Your Guide to the Different Career Pathways You Can Take in the Game Development Industry
From nuclear physicist William Higinbotham’s Tennis for Two in the 1950s to today’s award-winning games such as The Last of Us Part II, Ghost of Tsushima, and It Takes Two, video games have come a long way since their early iterations. The video game industry has evolved to become a gigantic billion-dollar industry and it continues to show steady growth worldwide. Its growing popularity and accessibility have spurred the rise of game development jobs.
Game development jobs cover an array of roles, including animators, programmers, software developers, and QA testers.
Source: Pocket-Lint | Tomb Raider 2018 vs Tomb Raider 1996
What skills are needed for game development jobs? In this guide, we’ll explore the different career options you can have if you’re thinking of venturing into the game development sector.
Game Development Jobs: Different Specializations
The game development industry is an ever-evolving sector that continues to innovate alongside the latest tech developments. The industry itself is evergreen, and pursuing a career in game development can ultimately prove to be a good move.
Keep in mind that these positions apply broadly across different platforms (from console, PC, AR/VR devices to smartphones (mostly for iOS and Android) and hand-held gadgets such as Nintendo’s handhelds). Games are also developed by using a variety of game engines: from Unreal, Unity to game studios own developed (or customized) engines such as Cry Engine.
Since the pay isn’t statistically relevant based on let’s say Unreal vs Unity developer, we’re addressing these careers in general.
Game development jobs require a certain set of skills, such as programming, management, communication, and problem-solving. Let’s look at some of the skills you need to have for a career in the gaming industry.
Having programming skills—even if you’re not directly involved in programming games yourself—comes in handy if you’re looking to land game dev jobs. Without strong software programming and coding skills, you may find it challenging to build a good game. You need to know the different programming languages, such as C++, C#, Python, and Java. Online platforms such as Coursera and Udemy offer short and long courses as well as certification programs.
Video games are complex and it may take several years before you’re able to launch a decent or even critically-acclaimed game. Most jobs normally require people to work together to bring a game to fruition.
Furthermore, as a video game developer, you’re almost always working with deadlines, so you need to manage and use your time optimally, all while ensuring that the game meets standards or your client’s requirements and is ready for launching.
While communication is a soft skill, it remains one of the most important skills to have in the game development industry. Being able to communicate well, whether you’re relaying your ideas or opinions or sharing your vision to your teammates, helps ensure that you, your potential, and your ideas won’t be easily overlooked. As a game developer, it also helps to be open to other people’s suggestions or ideas.
Video games aren’t immune to problems like technical glitches. Striving toward making your game bug-free and functional not only makes it more enjoyable but also ensures that it offers great user experience, which can help you build a growing fan or customer base.
Creativity doesn’t just refer to being able to build fantastical worlds out of thin air. It’s also about finding new ways to solve problems and improve the gameplay, mechanics, and narrative of your video game. You need to have a ton of creativity so that you can bring something new to the table and retain the interest of players.
Animation helps bring video games to life and is one of the things that makes games engaging. If you’re aiming for a game dev job as an animator, then it helps if you have a background in animation programs and software.
- Gaming Knowledge or Experience
While it’s true that many game developers started their journey in the game dev industry because they’re avid fans or they simply enjoy playing games, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to have a lot of gaming experience or know-how to land game development jobs. You can always learn as you go. However, having some basic knowledge of video games is helpful, especially if you’re looking at developer, designer, or artist positions.
Is Game Development a Good Career?
So, is being a game programmer or designer a good career? That depends on what you’re looking at. As with most things, it has its pros and cons.
If you love playing games, have strong skills in areas like programming, problem-solving, and communication, are creative, and can handle stress, then game development jobs may be a good fit for you. Knowing that you’re creating an application meant for having fun might differ from a more “boring” job being a full-stack web developer for yet another enterprise-focused CRM.
As a game developer, you have to be dedicated and prepared to work long hours. You have to stay ahead of the curve to maintain your competitive edge against other developers or game studios. If you’re working for big game development companies, you might need to compromise your vision and your ideas.
Best of all, these positions in general don’t care about your GPA or acquired certifications. They do help and if you do have a bachelor’s degree or computer science background with few certifications but it’s more important to start working on your portfolio now. Check out our mini-guide on how to get a job in the game industry.
