Video game designers are more than software programmers; they are storytellers and crafters of experiences. While a technical understanding of software programming is obviously necessary to be a game designer, so is the ability to draw upon a world of creativity. It's true that physics engines must be programmed, artificial intelligences must be constructed, levels must be designed and developed according to user-play data, and graphics must be designed. But dialogue must also be scripted, the level must flow and support the story (that must be written) and, most importantly, a game mechanic must be chosen to immerse the player into the narrative.
The game mechanic can be complex, such as Steel Battalion's overtly complicated controller, which gave players the experience of operating a large, futuristic walking tank, or it can be simple, as is the case with the 1980 Atari game Missile Command, whose simple controller and no-win game mechanic underscores the futility and utter destruction of nuclear war without giving one line of dialogue or exposition to the player.
While games have become more complex and more expensive to produce over the years, the blending of multiple disciplines and professionals to create a moving and entertaining piece of content remains the same. The art of game design is, after all, an art.
The Art of Game Design
Named as one of the "Storytellers of the Decade" by Game Informer in 2010 and lead designer of the hit game BioShock, Ken Levine originally began his career as a drama graduate in New York before becoming a video game developer. Levine drew upon this liberal arts knowledge -- or what he called his "useless liberal arts degree" -- to blend the work of George Orwell and objectivism, as well as classical art and architecture, to create one of the best-selling games in the past decade.
However, just having a pure liberal arts background won't do a designer any good. Video games are not books and they are not movies; video game designers must understand the limitations of technology and the programs they are using in order to convey the experience they want the player to have. Technical training could be in the form of sound and audio mixing or in the form of computer programming.
A wide range of skills and personal qualities are required of game designers. Those with the following traits may do well at game design school:
- Artistic talent - You don't necessarily have to know how to draw, or be able to create a great work of art, to design video games. But having an artistic eye, and knowing what works visually and what doesn't, can be important.
- Creativity - Being able to see where the game can go, not just where the game is going, can be useful for any game designer, not just during the preproduction process. Creativity is the difference between making great games and forgettable games.
- Attention to detail - The idea that "everything must work" on a game is not an understatement and doesn't apply only to programmers.
- Time management skills - The game production process can last months and even years in some cases, making the management of one's time essential.
- Concentration - Yes, you're making a video game, but you have to stay focused.
- Stamina - "Crunch time" is an industry standard which can, in many cases, consist of 10-15 hour days that last for months.
A Collaboration of Ideas
Some designers focus on the graphic side of a video game, creating both the look and feel of the video game in preproduction but also coding the game's internal graphics during the life cycle. In modern 3-D games, this can require dozens of people working across every aspect of the game. Some game designers fill the role of a producer, who manages other, more task-oriented video game designers during the modern video game production process.
Programs offered at video game design schools can include various aspects of the game design process, which brings together dozens of people across multiple professions, including the following:
- Audio designers – in addition to deciding what sounds to use and music to play, audio designers use software such as the Miles Sound System 9 by Rad Game Tools to create the sound environments used by the game.
- Graphic design – APIs such as Direct3D and OpenGL allow for a game to have a visual component; some API libraries are unique to platforms or game consoles, such as the PlayStation or the Xbox 360, or can be general and allow for the “porting” of a game between platforms.
- Physics engines – game physics engines such as Havok or Box2D create smoke and explosions, allow water to fall or allow birds to attack egg-stealing pigs.
- Programmers – programmers create the game’s source code and can work closely with the game’s animators or graphic designers to rapidly create multiple game prototypes, or proofs of concept of a game feature, in addition to fixing bugs found by game testers.
These programs may offer either a bachelor's or master's degree, either in the fine arts or the sciences. The degrees offered in the fine arts, be they Master of Fine Arts or Bachelor of Fine Arts, tend to focus upon the nature of game play (what makes a game hard or fun), the usability of a game and the impact game designs can have on a player’s overall experience and relation to the narrative. Classes can include narrative design, game design and the history of video games. Degrees in the sciences, B.S. or M.S., focus on the technical aspects of game design, such as level design, prototyping, play balancing and testing, in addition to the societal and cultural impact of video games.
Because game designers work in a collaborative environment, graduates with either a master’s or a bachelor’s degree may discover varying employment opportunities. The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not provide information on any specific profession in the game development process. However, the BLS reported in the fall 2011 Occupational Outlook Quarterly (BLS.gov/ooq, 2013) publication that the avenues for entry-level employment of video game designers may range between making small games for mobile devices and beginning as an entry-level employee at one of the larger game studios. The BLS does not provide specific employment outlook data for game designers. A check of local job listings to ascertain what jobs openings require what degrees is recommended.