Video Game Design is nothing if not a multi-disciplinary pursuit. Game designers can be involved in fine art, graphic art, storytelling, voice casting, programming, and video direction, to name a few disciplines. In effect, creating a video game is not unlike producing a film or television show. The key difference is that you need to create an experience that provides challenges for the player. That is, your audience must interact with the production.
Like film production, a career in video game design thus entails long hours devoted to conceptualizing, planning, and scripting before the actual production begins. Then, your job will involve working with your human models and voice actors, writing code, drawing and painting the scenes and sets, and more. Game design is a field that is richly rewarding for creative types and can be financially rewarding if your game becomes a hit.
Components of A Successful Career In Video Game Design
Success as a video game designer can be manifested in many ways. For some, the very act of creation is validation and success enough. This is an artisan approach, which independent game developers embrace. They create incredible, cutting-edge games and sell them for a song, hoping to gain a small, yet dedicated, audience.
Artisanal game designers may also be successful in winning awards and gaining critical acclaim. Their games are often so cutting edge that they inspire more mainstream teams and thus they impact their industry in very deep and meaningful ways. However, their success might not pay for a flashy home or car unless a larger company comes along and buys their whole setup.
Other video game designers seek success on a larger, more financial scale. They create games based on movies or sports figures and reap enormous monetary rewards. They still employ their creative vision, but within the confines of specific franchise or genre restrictions.
Still other game designers find the best of both worlds. The creator of Minecraft, for instance, produced a simplistic and outdated-looking game that caught the imagination of the world. Children and adults were drawn to its novel approach to gaming and now it is a large part of contemporary culture. The wild success of that one game earned its designers and creators millions, if not billions, of dollars and international acclaim for their vision and creativity.
A video game design degree teaches students how to take a project from conception to completion. Students learn to work in teams where everyone's input has equal weight and must be in synch in order to create a dynamite final product. As students develop their individual skills, their group projects become more effective and arresting to audiences.
Specific skills from video game design can translate into other areas, as well. Artists can work as illustrators for marketing firms, and coders can shift their skills into other forms of software development. The process of game creation itself can be immensely educational and prepare students to work as project managers, or in other managerial positions.
Typical Game Design Degree Requirements
Since Video Game Design is quite a broad-based degree, you will need to satisfy a large number of requirements to qualify for graduation. These required courses will provide the fundamental tools you will need to succeed as a designer and offer you insights into the various disciplines needed for a successful game launch. Some required courses include, but are not limited to:
Design Courses – up to thirteen design courses
Practicum – multiple courses where you bring a project to completion
Computer Science – can include studies in AI and Programming
Typical Game Design and Certifications Needed
Game designers don't necessarily need any specific certifications. This is still a field where a self-taught prodigy can appear out of nowhere, with no formal training, and create the next Minecraft or Fortnite. However, as the industry matures, you can save yourself quite a bit of time and energy by following a curriculum and learning the skills you need to succeed from instructors steeped in their individual disciplines.
Academic Standards for Game Design Degrees
Game design degrees can have very high academic standards. After all, game design students must develop and master a diversified set of skills to complete the degree. That means that you must be an excellent student who has a high degree of discipline that you can focus in a variety of ways. For instance, you need be able to shift from your work in computer programming to your work as a designer and artist.
One school requires that incoming freshmen have a minimum SAT score of 1280 or ACT scores in the 29-34 range. It's also recommended that you have taken some computing courses and pre-calculus is required, as a minimum standard.
Exam/Experience Needed for Game Designers
To be a successful game designer you need to skillfully apply your knowledge to games or other forms of interactive entertainment. Your degree will require that you create games or other interactive media along the way. This academic experience will help you succeed when you finally land your dream job in a video game studio. While you are still a student, you might seek internships or other experiential learning opportunities where you can get a real-world feel for the daily life of a game designer.
If you are having trouble finding opportunities, you might strike out on your own and create interactive media for small businesses, friends, or family members. Creating a simple mobile app might be the exact right portfolio piece you need to launch a stellar career.
Important Questions To Ask
How long does it take to earn a Game Design bachelor's degree online?
