Design. Code. Play: How create video games for a living

Got what it takes to make a career out of video games?

Ever flirted with the idea of making video games for a living?

Whether you want to be a kickass indie developer and make the next Braid or Super Meat Boy, or it’s your dream job to work on mega franchises like Elder Scrolls or Grand Theft Auto – your career in the video game industry’s got to start somewhere.

So to equip you with the XP needed to level up in your pursuit of game development glory, we take a closer look at the industry and what it takes to make it. 

A snapshot of the industry

What used to be dismissed as a frivolous pastime for teenage boys is now a multibillion-dollar industry.

From the humble beginnings of Pong to epic franchises like today’s Fallout and World of Warcraft, the gaming industry has grown exponentially over the last few decades, last valued at $91.95 billion in 2015.

Games are also moving well beyond the straight shoot-em-up bloodbaths we’re used to seeing.

Game mechanics are becoming more inventive (look up Framed, a comic-book game in which you flick and switch around panels to move the story along), narratives are becoming richer (check out The Last of Us if you’re not convinced a video game can rival cinematic storytelling), and developers are taking bolder risks when it comes to exploring themes and meaning. Take A Song for Viggo for instance, a heartbreaking game that deals with grief, depression and guilt, taking place seconds after you unintentionally kill your own son.

Games are clearly catering to a more sophisticated and discerning audience, and so they should, because (in Australia anyway), the average age of the video gamer is 32 years old.

What does this mean for you? It’s an exciting time to [space bar] jump into the industry! 

What sort of jobs are there?

Lots of people make the mistake of thinking that to work in video games you’ve got to be some sort of programming wunderkind.

While being able to code is important, there are other jobs that are just as crucial to the development of a video game. 

 The gameplay design 

This is where game ideas are first conceived. Game designers are the visionaries on the team – they set up the rules of the world, decide how the game is structured and how it’s meant to be played. Depending on the scale of the project this might be one person or a whole team. 

  • Writers – Come up with the game’s narrative drive and plot, write dialogue for characters and in-game text.
  • Game mechanic designers – Construct the rules for interacting with the game and its world, so the experience is engaging and fun for players. 
  • Level designers – Take the game mechanics and build specific levels and missions for the game, taking into account what’s needed to challenge players at each stage of their gameplay. 

Interested in studying game design? Check out this Bachelor of Games Development

 The art 

The look and feel of a game, the aesthetics of the world you explore and the characters you play all come down to the art department. 

  • Concept artists – Are usually the first port of call when it comes to design. These guys will conceptualise important elements like the characters and game world. 
  • Animators – Animate the cutaway scenes in between gameplay, as well as player-controlled actions like running, jumping and fighting. 
  • Background artists/modellers – Draw and construct the environments and settings in which players game e.g. football stadiums, abandoned warehouses, alien planets. 
  • Texture artists – Add the detailed textures needed to make a game look and feel real. 

Want to build worlds and characters from scratch? Check out this Diploma of Screen and Media (Game Art and Animation)

 The programming 

These guys are the technical masterminds behind a game. There are a lot of different disciplines under the coding umbrella, so if you’ve got the skills there’s room to move about. 

  • Generalist programmers – Action and implement the gameplay rules. 
  • Game engine programmers – These guys are in charge of coding the actual game engine – what makes the game tick. 
  • User Interface (UI) programmers – Are in charge of creating user interfaces like option menus that are slick and appropriate for the game. 
  • AI programmers – Creates the AI (the computerised opponent you play against), ensuring the AI is smart enough to challenge you but not so smart you give up. 
  • Sound programmers – Integrate music, speech and sound effects into the gameplay.
  • Game tool programmers – Produce the tools needed to assist the development of a game.

Keen on learning how to code? Consider this 13-week Object-Orientated Programming in C++ course or Certificate IV in Programming.

 The extra touches and testing 

But of course, it’s not just code and art that makes a game great. 

  • Sound engineers  – Are needed to record, mix and compose the musical score and sound effects that accompany a game. This is a really important component as sound often dictates the mood of a game, and when done well, becomes an iconic part of the game itself. 
  • Testers – Carry out quality assurance to ensure any programming kinks and bugs are worked out before release (or for updates). 

Want to become a sound engineer? Consider studying this Bachelor of Audio.

What's the pay like?

It really comes down to what discipline you specialise in and how much experience you have, but the stats below will give you an idea of how much you can expect to earn.

In 2014, Gamasutra polled 4,000 game developers worldwide and collated the average salaries per profession:

  • Business and management: US$101, 572
  • Audio professionals: US$95, 682
  • Programmers: US$93,251
  • Producers: US$82,286
  • Artists and animators: US$74, 349
  • Game designers: US$73, 864
  • QA testers: US$54, 833

What do I need to get started?

Ask this question to any of the bigwigs from development studios and they’ll all tell you the same thing.

To get a foot in the door you need: passion, experience and a killer portfolio.

The cardinal sin a lot of developer hopefuls commit is not spending enough time on samples of their work.

‘Ultimately I look more at their portfolio of work than their CV,’ Oli Christie, founder of Neon Play studios told IGN. ‘We need to see what a candidate can do.’

Rhodri Broadbent, co-founder of Dakko Dakko agrees. His advice to wannabe game designers is to ‘make stuff, make stuff, make stuff.’

‘Knock up demos and concepts, get things moving on screen. The most important thing to do is try,’ Broadbent told The Guardian. ‘It’s invaluable experience as well as demonstrating initiative, passion and intent to learn.’

So that means you don’t have to bother with uni or a course, right?

Well, not exactly.

‘For newcomers a degree is definitely helpful, especially if you are looking into mainstream games,’ co-founder of Nyamyam, Jennifer Schneidereit also told The Guardian.

‘A lot of companies are looking for candidates with a solid education background and passion.’ 

So, where can I study game design in Australia?

CG Spectrum

If you’re interested in becoming an animator, and want to work on producing game art, CG Spectrum is the perfect study option. CG Spectrum is the brainchild of two animators who wanted to provide students with access to the industry’s best artists. CG Spectrum tutors have worked on world-class titles such as Assassin’s Creed, Batman: Arkham City and Resident Evil: Operation Racoon City

So what are you waiting for? Level up with an animation or game design course today!

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