Guide to College Majors in Game Design & Development

What Is Game Design and Development?

A major in game design and development prepares students for immediate entry into the expanding interactive entertainment industry. If you love playing video games and think that you might like designing them yourself or being part of their creation, enrolling in a game design and development degree program could be just the right move.

Seeing the creation of a video game through from start to finish can be a thrilling and rewarding experience. Degree programs in game design and development can give you first-hand experience doing just that. You can learn every facet of creating a challenging, visually stunning, and, most importantly, fun game.

There are as many kinds of video games as there are people. This means that game designers can often choose to work on the kinds of games they enjoy playing. Employers actually prefer it that way, as individuals with a lot of experience in a particular area of gaming may often have insightful ideas on how to improve game play. So, whether your forte is sports games, flight simulations, car racing games, arcade-style shoot-em ups, strategy games, or role-playing games, there is a game type to fit your particular style.

A video game needs to have many different aspects working together in order to succeed. This means that there are many different ways to contribute to the creation of a video game. Video games need writers in order to create the story and dialogue, artists to render the characters and landscapes, programmers to translate everything into computer language and create fluid game play, and sound designers to create soundtracks, sound effects, and voices.

The Game Development Process

Creating a video game also typically requires a great deal of team effort. With a degree in game design and development, you may have the opportunity to work with a team of video game experts who are just as excited about the industry as you are. Learning from them can help you do your job more effectively, thereby creating more successful games.

Video games must begin with a story. Video game designers must have an active imagination in order to create a story that is engaging and fast-paced, but not overly confusing. They must be able to speak and write in a clear, concise manner in order to express their ideas to the rest of the team working on the game.

Creating a story does not just involve an introduction, narrative plot, and conclusion. Game designers must create all sorts of characters as well. Most importantly is the player's character, the hero or heroine. This character must be interesting and the players should be able to relate to him or her. The game designer must decide on what special abilities or weapons the main character has at his or her disposal and must decide on how quickly the character's powers grow as the game progresses.

After that come the other characters in the game. These characters might be friends, enemies, monsters, space aliens, or animals. But in order for the artists to clearly render them, they must be well described. Game designers tend to create quite a bestiary as their careers grow. These non-player characters (NPCs) must also have skills and attributes of their own, and the game designer must decide how they will react to the player's character.

As the story of the game progresses, the game designers must come up with creative puzzles for the player to solve. These puzzles must be challenging enough to be fun and make the player feel as though they've accomplished something. They also must create puzzles that are at the same level as the player's character. If the puzzles are too difficult, the player will become frustrated and stop playing.

Once the characters and story are decided upon, game designers with artistic skill must render the characters and settings visually. Many tools are used to achieve this. Some things are drawn with pen and ink and scanned into a computer. Others are created with paint and canvas and also scanned in. Sculpture is a popular tool for rendering 3-D style games. Computer animation is also utilized.

Storyboards are set up by the game designers in order to illustrate to the rest of the team how the story will proceed visually. These storyboards are a visual outline of the game and act as a blueprint for the programmers and animators to follow.

Once the story and characters have been rendered visually, the computer programming begins. Game designers usually know several programming languages in order to accommodate writing code for many different game platforms. Game designers use this code in order to communicate to the computer how it is the different characters should interact with one another and with their environment.

Game designers with advanced math skills will often apply the laws of physics to their games in order to make them seem more realistic. Others will write algorithms that simulate real life situations, like driving a car or boat.

Throughout the process of the game's development, other game designers work on the sound effects, soundtrack, and voices of the game. These characters must create an interesting selection of music that conveys the appropriate mood, but doesn't distract from game play. Sound effects must be realistic without taking up too much memory and the voices must suit the characters' different personalities.

Once all of this is accomplished, the game must go through a process known as testing and debugging. This is where video game testers (many of them also game designers) play the game exhaustively in order to find and correct any flaws within the game's programming. Game testers must have good manual dexterity, as they must play the whole game through many times in order to check for every kind of bug. They look for things like characters walking through walls or levels failing to load.

