Gamers make the best game designers. If you spend hours gaming, discussing gaming, or dreaming about gaming, you should probably consider getting paid for it. If you think that sounds like too sweet a deal to be true, you’re wrong. The path from gaming fiend to game developer is shorter and more well-tread than you might think. Opportunities for game designers have steadily grown in the last couple of decades — and today, with the prevalence of game-friendly devices on the market, launching a career in this tech-savvy field might be much easier than you think.
Part I: The Game Design Industry
According to the Entertainment Software Association, the average U.S. household owns at least one dedicated gaming system. This is in addition to other devices equipped for gaming that may have other primary functions, such as cell phones, tablets, and other mobile devices. This is great news for budding game designers, simply because the average consumer now has unprecedented access to purchasing and playing games wherever they might be.
In addition to having a huge market opening up for game creators, a degree in game design can be a great benefit for many careers within and outside of the game industry. Below is a list of some professions a degree in game design could qualify you for.
- Game Designer: For many who pursue a degree in game design, chances are their ultimate goal is to become a game designer. You can think of the game designer as the brains behind the operation, in that he or she typically designs and ensures the proper construction of every aspect of a game. Being successful in this role can take a great deal of creativity, hard work, and perhaps more than anything, tons of experience as a gamer.
- Game Producer: As in other areas of the entertainment industry, a producer typically manages a creative project from start to finish. Launching a career as a game producer is a great idea for those of us who are more business-oriented (e.g. working within budgets and meeting deadlines) and would like a great deal of control over the game production process.
- QA Tester: While it may not be the best paying gig in the game industry, becoming a QA tester for games is a dream come true for many who want to making a living by playing games all day. The role is not all fun and games, however, and requires quite a bit of technical skill in observing and identifying bugs and other aspects of a game that require improvements. With a degree in game design, you can be confident that you’ll have the right skills and background to become a successful QA tester.
- Programmer: Sometimes people just want to work on the front lines of game development. A programmer usually works with the designer and producer to bring a game concept to life. As a result, the programmer holds one of the more critical roles of the game creation process. Without programmers, the game would be nothing more than a great idea.
- Industry Marketer: If you’re the type who gets excited about the newest games coming out and can’t wait to tell your friends about the latest release, then a marketing role within the game industry might be the perfect career for you. Effectively marketing a game requires more than just a love of gaming and a great ability to communicate a game’s merits — it also requires an extensive understanding of the game design and production process. Also, successful marketers can look forward to a sizable paycheck if the game really takes off.
Since there are so many potential career opportunities for game design graduates to pursue, the salary they can expect to earn on the job market can be just as variable. For the game designer role itself, Video Game Insider Jobs splits salary expectations into levels of seniority. For example, a junior game designer can expect to make as much as much as $49,000 per year, while more seasoned creative directors could make at least $100,000 annually.
According to allArtSchools, other relevant roles within the game industry, such as QA testers, can expect to make upwards of $33,030 per year. Roles that require more technical know-how and finesse, such as programmers, could bring home a hefty $90,530 per year.
Now is one of the best times in history for people to begin considering a career in the game industry, particularly those who enjoy playing and/or creating games in their spare time. With the sheer number of devices on the market that can easily provide access to games, such as cell phones, tablets, consoles and desktop computers, chances are that anyone with the right amount of gaming experience and talent can be a success in the game industry.
Even if becoming a game designer is not really where you see yourself career-wise, a degree in game design ensures that you have acquired the right foundation needed to be successful in many roles within (and in many cases, outside) of the game industry. If you know that designing games is what you hope to do for a living, then look no further—a degree in game design is exactly what you’re looking for.
Part II: A Selection of Top Game Design Programs in the U.S.
University of Southern California (Los Angeles)
For over a century, the University of Southern California, or USC, has stood as as one of the Golden State’s most revered and culturally significant academic institutions.
- Accreditation: The University of Southern California is accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC).
- Specialized Degrees: Given the fact that the study of game design itself is not a specific degree pathway at USC, there can be some flexibility in how you can establish an academic focus in game design. USC offers both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Interactive Media, which provides a broad liberal arts education tailored towards those who wish to work in the game industry.
- Industry Perception: Graduates from USC are considered to be the cream of the crop among those who wish to launch a career in any area of the entertainment industry (including gaming). One of the Interactive Media program’s more notable alumni in the game industry is Kevin Bachus, co-creator of the Xbox.
- Cost: Since USC is a private university, applicants can expect to shell out a pretty penny upon acceptance to the school. Compared to Ivy League institutions, however, the annual tuition cost of $21,831 for both undergraduate and graduate students at USC could be seen as somewhat reasonable.
- Financial Aid: In addition to providing comprehensive financial aid counselling and resources for students with financial need, USC is proud to proclaim that over 60% of their students receive some type of financial assistance over the course of their studies with the university.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Cambridge, MA)
Founded in 1861 as a private research institution that would help the United States keep pace with global technological advances and rapid industrialization, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (more familiarly known as MIT) has grown to become one of the very best universities for science and technology in the world.
- Accreditation: MIT is fully accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC).
- Specialized Degrees: While MIT does not have a specific degree program for game design, the university does offer a comprehensive game design curriculum as a part of its Comparative Media Studies program. Within the program, students can choose from three major “clusters,” one of which is Games and Interactive Media. Incidentally, the program also offers courses in game design on MIT OpenCourseWare for free (degree not included).
