Eight Career Paths in the Video Game Industry
19 Min Read
Do you love video games?
Do you have a vision for the game you’d love to make? Are you the sort of player who recognizes why games are good or bad, and what makes them enjoyable or frustrating? Are you a regular consumer of games journalism?
Millions of people play video games, but it takes more than a love for games as entertainment to build a career in the industry. It takes creativity and passion to create unique experiences that engage and thrill players. It also takes vision, collaboration, and teamwork; creating a high-quality video game is a long process that requires input from many contributors, and keeping a project on target is a skill in itself. The most effective way to gain those skills is with a solid educational foundation in game design.
The growth and professionalization of the video game industry
The video game industry is still quite young — the first commercial game, Computer Space, was released in 1971 — and has been through numerous transitions over the years. Many of the earliest stars of the industry were self-taught and self-made. That’s still true to an extent, particularly in startups and “indie” studios, but even in those settings, a game design education is beneficial. In a well-established studio, game design is a professional career that requires education, experience, and specific credentials.
As technology continues to progress and the next generation of computers and consoles raises players’ expectations, the industry will need visionaries who can use advancing technology in innovative ways. With the amount of data about player behavior available to video game studios today, the industry needs people who know how to make games fun and deliver engaging experiences, and that starts with foundational knowledge of game design principles.
That’s why, with the right education, there are myriad jobs in the video game industry that you can pursue.
Perhaps the most iconic role in the video game industry, designers create the concepts that become a video game and drive the process that turns those concepts into reality. In the early days of the video game industry (or even today at smaller “indie” studios), game designers may have created entire games on their own or as part of a two- or three-person team. Today, design roles in larger studios are much more specialized: most games have one or two lead designers in charge of the overall direction of the project, with others working in supporting roles such as mechanics designer, level designer, or environment designer.
Top designers are among the best-known names in the video game industry, such as Nintendo’s Shigeru Miyamoto, creator of iconic franchises like Mario, Donkey Kong and The Legend of Zelda; and Maxis co-founder Will Wright, creator of SimCity and The Sims.
How to get started in this career: While some notable game designers started out as hobbyists who discovered a knack for design, the industry has become increasingly professionalized. The most reliable way to become a game designer today is to earn a degree in game design. Most studios prefer designers with some relevant work experience as well, whether that’s an internship in the industry, freelance work, or even a passion project like a mod for an existing game. From there, you need to gain experience in a studio environment. Some larger studios have entry-level positions for assistant or associate designers, but many designers get their start in other roles in the industry first and work their way up.
How to succeed in this career: Creativity is an essential skill in a game designer. So is the ability to prioritize and willingness to compromise; a designer’s full vision may not be achievable within the limits of current technology or their studio’s capabilities, but good designers know how to keep the essence of what they want to accomplish and discard what is unnecessary. Design is a leadership role in a game studio, so communication and time management skills are key. Lead designers are often the public face of their projects and need to be comfortable speaking to games journalists or directly to fans as needed.
Career outlook: The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not track employment or salary data for game designers specifically, and industry sources vary widely. That said, as the video game industry as a whole is experiencing significant growth, it seems likely that growth in game design jobs will be significant as well. Based on job postings, surveys of current designers, and industry journalism, game design salaries range from $50,000 at the entry level to $105,000 or more for lead designers at some of the top studios.
A video game is as much a work of art as it is a piece of software, and no one is more responsible for the artistic direction of a game than the creative director. The creative director’s role is to oversee the artists, animators, writers, sound engineers, and other creative professionals to ensure that the graphics, text, and sound that are part of the game match the director’s vision. Creative directors have a hand in the game’s characters, storytelling, world-building, and other artistic aspects of the game. They work hand-in-hand with programmers to ensure that the game’s mechanics and technical aspects match the creative direction.
Among the best-known creative directors in the industry is Masahiro Sakurai, the creator of Kirby and long-running creative director of Super Smash Bros.
