Video Game Jobs for Individuals Looking to Earn a Living in the Gaming Industry
March 4, 2020
In 1972, a wooden box with a screen and two knobs changed the world forever. Pong was a virtual two-dimensional pingpong table with two paddles and a ball that moved back and forth across a dotted line. Gameplay was simple: Let the ball past your paddle and the opponent scored a point; the first player to 11 points won. It began a revolution. Even though it sold only 8,000 units its first year, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, Pong was the first commercially successful example of what we now call video games.
Though Atari and Magnavox put out video games during the late 1970s and 1980s, the next major breakthrough came with the release of the Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES, in 1985. This began the “console wars” among Nintendo, Sega, Sony’s PlayStation series (first released in 1995), and Microsoft’s Xbox (launched in 2001), which continue to this day.
Video games are now one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the world. More than 2.5 billion people played video games in 2016, according to WePC. They played on handheld systems, mobile devices, consoles, and computers. Video games are more than entertainment; they’ve become a career path for millions of people around the globe. The field includes a range of careers, even professional video game players who earn millions of dollars for playing games such as Call of Duty or Fortnite in front of thousands of viewers. There are also many different career options for people in the design, development, production, and publishing of these games. Continue reading to explore several video game jobs, what they involve, and how to enter this dynamic industry.
What Are the Requirements to Be a Video Game Designer?
Video games have grown from the simplicity of Pong into complex programs that depict entire worlds with thousands of characters, actions, animations, and lines of dialogue. They can be single-player puzzle games on a mobile phone or massive multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) such as World of Warcraft, with millions of players interacting with one another online. Video game design companies sometimes spend the better part of a decade constructing and programming their flagship games — with good reason. The most popular games sell tens of millions of copies.
Video game designers have a vision for a game and then set out to make it happen. They come up with many important elements, from the general concept and storyline to the dialogue, game mechanics, purpose, and victory criteria. Different types of games require different types of design, whether these professionals are creating a setting for a futuristic new world or puzzle maps for a two-dimensional scroller. They also need to think about what will happen with their game after it launches. For example, many games offer downloadable content (DLC) — material released after the game’s initial launch to make it more expansive or offer additional options. Through the use of DLC, some video game companies keep games alive and active well past their original launch date, even a decade or more later.
Video game designer requirements include the ability to think about the big picture and understand what current technologies allow in terms of speed, complexity, and graphics. Even if designers don’t have programming or computer skills, they must understand the limitations of the systems they work with and have realistic expectations for those who build out the game. Video game designers can work on the same project for five years or more, from initial concept to testing and distribution. How much video game designers make depends on where they work — a large company or a small, independent game distributor, for example — as well as their experience and geographic location. According to December 2019 PayScale data, the median salary for video game designers is around $53,000 annually.
Explore the World of a Video Game Tester
Creating even a simple video game takes months of coding and programming, whether that involves tweaking existing frameworks or building a new program from the ground up. But like any program, video games can have bugs, which can render the game less enjoyable or even unplayable. Therefore, video games go through hundreds of hours of testing through gameplay.
The idea of being a video game tester may sound like pure fun. Yet video game testing entails more than sitting on the couch and playing video games for entertainment. Video game testers spend weeks playing the same levels, discovering and replicating errors. The job is rigorous and detail oriented. For example, testers make sure games play fairly, performing the same action or set of actions over and over with different characters to ensure similar outcomes. Once programmers fix any bugs, testers play the corresponding sections again to ensure errors have been removed.
The internet has led to changes in video game testing. Companies can release alpha and beta test versions of games and allow hundreds or thousands of players around the world to download and try them, either the full version or a demo version, and thus crowdsource their testing efforts. Doing so can be risky for the developers, however, as a game that’s too flawed or unplayable can generate negative feedback and publicity before it even launches in its polished form.
Video game testers are a type of quality control inspector, a job that takes different forms in different industries. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported there were 574,000 quality control inspectors working in the U.S. as of May 2018. The median annual salary for video game testers is around the median for all quality control inspectors, $38,250. The bottom 10% of earners in the job made about $23,550 annually, while the top 10% earned as much as $65,510 each year.
Video games have become more than entertainment — they’re an art form. Graphics in both computer games and games for consoles have advanced to the point where companies use motion-tracking technology and professional actors to form the storylines and “cut scenes” (parts where the player watches action play out, like in a movie). Video game production companies employ dozens of skilled animators and artists to make their products look good.
Animators play a key role in the video game process, as the aesthetics have a major impact on the game’s reception. Video game animators can make a game look futuristic and sleek, like the famous Portal series; keep it simple and functional, like Minecraft; or go with a gritty, realistic approach, like in the Red Dead Redemption series. Most video game companies rely on animators to give their games a unique look –– think about recognizable characters such Mario, Sonic the Hedgehog, or Link from the Legend of Zelda series.
Video game animators are a special type of graphic designer who know how to merge art with technology. They understand how to work with different programs to create many styles of graphics, skins, and backgrounds, in 2-D and 3-D. They use specialized software to translate their animations and artwork into the game’s framework, bringing basic animations to life. Throughout the process, they work with the video game design team to ensure the art and animation matches the overall vision for the project. They also work with the video game testers to fix any bugs or glitches in the animation.
According to the BLS, there were 71,600 multimedia artists and animators working in the United States as of May 2018. Of that group, almost 60% were self-employed, capable of working in different industries and on different assignments. The next-largest group (12%) worked in motion picture and video industries, 6% worked in computer systems design, and 5% with software publishers. The BLS reported that multimedia artists and animators earned a median annual salary of $72,520 as of May 2018. The lowest 10% earned about $40,870 each year, and the top 10% earned as much as $124,310.