If you work towards a game design bachelor's degree online, you can expect to take up to 29 months. Those 2+ years don't necessarily include time off for summers or spring break, for instance. However, if you work full-time on your studies, you will emerge with a solid foundation of knowledge and skills that you can immediately apply to game production.
How much does a Game Design bachelor’s degree cost?
A Bachelor's degree in Game Design can cost around $30,000 for a degree from an in-state university, assuming you complete your core curriculum in a community college. That number increases to upwards of $300,000 if you attend an elite private school in an expensive location, such as New York City.
As an alternative, you could attend a college that is not fully accredited. This is a risky proposition because your courses will likely not transfer to a fully-accredited institution. However, if you find that the education is adequate training for your career, it might be worth a look. These programs often are more affordable, but you should be aware of the risks.
Game Design Bachelor's Degree Coursework
As you work towards your bachelor's degree in game design, you will naturally take a lot of tech-related courses, but also loads that are directed towards art and design. This is the beauty of studying game design – the interdisciplinary nature of the degree. Though each program is sure to have unique offerings, you might expect to take some of the following courses:
Illustration for Game Designers
Algorithmic Problem Solving
Data Structures for Game Development
Artificial Intelligence for Game Environments
Does the school have the major(s) you’re considering?
Game design is a rather specific major. You can find it offered through art colleges, but also through technical universities. While you could major in something related, such as fine art, computer science, design, or animation, your resume would not reflect a knowledge-base that is prepared to create video games.
Ultimately, you want to find a program that offers the exact major you are looking for: Game Design. Game design programs are often regimented in such a way that your sequence of classes builds with each term. Your knowledge base and skill sets evolve in a way that is considered optimal for becoming the very best game designer.
How many students graduate “on time,” in four years?
These days, the norm is to graduate within approximately six years. In fact, when the government studies the length of time it's taking students to finish their four-year degrees, they start with six years as the standard for comparison. However, colleges with the most competitive admission standards tend to graduate students quicker than those with less-restrictive admissions. Schools with open admission standards fare the worst, with few students graduating in six years or less.
What kind of accreditation does the program hold? How is it regarded in the field?
Your school's accreditation can make the difference between long-term success and struggling with your further education or career. That is, a fully-accredited game design program will provide you with quality credits that you can apply to graduate school, or that will enable you to otherwise progress in your education or career. If your school is fully accredited there's a good chance that it is respected in the field.
There are also schools that are accredited as career schools. This sort of accreditation means that the institution has been inspected and certified for a certain program, but not to full academic standards. However, these schools might be respected in the field. To ascertain how the industry views them, first determine how many graduates are currently creating video games for either large gaming companies, such as Electronic Arts, or smaller independents. Ask your admissions counselor for any information regarding alumni they have available.
Game design programs ask students to have a wide-ranging set of skills. The most successful game designers will be able to both create incredible artwork and also write brilliant code. Where most college degrees are either creative or analytical, game design asks that you be both.
Before you delve into the field, however, you will want to be immersed in video gaming. Your hours spent playing Xbox might actually pay off here. However, don't stop there. Do as much reading as you can on the various designers and their processes. You might also start analyzing what makes a game great. All creators study the masters, and video game designers should be no different.
Associates Degree in Game Design
An associate degree in game design should get you started in the field. When you study things like algorithms for games, level design, and computer design, you can potentially start creating small games of your own. Some courses you could take include:
A full, four-year degree will immerse you in the process of game design and development. You might have courses dedicated to creating a game alongside a team of fellow students. Your school's status might also open doors for internships or apprenticeships under top designers. As you study for your bachelor's degree in game design, your courses might include, but are not limited to:
Bachelor’s degree sample courses
2D Animation and Asset Production
Rich Media Web Application Development
Topics in Interactive Gaming
Tabletop Game Design
Linux Software Development
Open Source Software and Development
Concentrations include: BS in Computer Science with a concentration in Game Design; BS/BA in CS with a concentration in Game Programming and Development; Electronic Arts; Human/Computer Interaction; Computer Science; Writing for Games; BA in Digital Media with a concentration in Game Development; BS in Applied Computer Science with a concentration in Game Programming; or a BS in CS with a concentration in Game Software Development.
