Attending a game design school can help students acquire specialized skills and knowledge in the fields of animation, graphic arts and computer programming. The rapidly-growing field of game design and 3D animation has created a strong demand for skilled game designers, and today's students can advance their educational careers all the way through to a master's degree or certification in a specialized branch of design. Courses available at game design schools may include prototyping, project management, artificial intelligence and 3D design technologies. This guide offers an in-depth look into the world of game design, from programs and degrees to career paths and specializations.
Game Design Schools and Programs
Responsible for all aspects of project managing a game – from initial design to the finished project – game designers are the architects of this field, creating blueprints the rest of the team will use to flesh out entire virtual worlds. Strong computer skills are an absolute necessity, as are people skills, since game designers must work closely with a team of other designers, artists and programmers. Building a game involves several levels of development, including character design, world settings, storyboarding, puzzle creation and dialogue writing. The role of a game designer may vary from mechanics designer to leading an entire design team, depending on one's skills and experience.
Game design schools equip aspiring game designers with the specialized skills and training they need to excel in this rapidly-changing field. Many colleges and universities provide programs that focus exclusively on the development side, while others provide more comprehensive programs that teach training in areas of project management, computer engineering and computer science. Advanced degree programs can help students take on leadership or managerial roles throughout their careers, or move into even more specialized areas such as video design and technology or game prototyping.
Students can complete a game design program at a vocational school, community college or a degree-granting educational institution – online or offline. Online programs in game design may require completing some courses on campus.
Students can complete a certificate program in game design at a vocational school. Some schools offer both online and campus-based degree programs in software development and technology, and in computer and electronics technology. Some schools offer advanced programming courses and training in widely-used software programs and suites in the industry; these may be available in both campus-based and online settings. Other vocational schools may offer certification or diploma programs in game programming, game art and design, or character animation for games. Programs available at vocational schools may be one to two years in length.
Community colleges offering game design programs can offer the flexibility of both online and campus-based formats for students that are currently working full-time or who require more flexibility in their schedules. Typically two years in length, these programs provide students with an associate's degree upon completion of courses in digital arts, video production and interactive media. Some also offer certificate programs in interactive web design or digital media production. Students may complete an Associate of Science in Video Game Design and Development, a Video Game Design Technology Associates Degree or an Online Associate Degree in Video Game Design.
Many large-scale game development companies require at least a bachelor's degree to enter the field of game design. Students can choose from a variety of game design and development degree programs at accredited colleges and universities across the country. A bachelor's degree in computer graphics, art, or a related field coupled with a strong portfolio can be attractive to many employers in this increasingly competitive field. Four-year schools typically require students to take courses in computer programming, game production processes, level design and character sketching. Students may complete a Bachelor of Science in Game Art and Design or a Bachelor of Arts in Game Design. Many colleges and universities offering 4-year programs also offer master's degree programs in game design, visual arts and similar fields.
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Best Game Design Schools and Programs:
Game design means learning all facets of the industry, from story-telling and project management to programming and game prototyping. Depending on the degree level a student hopes to achieve, they may choose to attend a vocational school or community college, or pursue a more advanced degree at a university. We've taken a look at game design programs – both on-campus and online – across the country and have ranked them based on factors like total cost, available financial aid and graduation rate to come up with the list of 2017's Best Game Design Schools and Programs. Level up your career at one of the top-ranked institutions below.
Elements of Top Programs in Game Design
Though many game design programs will have similar elements to other degree programs, there are a few key features that prospective students should look for specific to this particular field of study. As students search out programs and create a short list of school possibilities, they should check that each institution they're considering offers the following:
Many accredited game design schools offer both online and offline program options; some even offer hybrid programs where students are required to attend a certain number of classes on-campus and can complete the rest of their training on their own schedule. Consider the types of scheduling options available so that you choose a school that works with your lifestyle.
Job Placement Assistance
Because the field of game design is so specialized, it can be challenging to find attractive entry-level jobs in certain parts of the country. Attending a school that provides some job placement assistance can make it easier to secure a long-term position immediately after graduation.
Working at a software development or game development company while completing a degree or certification program can provide invaluable work experience, hands-on training and help a student build a professional network â incredibly important in the gaming world. Many companies are seeking creative, ambitious and imaginative interns to join their design team and work directly with designers to implement game entities, develop ideas, create game levels and review game mechanics.
Many game design schools offer two or more specialization tracks for advanced training of in-demand career paths, such as game programming, multimedia art, game production and audio design. Students should ensure that prospective schools have the specialized programs they're looking for should they decide to go this course.
