The Video Game Industry
One of the coolest industries out there for anybody interested in graphics and visual art is the video game industry. In this industry you get to use your talents to create something that can be used and enjoyed by millions of people.
You will get to apply your skills to create the same video games that you play every day, and be a part of a team that has a huge influence on society. Whether you are looking to make the next Grand Theft Auto or Flappy Bird, or you just have an idea you want to do yourself, a career in the video game industry can be exciting.
Depending on your skills and interests, there are also many different avenues you can go down in the industry while still being a creative part of the team. Whether you are the artist/animator, programmer or sound technician, you can find something that suits you.
The thing I love the most about the video game industry is that you get to be a part of something bigger and create something for everybody to enjoy.
This can sometimes come at a cost at even the best video game companies, as when there are deadlines and you will have to work long hours to get the product out. The work/life balance can be disproportionate at times, but a lot of times, the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. Once you learn how to become a game tester, move up in the studio and start designing your own, you will agree.
Video Game Jobs
|Job Category||Job Titles||Job Description||Expected Average Annual Salary|
|Video Game Designer||Junior Designer, Designer, Lead Designer||Overall decisions on the design of the game and its features||$70,000|
|Game Programmer||Junior Coder, Coder, Lead Coder, Code Manager||Engineer who codes all of the ideas into a playable game||$85,000|
|Tester||Junior Tester, Tester, Lead Tester, QA Manager||Quality Assurance (QA). Tests games for bugs and errors, difficulty and localization||$40,000|
|Artist/Animator||Junior Artist, Artist, Lead Artist||In charge of visual aspects of game. Character design, environment, objects and even user interface||$72,000|
|Audio||Audio Technician, Audio Engineer, Lead Audio Engineer||Sound Effects (SFX) and Music for the game.||$50,000|
Video Game Designer Job Information
Let’s just get one thing off the table here; you aren’t going to be at this level right away. It takes some people many years of education and experience to get here, but for many, the end goal is worth it.
So what do they do exactly? Basically, everything involving the creation of the video game. They are responsible for the overall idea of the game, from the concept to the execution. When you think of a video game creator, many times you are picturing a designer.
- Game Rules
- Initial Concept
- GDD (see glossary below)
- Post Production
- All design decisions
Compared to all of the other video game jobs they aren’t the ones who code it, make the music for it, animate it, sell it or license it, but they do have a hand in all of those aspects. This position is usually filled by very creative people who can see the big picture of the overall project.
They need to be able to lead a team while also working solo at times and they need to be good communicators to express their ideas.
Most people in this position have a Bachelor’s Degree and many years of experience from testing to artistry. You can realistically expect a video game designer salary to be an average of $70,000, with increases expected as experience and responsibilities increase.
There are different roles that can be filled within this category as some designers will focus on specific aspects of the game. Below are some common designer roles:
- Lead Designer – Responsible for overall coordination of game
- Mechanics Designer – Rule systems and function of the game
- Environmental Designer – Scenarios and environments in the game
- Level Designer – Similar to Environmental Designer, but focusing on the entire level
If all of this sounds like fun, you’re on the right path, but how do you become a game designer? There are many paths you can take to getting there, but there are a number of critical items you need to make sure you have before you begin.
The most important thing you need is a passion for video games. Sounds simple, but when you have to put in overtime and practically sleep in the studio, you want to know that you are doing it because it is your true passion.
Maybe you like playing video games and the thought of getting to make them is exciting, but will it still be exciting when you have worked for a week straight, only to hear a backer pull out funding, or a user complain about a design? Only true passion will push you past these obstacles and keep you sane.
If you have the passion and you know this is the right career for you, you need to start getting some experience. Many people get started with school and getting a degree, but to get a job as a designer you need more than that.
Most game studios will look beyond a resume and really focus on the portfolio. Studios are looking for tangible proof that you know what you are doing and can be a real asset to the company.
In your portfolio the best thing you can include are shipped games, as this shows a high level of actual experience. This doesn’t mean you have to have actually worked for a studio, as you can self-publish games today by making your own video games.
