Video games are a major part of the UK’s screen entertainment industry. Games are everywhere, from phones, tablets, PCs, consoles and virtual reality headsets (VR). This exciting industry blends creative talents, from artists to technicians. Game development can be a highly complex process often lasting up to two years and requiring teams of programmers, designers, artists, writers, musicians, and even actors. Whether supported by multi-million-pound investment for a flagship console game, or a micro team working from home on a mobile game, developers can achieve great success. The computer games market is highly competitive and subject to seasonal peaks, and launch dates that need to be met.
Skills needed to work in games
- ability to manage people, time, budget and resources
- excellent communication and presentation skills
- good organisational and personal/technical problem solving
- good negotiation, conflict resolution and decision making skills
- a passion for games and knowledge of game design theory
- traditional and computer art and design skills
- ability to work to a style guide
- knowledge of 2D and 3D modelling and animation packages
- knowledge of constraints, conflict resolution and problem solving skills
- awareness of colour, modelling and texturing techniques
- the ability to work as part of a team and independently
- attention to detail and observation skills
- knowledge of console hardware architecture
- understanding and proficiency in using 3D graphics software
- ability to anticipate the needs of the artists so as to streamline their productivity
- hands-on understanding of programming roles and advanced programming skills
- storytelling and narrative development skills
- information design and user interface design skills
- spatial awareness and the ability to visualise layouts
- IT skills and competence in the use of world editing tools
- knowledge of different platforms
- ability to play games for long periods
- ability to compose and perform music
- sound engineering skills and knowledge of the relevant tools and technology
- aural skills, a sense of timing, and attention to detail
Training and qualifications
Most games artists will possess an art or game art degree. Some courses will also offer work placements. Artists must be trained with graphics packages, such as 3D Studio Max, Maya, Softimage and Photoshop.
A degree in physics, maths, or computer science is usually a prerequisite for programming roles. All programmers start with a proven ability to programme in C++.
Games editors usually need to know 3D modeling packages, such as 3D Studio Max or Maya.
There are plenty of universities offering degree courses in games. When choosing one, it’s important to be clear on whether the course favours development (e.g. coding) or design (e.g. concept art). You should choose a course that allows you to develop your best skills and be aware of which jobs the course will best prepare you for.
There are no specific qualifications required for testers, although some programming knowledge is desirable. For sound engineers, a degree or other higher education qualification in sound engineering is useful. Knowledge of relevant software packages, such as Logic Audio, Sound Forge, and Cool Edit Pro, is also useful.
Jobs in games
Project managers ensure that a game is completed on time, within budget, and using the right resources. Prior to production they analyse game design specification and work out milestones, schedules, equipment and teams. They control financial resources and negotiate all contracts with suppliers and contractors. They may also oversee ongoing maintenance issues after launch. This is an increasingly important role as production schedules lengthen and development costs increase. Project managers are employed by development studios and publisher’s in-house development teams.
Lead designer or creative director
Initially, the lead designer works with a small core team, defining the artistic approach for the game. The lead artist will supervise, if not undertake, the production of concept art which indicates the visual atmosphere and graphic design. They also research and test out different modeling, texturing, animation, rendering and lighting techniques and tools. The lead designer then manages the art and animation team (including outsourced staff), specifying what needs to be produced, ensuring deadlines and budgets and are met, and planning for any contingencies. Lead designers are employed by development studios, both independent and publisher-owned.
Concept artists help develop the visual style, setting and characters for a game from the outset and throughout production. They provide other artists with the starting points for their work. Producing concept art can involve traditional and digital artistic skills.
3D modeling artist
Using concept art as reference, 3D modeling artists create the 3D objects, buildings and characters needed for a game. They can use a variety of software tools including Maya, Modo and Z-Brush. The technical constraints of the game must be kept in mind, for example, the poly count for each object and scene and the size of the textures for each 3D object.
These artists create the immersive worlds that bring the gameplay to life for the player. Environment artists blend artistic and graphic design skills with knowledge of technical processes and understanding of how colour and light interact. They and the software they use work in 3D space.