Degrees in Game Design and Development

As you can tell, earning a degree and pursuing a career in game design and development isn't all just fun and games. Months, even years, of extensive work can go into designing and developing a successful video game. This time can be fraught with frustration. Game designers typically often work very late nights in order to meet deadlines. On top of that, many games that get designed never hit the shelves, doomed never to be played by the public.

Though this makes a career in game design and development possibly risky and occasionally frustrating, it is also quite rewarding. Seeing people playing a game that you designed and having fun doing it is a thrilling and satisfying experience.

Is a Major in Game Design and Development Right for You?

Pursuing a degree in game design and development traditionally takes commitment. If you have ever obsessed over playing a particularly engrossing video game, be prepared to obsess similarly over completing a game's design. This often requires working overtime, staying late at the office, and coming in on weekends and holidays.

While you can play video games at your leisure, game designers and developers work under extreme pressure. They must meet tight deadlines and live up to the high expectations of their employers. Being goal-oriented is a definite must for pursuing a career in game design and development.

People who pursue degrees in game design and development often have several of the following traits:

  • Detail-oriented
  • Goal-driven
  • Problem solving skills
  • Good communication skills
  • Troubleshooting ability
  • Works well in a team
  • Advanced math skills
  • Computer kills
  • High manual dexterity
  • Hand-eye coordination
  • Creative thinking
  • Writing skills
  • Drawing ability

Keep in mind that it is not necessary to be a great writer, brilliant programmer, advanced mathematician, talented artist, and musician all at once in order to pursue a degree in game design and development. As long as you possess one or more of these skills and have a passion for creating fun games for people to play, there is a place for you in the game design and development industry.

Preparing for a Game Design and Development Degree

If, like many people, you've been playing video games since you were young, you already have a little preparation. But chances are good that video game playing experience alone will not be enough in order to get you into a game design and development program.

One good way to prepare for entrance into a college degree in game development is to get some experience with computers. If your high school offers advanced computer or technology classes, especially if they involve programming, be sure to enroll in them. Advanced math classes can also help, as well as writing classes, art classes, and music classes. Anything involving creativity is a step in the right direction.

Work experience can also be helpful. Even if it is only a retail job involving the sale of video games, work experience will help you gain familiarity with the industry, such as who the leading game design companies are and what trends are happening in the current industry. Plus, these jobs often offer employee discounts on games, so you can get the newest games for less. Consider it research into your future career.

Career Education in Game Design

Game design and development degree programs typically vary widely from school to school. Liberal arts colleges and universities that offer the major also often require the student to take many general education requirement courses in order to gain a well-rounded education.

Many technical colleges and institutes, however, focus on courses that relate back to the student's major in order to prepare them for a career in a specialist's market. While this can help the student get a job immediately after graduation, the student will miss out on a lot of the general knowledge that liberal arts schools impart. Be sure to thoroughly research the programs you plan to apply to before making a decision in order to find a school that matches your learning style

Associate Degrees in Game Design

Most associate degree programs in game design and development take at least two years to complete. Some may take less time, depending on the nature of the school's curriculum. An associate degree in game design and development can prepare students for entry-level jobs in the game design industry, usually as entry-level programmers or other lower level positions.

The curriculum of most associate's degree programs in game design and development consists of math and computer courses coupled with art and history courses. At most technical colleges, these courses tie in directly with the game design major. At liberal arts schools, students must make the connections themselves and decide how these courses relate back to what they want to do.

Here are some examples of the subjects you would study while enrolled in an associate's degree program in game design and development:

    • Algebra
    • Trigonometry
    • Geometry
    • Calculus
    • Programming Languages (Java, C++)
    • Computer interface
    • Game Design
    • Computer Graphics
    • Operating Systems
    • Art Appreciation and History
    • Writing Composition
    • Mythology
    • Sociology
    • Cultural Studies
    • Physics (Motion, Aerodynamics)

    Students often participate in group projects, as well, designing a working game over the course of a semester. This gives the students the chance to apply what they've learned in a real world, teamwork setting. Those involved in associate's degree programs in Game Design and Development usually work on text-based or scrolling games for PCs.

