If you’re anything like me, then you probably had magical memories of playing video games as a kid, and imagined how awesome it would be to get paid designing them.
You’ve probably dreamed of designing video games for a living (and you know you could be pretty good at it), but you’re unsure of where to start or what next steps you should take.
If so, then I think you’ll get a lot of value out of this post on how to land your dream job as a video game designer without a special degree or certification.
And just a quick note before we dive in: This stuff isn’t theory or fluff. It’s based on my 20+ years as a professional game designer for studios like Blizzard, Riot and Moon.
I’ve seen these strategies work for dozens of people and I know they will for you too, if you put in the work.
- Breaking into the industry
- Your resume/CV, Portfolio, design skill test, interviews, negotiations
- Navigating your current career path
You can also get notified each week on the latest game design job listings and actionable tips here 👇
Ready? Let’s jump right in!
It’s no secret that the video game industry is highly competitive and there’s no guaranteed way to break in – even if you spend tens of thousands of dollars chasing a degree.
In fact, competition for game design related jobs has grown so fierce that a single job posting can pull in 2,000 resumes!
That many applications would take weeks for a hiring manager to sift through. How can you beat the odds in such a crowded space?
In this guide, you’ll discover the insider perspective about what it takes to land a well-paying job in the video game industry. You’ll also learn tried and true strategies for winning a job over hordes of other applicants, some of whom are bound to be better qualified than you.
It’s as close to a cheat code as you can get.
You’ll soon see that beating the odds can be much easier than you’d ever imagine IF you apply some simple rules of effective self-marketing that you’ll find below. Since so few applicants know these strategies, they give you an almost unfair edge.
It might sound unbelievable that you can break into the industry without years of formal training or experience but myself and dozens of other designers I know are living proof that it’s totally possible.
So stop whatever else you’re doing and pay close attention to every word of this page, because it could help you achieve your dream of earning a more-than-comfortable living doing what you love.
The Single Biggest Mistake About Game Design
First, I want to go over the single biggest mistake people make when it comes to pursuing game design as a career.
It’s going to sound silly but it’s true. And that mistake is…
Not knowing what “game design” really entails!
When I tell people I’m a game designer, they usually think I do artwork for games.
And when I tell them I’m not an artist, they think I’m a programmer.
That’s not quite it either but most people think it’s one or the other.
In my book, a game designer is someone with a deep understanding of how to make games fun and captivating. It’s more than just having ideas for a fun game. It’s understanding how people feel when they’re playing video games.
You need to understand things like how to motivate players to take a particular action, how to make players feel strong emotions, how to create challenges that get them invested in the game, and so on.
Now this should be a relief because it means you don’t have to be a crazy skilled programmer in order to be an excellent game designer. If you know how to code, it’s certainly helpful, but definitely not necessarily. I’ve worked alongside many talented designers who never typed a single line of code.
Most studios have a surplus of good programming talent. Yet good game designers are always in high demand. Why? Because good game designers are a rarer breed. Unlike programming, game design isn’t as openly taught and all the best people are usually working for themselves or other studios.
This means once you master the core skills of game design (again, you don’t need to go to university to learn these), and you can demonstrate those skills in your game design portfolio (more on that later on), then getting a job at your dream studio will be much easier.
Also keep in mind that your first position will be one of the entry level game design positions:
- Junior game designerAssistant game designerAssociate game designerGame design intern
Which means, you don’t have to be very experienced to get hired.The hiring side just want to confirm that you are the right fit skill and culture wise and you have growth potential.
Is Being a Game Designer Right For You?
As a game designer for a AAA studio, your number one responsibility is to be “Keeper of Fun”. You need to solve problems and make the game experience more enjoyable for players.
Here’s an example of what I mean:
When I was working for Riot games, I was tasked with improving the League of Legends character Xerath. He was one of the most powerful characters (with a 55% win rate) but was the 3rd least played character.
I had to figure out why, then make modifications to his stats and abilities to get his play-rate up.
I started by playing over 100 games with Xerath and took notes on what I liked and didn’t like. I then asked my co-workers, and other players on the LoL forums for feedback on their experiences with Xerath. Finally, I looked over my findings and consulted with some teammates to decide on what to change to make so players have more fun with Xerath.
The result? Xerath went from a 55% win rate to 50% so he became perfectly balanced. At the same time, he went from being picked only by low and middle skilled players to showing up in professional play (by the best players in the world).
In short, I made him better balanced, more competitive and more fun to play for most players. I received outstanding feedback from players and my boss was thrilled too.
Does this sound like something you’d absolutely love to do? If so, then game design could be the right career choice for you.
Now let me be honest with you. It’s not always easy and it can get stressful around crunch time.
But personally, I wake up feeling grateful every day because I get to do what I love for a living. I have so many friends who hate their jobs, or are unsure of what career path to pursue, so I feel lucky I get paid to play and design video games.
That’s why I’m writing this guide: Being a game designer has brought so much fun and joy into my life and I want to help the next generation of game designers.