More than 5 billion people worldwide have cellphones –– almost half of which are smartphones, according to the Pew Research Center. Smartphones are cellphones with advanced internet capability, usually with a touchscreen. They use different programs known as applications, or “apps,” with all kinds of functions, from browsing the internet and identifying songs to playing games, providing information on traffic or weather, and facilitating dating. Social media apps such as Instagram and Snapchat have hundreds of millions of users, but there are also niche apps with only a few hundred.
App developers program and create smartphone apps, which also sometimes have a version that is usable on a computer or other device. Apps exist in one of two categories: web apps and native apps. Native apps are designed for smartphones and either don’t have a web version or have one that is secondary to the mobile app. Web apps exist through the mobile browser on a smartphone and have the ability to access different features of the smartphone. An example of a native app would be a game developed specifically for a smartphone, while a web app is something such as Google Maps, which exists online but also works in a different way through a mobile app. App developers ensure their applications work on as many different devices as possible, such as Apple and Android products, to maximize their potential audience.
Some app developers have found instant success through their creations. One of the most famous examples of this is Angry Birds, the 2009 app released by independent mobile games developer Rovio. Game designer Jaakko Iisalo came up with the idea for the simple game, designed around launching different colored birds at their enemies, pigs. After its release, it quickly became a global phenomenon. Angry Birds has spawned at least 10 sequels and spinoffs, including puzzles, racing games, and role-playing games (RPGs), as well as a movie starring A-list actors Sean Penn, Keegan-Michael Key, and Peter Dinklage.
App developer salaries vary across the nation and by industry. For example, the earnings of a superstar designer such as Iisalo would be very different from an entry-level mobile app designer’s salary. PayScale data from December 2019 indicates the national median salary for an app developer is around $69,000.
Most video game and app designers aren’t starting from scratch. Programming is a bit like building a house. Most programmers take advantage of foundational coding already available to them, like how contractors use existing lumber, tile, and bricks to create a house’s foundation. One of the most popular games of the late 1990s and early 2000s, however, was RollerCoaster Tycoon, which gave users the ability to design and run their own amusement parks, complete with custom-built roller coasters, go-karts, and water slides, along with many other popular theme park rides, attractions, and add-ons. What was especially amazing about RollerCoaster Tycoon was that its designer, computer programmer Chris Sawyer, used a programming language called Assembly to build not only the game and its graphics but also the entire framework on which his program ran. What Sawyer did by using Assembly was akin to creating all the materials himself: chopping down the trees to make lumber, hand-forming the bricks, and making the tiles, all before putting them together to produce the final product. In turn, he had precise control over every detail of the game and the way it worked, a major reason why the game seemed so ahead of its time.
Digital architects help create those materials and frameworks upon which most game developers, artists, engineers, and animators apply their unique spin. A common example of video game frameworks are game engines. Game engines allow video game developers to create interesting, realistic, and fun games without having to spend years developing the programs behind the scenes. Some game engines have physics engines, coding that gives the physics of the game a realistic feel. For example, they ensure that a player who drops an object in a certain place doesn’t watch that object fly off into space, or that running feels natural and smooth in an RPG. Game engines might help creators insert sound files, graphics packages, videos, artwork, and more into their programs, making games unique even if they’re built on the same platform as many others. Think about a company building two cars from the same chassis. When car companies put in their own engine, design their own body and interior, and include their own technology, the final product ends up being quite distinct.
Digital architects fall under the umbrella of software developers. The BLS says there were 1.37 million software developers working in the United States as of May 2018, earning a median annual salary of $103,620. It projects the job market for software developers will grow 21% between 2018 and 2028, with 284,100 new jobs joining the market.
The Life of a Game Developer
Video game designers, testers, animators, and digital architects are all key pieces in the video game design and creation chain. Another key video game job is that of the game developer. Game developers collaborate with others on their team to develop the most technical aspects of programming and design, overseeing and finalizing many game elements.
Game developers are typically software programmers and coding experts who execute much of the behind-the-scenes work to fulfill the creative vision for a game. They’re not creatives and don’t necessarily work on big-picture issues like concept development and aesthetic feel (though in some small companies, they might participate in these processes, too). Instead, they are tech-savvy programmers who know how to use game engines, physics engines, and other digital frameworks — or even create their own — to develop, troubleshoot, and finalize the coding of a game, whether its an app or a game for a PC or console.
Game developers work for larger game development companies, alongside creatives, other programmers, digital architects, and engineers. In some smaller companies, their job duties might be more expansive, though their work often is rooted in the technical aspects of design and execution. In the past, game developers usually had to build the back end of a program from scratch. Now, however, the use of engines is typical, with unique design and gameplay spins added by the game development team.
The BLS doesn’t keep data on game development but instead includes game developers in the category of software development. According to its 2018 statistics, there were 1,365,500 software developers working in the United States. In the field, the median annual pay was $105,5990 annually. More specifically, application software developers earned a median annual salary of $103,620, while systems software developers earned a median annual salary of $110,000, as of May 2018. Game developer salaries vary, however, based on industry, experience, and location. The BLS projects jobs in software and game development will grow a tremendous 21% between 2018 and 2028, well above the national average of 5%.
Enter the Gaming Industry with Help from Maryville University
Working in the video game industry means creating games and apps that millions of people experience and enjoy. The video game industry is global, with job openings in companies large and small. There’s always opportunity for independent game developers and designers to enter the market with a new and innovative concept.
If you’re interested in working in this dynamic and creative industry, starting with the right undergraduate degree can be beneficial. Explore how Maryville University’s online Bachelor of Fine Arts in Digital Media, with courses in motion graphics, digital illustration, and principles in game design, can help aspiring video game designers and developers find a place in the evolving, forward-looking video game world.