    Bachelor's Degrees in Game Design

    Most bachelor's degree programs in game design and development take at least four years to complete. Some may take less time, depending on the nature of the school's curriculum. A bachelor's degree in game design and development can prepare students for entry-level jobs in the game design industry, usually as intermediate-level programmers, engineering staff, or beginning designers.

    Bachelor's degree programs in game design and development teach the student every aspect of designing and developing a video game, from the technical aspects to the practical. Advanced math and computer skills are taught, as well as scheduling techniques and teamwork skills.

    Here are some examples of the subjects you would study while enrolled in a game design major:

    • Algebra
    • Trigonometry
    • Geometry
    • Calculus
    • Algorithms
    • Programming Languages (Java, C++)
    • Computer Interface
    • Game Design
    • Computer Graphics
    • Operating Systems
    • Art Appreciation and History
    • Writing Composition
    • Mythology
    • Sociology
    • Cultural Studies
    • Physics (motion, aerodynamics)
    • Computer Networks
    • 3D Animation
    • Software Engineering
    • Artificial Intelligence
    • Drawing
    • Modeling and Sculpture
  • Those enrolled in either online or campus-based degree programs may also work on many group and individual projects, completing several games before graduation. This allows the student to follow the process of designing and developing a video game from start to finish several times through in a controlled environment.

    The projects students complete range in complexity from text-based games and scrolling PC games to 3D games and simulations. The projects get more complicated and involved as the student progresses through their four years of training. When they complete the program, they are ready to enter the workforce, and most graduates are hired right out of school.

    What Can You Do With a College Degree in Game Design?

    There are many different careers available to those holding a college degree in game design. These jobs vary widely in availability and salary depending on the student's strengths and special skills. For instance, programmers usually earn more than sound designers, and project managers usually earn more than programmers.

    It is important to have some knowledge of each of the aspects of video game design and development. This will afford you upward mobility in your career and possible promotions into a managerial or senior game designer position.

    Game Design Career Paths

    Level Programmer

    Programmers write the code that provides the game's actions. They communicate to the computer via programming languages how the characters in the game should react to one another and their environment. They try to do this as efficiently as possible, in order to preserve memory while maintaining smooth game play.

    Programmers must have excellent math skills and a high attention to detail. They must be able to locate and correct mistakes in their codes quickly and be able to deal with problems in a moment's notice. Since they must rely on the artists and designers for the story and visual aspects of the game, they must be able to communicate to them the limits or strengths of a particular platform in order to come to a compromise as to how much memory goes to graphics, sound, and game play. They should be goal-oriented and be able to work well in a team.

    Game Designer

    Game designers create the premise and story of a game and often oversee the game's development, providing unity of vision and helping the team to stay on task. Game designers write scripts for games as well as create storyboards in order to communicate to the other people working on the project exactly what the designer's intentions are for the game.

    Game designers must be open to criticism and be willing to compromise to some degree on the design of the game. They must respect the opinions of their team of programmers as to what the platform they are working with can and cannot do. So, they must be flexible, but still attempt to push the envelope in order to create an original game.

    Sound Designer

    Sound designers create the soundtrack and sound effects in the game. They must work with the programmers in order to get the timing of the effects right. They also must be able to write music that conveys the mood of the game without being too distracting.

    Game Tester

    Game testers, quite literally, play games for a living. They must play a game through several times in order to make sure it is ready for release and has no bugs. They must play the game exhaustively, doing everything they can think of in order to fully analyze whether or not the game is ready to go to market.

    While this may sound like a fun way to make money, keep in mind that the game testers must be able to complete the game many times in a short period of time and then write reports detailing their findings and suggestions on how to fix the flaws. The tight deadlines can quickly take the fun out of playing the game, so be careful when entering into this career.

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