Still, game development jobs offer plenty of benefits, such as:
- The opportunity to work on something that you’re passionate about
Landing a game dev job gives you the opportunity to turn your hobby or passion into a career. It’s an industry that has a lot of room for growth, knowledge, and skill development.
- Potentially getting higher compensation
In the game development industry, the better you get at your job, the more income you can potentially earn. By working with other skilled developers, designers, and artists, you have plenty of opportunity to learn from them and enhance your skillset.
- Having the chance to strike a work-life balance
While game development jobs can take a lot of time and effort and may sometimes require long hours, many companies allow a flexible, work-from-home setup.
- Knowing that you’re working on something that people will play and enjoy
Being in the game dev industry gives you the chance to work on a project that players will love and enjoy. There’s a sense of fulfillment in knowing that other gamers will admire your work.
“You can make an amazing game, but you can’t make it a success. Your players make the success.” — Imre Jele, Bossa Studios Co-Founder
“A lot of indie developers who became ‘overnight successes’ were working at it for ten years.” Daniel Adelman, former Indie Lead at Nintendo
Four General Pathways in Game Development
According to Jason Weimann, a game developer and writer who also teaches game development, there are four fields in the game development process. These are:
What a game artist does will vary according to your specialization.
If you’re a concept artist, you’re responsible for sketching or illustrating aspects of the game that your company wants to have. You’re tasked to present what an aspect or an area of the game is supposed to look and feel like. A concept artist’s sketches or illustration can, to some degree, play a role in steering the direction of the game’s development.
Other artist specializations include:
- 2D Artist
- Character Artist
- Environmental Artist
- Technical Artist
One of the best ways to land game development jobs as an artist is to put your stuff out there. Build a portfolio to showcase your skills.
Game producers, including associate producers, basically function as project or game managers. They’re there to ensure that the project is on track and completed on schedule. They’re also responsible for ensuring that the project is up to standards or meets the client’s requirements.
Additionally, game producers can influence the project’s direction and may have some level of creative control.
According to Weimann, game designers are responsible for coming up with an initial concept of the game. They’re essentially tasked with filling the gap and coming up with something that’s missing from the market or what the market needs by designing a new game.
A game designer isn’t just tasked with designing the game. Once a game gets the go signal, a designer’s role will tend to shift. It includes designing and developing the game’s systems or designing the game’s content, such as characters like NPCs and item tables.
Specializations under this field include:
- Systems Designer
- Content Designer
It can be difficult to prove your skills as a game designer, especially if you’re coming from outside the gaming industry. The challenge lies in being able to show that you can design a game without going through the entire process of designing a game, building it, and releasing it with the help of a team.
- Engineer or Programmer
A programmer doesn’t handle the game’s artwork or its design. Their primary role is to implement the game’s system so that the other teams can go on to developing it.
A programmer’s job can vary, depending on the scale of the company you’re working in. If you’re working in a small company, you may be required to juggle different roles and responsibilities, including tasks outside your specialization. If you’re working for a big game development company, then it’s likely that you’ll be able to focus on your specialization, whether it’s gameplay programming or graphics programming. Note that some of these roles may overlap occasionally.
Other specializations under the engineer or programmer field include:
- Tools Programming
- Network Programming
It’s also one of the game development jobs that pay the most, even if you’re at entry-level.
Other game development jobs worth looking into include:
- Quality Assurance
- Customer Service
Breakdown of Game Development Jobs, Descriptions, and Pay Ranges
In this section, we’ll look at all the career pathways you can take in the game development industry, along with the necessary skills you need to have and their salary range.
1.Programming and Engineering
The main goal of programming and engineering is to bring the game designer’s vision to life by creating a functional game using codes. As a programmer or engineer, you’re tasked with creating the software needed to create the video game and will need to work closely with game designers and other team members.
You’re going to need solid programming skills to make the gameplay more engaging. Some companies may require specializations in certain areas of coding like AI, network, and user interface. Furthermore, you need to have the following skills: strong problem-solving ability, knowledge of animation software (2D and 3D), creativity, and familiarity with the game production process, among other skills.