If you can show a completed game, it shows you understand every aspect of video game creation and that you know everything from UI/UX design to player feedback. This will hopefully get you an initial interview.
Once you are in the initial and team interviews, make sure you show your ability to work within and lead teams, as professional games are never created without a team involved.
If you don’t yet have the experience or ability to create a portfolio of work, you will probably need to work your way up in the studio. Many people start out as testers and as they gain knowledge and experience, move up to the designer positions.
Video Game Programming Job Information
Many people confuse the term game programmer with designer, but it is important to understand the difference between these two video game jobs. Whereas the designer is responsible for the overall decisions of the game, video game programming is what makes it happen.
The programmer is specifically focused on the coding of all of the ideas and taking the information from the rest of the team members to turn it into a functional, playable game. They need to coordinate with all of the other members of the team, from the artists to the UI designers.
There are a number of specialty types of video game, each focusing on specific aspects of the game, a few are:
- Game Engine – the foundation of the games
- Physics engine – real-world physics dealing with kinematics, gravity or friction, for example
- Artificial Intelligence (AI) – Computer characters, enemies and opponents
- User Interface – What the player sees and interacts with
- Network – Multiplayer, Networked and Internet cooperation
- Porting – Applying code to multiple different platforms
In addition to the specialty focuses of these programmers, you will also have generalists who focus on multiple aspects, usually at smaller studios with lower budgets, and a lead programmer who will oversee all of the other programmers.
Almost all programmers have a background and degree in Computer Science and will know multiple computer languages. The most common language is C#, but specialists might also know DirectX, OpenGL, or script languages like Ruby or Python.
If you don’t have a degree in CS, many studios will also look at experience, as many coding languages can be learned without a degree. Other degrees that are desirable by studios are mathematics or physics, as these are directly relatable to the position.
The level of salary for a programmer varies greatly depending on the level of experience and specialty. The average salary can be around $80,000, but the top programmers in the right city can make well past $100k.
The good thing about this position is that unlike other roles, video game companies are always hiring programmers, and once they find one that knows what they are doing and are easy to work with, they tend to hold onto them. A good programmer is essential to the success of most video games, and studios understand this.
If you want to get a job in this field, there is only one thing to do, program. Program, program, program. Do this until you don’t want to do it anymore and then move on to another language and do it again. Programming is like playing a sport; you get better at it the more you do it.
Think of it as practicing, where you do it enough, when somebody throws you a curve, you know how to react. You should be able to take any task the designer gives you and instantly know how you would go about making that work.
The bonus to all of this practice, is when you are done, you will have a pretty good knowledge of engines and have hopefully built your own. This engine is a great thing to show your potential employer, because it is actual proven experience beyond any piece of paper some people might have.
Game Tester Job Information
Arguably, this is the best sounding job at video game companies. Who doesn’t want to play video games for a living? Well, there is a lot more to it than that. Game testing is hard and monotonous, but the good news is that it can be a great stepping stone to future careers, or a career in itself. Want to know how to become a game tester? Read on.
This position will test games, but many times they are tasked with testing one specific portion of the game many times and finding ways to break it. It’s not like you get to play a game from start to finish, making notes along the way.
Video game tester jobs require a lot of documentation, analytic abilities, and understanding of how games work. You will need to report any issues to the lead tester and it needs to be thoroughly documented and researched.
Testing roles fall under the quality assurance (QA) banner, and you are generally required to find all of the bugs within a game in order to have minimal impact once the game ships. There are also roles that will do beta testing or even part-time tester jobs.
Good testers will not only be able to find a bug, but replicate it and report what they think caused it, which means playing the same portion of the game over and over again with different scenarios. In the end, the tester will fill out a bug report on the company database.
The bug report progression goes from identification, to report, ending with analysis and verification. Bugs are reported by ranking with an “A” bug being the worst, and a D bug being a minor issue, and might not be fixed and become “not a bug” or NAB, also known as a game feature.
