How to get into video game design

Daniel Higginbotham, Editor
October, 2015

Interest in the UK games industry is high, but how can you transform a passion for gaming into a career? Learn more about breaking into this creative field

The UK has an illustrious history when it comes to creating top quality video games - and the market is still growing. The 2014 MCV and Ukie industry valuation showed that consumer spend had increased to £3.9billion, an increase of 10% from the previous year.

The prospect of designing and releasing a game to players all over the world is very exciting

Recent UK-designed titles such as Moshi Monsters, Batman: Arkham City and Grand Theft Auto V have been global hits. Yet while there's plenty of money to be made with the right release, 95% of the UK's 1,902 games companies are micro or small businesses, according to A Map of the UK Games Industry, a 2014 report by Nesta.

This is reflected in the explosion of the independent ('indie') sector, where thousands of small titles are made for PC, mobile and other emerging platforms. While competition for jobs at larger games studios is fierce, there are an increasing number of opportunities to join the vibrant indie community.

New entrants are faced with a choice. They can choose to specialise in one aspect of the business, for example, art, coding or audio, and go for a job in a large studio, or become an adaptable all-rounder and take on the entrepreneurial and multi-skilling demands of the indie sector.

Getting qualified

The majority of people who work in games are graduates. While some programming experience may allow you to start out as a quality assurance technician or tester, to give yourself the best possible chance of success as a game designer or game developer, you will normally need a degree.

For graduates already with a degree in another subject, there's good news. Jon Weinbren, head of games design and development at the National Film & Television School (NFTS), offers a unique Creative Skillset-accredited MA programme that attracts students from diverse academic and professional backgrounds.

'The course is designed for future games innovators,' explains Jon. 'We actively search out candidates who will bring something new into the games arena, and the course equips them with all the creative skills and technical competences they would need to realise their visions, to create fresh game experiences to satiate audiences hungry for something beyond the norm.'

However, searching for games courses can be daunting. A remarkable 60 UK higher education institutions offer 215 undergraduate and 40 Masters courses in video games (Creative Skillset 2014).

'There's a substantial and growing global audience for video games, and the prospect of designing and releasing a game to players all over the world is very exciting,' says Dr Dayna Galloway, lecturer in game design and production management at Abertay University.

The only European university to feature in The Princeton Review's 'Top 25 Schools to Study Game Design for 2015', Abertay offers the MSc Computer Games Technology and MProf Games Development in addition to its numerous undergraduate gaming courses.

Undergraduate games-related courses are very popular, and universities have responded eagerly to this interest. Masters programmes are less common, but are often more narrowly focused.

By working alongside students from other degree disciplines - including programmers, artists and sound designers - on a large collaborative project, Dayna explains how game designers leave university with 'strong interpersonal skills and portfolio pieces that they can show prospective employers as evidence of their ability to collaborate, as well as making a fun and engaging game'.

Collaboration is also a key component of the NFTS course. Its small cohort of students develop skills in all areas of game design and development - including art and animation, design, coding, producing and audio - while undertaking an extensive portfolio of project work in 'super teams' which include fellow Masters students from film and television disciplines such as screenwriting, cinematography, sound design, production, editing and digital effects. The creative partnerships formed during the course often extend beyond it.

Ian Harper, managing director of Future Games of London, a Ubisoft Studio, describes how they actively look for people with practical experience of making games. 'The key thing is to be able to demonstrate your particular skillset applied to a real game (or modification), ideally working with others in a team.'

Graduate destinations

Not all graduates enter the gaming industry as game designers, since the skills that they gain are transferrable to other creative roles in the film, music and media industry.

However, Jon explains that programmes such as the NFTS' two-year MA in Games Design can give you the right connections, networking and people skills to 'enter a connected creative community that's passionate about making edifying, uplifting and sometimes profound entertainment for audiences and players both old and new'.

The NFTS accepted its first programme intake in 2012, but many of its graduates have formed independent studios such as 4pm Games, Pixel Ripped and Semaeopus. Others have taken up creative roles at larger studios such as Sony London and Reloaded.

Abertay also boasts entrepreneurial successes - including Grand Theft Auto creator Dave Jones, who studied there in the 1980s, Dundee-based indie Guerilla Tea Games, plus plenty of graduates who've ended up at major studios such as Ubisoft, Rockstar North and Electronic Arts (EA).

Developing your skillset

Creative Skillset's Creative Media Workforce Survey 2014 discovered that only 21% of the games workforce were likely to have gained work experience prior to starting their first paid job - the lowest in the creative media sector. Therefore, those aspiring to be games professionals will need to already have something to show for their qualification.

If you haven't graduated in a specialised subject, you'll need an impressive portfolio to show to prospective employers, says Ian, with any games that have been released (including self-published titles) setting you apart from the crowd. 'Having a demo of a game that you've participated in can make a real difference between getting the job or not.'

It is also important to know what kind of games you enjoy playing and ultimately wish to make before approaching targeted studios for work. Ian advises graduates to check out the website and do your research beforehand, as showing an interest in the company goes a long way.

So if you're serious about entering this highly competitive field, you'll need to be proactive and acquire extensive skills and experience. A university course in game design can give you this grounding.