Thinking about a career in the games industry, but not sure what career options there are?
Then this article is for you! In it, we’ll take a look at the various types of jobs available in the games industry, and hopefully give you a much better idea of what will suit you.
There are many ways to be involved in making games.
The games industry has vastly expanded over its fifty-year lifespan as technology has penetrated every aspect of our lives. The types of jobs on offer have for a long time been dominated by the four core disciplines of game development: programming, art, design and QA. But there are tons of sub-roles within these disciplines, and plenty that don’t fall into these categories besides. It’s a big industry, and the variety on offer has never been greater!
Let’s start by looking at those core disciplines.
Game design is a very wide-ranging role. Designers need to put thought into every aspect of the game and ensure all the parts work together. They also build the game, using the tools provided by the programmers and the assets provided by the artists.
Paper UI design for a smartphone.
Design is often seen as a generalist role – one that you can get into without spending years learning art or programming. That’s not quite accurate – there’s a growing body of formalised design theory that has developed over the decades, which new designers are well advised to study. It is true, however, that the core skills required of designers are broad and best developed through practice. A good design course, therefore, provides plenty of hands-on experience. Not every design applicant needs to be an adept graphic designer / writer / programmer / mathematician / artist starting out, but in time you’ll be drawing on all these skills, and more!
Specialisations: On larger projects, designers may specialise in a single aspect of the game:
- Gameplay Designers define the controls, rules and interactions of the game. Theirs is the responsibility for making the minute-to-minute gameplay fun.
- Narrative Designers create the game’s story and typically write the main characters and cutscenes, while writers create dialogue for other characters, item descriptions, etc.
- Level Designers create the game world, placing objects and creating scripts to ensure the game behaves how it is designed.
- UI/UX Designers focus on the menus, HUDs and other interfaces by which the player interacts with the game.
Career Progression: Experienced designers go on to become senior and lead designers. A few may switch disciplines to programming, while others end up as managers and producers, or even found their own studio!
Although art and animation require different technical skillsets, they are generally done by the same team of people. The size of the team, as always, dictates the variety of tasks expected of you; on a big AAA game, a concept artist may do nothing but draw and redraw character and clothing designs, while on a small project the same person may need to concept, ink and animate all the characters, and create the user interface besides!
As a 3D artist, expect to see a lot of triangles.
Almost everything you create needs to be transferable to the game, so you definitely need to be familiar with digital tools. Our article on the essential tools for game artists may help if you’re not sure where to start.
Specialisations: There are many, but here are some of the most common:
- Concept Artists create initial sketches for objects, scenes and characters. These can then be discussed and refined before they’re taken further.
- Character Artists create 3D models (or 2D sprites) of characters in the game, including animals.
- Environment Artists create scenery objects and everything else about the landscape, such as land and sky textures.
- UI Artists create the game’s menu elements, in collaboration with the programmers and UX designers.
- Technical Artists collaborate with the graphical programmers to define and implement the graphical requirements of the game.
Career Progression: Experienced artists may become team leads, and may go on to become a creative director, in charge of the overall creative vision of the studio’s projects.
Programmers, or coders, are always in great demand in the games industry, and tend to earn more than the other disciplines as a result. You’ll need in-depth knowledge of at least one programming language; the industry standard is C++, but there are other options including C# and Java.
As a coder, you’re basically a magician to everyone else in the studio.
The two main tasks for games programmers are working on the engine – the core software of the game that interfaces with the hardware – and creating and maintaining the tools the designers and artists will use to build the content of the game.
Specialisations: Again, there are many, but here are some of the most common:
- AI Programmers are responsible for developing believable, interesting and challenging behaviours for all creatures in the game.
- Gameplay Programmers implement the game rules to the designers’ specification, and ensure all the game’s assets work together to create an immersive experience.
- Graphics Programmers specialise in making the game as pretty as possible as efficiently as possible, which often requires in-depth knowledge of the hardware.
- Network Programmers implement the multiplayer aspects, ensuring the game can talk to other copies of the game and handle network failures gracefully.
- Tools Programmers create and maintain the software tools the designers (and sometimes artists) will use to build the game world.
Quality assurance – essentially game testing – is about finding and reporting problems with the game to help the development team get it to a releasable quality. This means not just playing the game through, but exploring its limits in creative ways, taking a methodical approach to cover all elements of the game and possible combinations of player actions.
As a tester, you’ll play the game far more than any other member of the team. Because of this they will rely on your knowledge to help them balance the game, eliminate exploits, fix crashes and iron out annoyances.
Them: You’re a games tester? So you get paid to play games all day? Ha ha ha.
You: Now, young Skywalker, you will die.
When hiring for a QA team, recruiters look for evidence of a great work ethic, methodical approach, and perfectionism. Good communication skills – both verbal and written – are an asset in helping the team fix bugs quickly. A wide knowledge of video games will help you give good feedback and suggestions. And since everything has to go through QA, a QA role can give you a great overview of the inner workings and culture of the games industry.
Trained testers who can draw up a robust test plan, know the difference between a stress test and a soak test, and are familiar with bug workflows, are a great asset to a QA team and can become strong candidates for lead roles.
Specialisations: Most testers are generalists, but there are some specialised roles:
- Localisation Testers check the translations of the game into other languages, and could be a great fit if you’re bilingual.
- Compliance Testers specialise in ensuring the game meets the requirements of platform manufacturers – for example, making sure that correct error messages are displayed and that the Home menu works correctly at all times.
Career Progression: Experienced testers may go on to become QA leads or QA managers, or they may leverage their experience to move into another discipline (usually Design).
While the four disciplines above cover most roles available in the games industry, there are plenty of other types of jobs that are equally critical to getting a game out of the door:
- Audio – Every game needs sound! To save work, audio is often left until the design and animations are nearly finished, so digital composers and audio engineers often work freelance on short contracts for multiple game studios. Larger studios may hire in-house specialists to work full-time on sound.
“I have fifteen game credits and I haven’t left my room in months.”
- Project Management – A good producer is worth their weight in gold for getting a game finished and polished on time. This is no easy task in the games industry, where “agile development” is the standard – you need great people skills and impeccable organisation to stay on top of an iterative, constantly evolving design and multiple highly cross-functional teams.
- Localisation – more than just direct translation, a localiser will often need to translate idioms, puns or cultural references into something that makes sense to speakers of the target language, whilst retaining the sense of the original text.
- IT Support – Any industry so heavily reliant on computers needs its IT department! You might not be working directly on the games, but you’re quietly essential to the running of the studio – and the main line of defence against disastrous data losses.
“Just give me ten minutes to restore from the RAID backup.”
- Data Analysis & Monetisation – The monetisation of free-to-play “casual” and “mid-core” games is big business these days. Many companies employ analytics to collect huge amounts of data about how their users are playing their games. Studying this data, both from a pure numerical and psychological perspective, helps studios maximise the engagement of players and their “conversion rate” to paying customers.
As you can see, there’s a role in the games industry for just about anyone with an interest in games. The type of job you choose will depend on your interests and skill set – but whatever you choose, you’re setting out for a career in an exciting, passionate, close-knit and ever-evolving profession.
Who knows what skills will be required in the next decade? One thing’s for sure – there’ll always be something new to learn!