About 3 billion people globally play digital games, according to industry research, and the field is only growing.
That’s why pursuing a game design degree, which combines art and technical work, can potentially open doors for a long and satisfying career.
Jim Huntley, a professor and head of marketing for the University of Southern California’s games program, which offers both bachelor’s and master’s level coursework, says he loves watching people enjoying games that he helped to invent. “You can see their faces light up,” he says.
Digital games can be designed for and played on many types of electronic devices, including personal computers, mobile devices and hand-held portable game machines. This category of games also includes video games that require a television set, gaming console and remote controller.
Huntley particularly appreciates moments when a game player is pleased with an aspect or feature of a game that he contributed to and that was inspired by a game he admired, he says. “I remember how enthusiastic and excited I was when something similar … happened to me with this other game, and it’s always a thrill to pass that enthusiasm on.”
However, some game developers warn that the process of producing a game can be frustrating at times and that a gaming career isn’t right for everyone.
“Definitely make sure that it’s something you want to do for eight hours a day,” says Miriam Harries, an advanced game designer at Schell Games, a game development company based in Pittsburgh.
How to Tell if a Game Design Career Is a Good Fit
Though it is possible for someone to create a good game on their own, game development usually involves a diverse team of people.
“It’s way more collaborative than a lot of people expect,” Harries says. “If you are not a good collaborator, you will not go very far, and you will not have a fun time.”
The field of game design requires a wide range of skills, employing both creative and scientific professionals. For instance, some of the roles at gaming companies include:
- Artist or animator
- Audio engineer
- Creative director
- Database or data manager
- Game designer
- Machine learning engineer
- Play tester
- Programmer or software developer
- User experience designer
- Technical support specialist or manager
- Voice actor
“Working in games is not one career path, but many different career paths,” explains Jessica Hammer, interim associate director of the Human-Computer Interaction Institute at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania. “Anything you do in games is going to be deeply interdisciplinary, but you need to be able to work with people who do art even if you’re not an artist. You need to be able to work with programmers even if you’re not a programmer.”
A key indicator that someone is a good fit for a game design program is if they have created a game in the past or if they have mapped out a detailed vision for a game, Huntley says. “Those are the applicants that stand out to us, because we can tell from the time that they’ve invested up to that point that they are serious.”
The Value of a Game Design Degree
A formal education in game design is not required to enter the gaming industry, experts say, noting that the best reason to pursue a game-related degree is to learn from skilled game developers and hone creative or scientific skills that are valuable in the industry.
“The most important thing that you are going to walk out the door with is not your credential, but your portfolio,” says Hammer, who conducts research on transformational games that are designed to influence a person’s thoughts, feelings or behaviors. “Our programs are a way for you to build a convincing and high-quality portfolio with a ton of support from experts in every area related to games.”
Some game design schools focus on multiple aspects of game design and offer general degrees, while others concentrate on a particular aspect of game development, such as game animation. One key way to judge the quality of a game design program, experts say, is to see whether alumni of the program have a high job placement rate in the gaming industry.
Here are the top five undergraduate game design programs, according to the U.S. News ranking of such programs. This ranking is based on the number of nominations received from academic institutions that responded to a U.S. News survey.
Job Prospects for Game Developers
Aspiring game designers rarely appreciate the size of the gaming industry and the number of employment options within it, Huntley says. In fact, the international gaming industry is bigger and produces more revenue than the global film industry.
“There’s a misperception that games are kind of a fad,” Huntley says.
But the gaming industry is growing rapidly.
A study released by the Newzoo market research and analytics firm in May 2022 predicted that worldwide revenue produced by gaming companies would exceed $200 billion in 2022. By contrast, the global film industry’s revenue hit $100 billion for the first time in 2019, the Motion Picture Association reported.
The median annual salary among U.S. video game designers was $79,890 in 2021, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which predicts that employment within the field in 2030 will be 10% to 15% higher than it was in 2020.
Though a career in digital game creation is a dream come true for many, potential game developers shouldn’t become so starstruck that they forget to inquire about working conditions when choosing employers, experts say.
“One of the things you want to be careful about is making sure that you have standards for yourself about the way you are willing to be treated in a job,” Hammer says.
According to Harries, the best aspect of the game development field is being surrounded by fascinating coworkers. “I get to work with really awesome, creative people, and that’s super fun,” she says.
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