- Industry Perception: In the field of science and technology, MIT is considered to be the best American institution to acquire a degree, bar none. The list of notable MIT alumni is extensive to say the least; it includes Bethesda Softworks founder Christopher Weaver, Lotus Corporation founder Mitch Kapor, and more than two dozen Nobel laureates.
- Cost: The cost to attend MIT can be costly, but by no means unaffordable. For the fall and spring semesters of the 2012-2013 academic year, tuition was set at $20,885. Given the university’s super competitive application process, cost may not be your greatest worry in terms of admission to MIT.
- Financial Aid: Like most universities, MIT administers financial aid from a variety of sources, including loans and grants from the federal government. The university itself offers its own scholarships, as well as a work-study program that can cover the first $6,000 of a student’s total costs for the academic year.
DigiPen Institute of Technology (Redmond, WA)
Established in 1988 as an institute for the study and research of computer simulation and animation, Digipen has since grown to become one of the top schools for the study of game production and design.
- Accreditation: Digipen is accredited by the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges (ACCSC).
- Specialized Degrees: As an institute that is entirely dedicated to preparing students for a career in the tech and game industry, DigiPen offers a more specialized set of degree pathways for game designers than larger private universities. In addition to a standard degree in Game Design, students can also select from programs in Computer Science, Digital Art and Animation, and Engineering and Sound Design.
- Industry Perception: To those who work in the industries of entertainment and interactive media, DigiPen is considered to be one of the top vocational schools in the country to earn a degree. Located in the midst of two major gaming companies—Valve and Microsoft—many DigiPen students go on to find success working for these companies following graduation.
- Cost: Tuition at DigiPen is calculated by the number of credit hours taken per academic year. For 2012-2013, the cost of taking 16-22 credits was set at $12,800 for U.S. residents. The institute charges a discounted rate of $600 per additional credit above 22.
- Financial Aid: DigiPen offers financial aid packages in the form of government and private loans and grants, as well as a generous selection of scholarships. The institute also offers veterans benefits to qualified students.
Art Institutes of Pittsburgh (Online)
Since 1921, the Art Institute of Pittsburgh has been providing world-class education in design and career preparation for the creative job market. In addition to offering excellent degree programs on campus, the institute also offers several degrees that can be earned online.
- Accreditation: The Art Institute of Pittsburgh is accredited by the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE). The institute’s online degree programs are accredited by the prestigious Council for Interior Design Accreditation (CIDA).
- Specialized Degrees: In addition to other degrees across various fields of art and technology, the Art Institute of Pittsburgh Online Division offers a bachelor’s degree in Game Art and Design that can be completed entirely online.
- Industry Perception: The Art Institute of Pittsburgh is celebrated across the game industry for the quality of education it offers, as well as for the several innovative methods of instruction it provides for its students. One of the university’s more notable alumni is Christian Allen, who is best known for his game design work on the Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon and Halo: Reach video game franchises.
- Cost: Since the Art Institute of Pittsburgh joins the ranks of the very best career and vocational schools in the areas of creative arts and technology, the total cost of tuition can get a bit expensive. In addition to lab fees and miscellaneous course fees, the institute charges $470 per credit hour as of the 2012-2013 academic year. As a result, the total tuition cost for the entire program can cost as much as $84,600 over time.
- Financial Aid: The Art Institute of Pittsburgh offers a handy and well-designed web application that will help you to understand how to balance the cost of attendance with your own unique financial situation. The institute offers standard aid packages in the form of federal and private financial aid, as well as scholarships and employer partnerships.
Part III: Launching a Career in Game Design
As with any career, obtaining a relevant degree is only the first step towards finding a great job right out of college. In the field of game design, prospective job applicants should also make sure that they have built a portfolio that is representative of their best work, in addition to having a résumé and cover letter that is tailored towards what you hope to accomplish within the industry. Below are some tips and suggestions on how you can begin preparing to launch a career in game design well before graduation.
- Portfolios: Given the creative scope and competitive nature of the industry, future game designers need to ensure that their portfolio of creative work is constantly kept up-to-date over the course of their academic and future careers. These portfolios could include full-fledged game designs, artwork and other excellent examples of your creative talent in the realm of game design. Here is a great example of how game designer Thomas Roberts (a.k.a. Draxov) utilizes Tumblr for his own game design portfolio.
- Cover Letters and Résumés: Because game design is a part of an inherently creative industry, crafting a plain cover letter and résumé that could work for a desk job may not get you far in the game industry. While the overall content of your cover letter and résumé should reflect your experience and a narrative on why you are the best choice for employment, both documents should be creative, fun and eye-catching—because afterall, that’s what you went to school for! For more information, Gamasutra provides a comprehensive resource on how you can craft the best possible resume for a game company.
- Personal Branding: In the end, as with any creative pursuit, much of your future success in game design relies on how well you’ve been able to curate your own personal brand within the industry. Many successful game designers began creating a personal brand for themselves well before college, so now’s the time for anyone who is thinking about a career in game design to begin promoting themselves as a future game designer extraordinaire. This article from Business Pundit gives a fascinating rundown of how the world’s 10 best game designers managed to brand themselves for success within the game industry.
It’s a Gamer’s Life!
As more people throughout the world gain instant access to interactive games and entertainment thanks to portable devices, the potential for success within the game industry is very high. Now is an excellent time for students who love playing and creating games to forget everything they’ve been told and seriously consider a degree and long-term career in game design. With the right amount of creativity and perseverance, a talented, aspiring game designer can use great ideas and technical know-how to find success in the game industry.