What is Video Game Design?

Brendan McGuigan

Video game design is the practice of designing video games, as the name implies. It involves many different facets, including general video game design, story design, programming, level design, and other components. As games have become a massive industry, video game design has become a highly sought-after profession, in spite of often intense work hours, relatively mid-line pay scales, and a high burnout rate. Whole schools have opened up focusing exclusively on video game design, as a whole generation looks to video games as a lifelong career.

A handheld video game.
A handheld video game.

In the past, a single person often handled all aspects of video game design, as games were much simpler. One person would come up with a game concept, figure out how to implement it, design the simple graphics, program the game, and build levels. In time, this turned into small teams working on games, even at larger game companies. Eventually, video game design became its own thing, and people began to become well known for their designs, with small celebrities forming in the game world as a result of a keen sense of design.

Some video games are designed to be appropriate for the whole family.
Some video games are designed to be appropriate for the whole family.

The world of modern video game design is substantially different from this, at least in the large companies. Big video game companies may have hundreds of people working on a single title, separated into distinct teams who may have very little interaction with each other. The abstract design is, in some cases, undertaken by an individual or team on their own, and then is brought to life by other teams responsible for art design, programming, sound design and voice effects, character design, and level design. Small companies may still create games with only a few employees, however, as the added complexity of video games has in large part been balanced by massive improvements in the tools for building games.

The blueprint of a video game design is known as the design documents, and usually lays out in great detail every aspect of the game. This way large teams have a central document to look to whenever a question comes up, and teams working on specific projects can get a feel for what the overall scope of the game they’re working on is. Often a design document will control the easily predictable aspects of a game, such as the story, the level design, and the setting. An alternate form of design, iterative design, is often preferred for things like game mechanics, as it allows for mechanics to evolve and develop as the game is being built, which is useful since the way mechanics will actually function can be very difficult to predict.

In recent years, as more and more people have pushed to get involved in video game design, a number of schools have opened up that specialize in the field. Many of these programs are offered online, but some traditional design schools have also opened up programs in video game design. There are pros and cons to majoring in such a specific field, and there are supporters and detractors of the practice. Supporters suggest it may be easier to land a job in the field with a specialized degree, as potential employers can assume you have a baseline understanding of best practices. Detractors point out that with the high churn rate in the industry, it is often preferable to have a more general degree, such as one in art design or computer programming, so that between video game design jobs other jobs can more easily be pursued.

More people have become interested in video game design over the years.
More people have become interested in video game design over the years.

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Discussion Comments


@ocelot60- You make a good point, because I don't think that there are as many jobs is this field as their use to be. However, there is still quite a market for individuals who design video games.

I have a nephew who didn't want to do anything in high school but play video games. Since he also loved working on computers, his parents encouraged him to explore the field of video game design when he went to college. Today he has a great job in the field and loves the work he does.


Can people actually find employment when they go to school for video game design? It seems like with so many games already available, the market is probably not as profitable as it use to me.

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