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IsoDidact

Game Programming or Game Design? The Dilemma.

11 posts in this topic

I have a choice to make.

I'm split between the largest two career paths in the game industry. Game Programming and Game Design. To program, or to design. That is the question. Obviously, the choice comes down to me. And through all the research I've done on both careers, I'm torn. I want to program, but I want to design.

I want to be able to create the AI that the game runs and to create the physics engine from the ground up, the way I want it.

But at the same time...

I want to create those vast, sprawling worlds that lures gamers in at first-sight. I want to create the characters that resonate with the player and tell the story.

Some background:

My entire educational career has been everything except Math. Sciences, English, Digital Media, Social Studies/History are all things that I have been great at... but Math, not so much. It wasn't until half way through my Sophomore year in high school that I really looked at Math in a whole new light: that there's nothing impossible to learn, just that it takes time and hard work. That realization really boosted my confidence in what I could do and try: so I decided to take Algebra II A junior year from Geometry B (at my high school it goes, in order of how advanced the class is from least to greatest: B, A, Honors [AP is only reserved for pre-calculus]). Now that I'm taking a more-advanced Math Class (at least by my terms: I'm actually in the regular Math class for my grade), I wonder if I'll finally be able to add Math on my list of courses mastered... but at the same time, the thought of going into a career (Game Programming) that is founded on complex mathematics (much more complex than systems of equations) is a scary thought... but my eager and want to be able to code is just as great as my fear.

Then there's Game Design: the career that I feel the most comfortable and worried about. Game designers are the ones in charge of creating the worlds and characters that literally MAKE video games. I've always had an eye for art; drawing from the age of 5. In recent years, I've transitioned to digital media to express my artistic talent, mostly graphic design. I await my Web Design course that I'll be taking next semester at my high school with excitement. After that, I'll be waiting to get my hands dirty with an Animation Class (Multimedia 3 at my school) and some 3D modeling software (right now I'm taking the first class of Mechanical Drawing - we go from Mechanical Drawing to Inventor in Mechanical Drawing 2 and after that in Mechanical Drawing 3... I don't know what we do... can't wait to find out, though). The thing is, when I think of the game industry, I think immediately of the game designers, all talented, looking for jobs and being miserable until they decide to gather a group of other like minded designers and create their own game. I don't think of the programmers, coding away to create the internal systems of the games we all want to create (even though I should be). Then I think to myself: would being a designer land me a job in the industry or would a programmer.

I guess it comes down to my fears, desires and work ethos. I fear that I won't have what it takes to learn the complex Calculus needed to become a Programmer even though I want to be able to code, and I fear that becoming a Game Designer will land me a spot in the unemployment line and in debt from college expenses because all I'll know how to be able to do is model the characters and worlds, but not know how to truly MAKE the world come alive.

What are your thoughts on Game Design, Designers? Game Programming for you Programmers?

PS: I've spent the past week looking at colleges and programs for a Bachelor's Degree in Game Programming and love DeVry, Full Sail and DigiPen... however, with the issues I'm having about whether or not to be a Programmer or a Designer, I think I'll be limiting my favorites down to Full Sail and DigiPen's Game Art and Game Design programs if I choose to major in that.

The headache...
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I've heard by different people that companies don't generally like to hire Game Designers and that they would rather hire existing artists, programmers, etc. within the company as Game Designers.

So I would be a Programmer.
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I've heard by different people that companies don't generally like to hire Game Designers

 

That's slightly incorrect. Companies will definitely hire experienced game designers. "Game Designer" is generally not an entry level job though. It is possible to get in as some sort of junior designer, such as Level Designer, but there are fewer design positions than programming.

 

The career path to become a game designer, is complex and not really straightforward. You can start in QA and work your ass off to get a junior design role, only to work your ass off even more to work your way up. You can even start as a programmer/animator/artist and make a transition to a design position. You can even be a domain expert (i.e. a retired minor-pro athlete on a sports game team). I've seen people go through all of these paths.

 

I don't want to discourage you from trying. I do have friends who got intern design positions and then got hired on as designers when they graduated, but these people are generally the exception, not the rule. Success always starts with working your ass off regardless of the path you decide to follow.

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Programmer.

 

Any decent Game Designer needs to be a programmer anyway (if nothing else to quickly make prototypes to test simple ideas/mechanics).

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Keep in mind that for every dozen programmers and dozen artists combined, there's around 1 designer working with them.
Professionally speaking, it's hard to get paid to be a game designer.
 
The "game design college" industry is pumping out a lot of disappointed graduates.
 
I'd recommend learning either art or code, AND design skills if you're interested in design. 

Then there's Game Design: the career that I feel the most comfortable and worried about. Game designers are the ones in charge of creating the worlds and characters that literally MAKE video games. I've always had an eye for art; drawing from the age of 5. In recent years, I've transitioned to digital media to express my artistic talent, mostly graphic design. I await my Web Design course that I'll be taking next semester at my high school with excitement. After that, I'll be waiting to get my hands dirty with an Animation Class (Multimedia 3 at my school) and some 3D modeling software (right now I'm taking the first class of Mechanical Drawing - we go from Mechanical Drawing to Inventor in Mechanical Drawing 2 and after that in Mechanical Drawing 3... I don't know what we do... can't wait to find out, though).

I fear that becoming a Game Designer ... all I'll know how to be able to do is model the characters and worlds

It sounds like you're confused as to what a "games designer" is.
 
In a games company:
A graphic-designer or web-designer would likely work in the UX/UI team (making the GUIs, not the world/characters).
An animator would work with the characters -- making them move and bringing them to life (working with animation programmers and AI programmers), but doesn't create the characters to begin with.
A 3D modeller would create either the characters or the environments, but they don't create original ideas from scratch; they're likely given concept art to use as a guideline.
An illustrator could work as a concept artist, who paints pictures of what the characters and environments should look like -- but even they're not coming up with completely original ideas; they'll be guided by the game designer, creative director or art directors...
 