How to Shortcut Your Journey
My journey has not always been easy and I learned a lot of painful lessons through brute force trial and error.
In fact, when I first decided I wanted to make games, I spent two whole years working on a game that ultimately failed. The game was called Graal New World. It was a multiplayer game a lot like the Zelda series. However, I over-scoped the project and tried too hard to produce too much, and ultimately ended up abandoning the entire project.
I was beyond devastated. But I learned some very valuable lessons. I applied these lessons to the games I worked on afterwards, most of which became best-sellers with active player counts in the hundreds of millions.
So my goal is to save you from some of the common mistakes I and many others have made. Your time is valuable so I want to make sure you can achieve your career goals in an optimal way.
Now I want to address the most common question I hear from people who are considering a career in game design, and that is…
“Should I get a game design or development degree from a university?”
To answer this simply: If you have a portfolio without a degree, you’ll can still get hired depending on the quality of your portfolio.
However, if you have a degree (from the best university program) and you don’t have a portfolio, you definitely will not get hired.
Now let’s look at some data…
Nowadays, a number of colleges are offering Bachelor’s degrees in game design and game development. These courses could cost up to $83,500 in tuition for an undergraduate program, and an additional $31,880 for a graduate degree. If you take out a student loan, you’ll likely end up paying that back that debt the next 15-20 years of your life.
I thought these special game design degrees were helpful until I started working at Blizzard. It turned out the hiring managers didn’t gave damn about these applicants with these expensive games degrees!
From the hiring manager’s perspective a game design or development degree doesn’t guarantee the applicant has the chops needed to make video games that will sell. All it shows is they paid a lot of money to some university and completed all the required classes.
Instead, the hiring managers would look for something else more specific during the screening process, which I’ll share with you in a bit.
The bottom line is this: These days, you don’t need a special degree to get a job as a game designer. A game design degree won’t HURT your chances of getting a job. But will it won’t guarantee you a job either.
Case in point: I never got a degree in game design or game development and 99% of the professional designers I’ve worked alongside haven’t either.
As matter of fact, some of the most talented game designers I know never even went to college or dropped out. You’ve probably heard of their games and even played them:
- Geoff Goodman, the lead hero designer of Overwatch never went to college
- Gabe Newell, owner of Valve (Dota 2) and Steam dropped out of college
- American McGee, creator of Doom 2, Quake 2 dropped out of high school
- Eric Barone, creator of Stardew Valley, made the top-selling indie game during college
- And the list goes on and on…
The thing I didn’t get about the USA college system until recently, is that they’re run like corporate business with an end goal to make a profit. That involves charging sky-high tuition rates and giving out degrees in career fields that are “trending”. And right now, that happens to be video game design and development since the industry is exploding.
Now don’t get me wrong. There are great video game design programs out there. In fact, some of my best friends are professors who teach these game design and development classes.
But for every good program, there are at least 3 bad programs taught by someone who hasn’t actually ”walked the walk”. They’re simply regurgitating theory from textbooks written by other “armchair” game designers rather than designers with actual industry experience.
Hopefully this is a relief for you if you don’t have the time or money to pursue a game design or development degree.
What’s more important, when trying to land a job at a game studio is, to…
Have an Impressive Portfolio You Can Show Off!
So now you know hiring managers at game studios don’t really care that much about fancy degrees.
Instead, they want to see a portfolio of projects you’ve worked on.
Why? Because a degree or certification shows that you MIGHT know about game design. A portfolio shows that you DO know for sure.
Today, certificates and degrees don’t hold as much value as they used to in the past. You can learn about any topic you can at a 4-year college online, for much less money and at your own pace.
Believe it or not, some of the best programmers I know don’t have computer science degrees, and are 100% self taught through online resources and guides.
One of my good friends is a music producer who learned by watching YouTube tutorials and practiced making beats in his free time. He eventually put out a mixtape (portfolio) of his best tracks and was able to get signed to a record label – with no music degree or formal training.
Why? Because he learned how to produce genres that are currently popular. That’s something that university classes can’t keep up with! You’re not going to learn how to produce EDM with a traditional music classes.
Now of course, this doesn’t apply to all fields. You can’t become a doctor by reading books and watching tutorials online. But for fast-evolving industries like game design, self-learning and doing can be more valuable than taking classes.
I know I probably sound like a broken record. But it’s essential you start by DOING right now. TAKE ACTION instead of simply learning more theory.
Now, you might be wondering…
“How Do I Start Building My Portfolio?”
Your portfolio doesn’t have to be crazy. The simplest way is to start a blog that documents your design journey and thought processes. Here are some examples of content you can include:
- Games you’ve explored
- Games you’ve finished
- Case studies of mechanics and combat
- Reverse engineer popular games
- Examples of games you’ve designed (this could even be board or card games)
This is the route I took to put myself out there. Not only was it fun and helpful to create, my blog has created countless opportunities for industry people to see my work and connect with me.