To take your skills and knowledge to the highest level, you'll want to complete a graduate degree in game design. A MS will enable you to expand even more than you have before. Plus, the graduate degree will enable you to teach undergraduates the tricks of the trade. Once your next hot game breaks new records, you can relax with a cushy teaching position. Along the way to fame and fortune, you might take some of the following courses:
Graduate degree sample courses
Advanced Topics in Game Development
Game Engine Design and Development
Digital Audio Production
Game Graphics Programming
Concentrations include: MS in Interactive Media and Game Development with Technical, Serious Games, or Production and Management concentrations; Art; Design; Production; Programming; Gaming Development; 3D Animation; or MFA in Interactive Media with a concentration in Advanced Game Studio.
Game Design Fields of Study Median Salaries
Field of Study
Fine Art: A degree in Fine Art will focus on the creation of works of art that aspire to more than selling a product or representing a company. To achieve such a degree, students select their favorite medium, whether that be painting, ceramics, printmaking, or a multimedia approach. Fine Art majors often pursue careers in mural painting, illustration, graphic art and design, or even set production for stage or screen.
Game Design: Game Design majors focus on conceptualizing and creating video games. They study a wide range of subjects, including computer programming, computer design, interactive media, and more. Game Design majors might minor in fine art, graphic design, or even computer science.
Graphic Design: A degree in Graphic Design often entails a lot of work in the Adobe Creative Suite. Graphic Designers are steeped in theories related to creating logos, typography, and spatial design in both 2D and 3D spaces. A degree in Graphic Design often focuses students towards work with advertising or public relations firms, though designers also work for publishers and even in-house publications departments for major corporations.
Computer Science: A degree in Computer Science entails a lot of work in programming and also more theoretical work with artificial intelligence. CS can even dovetail with a Philosophy Department in that each is seeking to discover more about the nature of intelligence, learning, and knowledge. Degree holders frequently work as programmers or systems administrators.
Game Design Salaries by Occupation
Game Animator: An animator specializes in making objects move in a game. Their objective is to create lifelike motion in response to actions in the game. Some animators might work for weeks and months on background animations in games. Others might focus on the main character's motions in response to the player's input.
Game Audio Engineer: Sound is a large part of a video game. Whether the game demands loud machine guns or futuristic space weapons, the audio engineer is responsible for making it sound believable and good. That is, an audio engineer doesn't only concern themselves with creating sounds, but with making sure those sounds work within the context of a particular game.
Game Designer: A game designer conceptualizes a game and oversees its production. Their roles are not unlike that of film directors – the overall feel and experience of a game is due to their input. Like film directors, game designers receive the lion's share of credit (and blame) for the success of a game.
Game Programmer: After a designer conceptualizes a game, the programmer sets to work spinning the code that will bring it to life. To work with the film analogy, if a designer is a director, the programmer might be a screenwriter. Their endless hours of work with the computer code will make or break a game.
Creative Game Director: This is a hard-won position that might supplant that of game designer, depending on the overall structure of the game-creation team. The creative game director might be analogous to a film producer in that everyone ultimately answers to them. Much like a film director, a game director earns the position through long hours on production teams doing jobs such as: designer, audio engineer, or animator.
Game Artist: The game artist takes the director's vision for scenes and characters and brings them to life. If the game's characters are non-human, how they look is usually up to the artist. The artists collaborate with animators, programmers, and even audio engineers to create a game's characters.
Salary by Job Type
Game Audio Engineer
Creative Game Director
Game Design Scholarships
Electronic Arts: EA Games is perhaps the biggest and best-known video game corporation. They produce top sports games along with other hot franchises. They offer scholarship opportunities to their interns/co-op students.
ESA Foundation Scholarship Program: Women and minority students who are interested in making a positive impact on the video game industry can receive this $3,000 award. The foundation considers academic achievement, goals, experience, and special circumstances such as military service.
Gaming Scholarship Program: The Alliance Recruitment Agency awards undergraduate students in tech-related fields who have a minimum 3.0 cumulative GPA with a one-time scholarship worth $1,000. Entrants must write a research paper concerning the use of video games in the classroom. The Alliance Recruitment Agency also offers a range of other scholarships.
