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Computer Games Designers

Game design

Producing a computer game involves people with creative skills and people with technical programming skills.

The games designer devises and designs new games, working from their own original ideas, or using concepts that have already been decided on. They design:

  • the rules of the game
  • the setting, or game world
  • the characters
  • the in-game objects like weapons, vehicles and other devices.

Within the programming department, there may be many subdivisions, with people specialising in artificial intelligence (AI), graphics rendering engine development, character control and gameplay programming.

Designers and programmers, working on top-of-the-range game titles, work in teams of designers, programmers, artists, animators, audio specialists and testers, and projects can cost millions of pounds, and take more than a year. They may work on a group of levels and collaborate with colleagues on the overall game.

In smaller companies, the role of designer, artist and programmer may overlap more, with the same few people involved in both the creative and the technical aspects of the work.

Games designers and programmers may work standard office hours. Many, though, work longer, including early mornings, evenings and weekends.

Salaries range from around £19,000 a year to up to £60,000.

Games designers and programmers should:

  • have a thorough knowledge of games platforms and software packages
  • have excellent communication and presentation skills
  • be able to adapt quickly.

Designers also need:

  • to be creative and imaginative
  • drawing and 3D design skills.

Programmers also need:

  • to be highly skilled in C++ programming
  • excellent problem-solving skills.

There are no set entry requirements for this job, but most computer games designers and programmers are graduates.

Designers may take a degree in a general design-related subject, but there are also courses throughout the UK that allow students to specialise in design for games. Most designers, though, tend to move into the role after working in art, programming or games testing roles.

Programmers may take an IT rather than creative route, studying computer games programming, software development or games technology. Some may study general programming or maths and later specialise in games, possibly by taking a postgraduate qualification.

Most designers and programmers are expected to learn on the job, with help from more experienced colleagues. It is very important for anyone working in the computer games industry to keep up to date with developments and market information.

With experience, junior designers can take on more responsibility and be promoted to games designer, senior designer, lead designer and maybe even design manager or creative director.

Programmers may be given more responsibility, eventually progressing to lead programmer or technical director.

What is the work like?

Producing a computer game involves people with creative skills and people with technical programming skills working together.

The games designer devises and designs new games, working from their own original ideas, or using concepts that have already been decided on. They design:

  • the rules of the game
  • the setting, or game world, and how it unfolds
  • the characters
  • the in-game objects like weapons, vehicles and other devices that characters can use
  • different ways to play the game.

The games designer may build some of these themselves or have them created by a team of artists and programmers.

Within the programming department, there may be many subdivisions, with people specialising in artificial intelligence (AI), graphics rendering engine development, character control, gameplay programming and middleware tools development. All these are usually overseen by a lead programmer who manages the code development process.

Designers and programmers, working on top-of-the-range game titles, work in teams of designers, artists, animators, audio specialists and testers, and projects can cost millions of pounds, and take more than a year. They may work on a group of levels and collaborate with colleagues on the overall game.

In smaller companies, the role of designer, artist and programmer may overlap more, with the same few people involved in both the creative and the technical aspects of the work.

In both cases, though, creating a game usually follows this pattern:

  • The company carries out market research to test the appeal of the new game, before giving the go-ahead for the game to be developed, or is asked by a publisher to create a certain kind of game.
  • The design team then produces design documents, which set out the individual elements of the game and how it will look and be played. If the game has story, this will be worked through as a script and storyboard.
  • A small prototype may be created to test the overall idea. Based on this, the design document may be amended.
  • The final design document is used to guide the technical aspects, including the game code, animation, graphics, audio production and special effects.

During the process, the teams make adjustments to reflect technical constraints and new programming or artistic developments.

Another aspect of the work is project management - scheduling, commissioning and ensuring the game can be produced within budget. People working in smaller companies may be responsible for these tasks, while large organisations will have dedicated production or project managers.

Hours and environment

Games designers and programmers may work standard office hours. Many, though, work longer, including early mornings, evenings and weekends at busy times and when deadlines are near.

They are based in offices and spend much of their time sitting at a desk using a computer, or attending meetings.

Salary and other benefits

These figures are only a guide, as actual rates of pay may vary, depending on the employer and location.

  • A new computer games designer could earn around £19,000 a year. A programmer may earn around £21,000.
  • With experience, this could rise to between £25,000 and £35,000, slightly more for programmers.
  • A lead designer or programmer with a strong track record could earn between £35,000 and £60,000.