This is what I mean by “self-marketing”. You want to proudly show off your biggest strengths whether that’s art, story telling, mechanism design, etc.
A hiring manager would learn much more about you and your capabilities by reading your game design portfolio versus looking at your degree.
Even Greg Street, the head of Creative Development for Riot, tweeted about this:
Now this next tip is probably the single most important way to “get your foot in the door” at the studio you want to work for.
It’s worked for me on many occasions, as well as many of my colleagues to give an unfair advantage over the competition, many of whom were much more qualified.
How to get someone inside the company to put in a good word for you
It’s no secret that sometimes landing a job is more about who you know than your actual qualifications. We all know that one guy who’s under-qualified for the job, but the boss likes him and may even give him special treatment.
If you’re not doing this now, you need to start immediately.
Because this is what I did to land my first gig at Blizzard before I had any experience in the industry.
Start by joining gaming communities and connect with the “creators”.
Creators are a subgroup of people who… well, create. Examples include fan websites, games modifications, recommendations, patch suggestions and fan art.
- Join gaming forums such as Reset Era
- Join Fcebook developer communities
- Join Twitter game design and developer communities
- Join the Discords of your favorite developers and game designers
- Join your local chapter of IGDA
- Participate in game jams
- Join our game design community Funsmith Club
It’s become more rare these days for someone to land a job at their dream studio by blindly sending in an application and resume.
The much more common route is meeting a staff member online- through the communities I listed above, and getting your “in” that way.
I got an interview at Blizzard because I met one of their employees while playing Starcraft, and he invited me to beta test a new game they were developing. I demonstrated I knew a few things about game design (see the next tip) and he put in a good word for me to the hiring manager.
You see, the vast majority of people are consumers, not creators. But it’s the creators who have a lot of industry connections.
So start by joining and participating in communities you’re passionate about. Put yourself out there and start genuinely giving value. You may be surprised how many new opportunities land in your lap.
Especially when you apply the next tip:
Accelerate Your Game Design Skills
No amount of networking or portfolio building will help you get a job if you suck at game design.
And I hate to say it, but most new designers are pretty bad. I was too when I first started out.
The good news is there’s a handful of common mistakes that newbie designers make, that once you eliminate those, your games will be much smoother and more fun to play.
This is important because games that are fun are games that sell. So if you know how to make games more fun and exciting, then studios will want you to join their team.
It took me YEARS to figure out these common pitfalls, and I still see them being made all the time- even by some professionals. It’s because video game design is a relatively new field and there is no official “textbook” for how to do it (which, again, is why university education isn’t worth much).
Believe it or not, you don’t need to be the most creative or smartest game designer to have a stable job at a studio. You just need to NOT make certain mistakes that can ruin the “fun-ness” of the game and ultimately hurt sales.
What are some of these mistakes?
Well the single biggest mistake I see newer game designers make is thinking about their OWN preferences and what they like in a game, instead of focusing on the PLAYER and what they may want.
Studios don’t care about what you personally find fun. They want someone who knows how to create what’s fun for the majority of players out there.
See How You Can Learn the Gameplay Design Abilities Game Studios Are After To...
The second biggest mistake designers and developers make with their game is not being crystal clear about what’s going on in the game at any given moment.
It sounds simple and intuitive, but this is the biggest cause of player frustration.
Again, this comes down to being too focused on yourself and not enough on your player.
YOU may get what’s going on in your game, but your player doesn’t. Because perhaps you didn’t communicate it in a clear and effective way.
I call this the concept of clarity, and it’s the perhaps single most important element of your game.
Without it, your game will just feel “off” even if players can’t describe exactly why.
And if your games lack clarity right now, don’t worry. Even professionals screw this up from time to time!
For instance, let’s compare Gearbox’s Battleborn (a B game) versus Blizzard’s Overwatch (a AAA game)…
Both are the same genre and have similar gameplay.
But notice how the Battleborn screen is full of bright, supersaturated art, with intensity elements all over the screen. There’s popups everywhere are cluttering the UI.
Now compare that to Overwatch.
There’s only one giant bright spot and that’s Zarya’s laser that’s about to hit you. The bright light tells the player where to focus his or her attention, because it’s the biggest threat currently.
The art quality is excellent in both of these examples but Overwatch is just much more SIMPLE and CLEAR.
Now is it a coincidence that Battleborn now has less than 1,000 monthly players and is shutting down their online play, while Overwatch has 37 million monthly active players and still growing?
This concept “artistic clarity” is just one of the 3 types of clarity that your game must include if you want players to feel engaged and satisfied instead of confused. Again, it does not mean your game needs to have Hollywood-level graphics. The visuals just need to clearly communicate to the player exactly what’s going on.
Besides clarity, there’s 6 other important elements your game must have if you want the players to have the best game experience.
It took me many years to figure out these things, and they are exactly what makes AAA games stand out from the rest of the crowd.
You can check these out here.