How to get started in this career: There is no single path to becoming a creative director, but most got their start in other creative roles in the development process, whether as artists, animators, writers, or character designers. Creative directors usually have at least a bachelor’s degree in game design, graphic design, or a related field, with a master’s degree often preferred.
How to succeed in this career: It goes without saying that creative vision is a critical attribute for a creative director, but it’s far from the only requirement. Creative directors need to manage large, complex teams of creative professionals and bring their disparate contributions together into a cohesive whole. Strong communication and organizational skills are essential, both with the internal team and external stakeholders. The best creative directors have an eye for good ideas — and they know how to distinguish between a bad idea and good idea that just needs more iteration.
Game Animation, Art, and Design
Under the leadership of the creative director, artists shape the elements that give a game its identity: the characters, the environments, and the visual effects. Modern games employ a wide variety of art styles and creative assets to bring entire worlds to life, ranging from “retro” style pixel art to high-definition 3D graphics. Within the world of game art are various specialties, including:
- Concept Artist: Define the overall style and look of a game with initial sketches of the player character, environments, and enemies. Working from a written brief, concept artists provide the starting point for the rest of the artwork.
- Character Artist: Create game characters and often related elements such as weapons, clothes, and equipment.
- Environment Artist: Create the backgrounds, layouts, and environments that comprise the game’s setting. In most games, environment artists create the majority of what the player actually sees.
- User Interface (UI) Artist: Work with the user experience (UX) designer to create the elements the player directly interacts with, such as menus, buttons, and the heads-up display (HUD).
- Technical Artist: A hybrid role that acts as a liaison between the artists and programmers, helping to integrate art assets into the game without compromising either artistic vision or technical performance.
Game artists often specialize in either 2D or 3D art, as they require substantially different skills.
How to get started in this career: Game artists can come from a wide variety of backgrounds, but the traditional way to get into the field is to earn a degree in game design, graphic design, or a related field. Just as importantly, aspiring artists need a strong portfolio to catch the eye of an established studio. The key is to have high-quality pieces that match the type and style of art that you’re hoping to create in games.
How to succeed in this career: Game development is a unique line of work for artists, as they’re creating a component of a larger experience. The art isn’t necessarily the star of the show; in fact, many UI artists actively want their work to blend into the background as the player seamlessly interacts with the elements they create. The best game artists put their focus on the player experience and want to ensure that their art supports that ultimate vision. Familiarity with the rest of the design process, and particularly with the engine, is incredibly helpful, as is a communicative and collaborative attitude.
Career outlook: The Bureau of Labor Statistics groups game artists into the general category of special effects artists and animators. According to the BLS, special effects artists and animators earn a media salary of $77,700 per year, with projected job growth of 16%, well above the national average. Game industry sources indicate that artists can earn anywhere from $45,000 to $120,000 per year depending on their specialty and level of experience.
Writing has been part of video games throughout the industry’s history, but with a growing emphasis on narrative across genres, the role of writers is only growing more important. Great game writing runs the gamut from epic adventure stories like The Witcher 3 to the voices inside the protagonist of Disco Elysium. Game writers find ways to use words to bring forth the vision of the designer and enhance the player’s experience.
In particular, game writers need to write without the benefits of a traditional linear format; most games give the player at least some control over the pacing as well as choice of narrative options, and some games give the player a great deal of leeway. In a nonlinear game such as Outer Wilds, for example, the player might experience story elements in almost any imaginable order, and the writer’s job is to make sure that the game still tells an engaging and satisfying story no matter how that story unfolds.
How to get started in this career: Game writers come from many backgrounds, but a degree in game design or a related field makes it much easier to pursue opportunities in the industry. A college education develops your baseline writing skills, and a background in game design builds familiarity with the structure of games that writers need to follow. A strong portfolio for an aspiring game writer includes dialogue, barks (short lines of ambient dialogue, like battle cries in an action-adventure game), descriptive writing, and long-form narrative, including branching and nonlinear narrative structures.