Special effects (SFX) artist
Elements like smoke, fire and water are made by the SFX artist. They will work within the constraints of the game engine to create elements that enhance the player’s experience and the immersive nature of the game.
Every model or character in a game will need to be textured. One of the skills of a texture artist is to put detail into each 3D model’s textures, with the smallest amount of data. Simple “flat” textures make 3D objects look fake. Adding imperfections to perfect textures is one of the tricks a texture artist can use to make 3D environments and objects look real.
Technical artists set up and maintain the art production workflow, as well as deciding which packages and tools a studio should use and investigating new technologies and techniques. They are the bridge between artists and programmers. They are employed by development studios, and as a specialised position, have pay rates higher than normal artists.
The lead programmer manages the software engineering of a game, developing the technical specification and then delegating different elements. They usually compile technical documentation and ensure the quality, effectiveness and appropriateness of all the game code. They also manage the production of the different ‘builds’ of a game, ensuring that coding bugs are fixed, and making sure everything happens on schedule. The lead programmer must also provide support and guidance to the programming team, which can include specialism in games engine programming, graphics programming, gamesplay, physics, artificial intelligence (AI), tools development, networking and build engineering.
Gamesplay designers set the rules and define the possible actions within a game, as well as the mechanics of the game play. The rules and possible actions can evolve during the gameplay, as the players progress through levels.
The level editor designs a portion of the game usually referred to as a ‘level’, specifying all possible actions and events, the environment, layout, visuals, characters and objects and their behaviours. The level editor sketches ideas to be worked out in 3D and tested. They will also draw up an inventory of level ‘assets’ (objects and programming requirements), always maintaining an understanding of advanced technologies, technical constraints and what makes entertaining gameplay. The work of a level designer ensures that each new stage of the gameplay presents new challenges for the player.
Creates interactive sound effects like rain, wind, collision impacts and cheering. Sound designers collaborate closely with audio programmers and in some development teams the roles are combined.
The audio programmer produces the game's sound design, working with sound engineers, composers and designers. They can develop tools to help realise the overall design. Games are non-linear, interactive experiences and the audio programmer needs to keep that in mind, in addition to technical constraints and tight production deadlines.
The assistant producer assists the production team with project management, as well as internal and external communication. Responsbilities include milestone planning and tracking, review and approval processes, filing and archiving game assets, handling any outsourcing, organising press visits, releasing game demos and setting up photo shoots.
The external producer advises the developer and ensures the publisher has the information to make the game commercially successful. This involves coordinating the release of screenshots and demo disks with marketing, handling outsourcing with the internal producer and running focus tests. They are also the developer’s go-between with the publisher in terms of milestone payments or any major changes.
Find out more about working in games
- Game Design and Development, by Adams, E. and Rollings, A
- Design Thinking, by Ambrose, G. and Harris, P.
- Challenges for Game Designers: Non-Digital Exercises for Video Game Designers, by Brathwaite, B. and Schreiber, I.
- Six Thinking Hats, by De Bono, E.
- Replay: The History of Video Games, by Donavan, T.
- Social Game Design: Monetization Methods and Mechanics, by Fields, T.
- Gadgets, Games, Robots, Digital World, by Gifford, C.
- Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games, Fullerton, T.
- Free2Play: Making Money From Games You Give Away, by Luton, W.
- Level Up! The Guide to Great Video Game Design, by Rogers, S.
- The Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals, by Salen, K. and Zimmerman, E.
- The Untold History of Japanese Game Developers, by Szczepaniak, S.
- Casual Game Design: Designing Play for the Gamer in All of Us, by Trefry, G.
- How Stuff Works, by Woodford C.
Some other job roles in animation, games and vfx
Computer-generated (CG) animation
CG animation includes a range of creative and technical jobs, from 3D trackers to painters specialising in rendering clothes and fur
Storyboard artists, painters and inbetweeners are all part of the assembly line of frame-by-frame hand-drawn animation
VFX roles include artistic jobs like painter or modelling artist as well as specialist technician roles, most enter the department as runners or roto artists