Game design at an initial glance seems like it might be an ideal job, but it is also a bit intimidating after a little bit of investigation. There is so much to learn. How hard is it really, though? I want to talk a little bit about my own journey and some of the discoveries I have made along the way. I will try to lay out what I think is the good, the bad, and the ugly of the industry so that you can make an educated decision on whether this industry is a good fit for you.
Game design is hard because of the amount of disciplines one needs to learn in order to complete a game. These disciplines can include but are not limited to art, programming, music production, video editing for trailers, and marketing.
To become an efficient game designer, you will generally have a period of a few years of learning, followed by a few years of personal projects. With some expertise and 3-5 years of experience, you likely qualify for many jobs within the game design industry.
Is Game Design Hard to Learn?
The Amount of Software and Skills to Learn
When I consider many other industries, I think the greatest challenge for someone approaching the industry is the sheer number of skills a person needs to develop a complete game.
I spent some time in the drafting industry, my schooling back then was spent in pretty much one piece of software the entire time. In comparison, I believe that those working in 3D really need to know at least three, a general modeling package such as Maya, a texturing package such as substance painter, and really in modern times, a sculpting package such as ZBrush is in high demand.
For someone who wants to be an indie game developer, you will need to know at least a general understanding of programming, lighting, composition, UI design, and more. This is not meant to scare you, but it is the reality of putting a complete game together.
That being said, there are a lot of people out there creating games that have basic knowledge in some of these areas. For example, if you aren’t great on the art side, why not develop a simple-looking game that is fairly complex on the programming side? Or, if you love the art side, invest more time there, but keep the level of programming needed on your project to something fairly minimal.
The Complexity of the Software in Game Design
Unfortunately, the software you’re using is going to be significantly more complex than a lot of the basic software you have potentially interacted with. Maya, the 3D modeling package I recommend, has so many features in it.
Even though I have been using Maya for nine years now, I feel as though I am just scratching the surface. For game development, you will need to know the basics of modeling, rigging, animation, UV’s, and you may want to know a bit about the texturing process in Maya. If you know these 4 or 5 things, I think you will feel a bit more confident in your ability to produce some pretty cool things for your game.
For Substance Painter, my recommended texturing software, it feels similar to the complexity of Photoshop. It has many of the same functions, such as layers, masking, painting, brushes, etc. So if you have a bit of a Photoshop background, I believe the transition to Substance Painter is not too difficult. That being said, if you do not, there will be quite a few things to pick up on.
Lastly, there is Unity, a game engine I recommend to anyone interested in game development. It is fairly complex too. This is also where you will likely dive into programming for the first time. I think about 30% of your time will be spent in Maya and Substance Painter, and roughly 70% will be spent in Unity and perhaps other software you might want to use for audio or UI creation. I think the user interface of Unity is fairly simple to understand, but the depth of what it can do reaches pretty far.
It depends on the complexity of your game as to how far you may want to dive into Unity. For example, if you plan to have a bunch of cut scenes, there are features for that, but it just adds to the overall complexity of what you are creating.
Will a College Degree Help Me Learn Game Design?
Certainly, there are a couple of degrees I would recommend for anyone interested in game development. You can read my thoughts on how I feel about game design degrees, but ultimately this is good for some and a terrible decision for others. The dreaded, “it depends” truly is the answer.
There are a few facts that I believe you can be pretty sure of though when it comes to game design degrees. Know that there will be a lot of math involved. Generally, a lot of the game design degrees are heavily focused on the programming side, and this usually means that even if it is a game design degree, you can expect some pretty high levels of math.
I also have seen people come in that have great grades but struggle for the first time academically. It’s not easy. I had a valedictorian student in my class a couple of years ago drop out of her game design degree and move to an art-related degree. The topic can be hard depending on the professors you end up getting. She was extremely smart, talented, and hard-working, but it was overwhelming to her at a very prestigious university. I would check out the university before enrolling and ask students about their experience before enrolling anywhere.
Can I Specialize in One Area of Game Design?
So everything above is really geared towards those people who want to be in the indie scene, perhaps building something on their own, and need to know a broad range of things. However, there are people that love just one aspect of game design. For sake of example, let’s say you love 3D art, but despise programming. What do you do then?
I would argue that there is still a great place for you in many studios or doing contract work. In fact, I would go to the extent to say that you should specialize early. The truth of the matter is that you will find your place pretty early on.
