Can a software engineer become a game designer?

A few days ago, a mate of mine, a software engineer, asked me if a software engineer could become a game designer. 

Now, full disclosure here, I’m not a software engineer. I honestly believe that anybody can be a game designer. Being the type of lad that’s totally down with the growth mindset movement, I totally think a software engineer could become a game designer. 

However, before blurting out an answer, I decided to put on my custom-made sherlock homes hat and do some research. 

This is what I found: 

Can a software engineer become a game designer? A software engineer can become a game designer. A software designer’s skills can be transferred over to game design. However, there are several other skills a software designer may wish to learn to make themselves more attractive in the game design job marketplace. 

OK, that’s one heck of an answer. Let’s look at this question and more in more detail. 

Can a software engineer become a game designer? 

Software engineers have a plethora of skills that readily transfer to game design.

Like everybody else on the planet, yes, of course, a software engineer can become a game designer. 

If you dropped everything right now and focused solely on doing courses, building games, and mods for games, you could absolutely transition to a career in game design. 

The only thing stopping anybody on this planet from following their dreams is belief. The belief that you have what it takes to step forward and take the leaps necessary to become what you truly want to become. You have to believe that you can become a game designer. 

Fortunately, as a software engineer, you come packing a ton of skills that will readily transfer to a game designer position. 

Every game aspect is simply a system that the player interacts with. For example, system and process design are at the very centre of game design. All game designers do is come up with these systems. It’s a programmer that implements them with code. 

Additionally, your experience as a software engineer should make your transition to a game designer easier because you’ll understand what current technology is capable of. 

When I was in college studying game design, we all came up with crazy and wacky game ideas. But there was one problem: whenever we talked to the programmers on the game development course, we were told our ideas would largely be impossible to implement, at the time, with current technology. 

Additionally, your understanding of programming tools should readily transfer to game development tools such as unreal engine or Unity.

Honestly, as a software engineer, you have many skills that are transferable to game design and could give you a massive advantage over a traditional, creative game designer. 

In the next section, I’ll examine what skills you may need to learn. 

What skills do you need to learn to switch from a software engineer to a game designer? 

You’ll need to learn a number of new skills if you want to be a game designer.

OK, so you’ve decided that you definitely want to switch from software engineering to game design. Good choice. You are in for a world of creative wonder. 

However, I recommend that you learn a few extra skills to augment your already bursting draw of technical software development skills. 

Depending on what direction you want to go in with the game design, I recommend you start learning about the following: 

  • Creativity – learning about general creativity is always a good idea. Edward Debono’s 6 Thinking Hats is a good place to start with this.  
  • Game Level / World Design – Love world building? Fallen in love with a level on Mario 64? Learning about level and world design is vital to crafting nearly every type of modern game. 
  • Character Design – It goes without saying characters are vital to games. Knowing how to create compelling, flawed characters that players will fall in love with/hate can make or break a game. Just look at the Last of Us.  
  • Art / Graphics Design – Games are made of many art assets, from 3d models to textures. Knowing how these are made and used is important to becoming a game designer. 
  • Lighting Designer – The use of light in games, especially with the introduction of ray tracing and global illumination, is becoming an important part of game design. Knowing how light can set a mood and alter the player’s perception of the world is an important skill to grasp. 
  • Sound Design – Sound design is vital to games these days. Bungee, the makers of Halo, have said 75% of gunplay’s “feel” in games is down to how the guns sound. 
  • UX Design – User experience and user interface design play a big role in games. From menus to HUD, UX design is vital in AAA game development. 
  • Gameplay Design – No list of skills for game design would be complete without mentioning gameplay design. This can be anything from designing a character’s abilities and skill moves to gameplay loops. Gameplay design is the heart and soul of game design. 

OK, that’s a lot of skills you can start digging into. But where can you learn all of these skills? 

I’ll take a look at that in the next section. 

Where can I learn these skills? 

If you want to add some game design skills to your skill arsenal, there are several easy ways. 

And no, you don’t have to spend tens of thousands of dollars on college fees for a degree to learn these skills. It’s the 21st century. There are better ways to learn now. Let’s take a look at a few of them. 

  • YouTube – If you love watching youtube videos, it’s no exaggeration to say that every single thing you ever need to know about game design can be found on YouTube. Just type in “game design” in YouTube search, and start watching. 
  • Blogs – Another great way to learn game design is to read blogs. Type into Google “Game Design Blogs”, and you’ll get many blogs dedicated to game design. I even have some cracking game design articles on CareerGamers, such as this article on 3d Platform game design.  
  • Udemy – You can learn all the skills you need to be a successful game designer on the Udemy marketplace. Honestly, just type in “Game Design” into Udemy and start doing the course. Take a look here. Many can be bought for under $15 if you wait for a sale. And honestly, Udemy seems to have sales every couple of days. 
  • Skillshare – Skillshare is another one of those websites, like Udemy, that offers fantastic creative courses. However, unlike Udemy, where you pay for each course, you subscribe to Skillshare for a monthly fee for unlimited course access.
  • Books – Besides just doing, my favourite way of learning is reading books. I find there is no better way to learn a skill than to read about how to do it and then just follow along and do it. Yes, I know most people prefer videos these days. But, if you prefer books, hundreds of great game design books are out there. Take a look at an article I wrote about game design books I’ve read that I would recommend.  

OK, now you’ve got some ideas for where you can learn the skills you’ll need as a game designer? But how do you get that all-important experience you need to fill out your CV? 

I’ll take a quick look at that in the next section. 

How do I get game design experience when swapping from a software engineer career? 

You can succeed at transferring from a software engineer to game designer, if you are willing to put the work in.

OK, you’ve been learning some skills on Udemy, reading game design books, and watching loads of game design videos on Youtube. 

Now, it’s time to take action. You need to get some experience in game design. You need to build a portfolio. 

Below are a few simple ways that you can do that: 

  • Ask to help with the design decisions in your current job – If you work for a games company already as a software engineer, ask your manager if you can be included in some game design meetings and decisions. That way, you’ll be able to build up some experience in game design. 
  • Create a game mod – Another great way to get experience and build a portfolio is to create a mode for your favourite game. 
  • Create a game level – don’t fancy creating a full-blown mod? Then why not start by creating a level for your favourite game using a level designer?  
  • Create a small game – Since you have a load of coding skills, you should be more than able to code your own small games. That is a great way to test game design ideas and build a portfolio.  
  • Create a board game – Another interesting way, but a still valid method, of getting game design experience is to design board games. Many great game designers, such as Ken Levine of Bioshock fame, would design gameplay loops as board games to test them out. 
  • Create a game design document – all gameplay designs, levels, characters, you name it, start on paper. So why not start on paper or screen and create a design document for your game? 

The above should give you an ample chance to get game design experience and build a game design portfolio. 

Nick Sinclair

Nick Sinclair, a gaming aficionado since the Commodore 64 era, studied Creative Computer Games Design in university before founding his own gaming company. Discovering a passion for content creation, Nick now helps gamers squeeze every drop of fun out of their favorite gaming hardware

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