Job profile: Become a video game designer
Sitting in my son’s bedroom, I am reminded of when we used to play World of Warcraft together. I have Steam (the popular video game distribution platform) on my laptop currently and have actively fought in quite a few virtual, online wars.
When I think about such things, I always experience a sense of wonder: How do they make these games? Who is behind the scenes and what does it take? Who makes up the look and feel? I have always wanted to explore what a video game designer does, so let’s dive into this subject together.
For those of us who play video games, being a video game designer might sound like a dream job. It could be seen as the ultimate pinnacle of your career as a technology professional. In actuality, however, the life of a video game designer isn’t too far off from that of a regular technology professional.
With video games being a $30 billion industry, most games are the product of coordinated effort among a large team. Most individual game designers function as part of a comprehensive unit of designers and developers who all pull together to create a fun playing experience for you and I.
All video games have to start with a concept, of course. What is the story of the game? What are players trying to accomplish? If you choose to work as a self-employed designer, you will almost certainly come up with some concepts on your own. If you work at a studio, concept work will be done with a team of other designers.
Concept work, of course, consists of more than just formulating an idea for a game. In addition to the basic scenario, concept designers flesh out gameplay, visual layouts, storylines, characters, maps, difficulty levels, and other details. These concepts need to be very detailed.
For example, concept designers have to determine small details like how fast characters can move, or how high they can jump. Designers must be detail-oriented to come up with concepts on this level. Graphic designers at small studios may be involved with many or all aspects of the game’s concept.
At larger studios, graphic designers may have a more specialized role. For example, some graphic designers might work on a team whose only focus is the game’s map, or its character set.
We’ve come a long way since the earliest game systems, and most games today involve sophisticated artwork. Traditional graphic designers are needed to deliver the artwork, animation, and mockups required for the user interface (UI) aspect of the game.
The trolls that dance across the screen during the World of Warcraft opening sequence take shape in the minds of one of these people. Creative types will be drawn toward this role on the team and, at between $100,000 and $150,000 per year, they are paid handsomely for their ability to create.
I am of the school that believes an individual can grow or sharpen his or her creative ability, but he or she must be born with that seed to ultimately succeed. I can’t even draw a good stick figure, though I can run a project to create a game as well as anyone. Which brings me to my next role that falls under the video game designer umbrella.
The project manager role, usually called lead game designer, is the perhaps the most pivotal role. This person coordinates everything from start to finish. The lead designer make the production schedules, herds the cats, and works with both teams and individuals to help them meet deadlines.
Project management for a lead designer on a game design project can be tricky. A lead designer can’t just give orders but must successfully work with people who are accustomed to self-supervision. Rather than tell people what to do, a lead designer draws attention to choke points in the production chain and encourages problem solving.
A good lead designer uses his or her own behavior to guide others’ performance — by starting meetings on time, for example, and following through on between-meeting assignments. Lead designers often rely heavily on such tactics, since they typically cannot use promotions, compensation, or threats of dismissal to influence team members.
As a certified life coach (among many other certifications), I am drawn toward coaching opportunities. Coaching opportunities are abundant within creative teams because the skills members eventually need are often ones they don’t already have. Everyone on the project needs the skills of everyone else involved. Success requires a team effort.
In addition to providing direction, a lead designer must often do a share of the work, particularly in areas where he or she has special competence. Ideally, a lead designer should also take on one or two of the unpleasant or unexciting jobs that no one else wants to do.
If you’re interested in this role, then getting a PMP (Project Management Professional) certification is a good place to start. Project management skills are easily translatable to many other IT sectors; you will never be out of work as a project manager.
The role that everyone probably thinks of first when they hear the words “video game designer” is the programmer or developer. These are the folks who write the code that makes everything come together. The characters move, the shapes render, a virtual gun shoots (or a sword swings), as a result of computer code.
A skilled developer can expect a six-figure starting salary. Beginners will most often move up to this role from a more traditional background in software development or web development. They will morph into hard-core back end developers who make the game’s “engine” run smoothly.
Great developers are often highly creative and may even think of their own game ideas and/or create their own companies. If you have your eye on this role, then you will want to pursue IT certifications, training, and education that align with both software development and game design.
There are other roles on the massive teams that design game. You could become a tester, a game flow designer, a video editor, a copywriter, and so forth. No matter which role you end up filling on a game design team, you are part of the finished product.
You can tell all your friends and family which parts of the game wouldn’t have come to life without you. And you’ll have the satisfaction of having worked on something that delights and entertains people for hours on end — that is arguably the best part of being a game designer.