Have you ever wondered how people get into video game development? What types of jobs and careers can a game designer pursue? How can a student prepare for success in a game design degree program? If so – you’re in the right place.
The video game industry has blossomed in recent years, experiencing massive year-on-year growth since its origins back in 1972 (here is an excellent graphic illustrating this meteoric rise). Latest estimates in 2022 suggest that the global gaming industry will cross $200 billion in total revenue. This marks a massive professional opportunity for game development professionals, particularly those adept at game design and object-oriented programming.
For aspiring professionals new to this field, it’s useful to understand what it is exactly that game designers learn during a university program. At the broadest level, a game designer specializes in interactive design. This involves the technical competencies to build responsive software programs, and applying these game software systems to digital assets (such as art, animation, sound, and motion control).
Producing these digital assets, building software to engage with said assets, and managing the production and distribution of the final product is the primary focus of game design. This is typically referred to as the game development pipeline. Be sure to check out the complete career profiles for both the software side as a video game developer and the design side as a video game designer.
A game development pipeline is quite extensive, so professional software developers, artists, animators, sound designers, and narrative designers are necessary for the completion of these complex products. Students who pursue online bachelor’s degrees in game design can therefore pursue highly-specialized paths, gaining general knowledge of the entire pipeline while mastering specific functional needs within the development process.
Game design studies benefit many career professionals, from software engineers to animators to writers and composers. Identifying where within the pipeline your game design aspirations lie is going to be a decisive factor in what undergraduate program you enroll in. Let’s start by outlining some top online bachelor degree programs within game design, followed by what these programs entail.
Online Game Design Degrees
Online education is growing as fast (or possibly faster) than the gaming industry, and for similar reasons. As social engagement moves to an increasingly digital format, both entertainment and education are seeking ways to fill customer needs from afar. Universities are continuously refining their ability to deliver remote learning materials, while also expanding the scope and variety of degree programs they can offer via an entirely virtual classroom.
As game development is primarily an exercise in software development and asset creation, it lends itself quite well to an online learning environment. This captures a variety of advantages for both students and the university, including lower costs, greater flexibility, and a great deal of autonomy for students to pursue their studies in different ways. These advantages are best captured by the highly self-motivated students, who are able to discipline themselves towards well-articulated career goals.
This implies a number of disadvantages to online learning as well, most notably the need to self-motivate and work independently. Onsite classrooms benefit from face-to-face interactions and group work, as well as the tactile advantages of having an expert right there in the room with you to explain concepts and motivate outcomes. This means onsite classes offer greater networking opportunities, not to mention a little extra motivation for students who are dragging their feet or failing to complete a project.
Assuming you have the grit and self-determination to succeed in a remote learning environment, here are some excellent game design programs available for enrollment right now:
- Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU): There are two undergraduate programs at Southern New Hampshire University worth considering for the aspiring game designer: the Game Art and Development degree and the Game Programming and Development degree. As is implied in each concentration, one is a better fit for the creative professional while the other is a better match for the technical type.
- Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD): SCAD offers a BFA program in Interactive Design and Game Development that’s well worth taking a look at. This is a program that emphasizes digital art development within the context of technical delivery in video game engines.
- Full Sail University: Full Sail University is one of the leading remote learning universities in general, with an excellent Bachelor of Science program in Game Design. The curriculum is a particularly good fit for a game design generalist, as it includes art, programming, writing, level design, and analytics. Better yet, the entire degree can be completed in 20 months.
- George Mason University: Mason Online offers a number of entire degree programs via virtual learning, including a BFA in Computer Game Design. This program emphasizes the artistic design skills required for success in game development, while rounding students out with the technical knowledge to navigate the development pipeline.
There are plenty of other options worth considering, with significant variance in cost, curriculum, and concentration within the broader field of game design. These distinctions in the curriculum are well worth considering further, as lining up your degree program with your professional aspirations is the best place to start when selecting the right university program. Let’s take a look at the different coursework and academic requirements for an undergraduate degree in game design.
Game Design: Courses and Competencies
Game design incorporates a fairly broad range of disciplines and concentrations, as game development itself synthesizes art, animation, sound, programming, analytics, creative writing, and product management. Game designers can occupy one (or many) of these roles, and should strive to steer their coursework towards a balance between a generalist’s understanding of game design and a specialist’s functional expertise in one area.
When completing a degree program, the primary objective is the production of prototypes. A prototype is a playable build of a game concept, almost like a demo, which typically showcases how the game would function if production decided to continue pursuing development. Graphics are minimalistic, but the level design and fundamental user interaction should be clearly demonstrated. For technical specialists in other fields, a prototype is something like a feasibility plan. It is proof that the concept can work, while giving a basis to estimate what is required for full production.