A portfolio showcasing a variety of gaming projects and skills is an asset to any game design school graduate. Choosing a school that offers portfolio development training and related courses can help a student build an attractive portfolio and participate in a variety of projects to learn the key concepts and skills needed to succeed in this industry.
Game Design: Degrees and Certificates
Students interested in a career in game design can complete a 2-year degree program, 4-year degree program or a certification program from an accredited school. Two-year programs typically include introductory courses in animation, digital video and programming, and many schools require students to complete a portfolio project as well. Some schools offer 2-year tracks in areas such as game development and simulation programming or basic video game design.
The curriculum for 4-year degree programs are more comprehensive in scope and may include specialized courses in character sketching, game economics and usability. Certification programs can be completed in addition to a bachelor's degree to give students in-depth training in areas of 3D gaming, design principles, game architecture and artificial intelligence. These programs may range between 10 and 15 credits and up.
Game Design Associate Degrees
An Associate of Science in Game Design or Associate of Arts in Game Development can prepare students for a career as a game designer, character designer or animator. Students with a 2-year degree may be able to secure entry-level jobs and complete on-the-job training to advance in their careers. An associate's degree can also serve as a foundation for a bachelor's degree or master's degree in the field.
In an associate's program, students study game theory and simulation programming, commuter programming and animation, all the while building their portfolios. They are introduced to game design processes and learn how to work within a team of designers and other professionals. The game design school may also give students a chance to develop 2D and 3D graphics using digital media. Graduates of these programs can apply for jobs as junior game designers or junior animators. Courses offered in an associate's degree program may include:
Introduction to Game Development
Usually a project-based course, students learn the basics of working on a computer game with a team. Topics of study include game architecture, software engineering, game physics and computer graphics.
This course teaches students how to create a prototype of a game utilizing various design techniques and skills learned in other classes.
This introductory course teaches students the basics of digital image manipulation, color management, layering and retouching.
Game Design School Bachelor's Degrees
A 4-year degree in game design may be either a Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Science degree program of up to 160 credits. Students enrolled in this type of program learn how to apply computing and software engineering techniques to the digital media world. Some game design schools offer the opportunity to specialize in a certain area, such as animation, computer science or digital arts.
Students develop strong skills in a number of areas, including character design, game architecture and computer programming. These programs cover a range of topics in technology, psychology, narrative, audio and digital arts to help the designer bring characters to life. Completing a bachelor's degree in game design can prepare students for a successful career as a game designer, system designer or technical designer. Courses available in a bachelor's degree program may include:
Students learn the fundamentals of design principles for developing digital worlds by breaking down different types of games to learn about game mechanics, intensity curves, visual aesthetics, and the sequence of actions, controls and rewards within a game.
Technology for Designers
All game designers need to have a strong skill set when it comes to using the latest technologies and computer software programs employed by leading companies in the industry. This course introduces the student to file formats, databases, audio engines, computer networking and artificial intelligence typical in the industry.
3-D Game Design
Students learn how to design and implement 3D games and create one or more levels using skills and knowledge acquired from other courses. Topics may include player guidance, lighting, texturing, scripting and 3D game mechanics.
All students should graduate with a complete portfolio of work that includes samples of projects in both paper and digital form. Portfolio development courses cover a variety of topics, including advanced interviewing techniques, voice-over video production and writing resumes relevant to the industry.
Game Design Certificates
Computer programmers, graphic designers, game developers and entrepreneurs interested in breaking in to the field of game design may be able to complete a game design certificate program to round out their professional career. These programs expand upon the principles and foundational skills of modern game design so that professionals can gain hands-on experience in game development.
Completing a game design certificate program can help students develop specialized skills to develop both digital and non-digital games for various markets. Certification programs may be nine months to a year or more in length, depending on the school. Courses may be completed online or on a campus setting. Examples of certification courses may include:
Fundamentals of Game Design
This course covers foundational topics such as the history of gaming, interface design, writing narratives for games and social game interaction. The course may also include the basics of writing a game design document.
Game Studio Roles and Development
Students learn how to apply project management skills to the field of game design and work on a prototype with a team. They learn how to work within the constraints of a business model, design a user interface, and manage activities such as storyboarding, plot and character development, and visual design.
This course covers the basics of systems design, social games, and business models for different types of games. Students learn what it takes to make a game successful using different production methods and platforms.
Game Design Master's Degrees
Graduate students interested in exploring managerial or leadership roles in the field of game design can complete a master's degree program at game design school. These programs are typically up to 40 credit hours and cover a range of topics and in-depth study of human behavior, computer game editing, simulations and game production. Students may take a set of core courses and concentration courses to specialize in a certain area.