Many people begin in this role as tester as a path to moving up and this is a great way to gain experience in many different fields. In video game tester jobs, you will learn:
- Design – Understanding why things were done a certain way
- Programming – Understanding how programmers work to analyze and fix bugs
- Customer Support – Player found bugs and how to resolve them
By working through these items and excelling, you may soon become a lead tester, and test manager and eventually get involved in the production side. Over the years, this could lead to a designer position if you are capable.
If you want to know how to become a game tester, first know this, you don’t necessarily need any specialized degrees, but you should have extensive knowledge in video games and computers in general. You have to be able to process the bug and use critical thinking to figure out the potential reason for it.
What you are looking for when applying to a game company is a company in your immediate area, as most studios won’t allow you to work from home. Find one that is working on games that you would enjoy playing and send in your resume.
The companies you want to look for are ones that do testing internally and not external test labs, as there is little place to advance there. Video game tester jobs are called QA jobs, and are from a developer or publisher and ideally you would like to work in a place where there is a clear path for advancement.
One word of warning, watch out for scams. Anything that sounds too good to be true probably is and look out for “companies” that ask you for a fee before you start working. They work by getting people to buy into the dream by offering a lot of money for a job, but requiring you to send in a fee. You will not get the job (there isn’t one) and you won’t get your money back.
How to make your own video game
Believe it or not, it is entirely possible for a single person to make their own video game. It may not be the next Braid, but being a video game creator is something anybody looking to get into the game industry should attempt.
By creating your own video game, you not only have something tangible to show on your portfolio, but you also gain valuable experience in every single aspect of game development along the way.
The first step in the process is to look at the big picture and understand that the first thing you create will likely not be the best thing you have ever played. This mindset will set you up for not being disappointed when a bug appears or something doesn’t work.
If this is your first game, you should also keep it simple and don’t allow for feature creep. You will have so many great ideas, you will want them all in the game, but an important part of design is editing your ideas down to the basics and keeping it simple.
You will also need to keep an eye out for complex strategies and systems that will make it too difficult for a single person. Maintain a simple mechanic that you keep consistent throughout, something that is easy to understand and implement. Don’t overdo it.
Once you have the big picture in your head, start putting on paper what you want your game to do. You don’t need to necessarily write a GDD, but you should have an understanding of what your game’s purpose is.
Think through the overall mission, the levels, the characters and environment. Put it all down on paper and make sure it makes sense before you invest all of you time to making it.
The paper game you just made is now ready to go into a computer or console, but for your first game it should be a PC, it’s just easier. The first step to getting it into the computer is to use an existing engine and not trying to build your own, keeping it simple, remember?
If you don’t want to learn programming just yet, get game making software like Game Maker or Stencyl which offer intuitive interfaces and drag-and-drop functionality for a small price (or free). If you are not an artist, find some free graphics and audio from OpenGameArt or FreeSound.
Another great way to get started is to also look at modding a game, where you take existing games and make modifications to them. While not as robust as other game making software, this will help you learn the ins and outs of the engine. Games like Unreal, Half-Life 2 and Quake can be modded in this way.
With these free and easy tools, you can quickly get your first game under your belt and you can quickly send it out to your friends and family to test it out. Hopefully you will have learned enough from making this first game that you are ready to move on to your next game, where you will learn even more.
Notice how we talked about making your first game and didn’t even discuss programming yet? That’s because when you are learning you need to focus on one task at a time, and programming is a task in itself.
If you are ready to tackle the programming side, you will want to look into the most commonly used languages. Python and C# are the powerhouses of programming languages in computer gaming. If you want to have a career in the industry you must know C++.
While it is almost a requirement to learn C++, as it is the leading game making software, I wouldn’t recommend it for beginners as it can be incredibly difficult to pick up at first. Start with Python, build a game and then learn C++, otherwise you might get too frustrated to finish.
Video Game Design Schools
If you are planning on getting into the industry, it is almost a requirement to have a Bachelor’s degree from one of the video game design schools. So how do you choose which school is best for you? Short answer is, it depends. What types of position are you looking for, programmer or designer? What part of the state are you in? How much money do you have?
These are all decisions you will have to make, but there are certain things you want to look for in your choice, in particular, what kind of classes do they offer?
