If you're a passionate gamer with the imagination, creativity and skills to build virtual worlds, consider a career in game design

As a game designer, you'll be the centre of creativity at the heart of producing a new game. You'll bring ideas, build prototypes, create interactive narration and develop the game's mechanics. You'll design systems that are easily maintainable, expandable and comfortable to use, while injecting fun into the user experience.

Games are available across a variety of formats and platforms, including mobile, virtual and augmented reality, console and PC, and you'll need to use a broad range of technical and creative skills to imagine, test and develop your ideas.

Game designers work as part of a multidisciplinary team that includes games developers, programmers, games artists, animators and quality assurance testers.

Although game designer is usually a clearly defined job role, in smaller companies you may get involved in some of the art or programming elements. Subfields within game design include level designer, content designer and interface designer.

Responsibilities

As a game designer, you may work on a design that you've conceived yourself or from a pre-approved idea, such as a game based upon a film. Whatever your exact role, you'll need to:

  • use your creativity to design games for a range of devices and platforms that engage and capture the imagination of the user
  • consider, plan and detail every element of a new game including the setting, rules, story flow, props, vehicles, character interface and modes of play
  • put together a concept document and use this to convince the development team that the game is worth proceeding with
  • conduct market research to understand what your target audience wants
  • transform a rough idea into a detailed concept and then implement it
  • write scripts and design storyboards
  • work collaboratively with others, including games developers, artists and programmers, to produce a prototype - a small-scale playable version of the game
  • make adjustments to the game design specifications to reflect developments as the project moves forward
  • train quality assurance (QA) testers to play the game so they can test it properly
  • lead on the user experience (UX) design of the game, ensuring players have the best experience
  • work alone or within a larger team overseen by a lead designer.

Salary

  • Salaries for entry-level positions, such as a junior/intern, typically range from £17,000 to £18,000. Salaries for quality assurance (QA) tester roles, another common way into games design, are approximately £18,000 to £22,000.
  • Level designers can expect to earn in the region of £20,000 to £35,000.
  • The average salary for a game designer is £30,000, although you can earn up to £45,000. As a senior game designer you could earn up to £65,000.

Benefits, especially with the larger companies, can be very generous. These can include relocation packages, access to games rooms, fitness/gym membership, private healthcare and store discounts.

Income figures are intended as a guide only.

Working hours

You'll typically work between 30 and 40 hours per week on average. Flexible working hours may be available. You may need to work weekends and evenings as deadlines approach.

The majority of game designers are employed full time, with a small number being self-employed or working part time.

What to expect

  • Work is mainly studio based within a multidisciplinary team including artists, engineers, programmers, animators, producers and content developers.
  • The majority of game companies in the UK are either microbusinesses (with typically fewer than ten employees) or small businesses. There is a large concentration of game design companies in London and the South East, as well as other major UK towns and cities such as Brighton, Bristol, Cardiff, Dundee, Guildford and Manchester.
  • According to the NextGen Skills Academy, women and black and minority ethnic groups are underrepresented in the games industry. The games industry also has the youngest profile in the creative industries. The aim is to redress these imbalances via a range of initiatives including raising the awareness of the games industry and its career paths.
  • The dress code for the games industry as a whole is a lot more relaxed than other industries.
  • Travel isn't a feature of the work, although you may travel to represent your company at events and conferences.

Qualifications

You don't need a degree or HND to become a game designer as many employers are more interested in your experience and games knowledge. However, the majority of game designers do have a degree and useful subjects include:

  • computer games art
  • computer games design
  • computer games development
  • computer games technology
  • computer science
  • interactive media
  • mathematics.

Entry to game design is commonly either through a junior/intern games designer position or following promotion from a quality assurance (QA) testing role. QA positions involve testing applications and games in order to locate and report issues across different hardware platforms. They provide good experience in how the company operates and how a game is made.

It's important you build an online portfolio of your projects and any work you've completed to showcase your games design skills and experience.

You'll also need to be up to date with current trends within gaming across all platforms and enjoy playing games as well as making them.

It's possible to get into the industry through completing a higher apprenticeship, which allows you to earn as you learn through on-the-job learning. See the NextGen Skills Academy for a list of apprenticeships. They also offer a range of short courses in areas such as game design.

Search postgraduate courses in games design.