Completing a master's degree in game design prepares students for higher level jobs in graphics, computer science and game development. Courses may be a mixture of theory and applied practice to prepare students for the modern game design industry. Examples of courses offered for master's degree programs may include:
Architecture of Computer Games
Students explore software architecture and computer games engineering in depth. They may study frameworks for game development, techniques for managing resources, and different gaming platforms.
Artificial Intelligence for Computer Games
One of the most essential components of a computer game, students learn how to implement artificial intelligence components to a game using different types of algorithms. This may include the study of neural networks, decision trees and script-driven game object behaviors.
Physics for Game Developers
In this advanced course focusing on Newton's Laws of Motion, kinetics and other topics related to motion, students will study how physics can help game programmers create more realistic-looking objects and simulations in a game environment.
Multiplayer Game Development
Today's advances in technology and networking allow more games to be designed with multiplayer capabilities. This course covers the fundamentals of multiplayer game development, including architecture, design techniques and databases.
Game Designer's Inventory
Completing your education at an accredited game design school will help you acquire several specialized skills and receive the hands-on training needed to succeed in this ever-evolving industry. Even though many game development companies provide employees with on-the-job training to create games for a target market, students attending game design schools can gain valuable knowledge and expertise that serves as a foundation for their career. Completing an internship during school, developing a strong portfolio and completing a certification program are a few ways to enhance the educational experience. Here are some essential skills any game design school student should work to level up:
Essential Skill Set
Students should learn programming languages, the basics of game architecture, game development processes and procedures, and skills to succeed in the modern game design industry. Some schools also offer professional development courses where students learn how to prepare a resume, perform at a job interview and present an attractive portfolio â all vitally important to landing that dream job.
Tools of the Trade
Students must become well-versed in all aspects of both the hardware and software programs necessary to create games. By graduations, students should be proficient in Windows programming, DirectX, OpenGL and use various types of scripting tools to write applications. Some schools provide training in popular game engines, such as Unreal, Unity D, Havoc and Crytek. Machine architecture classes prepare students to develop games for different platforms.
Game Design Software and Hardware
Students may be introduced to a number of software programs used in modern game design, including: Adobe Master Collection (Adobe After Effects, Premier Pro, Flash Professional, Illustrator and Photoshop); Autodesk Entertainment Creation Suite (3ds Max, Maya, Softimage XSI, Mudbox and MotionBuilder); and Ixologic ZBrush. Hardware training typically includes Apple or Hewlett-Packard workstations (Windows-based programs) and a motion capture system.
Internships and Work Experience
Students completing an undergraduate program or master's degree at game design school may benefit from participating in an internship, or working part-time with a game development company or business in a related field. Internships can provide valuable hands-on experience and assist students in building a strong portfolio upon graduation.
Game Design Certification
Those who already have a bachelor's degree in computer science, graphic arts or a related field may benefit from a game design certification program to supplement their educational career. Certification can provide students with a stronger skill set in very specialized areas and be an attractive addition to the resume.
Continuing Education Courses
Continuing education courses in game programming, animation, iOS app development and other specialized topics are available at many colleges, universities and technical schools around the country. These can bring graduates up-to-date on the latest techniques and programs used in the industry, and provide students with advanced skills and training with certain types of software and design programs.
• The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports more than 50 percent of multimedia artists and animators are self-employed
• The game industry is expected to out-produce all other entertainment media, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers Global Entertainment & Media Outlook Report
• CNN named video game designer jobs as one the best jobs in America in 2013, based on careers with big growth, attractive pay scales and high job satisfaction rates
Game Design: Specialization Walkthrough
Many schools give students the option to specialize in a certain area of game design, completing advanced courses and gaining the hands-on training needed to succeed in their careers. In today's evolving industry, game designers need to have specialized knowledge and skills using certain types of software and applications in the workplace to help them keep on top of new technological trends. Specialization tracks may include:
Game Production and Management
Studying the effects of video game design on the interactive media industry as a whole. Students learn advanced project management skills to lead a team and take courses in programming, sound, quality assurance, art and design, amongst others. Training focuses on the game production cycle and development processes.
Game Development and Programming
This educational track zeroes in on programming languages and developing games for both mobile and console applications. Students gain advanced skills and knowledge in script development, visual arts, concept design, and animation and rigging.
Simulation Game Design
Simulation designers, or simulation artists, have advanced skills and training in the areas of 3D modeling and rendering, animation and simulation game development. They learn how to create lifelike animations using specialized industry software and techniques. Courses in physics, psychology, sociology and interactive digital media may be components of this program.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) Programming
Specializing in video game artificial intelligence means the programmer will learn how to build games with AI simulations and apply AI techniques to make games that are very lifelike in nature. This track may include advanced courses in specialized programming languages.