Pay generally ranges between $49,000 and $85,000, depending on your position.
a. Gameplay Programmer
A gameplay engineer or programmer uses codes to write the “rules” of the game by defining what a specific object does or how a character moves. You’ll create mission systems and tools and fix any technical issues to ensure that the game is optimized. Additionally, you’ll oversee the game’s mechanics and upgrades.
Gameplay programmers often work with writers, lead designers, artists, QA technicians, and other programmers. To be a gameplay programmer, you need to be good at or have in-depth knowledge about:
- Game engines and how they work
- Gameplay knowledge
Compensation for gameplay programmers range from $83,000 to $122,000.
b. Graphics Programmer
A graphics programmer or graphics developer, creates software for rendering a game’s graphic elements. These include lighting, shadowing, and motion graphics (2D and 3D). Graphics programmers create the game’s visuals using codes.
To be a graphics programmer, you need to be good at math, physics, and programming. Additionally, you need to know how to render algorithms and pipelines, as well as game engines. Aside from these hard skills, you also need to have soft skills such as communication, problem-solving, and interpersonal skills given that you’ll be working closely with artists and other programmers.
Pay range for graphics programmers run between $86,000 and $121,000.
c. Tools Programmer
Tools programmers or tools engineers equip designers, programmers, and artists with the software that programs need to create a game. As a tools programmer, you won’t always work on the game directly. Most of the time, you’ll be creating and maintaining these internal tools to help make the game creation process quicker and more efficient for artists, programmers, and designers.
Tools programmers collaborate with other team members to know what tools they need to build and whether or not they’re effective.
As a tools programmer, you need to be good at programming or software engineering. You also have to be innovative, a good communicator, and have time management skills.
The salary for tools programmers ranges from $84,000 to $237,000.
d. Network Programmer
Network programmers write or develop codes to enable functionality in online multiplayer games. They’re responsible for making sure that you and other players in your team see the same displays at the same time. Aside from having a good grasp of game programming, you need to be good at network engineering and protocols. You should also have an in-depth understanding of servers and open systems interconnection (OSI).
A network programmer’s salary can run between $91,000 and $153,000.
e. AI Engineer
AI engineers develop a game’s “brain.” They write algorithms based on individual gameplay and create action systems for different actions or levels that a player takes. AI engineers need to be skilled in AI technologies, neural networks, and deep learning. Moreover, they need to have a solid background in gameplay and how it works. Other skills needed to be an AI engineer include problem-solving, advanced math, and communication.
Salaries can vary depending on location. In general, pay ranges from $119,000 to $174,000.
f. UI Engineer
UI engineers or user interface developers work with other engineers, designers, and artists to ensure that a game’s UI meets requirements and is functional, usable, attractive, and user-friendly. They’re also responsible for creating, implementing, and updating UI systems. To be a UI engineer, you need to be good at problem-solving, research, and communication. You also need to have strong technical skills.
UI engineers can potentially make between $121,000 and $134,000.
g. Online/Multiplayer Engineer
Multiplayer engineers develop multiplayer systems and work with other engineers to iron out technical challenges. Additionally, multiplayer engineers work on the development of the game’s network or online components and create server APIs.
Aside from working with other engineers, multiplayer engineers also collaborate with the game’s designers, artists, and QA specialists. You need to have a solid foundation in programming, software engineering and development, network protocols, and simulation systems for multiplayer games.
Pay ranges from $83,000 to $153,000.
2. Game Artist
Game artists craft a game’s visual elements such as its characters, objects, weapons, scenery, and more. They create sketches or illustrations to visualize the game designer’s idea of what the game is supposed to look and feel like. This game development job has plenty of specializations, including character design, lighting, modeling, and animation.
Some companies may require you to have coding knowledge and solid skills in using software like Blender, Photoshop, and Unreal Engine. In general, you need to have a background in art and animation, as well as excellent drawing skills. Having knowledge of animation and animation tools also helps.
a. Concept Artist
Concept artists create a game’s style and look. They come up with preliminary sketches of the game’s characters and environments. Their work plays a role in the game’s visual direction and marketing campaigns. They work with the game’s designers, developers, and other artists.
To be a concept artist for a game, you need to be good at art and know video games. You need to be creative and know how to use art software. Soft skills such as communication and teamwork are also essential.