Skills

You'll need to have:

  • technical ability, in particular familiarisation with a range of programming languages and software technologies and packages such as C#, C++ and Python
  • scripting and design capabilities using software such as Blueprint Visual Scripting within Unreal Engine 4 (UE4)
  • a passion for gaming and an understanding of the different hardware platforms available for games
  • communication skills, both verbal and written, to put your ideas across to other members of the team
  • team working skills and the ability to collaborate with others to create the finished game
  • an innovative approach to game design and the ability to come up with new ideas
  • a willingness and aptitude to learn new technical skills such as version control software
  • organisation and project management skills, including familiarity with Agile development and Scrum
  • confidence and influencing skills to present your ideas and pitch for funding
  • problem-solving skills
  • a flexible approach to work in order to tailor your ideas and to meet deadlines
  • commitment and focus to complete every task to a high standard
  • mathematical and analytical understanding.

Work experience

Competition for game designer roles is fierce and it's essential that you get relevant work experience. Employers typically expect games designers to have at least two years' work experience within the industry. Ideally, this experience should be with both free-to-play (F2P) and premium or AAA games across a range of platforms.

One way of building up experience is to participate in game jams. The aim of these game jams is for groups of people to collaborate to plan, design and create a game in a short space of time, usually over one or two days. It's an excellent opportunity to showcase your skills, obtain evidence to put in your portfolio and network with others. You can find game jams listed on sites such as itch.io and Indie Game Jams.

You could try applying for an internship or placement with a games company during or after your degree studies. Games design internship opportunities are occasionally advertised, but applications for these are fierce. Grads in Games runs annual challenges Rising Star and Search for a Star, with prizes including an internship or possibly an interview with a top games company.

However you do it, the best experience is to actually design your own game, by putting together the storyboard, prototype and demo. You can then place this on your online portfolio. It's important for prospective employers to be able to try out your work, so ensure the demo can be downloaded or, at the very least, make sure video footage of the game in action is available.

Employers

Most employers are small independent games studios. However, there are also opportunities available with a number of multinational games producers based in the UK. The UK also hosts the European headquarters for several overseas games companies, which opens up opportunities to work abroad as well as in the UK. 

Although self-employment and freelance roles are rare, with experience you may be able to work as a game design consultant.

Games are now also being widely used across a diverse range of industries including healthcare, fitness and education. This means that there may also be opportunities with:

  • advertising firms
  • broadcasting companies
  • computing and electronics organisations
  • creative agencies
  • education providers and education resource suppliers
  • esports associations
  • event organisers
  • hardware and software distributors
  • PR, communications and marketing firms
  • software developers
  • trade and retail organisations.

Look for job vacancies at:

Student membership of Ukie (UK Interactive Entertainment) provides access to paid placements and internships as well as CV advice, industry guides, careers advice and industry news.

Most employers will welcome and encourage speculative applications. See Ukie - Our Members for a list of 400 games-related organisations, including game companies as well as those who sell games or provide services or support to the UK games industry.

A small number of specialist employment agencies advertise games roles, including:

Professional development

When first starting out you'll receive support from more experienced colleagues, including the opportunity to work shadow them in their role. As you get more experience, you'll usually be responsible for managing your own professional development.

As the games design industry is fast-moving, it's essential that you stay ahead of the game by keeping your technical skills and knowledge up to date. This can be done through in-house training, completing short courses and developing your own bank of skills through self study. Attending events and networking can form an important part of your professional development.

Ukie, for example, offers bespoke courses designed specifically for games companies. Topics covered include:

  • Agile & Scrum project management training
  • digital metrics and analytics
  • resilience training.

You can also study at postgraduate level to develop your skills in a specialist area of game design. Courses are available in areas such as games design, digital experience design, independent games and UX design, as well as games enterprise.

Career prospects

With the increased popularity of mobile and tablet gaming, the games industry in the UK is in a strong position, with the largest growth area being virtual reality gaming. This means that careers prospects are good for game designers with the right combination of skills, knowledge and experience.

You'll typically start in a graduate or intern quality assurance tester role, before moving either into a level design or game design role, possibly after a year or even less. Promotion is usually gained through experience and as openings arise, and depends to a certain extent on the size of the organisation, as well as how fast you can learn new skills.

After several years' experience, successful game designers can progress onto senior and finally lead designer roles. Lead designer is generally more of a management role and involves fewer creative design elements. Specialising in areas such as mobile gaming or virtual reality can help increase your job prospects.

If you wish to move on from game design you could consider becoming a game design consultant or game design lecturer, or move into other areas of interactive media and entertainment. Alternatively, you could choose to set up your own independent game studio.