartoons to grunge comics.

No matter what your style is, though, attention to detail is super important. Being able to convey a character’s emotions through facial expressions and body movement will be key to bringing them to life. I can’t explain how irritating it is as a gamer to see a character with little to no expression when they’re in immediate danger. Knowing your anatomy and being able to observe people’s reactions from real life will give you a boost in this field.

I do not recommend jumping immediately at the Art Institute. There are other colleges you can check out with fantastic art degrees. My recommendation is going for a computer graphics degree where you’ll be working closely with the computer instead of traditional art mediums. In this degree, your main focus will be on 3-D design, computer animation, drawing, and graphic design. Recommended reading is both volumes of “Vertex,” “The Legend of Zelda: Hyrule Historia,” and “Digital Lighting and Rendering.”

 

Game Tester

Game Tester

Along with the programmer, the game tester position is also highly sought after in the development team. Many people believe this is easy to do if you are an experienced video game player, but that is not true. Being a tester is more than just sitting on the couch with a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos and finding glitches. With such a competitive field, you’ll need to really sharpen your analytical skills and understanding of game design.

As a tester, you’ll be responsible for documentation of the game’s defects with utmost accuracy and specifics of how it was produced. You’ll also need to pay attention to how the functionality of the game plays, the flow of the game, and how entertaining it is based on your experience. These details will also need to be forwarded to the rest of the team for them to go back in and fix.

As for college requirements, this is an entry-level position where no college degree is necessary in most cases. However, many game testers find new positions later in the company which focus more on the other 3 careers covered. Whatever path you’d like to take, it’s best to start with a long-term goal in mind when applying for these positions to make your way up the ranks. Recommended reading is “Game Testing: All in One,” “Land a Job as a Video Game Tester,” and “Game Development Essentials: Game QA & Testing.”


While these jobs are the most popular for prospective game developers, there are many more out there I didn’t cover. From composers to level designers to management, there are so many opportunities for people to join a development team. All it takes is a little patience and a lot of research to see what would fit you best. Good luck searching!

About Adam Watson

Adam Watson was addicted to video games way back when he was a wee kid, pretending to be sick just to stay at home from school and play on the SNES. Now at the age of 24, he's found a way to study for his Physics degree and play video games in the same day. He's acquired enough Lifetime Happiness Points to get the Meditative Trance Sleep reward so that he has more time in the day to do all of this.

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