How to succeed in this career: Strong writing skills are essential, of course, but writing for games requires a particular mindset distinct from other types of writing work. Even in highly story-driven games where the writing is the star of the show, writers have to work collaboratively with designers, programmers, artists, and others involved in the development process. Game writers have to be highly organized to create structured, branching content, and need to get excited about writing other people’s ideas, not just their own.
Career outlook: The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not track employment for video game writers specifically, but writers and authors in general earn a median salary of $67,120 per year. Job growth in the profession from 2020-2030 is projected to be 9%, about in line with the national average.
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Advance your career in Art and Design
Whether a game’s world is peaceful or violent, magical or mundane, chaotic or orderly, the sound design sets the overall ambience and in many ways defines the player’s experience. Great games use sound as a key part of the immersive experience, and that aspect of the game has to be intricately created and implemented. Sound designers and audio engineers handle the audio portion of games, working under the creative director to ensure that the overall artistic vision is supported through sound.
How to get started in this career: Sound design is a highly technical field, but it doesn’t necessarily require formal technical education. Education in audio engineering is a starting point to gain what most studios are looking for: hands-on experience. Familiarity with certain software tools like Wwise, ProTools, and Reaper is important as well. A degree in game design or a related subject is also important for aspiring sound designers, as they need to understand the entire development process in addition to the specifics of audio engineering.
How to succeed in this career: A core knowledge of sound design is obviously important; many sound designers have a background in music, although again that is not strictly required. Just as importantly, game sound designers need excellent communication and collaborative skills. Compared to other media like film, games integrate sound design into every fiber of the product, since the player needs to interact with the game and respond to audio cues. The best game sound designers know how to work collaboratively with game designers, programmers, and writers to make sure the sound enhances the overall experience.
Career outlook: The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not track salary or employment data for sound designers specifically, and music careers are notoriously difficult to measure with precision. Based on job postings and industry salary surveys, audio engineers can earn anywhere from $30,000 at the entry level to $150,000 for senior engineers at top studios. Some audio engineers are paid on a contract basis per project, as much as $300,000 on some AAA games.
Game QA Tester
More formally known as “quality assurance technicians” or similar, testers are the workhorses of the video game industry. Their job is to test games in production, find bugs and glitches, and identify areas for improvement to pass back to the programmers and designers. Testing games means playing them, of course, but that doesn’t mean testing isn’t work. On the contrary, a tester may spend many hours repetitively playing through just one portion of an unfinished game while meticulously logging observations and issues. Many testers work for outsourcing firms or as freelancers, although large studios may have in-house QA departments.
QA testing is often viewed as the main entry-level video game job, and it certainly can be a stepping stone. Testers who aspire to other positions will want to make sure they have the right credentials for those roles. That said, you can absolutely make a career out of testing and move up to be a test lead, QA director, or project manager.
Quality assurance tends to be a fairly anonymous role in the games industry, but successful testers have moved on to more prominent roles in game development. For instance, composer Tommy Tallarico got his start in the industry as a QA tester before he landed the opportunity to write the music for the original Prince of Persia; he went on to work on over 300 game soundtracks and is recognized as an early pioneer in improving game sound.
How to get started in this career: Many QA technician jobs have few formal qualifications besides some basic familiarity with video games. However, professional software QA certification from the International Software Testing Qualifications Board (ISTQB) can make you a stronger candidate, and may be required at some studios, particularly for senior roles. Studios are increasingly also looking for QA testers with a background in programming or some education in game design more generally.
How to succeed in this career: Successful testers are methodical, organized, and have strong communication skills. Beyond just spotting bugs and exploits, they report back to the designers with suggested improvements and help make the game a more user-friendly and accessible product. Good testers also work well under pressure: many studios don’t bring in testers until close to the end of the development cycle, and that can mean long hours for the QA team with a deadline looming.
Career outlook: The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not track salaries for game testers. According to industry sources, full-time testers with a few years of experience can expect to earn about $41,000 per year, and QA leads or lead testers can earn as much as $58,000.