After doing a handful of tutorials in several areas, I would recommend making the decision after that point. If you know you love 3D, then I would do everything you can to start building a portfolio for that work. Keep in mind that if you want to be at a bigger studio, most of those people working there are specialized.
I believe that you can still build a game on your own with limited skills in several areas, but I would recommend being very proficient in at least one of them. For example, a game that has a great story and is beautiful can still do quite well in the market, even if the complexity of the game is relatively small. Consider the P.T. game.
Vice versa is also true, a game can have simple graphics and do well. Have you ever played tic-tac-toe? What about the early platformer games like Mario? Those are all simple graphics games, rely on the code more heavily, but still considered great games.
Ultimately, I would encourage you to specialize early. If you focus on the area that you want to specialize in, you will see some drastic improvement. You will still be able to build something really cool and likely more importantly, profitable.
The Good Part of Learning Game Design
Up to this point, I have primarily focused on the negative side. But I love game design! I wouldn’t want to discourage people from pursuing it. I want to be honest, but certainly, the goal of this site is to encourage. Let’s talk briefly about some of the amazing parts of learning game design.
Like I said above, I recall in Drafting class spending two years in a single software application. Sure, it was in-depth learning and I left feeling like I knew almost every aspect of that software. But, I love game design more because there is so much there to do and learn.
In my program students are introduced to at least 4 software pieces, and really they interact with all four in the first semester. They get a brief overview of each of them, and then they generally float between them for the remainder of their time depending on their projects.
That being said, I fully believe that each of them could be a two-year course alone much like I experienced. I simply believe though that it keeps the learning fresh and interesting when you have a lot to do and always are making new discoveries.
Projects You Are Interested In
I know that at least for the colleges and programs around me that relate to game design, all of them feel much like an art class. You have a bit of directive early on, but as you progress through the class, the projects become more flexible.
We spend several weeks working on projects. I have a bit of directive, but for the most part, students are able to build things they are passionate about. I end up with something much better in the end when I allow the students this flexibility.
Most programs I have seen and heard of are similar. The instructors and professors generally will open the door for you to be able to create something really cool, generally within a team. This makes the learning process so much more enjoyable!
The Job Outlook for Game Designers
Game Designers do continue to have a bright future. Between now and 2026 the growth rate projection has continued to go up. A few years ago it was 9%, we are now up to 12%. This means that projections are showing an upward trend on not only the growth but the expected growth too.
So what this means for you, is that companies are continuing to grow at a faster rate than what is projected. There are quite a few options out there and large companies are often hiring huge groups to take on large projects.
The Best Jobs are In High Demand
The downside to the job outlook is that the jobs are continuing to be in high demand. There are a lot of people interested in game development. Colleges are having no problem filling their game development programs, but the job growth is not adequate for the amount of game developers. Take, for example, that Blizzard hired over 60 interns to work on World of Warcraft last summer. That sounds like a huge opportunity for students, but then you realize there were over 12,000 applicants. There was huge demand to get their foot in the door.
I believe that there are quite a few opportunities for game developers, but the independent scene continues to be the most viable option for new developers. With a bit of experience, opportunities will really grow.
Long Hours in Game Design
I would be doing you a disservice not to at least mention the time commitment in this industry. Right now there is continuing to be a growing trend in ‘crunching’ projects. Most people are well aware of how developers are sometimes treated at larger studios. One of the biggest complaints is the number of hours required.
Some of the largest companies, including Epic, Rockstar Games, EA, and more are notorious for asking their developers and designers to work more than 100 hours per week towards the end of projects.
In terms of job outlook, I believe that people are often leaving larger companies to move to the indie scene. They have skills and more flexibility. I’m aware of several people that have done this over the last few years and glad they made the choice. I acknowledge, though, that many simply do not have the ability to take this direction and need a solid paying job.
The Guarantee of Success in Game Design
Unfortunately, there is no guarantee. In the independent game scene, the statistics show that only 7% of games released will make enough money for the developer to continue working in the industry. This means that there are a lot of projects out there that have been taken very seriously. Unfortunately, those same projects have many people who have worked very hard on them but will never be successful in terms of income.
This adds a huge amount of stress on anyone in the independent game scene. There are a few ways to counter this but generally involves playtesting, investing time into marketing, or potentially working with publishers. There are tradeoffs to all of these things, but I believe the number one mistake game developers make is a lack of marketing on their projects.
The good side of this as well is that a significant number of projects do make money, and some of them will pay out large amounts of money. The best way to guarantee that is to look at the market and early indicators of your game’s ability to be successful.
