So, you’re close to graduating high school, and want to know how to become a video game designer. How, exactly, do you get into the game development industry as a designer?
The video game development industry is still in its infancy, being less than 60 years old. Companies are still testing the waters of how to turn a profit and stay afloat. Social groups are working with companies to help build a better, more sustainable industry to work in, with diversity a big topic of conversation.
But, you’re here, right now, ready to work. So what can you expect? How should you go about getting your foot in the door? Do you need a degree? What kind of portfolio should you have?
Before we get into the how, let’s talk about what currently exists in the industry and where you should focus your efforts.
A quick history
In the 1970s, when games first hit the consumer market, it was all about the arcades. Video game designers were small teams of up to five people, if they were lucky. Many game designers who worked for Atari at the time coded, created the art, and developed the company’s games by themselves, with limited afterthought to testing the games for quality.
ID Software (the makers of the Doom series) started with just three guys “borrowing” their day job computers to work on at night.
Many game developers who worked for large companies, like Atari, didn’t even receive credit for their work.
The game development industry was a hot mess. This, and a lot of other issues with the industry’s startup and lack of structure led to the Arcade Crash of the early 1980s. A few arcade machines remained, but most went out of business, especially in North American markets.
Between 1983 and 1985, Nintendo basically saved the industry through innovation and marketing. They took their arcade games and turned them into an electronic cartridge toy for families to enjoy together.
Nintendo removed the taboo of arcade games, marketing the home console as a “toy” for families to bond together over.
This toy was the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES in America) or Famicom (Japan). Many of you are too young to remember, or weren’t even born yet. But I remember in 1990 when I was just 7 years old, my mom took my brother and me to Toys “R” Us to purchase our holiday gift. We got the NES, with a gray light gun and a cartridge containing Duck Hunt and Mario Bros. My brother and I were so excited. We were already playing on an Atari 2600, and loved it. We knew we were going to love our NES.
To this day I can still hear that dog laughing at me when I miss a duck.
Opportunities in video game design
Skip a few decades to our current generation of gaming consoles — they range from mobile phones and personal computers to arcades, virtual reality (VR), alternate reality and so many more platforms for people to play on. But the entertainment market is not the only source of work for video game designers. Video game developers also work in a number of other fields.
Outside of the entertainment field, healthcare is probably the largest video game design market.
Many indie video game designers are part of this effort, which allows a lot of room to take bigger game design risks.
Governments use video games to train soldiers and pilots, inform residents about the traffic effects of upcoming construction and teach the elements of city resource management.
Games for education, or “edutainment,” are becoming more popular in the K-12 grades. Some colleges also implement them.
eSports leagues and tournaments have come to enjoy insane popularity in the past year or so, and are starting to become an official sport (the U.S. government recognizes eSports players as professional athletes anyway). Then there was the launch of the Overwatch League, backed both both NFL and NBA owners.
Independent games, or those created without the funding support of a publisher, are making a name for themselves. In fact, it’s becoming mainstream for all consoles to carry a broad selection of indie titles, with some platforms fighting for exclusive rights of certain games.
Home building and design businesses even use VR gaming technology to help their clients pick out furniture, decor, shelving or anything else the consumer might want to put in his or her home.
How to become a video game designer (finally)
Basically, the gaming market isn’t going anywhere and is continuing to rapidly grow. And with it, the need for talented video game designers continues to climb.
Get a college degree in game design.
Join student programs.
Build a portfolio.
Identify and expand your skill set.
Apply for jobs.
Ready? Let’s look at each of these steps in more detail.
1. Get a college degree in game design.
About 10 years ago, a college degree was not a requirement. Great skills and a portfolio was what developers wanted. It was a bonus if you had a degree.
In 2003, I found a college offering a game art and design bachelor’s degree. It was expensive, but totally worth it.
I knew the degree wasn’t a requirement, but since I’m a woman, I knew I needed it to help me go pro … and that ultimately an education was an important thing to have. I was among the first graduating class in that college to go through the entire program. I graduated in September 2006, within a class of 30 students: 27 men and 3 women, including me.
Today, many developers want their applicants to have an education. And with more and more colleges creating game developer and game design bachelor’s and master’s degrees, there’s no reason not to get your education. Not to mention, all the benefits of attending college, outside of the actual classes.
2. Join student programs
While you are in school and/or college, I would advise taking part in student game development programs. For example, there’s the student chapter of the International Game Developers Association (SIGDA). The IGDA is sort of like a union of industry representatives and a repository of standards. Right now, one of their focuses is more diversity, which is important in all industries, including the video game design industry.
Most colleges will have coding and art clubs to join, and many colleges take part in game jams, which are short-duration (typically 48-hour) competitions to build a video game prototype for fun or for prizes.
Not to mention, these are great portfolio pieces.
Many colleges want to compete in eSports and have formed teams. Some of those colleges are starting to offer scholarships to be on their teams. If you’re great at playing games, this could help you pay for your college degree. So, just keep it in mind.
Get involved while you are in school. Your involvement in these clubs, organizations and groups looks great on your resume and shows your dedication to the game designer industry. Plus they are the best way to network with your peers.
If you really want to know how to become a video game designer, I suggest you attend meetups that focus on game development outside of class. Meetup.com is easy enough to find, and you will meet many of the local developers in your area. So, go out and make some video game designer friends.