None of those jobs above are a "game designer" -- they're largely "artists".

 

So I guess you're actually tossing up between art and code... In my experience, there's usually about an equal number of artists and coders on a project, meaning there's likely a fairly even number of jobs between each.

 

If you learn both, you can be a tech-artist ("tech director" in film industry-speak) or a games special effects-artist happy.png

 

Programmers have a bit more career security in general, as we can always transition over to making apps, or working for banks, etc, if our games jobs disappear.

Most artists I know that have moved on from games have either moved into the film/VFX industry (which is about as volatile as games is), or have changed careers slightly, e.g. into web design.

 

I guess it comes down to my fears, desires and work ethos. I fear that I won't have what it takes to learn the complex Calculus needed to become a Programmer even though I want to be able to code

FWIW, I'm an experienced low-level engine programmer, and an experienced graphics programmer (which is one field where Calculus actually has lots of applications these days), and I never really learned calculus in school, and still don't have a mastery of it. Even now I pretty much just have an "intuitive" understanding of it, rather than the "rigorous" understanding that a real Mathematician would expect laugh.png

If you can understand trigonometry and algebra, then you can code games.

 

However, I would suggest that if you're going to do a college/university level course, you probably should already have started either coding or making art beforehand. College will not teach you what you need to know to get a job. College will teach you that you have to teach yourself, so it's best to get a head start right now.

Edited by Hodgman
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To be a designer in any of the fields, Business Applications or Games or just about anything, you need to have a firm understanding on how they work and are put together.

As a Game Designer, the programming team may come to you to explain how some of your mechanics of the game are supposed to work, you will need to be answer that question in their terms.

Program Leads and designers are normally promoted from within a company or hired by a head-hunter. 

 

Most programmers start out by believing they can design a better gaming system that what they have experienced and then set out to prove that by designing their own game, and then by programming it.  All to often many find both to be a daunting task.

 

HMMMMM ?  Sounds like you may have to follow both dreams as you continue your journey.  By doing this, you may find you will have better strengths in 1 over the other and your career path will become obvious and when the time comes where the paths will divide, you will know which one to choose!!

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Great replies, guys. I'm definitely going to work on strengthening both my design and programming skills, and in due time, find out which is my strong suit. When the gaming industry is in such a volatile state, its imperative that I have the skills necessary to keep myself afloat I.e Programming Apps like Hodgman said. And I'm going to check put that degree program at Digitech, Ludus. Thanks!
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1. I guess it comes down to my fears, desires and work ethos. I fear that I won't have what it takes to learn the complex Calculus... and I fear that becoming a Game Designer will land me a spot in the unemployment line and in debt from college expenses ...
2. What are your thoughts on Game Design, Designers?
3.  I've spent the past week looking at colleges and programs for a Bachelor's Degree in Game Programming and love DeVry, Full Sail and DigiPen...

 

1. Your fears may not be unreasonable, but the more you focus on them, the more you stymie your personal progress.  Think of them as "concerns" about possible futures instead. There are a lot of wise words (that I didn't write) at http://sloperama.com/advice/lesson47.html#fear

 

2. I've written extensively on my thoughts on that subject.

http://sloperama.com/advice/designprep.htm

http://sloperama.com/advice/lesson14.htm

http://sloperama.com/advice/lesson37.htm

 

3. Maybe your fears would be lessened if you obtained your education at a reasonably affordable school. It would probably be a good idea to get a Computer Science degree, and minor in something creative (anything you like).

http://sloperama.com/advice/lesson34.htm

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"I want to create those vast, sprawling worlds"

 

Then you best learn to program really good tools to make that practical for yourself.

 

Clever auto-generation can be done but it still relies on patterns sucked out of the developers skull.

 

Tools that are easy to use and are HELPFUL take alot of work by themselves.

 

 

With a decent set of tools you may also be able to leverage the use of Player Creativity as asignificant element of how you game operates   (Thats something that may be the future of MMORPGs and a help for Solo games Modding)

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Hello,

 

 

Since you are talking serious occupation goals, you need to remember that the video game industry is like an organism in itself.  Unless you go Indy, the company will pull you this way and that way by what it needs - short term and long term.  Only the very skilled artists earn a secure income long term within a corporation, whereas many programmers are able to make it if they have good skills.  If you are thinking in terms of stepping stones in your career, then by any means get into a company and take it from there.  Most people are transient in the game development area because it is very fluid. You will need to "be on top of your game" to make it.

 

My strategy has been to work with a company while I do freelance on the side.  This way I cover all my needs and goals as I stay busy at work.  Bills are paid, skills increased, and network is expanded. In any case, [u]you must keep working long hours[/u] and yet earn enough to cover living expenses.  Learning takes many hours by itself, but living expenses take high priority.

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From the perspective of having tried to recruit a designer for a small commerical game project (~$1 million), finding a competent game designer was the most difficult recruitment task in the project. We ended up cycling through a number of people, all proving unqualified (of course, this shows our HR competence was dubious at best).

 

I think some reasons candidates didn't do a good job were:

- They couldn't communicate their ideas.

- They really didn't have the ability to estimate gameplay in advance or build vision (i.e. they had no implementable ideas).

- Talkers rather than doers.

- We were cheapskates. Experience costs, what else to expect when trying to get inexperienced people into a game design position to save money.

 

What I want to say with this is, it's absolutely critical you get real team experience and accomplish a real game, even if that must be from a hobby project with a group of amateurs.

Edited by Petter Hansson
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