Game developers are the key element in an industry expected to value $614 billion by 2028. With so much money flying around, you’d think the industry would be jam-packed with game developers who possess the right skills… and yet gaming companies of all sizes still scramble to secure great talent.
For game developers, this demand is good news, as it can translate into opportunities and cash. But do you need a formal degree to land a game development position? That’s an important question, and for an answer we turned to several industry insiders and experts.
Bottom line: a degree isn’t mandatory for many game developer roles. As with so many other technology jobs, solid experience and a portfolio of past projects can secure you a seat in front of a hiring manager. However, a degree can certainly help when it comes to standing out in a crowded field of applicants.
“While a degree isn’t entirely necessary to have a good understanding of game development, I think a bachelor’s degree will get your resume looked at more than not having a degree,” Maksim Kalik, iOS engineer at Triumph Labs, tells Dice. “I also think that having a core curriculum just helps you learn things that most people should know by the time they get a job, and it’s possible that you might miss some of those things if you only self-teach. But nowadays you can see more and more job propositions with the line ‘CS degree or equivalent experience,’ which means the practical experience is substituting degree.”
Sheloman Byrd, COO of Streamline Studios, says, “School is a great way to get into the industry, especially now, as programs and full degrees are available that focus on games and games-related disciplines. That said, it's not a path for everyone, and there are other ways. Many producers come from QA, and some do a full career change, whether you were in the military or came from Wall Street or Silicon Valley.”
Skills All Game Developers Need
If a formal degree isn’t the path you choose for a career in game development, it’s critical you master important skills you’d otherwise learn at a university. Chris Nye, technical lead at Experis Game Solutions, gives us his list of necessary skills for game developers:
- Critical thinking and analysis
- Creativity and originality
- Reasoning and problem solving
- Reliability and self-discipline
- Resilience and adaptability
Kalik adds: “The basic important skills of a game developer are close to the skills of any software engineering. For example, knowledge of programming languages (C, C++, C#, etc.), algorithms, and the ability to compartmentalize a project into the most basic units (i.e., not trying to immediately go from 0-100 and taking it step-by-step). On top of that, a game developer should know the tools necessary for a specific game engine: (i.e., Unity, Unreal, Amazon Lumberyard, CryENGINE, Cocos2d, etc.) to be successful.”
The Game Developer Degree Can Be Critical in Some Scenarios
Though he agrees a degree isn’t mandatory for most game developer roles, Matthew Paxton of Hypernia Gaming says, “Having a degree will give you an edge in getting the job. A bachelor's degree in graphic design, multimedia, or video game design that includes software engineering, 2D and 3D animation, or any related field will surely help.”
Nye adds: “The economy plays a role in the type of credentials a company seeks in new hires.” If a recession produces a larger pool of developers, for example, companies may rely more on degrees as a hiring criterion or filter. But when the economy is good and gaming companies’ profits are high, they may open the hiring gates to more candidates without degrees. “In many cases, larger corporations often require a degree, whereas smaller companies rely on experience over degrees.”
Which Degrees Should You Focus On?
“For a software developer working on game code, a degree in computer science is very helpful,” Nye says. “We’re starting to see more degrees offered in game development. Having that degree is helpful for getting developers in the door and provides a great solid platform to build a career.” (Some schools that offer accredited programs in game development include Game Development Degree at Southern New Hampshire University and Game Development and Design Degree and Purdue University.)
For those who want to work on the art and visuals of games, an art degree could prove useful, while those who eventually want to work on the producing side of gaming may want to consider a business degree (larger companies often require an MBA for production managers). Even quality assurance (QA) analysts can potentially benefit from a computer science degree.
Degree or not, you will eventually need to prove your skillset is useful to a potential employer. And keep in mind that teamwork and “soft skills” (such as empathy and communication) are always important: while you may have created games on your own to build your portfolio, games at larger companies are typically developed in a team environment. Showing that you know how to be a good teammate may be critical to landing the job.
If you’re still building a portfolio of work, reach out to other game developers to partner on a project; that will show hiring managers you’re able to work in a team environment. Schools often have students do group projects, and this is one box self-taught developers rarely think to check. It may also be a great way to stand out when your résumé is one of dozens a hiring manager is looking over.
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