Concept artist salaries can vary from company to company. In general, pay ranges from $51,000 to $93,000.
b. 2D Artist
2D artists conceptualize and design a game’s 2D assets. They also create a game’s 2D visual effects, which include modeling, animation, and texturing. To be a 2D artist, you need to be knowledgeable about different art styles and techniques. You must also be good at using 2D editing tools and 3D tools.
2D artists can earn around $73,000 to $122,000.
c. Character Artist
Character artists create character models based on their concept art. They work with the game’s art team, designers, and developers to create the characters’ visual elements while making sure that the style is consistent. They create 2D sketches and render these, so they become 3D models.
To be a character artist, you need to be creative. You also need to have knowledge about modeling, texturing, and using 2D and 3D tools—and have a good understanding of elements like shading, structure, and shadows.
Character artist salaries run between $57,000 and $96,000.
d. Lighting Artist
Lighting artists make sure that a game’s lighting enhances its look and gameplay. They use color and light to make the game’s narrative more effective and compelling. Lighting artists need to have a visual library. They need to understand the nuances of lighting elements, how they look when they hit different surfaces, and how they behave.
Pay ranges between $92,000 and $149,000.
Game animators create models that emulate how a game’s character or elements move and behave. They take 2D and 3D models and make them move.
Animators should have a background not only in game engine software but also in programming and animation software. Aside from being creative and having solid art skills, animators may be required to have gameplay knowledge.
* First Person
First-person animators specialize in first-person games. They create visuals that simulate a first-person perspective and should be able to clearly portray a game’s environment, tools, and the character’s condition from the player’s point of view. A first-person animator has to be good at special effects, animation, using animation tools, and modeling skills.
Pay can range from $72,000 to $100,000.
* Gameplay Animator
Gameplay animators need to have a good understanding of game engines, pipelines, and animation systems. This allows them to create gameplay animations, such as how a character moves or interacts with its environment. They create animation cycles that make a game’s element look and feel real. You need to have a high level of animation skills and good understanding of visual effects and gameplay.
Pay ranges from $64,000 to $134,000.
* Visual Effects Animator – VFX
VFX artists, as the name suggests, add visual effects to a game. These can include elements like explosions, clouds, and water. You need to be good at art and using animation software. You also need to have a good understanding of different visual elements and how they behave.
Pay ranges from $82,000 to $143,000
f. Level Builder/Environmental or World Artist
Level builders create a game’s levels. They create a framework that allows the game’s system to function within its rules while maintaining the game designer’s vision of the gameplay. They map out and create different environments for each level and are responsible for creating the game’s background visuals.
You need to be good at using animation software, have storytelling skills, and have the ability to bring 2D and 3D models to life. Having programming knowledge also comes in handy.
The salary for level builders can run between $73,000 and $103,000.
g. Technical Artist
Technical artists work with other artists, programmers, and engineers to create a game’s visual workflow, monitor asset performance, and build and execute game engines. They work to maintain the designer’s artistic vision.
A technical artist should be good at art and programming. They need to have excellent interpersonal and communication skills because they serve as a bridge between different departments.
A technical artist’s salary can range from $81,000 to $129,000.
3. Game Designer
Game designers conceptualize video games and are a major driving force in a game’s development. They create storylines and plots and formulate a game’s objectives. Game designers work with different teams throughout the development process and are expected to be able to write compelling storylines and create engaging characters.
They must be creative, have a good background in programming, and have an in-depth understanding of game software and systems.
a. Systems Designer
The role of the systems designer is to create software systems that allow a game to function optimally. They identify the appropriate platforms that can help finish the game while taking its scope and design into account. A systems designer’s responsibilities may include creating and testing prototypes and managing a game’s database assets.
On average, systems designers can earn around $68,000 to $119,000.
b. Content Designer
Game content designers create and implement a game’s design content. They’re also responsible for creating a game’s various scenes and events as well as other assets that populate it. Additionally, content designers may be required to create stories or quests for a game.
You need to have analytical skills as well as excellent communication and collaborative skills. You also have to understand game production pipelines and the design processes involved in developing games.