The Difficulty of Keeping a Job in Game Design
Unfortunately, the game design industry has a reputation of being quite volatile. For those of you interested in being in this industry, it’s an important factor to consider. For me, as a person who started my family at a young age, stability was and continues to be a major factor for me.
Layoffs in Game Design
From an independent game developer standpoint, this is less of a concern. As an indie, you probably have a bit more stability because you are working on your passion projects. The downside is that you are probably self-funding or working with a publisher. Deadlines are likely still a major factor to ensure you get a good return of investment on your time.
The larger studios, unfortunately, have a lot of overhead. This means that job openings come and go often as projects expand or slow in income. Take, for example, Blizzard, who laid off nearly 800 people. The shocking part of this one was that the company seemed to be doing well. However, this is fairly commonplace.
One area I do want to mention is that this does not mean the game industry is failing. Blizzard will have major hits repeatedly, but as sales slow down for those games they do not need the same number of staff supporting it. Often as games begin to fade, the number of patches released is slowed down. At the same time, if this game is slowing, usually another is on the rise. It is not uncommon to see staff members working on games that have worked for a wide range of other companies in various roles.
Feeling Prepared for a Game Design Career
Outside of having quite a bit of practice, it is always common for people entering into their role feeling a bit overwhelmed, maybe even underprepared. I think it may partially have to do with the art industry being the way it is.
If I am working on an assembly line somewhere, outside of being able to do a bit less than someone else, the quality is no different. Unfortunately art is something totally different. There is a standard to uphold, and generally you have to keep the bar high on your work if you want to work on major projects. Looking around, this seems difficult.
The good news is that generally, you will have some guidance on things. When you make mistakes, others can provide some constructive criticism and also provide some solutions when things go poorly. Unlike the indie scene, you usually will have very knowledgeable people around you.
In the indie scene, it’s a bit more like flying by the seat of your pants. I have heard of a lot of game developers that start a project, improve their skills throughout, and want to redo a lot of the work. In fact, you see this in “Indie Games The Movie”. I would advise anyone to not do that, but it goes to show that your first game will probably not be near as good as your second. That is okay! We all improve over time!
Staying Up with the Times
In technology, it happens regularly that people simply do not stay up to date. This is one of the worst things you can do for your career. I have worked with people in the past that simply refused to learn new techniques. When it came to layoffs, those individuals were generally the first to go and had the hardest time finding work.
Be an avid learner. Take time out to learn new things and new techniques. When you see the industry changing, try not to be the guy that stays with using the old methods. Generally, new methods will have some benefits and when everyone moves to them, you will be left feeling irrelevant.
I almost did this in web design. I had an older technique. I stuck with it for a long time. I thought I would never make the transition. This was the way I did things until mobile phones came out and I needed my projects to work on both phones and desktops. I was late to the party and looking back I should have changed much earlier. Not only because I want my projects to be well done, but also because it sped up my process in the long run. The new method was simply better.
I would make it part of your regular schedule to read up on game design news. Read about what others are doing. It’s one of the reasons I started this website, I want to hear from you about projects you’re working on. Do you disagree with my assessments of things? Tell me! I want to learn other perspectives!
I feel like most of what I put on here was fairly negative. I do not want it to be perceived that way. Part of the pride of my work though is to be honest. Game design is difficult, it’s not easy to learn, and the job market is not guaranteed success. If you’re looking for stability in your income or guaranteed success, I think you might be better served in other industries.
However, that being said, I would not tell people to avoid the industry. There are plenty of people doing quite well for themselves. The game design industry is growing with no indication of it slowing down anytime soon. It’s going to be difficult to get your foot in the door, but once you do the opportunities are almost endless.
Better than a dependable income for many, being creative and having flexibility is among some of the most important to many people coming into the world’s workforce. A lot of hard work, dedication, and a creative mindset can land you into a pretty successful place. It’s not a guarantee, but certainly obtainable.
If you are ready to get busy and pursue your dreams, I would encourage you to check out some of the resources on getting started in game design. I try to give my honest opinion on places to get started and what software you might be best served using for job opportunities and advanced projects. I’m a firm believer that a good foundation in the right software will help you in the future. If you start in the wrong place, you may realize you are working towards something that you aren’t really passionate about.
If you are currently working on a cool project and just want someone to bounce ideas off of, please do not hesitate to reach out to me. I would love to see what it is you are working on and give honest constructive feedback.