Ashland University eSports Scholarship: This private Ohio university offers $4,000 to gamers who are ready to compete. While the University does not offer game design courses, their computer science degree will surely prepare you to begin programming your own video games. However, you may be able to go pro as a video game "athlete" upon graduation.
Women In Scholarship: This scholarship is provided by the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences Foundation to include women in the interactive entertainment industry. Recipients receive a monetary prize in addition to mentoring opportunities. Applicants should have a minimum cumulative GPA of 3.3 and submit a two-page essay.
Randy Pausch Scholarship Fund: Mr. Pausch was a computer science professor and co-founded the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University. Recipients receive $2,500 and must have a minimum cumulative GPA of 3.3.
Mark Beaumont Scholarship Fund: Mr. Beaumont was COO of Capcom North America, a major player in the video game industry. This fund is specific to students who aim to serve the interactive entertainment industry as lawyers, marketers, public relations executives, or business development professionals. Two full-time students who have a minimum GPA of 3.3 receive $2,500.
Professional Game Design Organizations
International Game Developers Association (IDGA)
The IDGA is an association designed specifically for the video game industry. Members are eligible for discounts on events, books, and other products or services. The key benefit is the ability to network in the industry through its network of chapters and online forums. If you are still a student, there may be a campus chapter near you.
Special Interest Group on Computer-Human Interaction (SIGCHI)
SIGCHI is a group that is operated by the Association for Computing Machinery. SIGCHI endeavors to create a community with a highly diverse group of professionals that include: computer scientists, software engineers, psychologists, interaction designers, graphic designers, sociologists, multi-media designers, and anthropologists. Their goal is to create an inclusive community who work together to create useful and productive technology.
Choosing an Accredited College
Accreditation should be a vital part of your choice of college. If, for instance, you are seeking to work in a corporation like Electronic Arts, their hiring executives are likely to interview candidates with degrees from top universities. Unless you are a self-taught prodigy with a few successful games to your name, an accredited degree is vital to your success.
Though there is no specific accreditation for video game design degrees, your college or university should have at least regional accreditation. If, on the other hand, you choose a career college that is non-accredited, or is certified by a non-academic agency, work on creating the best portfolio possible, and be ready to accept a lower starting salary.
Online vs On-Campus vs Hybrid
Video game designers might immediately take to an online platform for learning. Since there is no pressing need for physical resources, this is a great option. After all, it's been shown that students in online programs have similar outcomes to their on-campus peers. The only question remains whether you need an asynchronous program or not. Asynchronous programs do not require that you log in to the classroom for seminars or chatroom discussions at any specific times and are optimal choices for those with ongoing job or family duties to attend to.
On-campus programs are the traditional route and aspiring game designers might appreciate the opportunity to network with their fellow game designers. In fact, they might find that fellow classmates have talents they do not. These relationships might inspire great independent games.
Since networking can be a large part of programs with specific vocational focuses, hybrid programs have arisen to facilitate these relationships. In these programs, students complete the bulk of their work online, while meeting on campus periodically throughout a term. This on-campus time can add a new dimension to online learning.
Does the College Have Post-Graduate Job Placement Help & Assistance?
After you spend so much time and energy perfecting your game-design skills, you want it all to pay off in terms of gainful employment. With that in mind, make sure that your college or university has some sort of job placement program in place. Ask your admissions counselor about the college's relationship with game development companies in the area or wider field, or what sorts of resources are available for graduating seniors, and alumni, too.
Why You Need to Consider How Rating/Accreditation Can Affect Your Salary
Status matters in all industries, including interactive entertainment. When you graduate from a robust program with a stellar reputation, industry professionals will take notice when you mention your academic pedigree. They are likely to reward your academic credentials with a higher salary and more responsibilities. In fact, those credentials will continue to serve you for years to come. Your fellow graduates are sure to become equally successful and may later become trusted colleagues whom you bond with at gaming conventions throughout your career.
Accreditation has a similar effect on how employers, recruiters, and master’s programs will look at your degree. If you graduate from an unaccredited program, it may make all your future advancement in the field more difficult.