I know they say you have to be talented, but who you know is also important.
There are also lots of online forums for you to take part in. Just type “video game designer forums” in Google search, and a nice long list will appear for you. You should join some forums on game development and discuss ideas, mechanics, design, development, marketing or whatever else interests you about being a video game designer.
The first game you make, whether by yourself or with a new/young game designer team, is going to be awful. Let’s face it, you start at the bottom to build your skills and your first game will be no masterpiece. But that’s OK. You learn from whatever mistakes you make, appreciate the things that went right and move on to your next video game design project.
You should make games with friends and fellow students, or maybe people you meet on a forum. Make time for it, and have some fun. These practice pieces will (and should) become a part of your portfolio. And your portfolio is how you will get your video game designer job or become a successful indie game designer.
5. Build a portfolio
Your portfolio is probably the most important part of displaying your skills and abilities. Don’t even think about a print portfolio — those are from the days of old. We are in a digital world, so think digital. If you want to print a few pieces for an in-person interview, that’s fine, but you need to have an online portfolio to display your work.
You have a few options on how to display your work:
YouTube is a great way to show how you create your work. A screen recording of you working with a little explanation in the notes … or maybe you have some tutorials you can create. You can also display a gameplay video of a game you worked on, with a description in the notes of what you contributed to the game’s development.
This social platform is a good place to start a conversation in your industry and network with other industry professionals. It also displays a resume of sorts, where you can show some samples of your work.
Behance is mostly for artists. It allows artists a way to display their work and work-in-progress, be it 3D, 2D, marketing or just concepts. You can display your work, share it with other artists and sometimes get freelance work.
Of course, there’s also DeviantArt, which is similar to how Behance works. But I have found DeviantArt to be more of a fan art site, rather than a professional artist site. But, it can’t hurt to ad your stuff there, too. I did.
Your own website
In my humble opinion, you should always have your own portfolio website. Nowadays, there’s no excuse since there are so many free and affordable options through services like WordPress and others. Remember to include a contact page, a resume and of course the examples of your work. This website will be what you share on your resume and cover letter when you start applying. It will also be what other game designers look at when they want to hire you.
Editor’s note: Want WordPress without all the pesky upkeep? Try Managed WordPress from GoDaddy. More fun, less maintenance.
I could write a book on how to build your portfolio, so we will leave the details to another post. Just don’t be afraid to display yourself and your work. Your work is amazing, and you should be proud.
6. Identify and expand your skills
What are you good at? Is it marketing, 2D graphics, 3D animation, skinning, rigging, mechanics, storytelling, programming, VR, AR, GPS simulation, GUI or UI? There are so many different ways to be involved with the video game industry as a video game designer. Even playing video games is now an official career, whether it’s for testing the games for quality assurance or eSports.
Decide what it is that you are currently good at and make some goals to further your skill set. For instance, maybe you are really good at drawing character turnarounds. Take it a step further and learn how to use some 3D modeling software, and eventually bring your character to life.
I went to college and found I was great with 3D modeling and texturing but could not skin and rig a character to save my life.
I suppose I have could expanded myself into skinning and rigging, but I decided to focus on 2D and 3D environmental art, graphic design and 2D character animations. Of course, my skill set is much broader than that today. But I knew what I was good at and expanded on it.
7. Apply for jobs
Applying for jobs is painful, sometimes heartbreaking, and a lot of times the longest test of patience you will ever go through. But, we all have to do it, so just be prepared.
There are lots of places to hunt for jobs, but the best that I have found are:
Apply for all the jobs you want to do. Don’t be afraid to apply for something that has skills listed that you don’t know. A lot of times, that’s a technique for weeding out the not-serious job applicants. Just apply. The worst they can say is “no.” You should only expect to ever hear back from about 10 percent of the jobs you apply to. Remember, you are not the only one applying to these jobs.
Apply to small studios and large; in-state and around the world. You never know where the job will take you, should you land it. You will make new friends, learn new skills and if you like it, you’ll stay. If not, you’ll move on.
How to stand out
So, you’ve come across your dream job and there’s an opening. How do you convince them to choose you, or even notice you? Well, you start with a good resume — or take it a step further with a resume website — and a well thought-out cover letter. And expand from that. Maybe the company you are applying to is super chill and relaxed. So, write your cover letter, but create a video, too.
Or send them a swag bag that includes your resume and cover letter (make sure you have the hiring manager’s correct address and name).
I never mailed a swag bag, but I did take one to an interview and I totally got the job.
I printed my resume on a box, and inside the box I had some Kendra-themed bottle openers, keychains and other random things that you would normally get at a convention or expo. They loved it. It totally helped that I had a playable demo of a game I was working on for them to play on their phones, too.
I also recently created a cover letter video on YouTube for a company I want to work for, but I haven’t heard back. So I probably didn’t do so well that time. Maybe they didn’t like my clothes, or maybe they aren’t as chill of a company as I thought. You never know what will stick. So get creative and make as good of an impression as you can.
There’s a place for you
And that’s how to become a video game designer. There are so many game studios and micro industries coming out of the core AAA video game designer industry that there is bound to be a position for you. The job hunt itself is a like a video game. You just need to find the path that works best for you.
Remember, you are amazing, and there are game studios looking for you. They just have to know how to find you.