Interview with a Game Designer
Jon O'Neal is the Lead Environment Artist for Crowfall by ArtCraft Entertainmnet, Inc., a new mtiplyaer online game. Crowfall made the list of Kickstarter's most-funded video games in history and shows promise to revolutionize the MMO market. O'Neal shares some insights about his educational career and training that took him down the path to success.
Q. Where did you earn your degree?
I went to Full Sail University in Florida. I have an Associate of Science Degree in Computer Animation (it was the only game degree available at the time). It was a 2-year program.
Q. What inspired you to enter this industry?
I've been drawing and sketching as far back as I can remember. Both my parents are heavily involved in art. My mother is an amazing watercolor painter and my father both paints and sculpts — they have always been a great inspiration to me. During and after high school I would do illustrations for my dad (he was a graphic designer). After that, I knew I wanted to do something with these skills.
Q. How did you choose a school for your current career path?
At the time, there really weren't many schools for game design. My sister went to Full Sail University for a TV/film degree and liked it. She is now the production manager for Turner Classic Movies (TCM). So I thought, why not check it out? The rest is history.
Q. What types of projects are you working on now that you could only have dreamed about when you were in school?
I currently work for ArtCraft Entertainment, Inc., as the lead environment artist for the crowd-funded Crowfall project. I've worked for some great companies during my career, including N-Space and KingIsle Entertainment, and have done some side contract work in my 10 years in this industry. Crowfall is the type of game I've always dreamed about working on! I love how I get the chance to be a part of something that we are building from the ground up, working to create a look and vision of the game.
Q. What was your biggest challenge completing your game design degree?
In retrospect, it was just the overall time I spent in school. It really felt like it was four years' worth of knowledge crammed into a 2-year degree program! I would have a class from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. then a lab from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m., then come back for an 8 a.m. class. It was very tiring but was also very rewarding when you started to “get” what you were learning.
Q. What helped you most getting through school?
I created a great network of friends and contacts at Full Sail University. People always ask me about my experience there and all I can say is, you get what you put in. Some of those connections turned into meaningful friendships that I still maintain to this day! My big sister was also my roommate when I was in school, so that helped. Instead of killing each other (like we did as kids), we found out we actually like each other. She was great!
After Game Design School: What's Next
Students who complete a 2- or 4-year program at game design school, or pursue a certification program, can look forward to an exciting and rewarding career as a video game designer or programmer with a game development company, software company, educational company or even an entrepreneurial venture.
Possible job titles for those who have completed training at an accredited game design school include: 3D artist; 3D animator; game designer; mobile app artist; concept artist; multimedia author; mobile gaming specialist; lighting artist; texture artist; production coordinator; artificial intelligence programmer; simulation artist; and production artist.
Featured Careers Tool
Game designers are responsible for many different elements of game design, from in-game mechanics, to level design, to story. In advanced career levels, they may run entire teams, project managing the process of building a game from start to finish. This production-oriented career spans the gaming industry from console to computer games, and from hand-held to mobile apps.
Median Salary: $82,340
Median Hourly: $39.59
Est. Growth: 3%-7%
No. Employed: 206,000
Minimum Education: Associate's degree
The day-to-day activities of a multimedia artist or animator may include storyboarding, drafting design elements or coming up with new in-game content. This creative career combines artistic talent with graphic technologies to allow those employed in this sector the ability to digitally create in-game art.
Median Salary: $61,370
Median Hourly: $29.50
Est. Growth: 6%
No. Employed: 68,900
Minimum Education: Bachelor's degree
Programmers are an essential part of creating a game. Not only do they write the code that becomes the virtual world, they work to bring to life the ideas and concepts of artists and designers. Game programming can include a number of specialties and subfields, including tools programming, network programming and graphics programming.
Median Salary: $74,280
Median Hourly: $35.71
Est. Growth: 8%
No. Employed: 343,700
Minimum Education: Bachelor's
Advice from an Game Designer
It can be a very tough and brutal industry but at the same time can also be one of the most fun and rewarding industries. Be willing to always listen and learn, and take critiques and advice. Above all, be a team player! One of the biggest mistakes people make is they burn bridges with coworkers and companies along the way. Remember that this is a VERY small industry — everyone knows someone that knows someone that will know you, and if you're labeled as ‘hard to work with,' you will find it VERY hard to stay in this industry. If this is something you really want to pursue, never give up, keep training and learning and applying. Someone is always in need of a hard worker! The hardest part is getting your foot in the door. Once you do that, it's up to you to take the lead on your career. Best of luck!
Jon O'Neal, Lead Environment Artist for Crowfall