From a student perspective – the ability to build a playable (and enjoyable) prototype is the best predictor of success from an employer’s point of view. This means taking enough general courses to do all of the art, sound, animation, level design, and programming to make a prototype, while simultaneously specializing in one of these design fields sufficiently to demonstrate specific masteries. As a simple example, an artist may emphasize beautiful assets and worldbuilding while a narrative designer may showcase a compelling story. Remember, you should build a prototype that showcases what you aspire to excel at.
This also informs the type of coursework a student will elect to pursue. While every university program will differ somewhat in their course offerings, there are a few categories which will be consistent across the board. Basic theory courses, such as foundations of computer graphics, basic level design, prototyping, mobile app development, production, and object-oriented programming are going to be necessary for virtually any degree program at some level. Electives and concentrations can be layered on outside of the core curriculum, allowing for distinction among graduates of the program.
It’s also worth noting that online programs have the same career services and internship potential as onsite degree programs in many cases. With the rise of remote working, it’s well worth discussing internship potential with the career services department and/or professors willing to sponsor you. The only thing better than a prototype is an official credit on a released game, so don’t be shy about pursuing internships! It’s a great way to make sure you get what you pay for from an undergraduate program.
Speaking of which, it’s important to consider your financial situation prior to pursuing a degree. This means balancing both expected tuition against the possibility of scholarships and other funding sources.
Cost and Financial Aid
Typically price will be attributed per credit hour, with most degrees requiring 120 completed credit hours for graduation. As most courses come in at 3 credits, this means taking 40 or so courses prior to completing your degree program. Remote learning is often more flexible than onsite, with some programs allowing students to complete all coursework in just under two years time. This is a great advantage for highly-motivated remote students!
The cost per credit hour does vary quite a bit. George Mason offers in-state tuition of $546.50 per credit ($1,523.50 for out-of-state students). Full Sail University clocks in at $783 per credit hour, while Southern New Hampshire outbids them all at the low cost of $320 per credit hour. Based on the range presented across these options, students could pay anywhere between $38,400 to $182,200! It goes without saying that finding the lowest price is always a smart move, so long as you have confidence in the quality of the program in which you’re enrolling.
Another consideration is the possibility of scholarships and other forms of financial aid. These options are typically divided into two categories: financial aid based on need and financial aid based on high performance in some way (i.e. high school GPA, test scores, or other metrics). A good starting point is FAFSA, short for Free Application for Federal Student Aid. This application will check your circumstances against a federal database of scholarships and financial aid, and deliver which ones that student is viable for.
Scholarship aggregators are another useful option, and typically function based on various filters. Scoping out scholarships specifically for game designers is going to be the best starting point for students reading this guide, but there are ways to filter scholarships based upon any number of relevant circumstances. The trickiest part of gaining scholarship support is sifting through the huge variety available, and taking enough time and care to send an application that stands out enough to succeed.
Of course, the difficulty of completing the curriculum coupled with the price of tuition needs to have a sufficiently motivating pay-off, right? That means establishing both what types of jobs hire game design graduates, and how much those jobs pay in terms of salary. Let’s take a look.
The End Game: Careers and Salary
Any good game designer would tell you that the end game will have to justify all of those hours invested in playing it, and a game design degree program is no different! There are more jobs than one might think in game development, so this is just a small snapshot of what you might want to target during your game design degree program:
- Game Developer: For technical specialists with some programming chops, entering the industry as a game developer is a great starting point. This typically means working within the game engine, designing and testing the systems that support the gaming experience. Average salary is around $75,000/year, so it’s a well-paying role.
- Game Designer: Similar to a game developer, game designers are generalists. Instead of focusing more on the programming side of things, game designers will likely spend time bridging the gap between creative assets (like sound files and 3D models) with the gaming engine and systems. Salary comes in around $80,000/year.
- Game Sound Designer: Sound designers can be found in a few industries, but the demand in the gaming industry is particularly high. Sound designers work with tools like Wwise to integrate programming languages and game engineers with audio assets. Salary media is around $55k/year.
- Level Designer: A level designer focuses mostly on world building, taking assets developed by artists, animators, sound designers, and narrative designers and placing them in a coherent ‘game world’. It’s a very creative role, with a deep requirement for technical knowledge regarding game engines. Average salary is $66k/year.
While there are countless other roles to consider, from narrative design to video game production or analytics, it’s enough to know how your broader creative interests intersect with your technical capabilities. Particularly adventurous students would benefit from downloading popular game engines, like Unity and Unreal Engine, and experimenting with how the software works. Game designers are deeply passionate about both gaming and creativity, so competition can be quite fierce! The best way to get ahead is to invest in learning critical skills, while exploring your own potential through building as many interesting prototypes as you can. Game on!