Some universities offer degrees specifically in video games and offer courses such as programming, prototyping and game development and are clearly the best choice for those looking to become a video game creator.
Other universities offer a minor in gaming and have courses such as interface design and multiplayer game environments. This degree from video game designs schools could be a general Bachelor of Arts, but the minor focus will give you specific knowledge.
According to the Princeton Review, here are some of the top game design colleges for an undergraduate degree focusing on video games:
Colleges – Undergrad
|Univeristy of Southern California||Los Angeles, CA|
|University of Utah||Salt Lake City, UT|
|DigiPen Institute of Technology||Redmond, WA|
|Drexel University||Philadelphia, PA|
|Hampshire College||Amherst, MA|
|Worcester Polytechnic Institute||Worcester, MA|
|Rochester Institute of Technology||Rochester, NY|
|The Art Institute of Vancouver||Vancouver, BC|
|Massachussetts Institute of Technology||Cambridge, MA|
|New York University||Brooklyn, NY|
|Shawnee State University||Portsmouth, OH|
|Michigan State University||East Lansing, MI|
|Northeastern University||Boston, MA|
|Oklahoma Christian University||Edmond, OK|
|Savannah College of Art and Design||Savannah, GA|
|Champlain College||Burlington, VT|
|Becker College||Worcester, MA|
|Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute||Troy, NY|
|Vancouver Film School||Vancouver, BC|
|DePaul University||Chicago, IL|
|UC Santa Cruz||Santa Cruz, CA|
|North Carolina State University||Raleigh, NC|
|New England Institute of Technology||East Greenwich, RI|
|Ferris State University||Grand Rapids, MI|
While you are in school, you will obviously want to take computer science specific classes, but you should also make sure you have learned things at these game design colleges specific to the gaming industry like physics, high level math, art and even psychology.
In the end what you walk away with by getting a college degree is not just a piece of paper, but an ability to think critically and problem solve, all of which is necessary in the industry.
- AAA: High level game that is typically within the top ten selling games in the market
- A Bug: Highest priority bug that must be fixed
- Artificial Intelligence (AI): Code or algorithm that dictates how a non-player character (NPC) behaves in the game
- Avatar: A computerized representation of the player in the game world
- B Bug: Second highest priority bug
- Beta Test: Final testing phase of nearly complete project. Usually by user and not from QA
- Bug: A problem with the game that needs to be fixed
- Build: The complete group of game assets and source code
- C Bug: Second lowest priority bug, may remain unfixed
- Closed Beta Test: Beta test by select group of testers only
- CS: Computer Science
- Cut Scene: Video or animation, usually between levels or scenes
- D Bug: Lowest level bug, not always fixed
- DLC: Downloadable Content. Extra content from game developer that can be added to game
- Engine: The program that makes the game run
- Game-Design Document (GDD): Document that describes the design of the game. Highly detailed and used as a guiding document for the project
- Graphical User Interface (GUI): User interaction through graphics as opposed to commands
- Indie: Independent game created outside of major studios
- Mod/Modding: Using tools to modify and customize game levels or environments
- Non-Player Character (NPC): Character controlled by computer AI and not by player
- Proof of Concept: Used to determine feasibility of game
- Prototype: Iteration of game for testing
- Quality Assurance (QA): Testing of game to check for bugs
- Software Development Kit (SDK): Group of software tools, utilities, and documents for programmers to build from
- Source Code: Base code that programmer writes for game and gets compiled to object code
- Sprite: Object in game that is moveable
- Technical Design Document (TDD): Document that describes the technical steps required to complete the GDD.
- User Interface (UI): The way in which the user interacts with the game and vice-versa
- User Experience (UX): The experience the user gets throughout the game
- Work in Progress (WIP): An unfinished game that is still being worked on
If you are at all interested in making your passion your career, the video game industry might be for you. You get to create something that is enjoyed and used by a large number of people and you are able to express your creativity in something tangible.
The video game industry is growing, and whether you want to be a designer or programmer, work for the biggest AAA video game companies or go indie, you will find a place in this industry.