Salaries can range from $90,000 to $153,000.
c. Technical Designer
A game’s technical designer should understand its design and is responsible for combining game design principles and identifying problems in gameplay programming and its tools and vulnerabilities in the game’s workflow. As a crucial member of the game development team, technical designers support the design team throughout the production process.
Pay can range from $67,000 to $99,000.
d. Sound Designer (NEW)
Everything that you hear when playing a game is made by sound designers who are responsible for creating a game’s music, including sound effects, background music, and even its soundtrack. As a sound designer, you must be good at composing and performing music. You also need to have sound engineering knowledge.
Pay can range from $53,000 to $116,000.
4. Video Game Production/Project Manager
Project managers oversee a game’s development. They’re decision makers who work toward ensuring that the needs of the team are met. They manage different teams and build or maintain relationships with external stakeholders. Project managers should have excellent management and decision-making skills. They need to be organized and be excellent communicators and team players.
Salaries can run between $79,000 and $124,000.
How do you know whether a game will work or not? Game testers ensure that video games are functional and user-friendly. They’re tasked with identifying problems and relaying said glitches or bugs to the designers and developers.
As a game tester, you need to have an understanding of programming. Aside from a keen eye for detail, you also need to be good at problem-solving, communication, and critical thinking.
A tester’s salary can range from $54,000 to $78,000.
6. Customer Service
Customer service or technical support specialists bridge the gap between players and the game dev companies. They help players solve issues or any technical difficulties they may have with the game through live chat or real-time support and play a crucial role in helping companies understand their audience and their needs. CS specialists need to have excellent problem-solving skills and a good understanding of the game and its gameplay.
Pay can range from $37,000 and $43,000.
Marketing helps games and game dev companies gain visibility. They’re responsible for putting the game out there in front of the public. They’re also tasked with identifying a game’s target market and coming up with appropriate messaging and ads to promote the game.
A good marketing specialist needs to understand the gaming industry, its market, and relevant trends. They need to be creative and have excellent interpersonal and communication skills. Moreover, they should have solid management and problem-solving skills.
Salaries for marketing specialists can run from $33,000 to $116,000.
8. IT Network and Infrastructure
IT specialists ensure that all your systems are functioning optimally. They design, monitor, and implement system configurations for your area networks. Additionally, they’re tasked with supporting your network equipment and ensuring that your network is secure.
You need to have a background in computer science, computer software, systems, networks, and electrical or electronic engineering. Moreover, you need to be a quick learner with strong analytical and problem-solving skills.
Pay can range from $89,000 to $141,000.
Writers come up with a game’s story. They help players understand the game’s story better by crafting engaging scripts and character descriptions as well as “directing” the actions that players could take.
- Story Writing and Narrative
Video game writers should know how to write a compelling story and flesh out characters well. Depending on the company, they may be required to have coding skills to help facilitate easier communication with the game’s designers and developers. You also need to have gaming experience in order to better understand how games and their narratives work.
Salaries can range from $67,000 to $90,000.
Spreadsheet of Job Titles with Average and High Salaries in the US
To give you an idea of just how much full-time game jobs pay, here’s a handy spreadsheet of job titles, along with their average and highest rates.
Keep in mind that these salaries differ based on development experience, location and company reputation. For example, you’d be paid more for AAA game development for a big game company studio in San Francisco than for a small indie mobile game dev job in Canada.
|Job Type||Average Salary in the US||High Salary in the US|
|Game Artist||Concept Artist||$51,000||$93,000|
|Animation (First Person, Gameplay Animator, VFX Animator)||First-Person Animator: $72,000 Gameplay Animator: $64,000 VFX Animator: $82,000||First-Person Animator: $100,000 Gameplay Animator: $134,000 VFX Animator: $143,000|
|Level Builder/ Environmental or World Artist||$73,000||$103,000|
|Game Designer||Systems Designer||$68,000||$119,000|
|Video Game Production/Project Manager||$79,000||$124,000|
|Customer Service||In-Game Support Representative||$37,000||$43,000|
|IT Network and Infrastructure||$89,000||$141,000|
|Creative||Story Writing and Narrative||$67,000||$90,000|
Source: Glassdoor.com, Payscale.com, Salary.com, and Ziprecruiter.com
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