Video game designer
Image: Vladimir Sukhachev/Shutterstock

So you want to be a game designer

23 Jan 2017

Are you in awe of the world of Fallout? Do you stare in wonder at the intricate puzzles in Portal? What about the visual experience of Red Dead Redemption? Do you want to make your own mark as a game designer?

From the days of Tetris and Pac-Man to the modern open worlds of Red Dead Redemption and Fallout, video games have long been a pillar of the entertainment industry.

According to PwC, the global video game market is expected to be worth $90bn by 2020, and with the advancements in technology and the variety of platforms, game design and development is a fruitful career to pursue.

Getting educated

If you’re looking for a career as a game designer, there are a number of diplomas, certificates and degrees you can pursue.

There are two BSc programmes in game design and development in Limerick Institute of Technology. There are also BSc programmes in computing with game development in Institutes of Technology in Dundalk, Sligo, Carlow, Letterkenny and Tralee.

Athlone Institute of Technology has a BSc in software design, which focuses on game development, and Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) also has a BA in game design.

Alternatively, students might want to pursue a broader undergraduate degree, leaving their focus on game design for a postgraduate programme.

Trinity College Dublin has an MSc programme in computer science, focusing on interactive entertainment technology, while DIT has an MSc in digital games.

University of Limerick (UL) is enrolling for its new MSc in game design and development this year.

This programme enables students to take two elective modules, which will allow them to specialise their degree in a way that helps them explore the elements of game design they’re really passionate about.

What skills do I need?

Whether you go straight to a game design undergraduate degree or you’re a self-taught coder, you will need certain skills and traits to be a game designer.

“First and foremost, you need a passion for games,” said Brenda Romero, course director of UL’s new master’s programme in game design and development. “I find that, a lot of the time, my best students have wanted to make games since they were very young.”

Romero, who spoke at Inspirefest 2016, also said that, even if students don’t have a degree in programming, they need to have procedural literacy. That means being proficient and capable at programming languages and coding.

A game designer should also be creative. “That goes a long way when you’re looking to make games,” said Romero.

Beyond education

Once they have completed their game design education, how can students pursue their careers and start their working lives?

“On the one hand, they should be more than capable of making games on their own,” said Romero. “There are a number of companies here in Ireland, and while there are loads of programmers and we also have many artists, there’s not as many game designers here.”

An alternative route for students in the gaming world is to pursue a PhD and further their research. According to Romero: “There’s lots of money going into research in games.”

Game design v game development

While many courses and degree programmes have elements of both, what is the difference between game design and game development?

“It depends on who you’re asking,” said Romero. “Traditionally, a developer is someone who is involved in the making of a game. That might mean you’re an artist, a programmer, an audio engineer or a game designer.”

However, if you were to separate the jobs, the term ‘developer’ is also used specifically to describe programmers. Many programmes that incorporate development in a game design course, including UL’s master’s programme, look at the bigger picture of game development.

According to Romero, the easiest way to describe a game designer is to think about an architect. “The architect draws up the plans for a house, including all the necessary mechanics, such as plumbing and electricity, that need to be in the house. That’s pretty much what a game designer does, except they’re not building a house, they’re building the game.”

For those looking at the elements of the game they will be involved in as a game designer, that might mean writing the story, writing design documents or designing the interface. “If you took away the art and the code, what you have left is the design.”

As the course director of the programme, Romero also talked about what she would hope to see in prospective students, and, aside from a huge passion for how games are made and procedural literacy, diversity was at the top of her list.

“Having a diverse group of people means that people’s ideas are challenged and they’re looking at situations in a way that they may not have looked at them before.” Romero will speak at Inspirefest 2017.

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Jenny Darmody
By Jenny Darmody

Jenny Darmody became the editor of Silicon Republic in 2023, having worked as the deputy editor since February 2020. When she’s not writing about the science and tech industry, she’s writing short stories and attempting novels. She continuously buys more books than she can read in a lifetime and pretty stationery is her kryptonite. She also believes seagulls to be the root of all evil and her baking is the stuff of legends.

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