Skills and personal qualities

Games designers and programmers should:

  • have a thorough knowledge of games platforms and software packages
  • have excellent communication and presentation skills
  • be able to adapt quickly
  • work well in a team and alone
  • work well under pressure and be able to meet deadlines
  • be willing to keep up to date with new developments in the computer games market.

Designers also need:

  • to be creative and imaginative
  • drawing and 3D design skills
  • an appreciation of other media, like film, TV and literature
  • to understand the market for computer games - what sells and why.

Programmers also need:

  • to be highly skilled in C++ programming
  • excellent problem-solving skills.

Interests

It is important to enjoy:

  • playing computer games and working out what makes them good or bad
  • working with computer graphics software.

Getting in

Sales of entertainment software are higher than the film rental market and cinema spending, and the growth in the software and hardware market is rising.

There are just under 10,000 people working in computer games development studios in around 250 companies in the UK. Studios may produce their own games, but many pitch for work from publishers such as Sony, EA and Disney. Some publishers, such as EA and Codemasters, have their own internal development studios.

Around a third of computer technical staff are based in London and south-east England. The rest are distributed fairly evenly across the UK, with more major centres in Cambridge, Guildford, Dundee, the Midlands and the North East. Competition for vacancies is fierce. A small number of games studios offer work placements.

Vacancies are advertised through recruitment agencies, on company websites, and in specialist games publications and websites.

Entry routes

There are no set entry requirements for this job, but most computer games designers and programmers are graduates.

Designers may take a degree in a general design-related subject, but there are also courses throughout the UK that allow students to specialise in design for games. Most designers, though, tend to move into the role after working in art, programming or games testing roles.

It is not normally possible to become a computer games designer without relevant experience in the industry. Employers expect to see a portfolio of work, including completed game projects or written game design documents and proposals.

Programmers may take an IT rather than creative route, studying computer games programming, software development or games technology. Some may study general programming or maths and later specialise in games, possibly by taking a postgraduate qualification.

Entry to degree courses is usually with two or three A levels and five GCSEs (A*-C). Other qualifications may be accepted, either on their own or in combination with A levels.

Qualifications such as the Diplomas in information technology or in creative and media, BTEC Nationals and Higher Nationals and foundation degrees can be a good starting point and will often be accepted as entry qualifications for a degree course. Entry requirements do vary, so applicants should check with individual universities or colleges.

Some employers prefer applicants with postgraduate qualifications and there are Masters degrees in both the technical and creative sides of game production. Entry is usually with a first degree or considerable computing experience. Postgraduate courses last one year full time. Part-time options may be available.

Training

Most designers and programmers are expected to learn on the job, with help from more experienced colleagues. There are many opportunities to learn about new technology online, including specific aspects of games design and new software packages.

It is very important for anyone working in the computer games industry to keep up to date with developments and market information, and to update their skills throughout their careers.

Getting on

With experience, junior designers can take on more responsibility and be promoted to games designer, senior designer, lead designer and maybe even design manager or creative director. Some may go on to become game directors, combining the roles of senior producer and lead designer, and heading projects.

Programmers may be given more responsibility, eventually progressing to lead programmer or technical director, or they may specialise in particular aspects of programming.

There may be chances to move into production, management and marketing roles, and talented people may have the opportunity to work overseas.

Further information

British Interactive Media Association, The Lightwell, 12-16 Laystall Street, Clerkenwell, London EC1R 4PF. 0207 8436797. Website: www.bima.co.uk

The Entertainment and Leisure Software Publishers Association (ELSPA), 167 Wardour Street, London W1F 8WP. 020 7534 0580. Website: www.elspa.com

e-skills UK. Website: http://www.bigambition.co.uk/

The International Game Developers Association (IGDA). Website: www.igda.org

Skillset. Website: www.skillset.org/games

TIGA, 6th Floor, One London Wall, London EC2Y 5EB. 0845 094 1095. Website: www.tiga.org

Useful Websites:

 

www.eurogamer.net

www.gamasutra.com

www.gamedev.net

www.gamesindustry.biz

http://gamesandmen.blogspot.com/2007/04/how-to-become-game-designer-my.html

http://www.howtoall.com/Computingfiles/howtobecomeavideogamedesigner.htm

http://www.jobseekersadvice.com/career_guides/articles/computer_game_des...

http://uk.gamespot.com/features/6129276/index.html

Contains public sector information licensed under the Open Government Licence v1.0.

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