Much like their counterparts in the film industry, video game producers oversee the development of a game and handle communication with the publisher and stakeholders in the project. They manage contracts, schedules, and budgets, arrange for testing, and make sure the game hits development and creative milestones. Producers may work for game publishers as “external producers” or for developers as “internal producers;” some larger studios have started adding “line producers” in supporting roles as well.
Producers in the game industry tend to have less notoriety than their counterparts in film, although there are exceptions. For instance, Rockstar Games co-founders Sam and Dan Houser are well-known for their oversight of the later Grand Theft Auto games.
How to get started in this career: To become a producer, you first have to go through the video game development process at least once, whether as a tester, programmer, or other supporting role. Most studios and publishers require at least three years of experience before they will consider making someone a producer. Usually, a degree in game design, business, or a related field is required.
How to succeed in this career: Producers may not be programmers, designers, writers, or animators themselves, but they need a working knowledge of every stage in the development process in order to properly manage the work in a game studio environment. Communication and organizational skills are essential to manage many moving parts and keep projects on track.
Career outlook: The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not track employment for game producers specifically. According to Payscale.com, the average salary for video game producers is about $80,000, ranging from $54,000 in entry-level roles (e.g. assistant producers) to $120,000 or more for executive producers at top studios.
Game Marketer or PR
Whether in-house for a game developer or publisher, or at a third-party advertising agency or PR firm, marketers help games reach the ultimate audience for every other industry professional’s work: the player. Marketing a video game is a complex, intricate process that requires compelling content across a variety of channels: blogs, forum posts, press releases, video, email, and in-person presentations. Marketing professionals attend industry events and create content that reaches players, both on the publisher’s own website and distribution platforms.
The field of video game marketing includes copywriters, copy editors, graphic designers, video producers, PR professionals, and more. The creative professionals working on the game itself may also contribute to marketing materials, especially at smaller studios, but most AAA games have dedicated marketing teams.
How to get started in this career: The strongest candidates for video game marketing jobs have some education in both marketing principles and game design. In order to market games effectively, you need to understand games and understand the development process. Getting a foot in the door may mean an internship with a game developer or a marketing agency that works with the games industry.
How to succeed in this career: Effective games marketing means understanding the psychology between why and when players buy particular games. It certainly helps to have a love and appreciation of video games yourself as well as a finger on the pulse of gamer culture. Marketing professionals also need to understand the development process, the timing of marketing based on development deadlines, and critically, management of players’ expectations. A disconnect between what is promised in pre-release marketing and what is included in the released version of the game can massively damage a studio’s reputation.
Career outlook: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, marketing specialists and analysts earn a median salary of $65,180 per year. Marketing managers and directors can command much larger salaries, with a median annual pay of $141,490 per year. Projected job growth for marketing roles is roughly in line with the national average.
Pursue Your Passion With a Game Design Degree
One great thing about the video game industry is that you don’t have to pick a specific career track and stick with it forever. It’s not uncommon for people in the industry to move between game design, game development, writing, and other roles throughout a multifaceted career. That’s always been true in the industry, but the options will become even broader as advances in virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technology open up new career paths for game designers in simulation training and “gamification” for businesses.
As the technology behind games constantly becomes more sophisticated and players’ expectations change over time, working in a game studio environment will always mean learning technical skills on the job. The foundation of a career, then, is a robust education in timeless game design principles that will help you pursue numerous career paths.
By earning a bachelor’s degree in game design, you will develop skills in storytelling, character development, game production, animation, concept design, and more. The right program will give you opportunities to build your portfolio to qualify for industry jobs immediately and build connections with faculty and staff who have experience in the industry. Just as importantly, you need flexibility to pursue passion projects, stay up to date on the industry, and meet your other personal and professional commitments as you pursue your career in video games.
That is exactly the experience you can expect in the online Bachelor of Arts in Game Design program at Lindenwood University. Lindenwood’s program covers the entire game design process from conception to application: storytelling, immersion, usability, game economics and programming in engines like Unreal and Unity.
You’ll learn from experienced faculty who understand the challenges of working in a game studio environment and gain the skills you need to succeed in a dynamic industry. Take your next step to a rewarding career in video game design and development.