Should I learn programming if I want to become a video game designer?

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In this episode of Game Industry Career Guide Podcast, I answer a question from Dylan, who asks “I want to use Game Designer as a career path and I was wondering if being a game programmer would help with that?”

In this episode, you’ll learn:

  • Why programming is at the heart of every game project
  • 3 reasons why programming will help your game design career
  • How to stand out from the crowd when you apply for your first game design job

If you have a question you'd like to get answered on the podcast, leave a comment below or ask me anything here.

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Hello and welcome to the Game Industry Career Guide podcast. This is episode number 36. I’m Jason W. Bay from and this is the podcast where I answer your questions about getting a job and growing your career making video games.

This week’s question is from Dylan who left a comment on a blog post to ask this, “I want to use Game Designer as a career path, and I was wondering if being a game programmer would help with that.”

Now I’ve mentioned in other episodes that the very best game designers tend to also know a lot about the other jobs in game development. But of all the areas in game development that a designer could know, I think that knowing how to do some programming is the most helpful by far. But if what you really want to do is design games, not program them, then why is it so important to know programming?

To code, or not to code?

Well, today we’re going to discuss three major reasons why learning a program will help your career as a game designer. For starters, you need to understand that everything in a video game is powered by programming. Artists make the arts, designers construct the experience and audio people whip up the music and sound effects. But it doesn’t come alive as a game until a programmer writes the code that powers it all.

Help yourself

That’s why as a game designer a lot of what you design is sort of at the mercy of your game teams’ programmers. So it’s going to make your job much easier if you understand enough about programming to be able to talk with the programmers using their vocabulary in terms that make sense to them.

Understanding some programming will also help you better understand the limitations that the programmers lay out for you. And when you understand what’s going on behind the scenes in the game code, that makes it easier for you to work with the programmers to brainstorm creative approaches to design challenges or even offer technical solutions of your own. To be totally frank, some programmers can get a little snobby towards people who aren’t technical and don’t understand code, so having some code chops of your own can help you earn the respect of your team’s programmers.

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Scripting == coding

The second reason to learn some programming is that most modern game engines actually do require game designers to write some code using a type of simplified programming language called a Scripting Language. Now scripting isn’t like full blown game programming, it’s a lot less complex and it’s not nearly as powerful. But as a game designer you’ll still use it to do some pretty powerful things like customizing your games, artificial intelligence and controlling how the player interacts with the game world. When you’re doing scripting, you’ll be able to do it much faster and easier and probably much better if you have a good understanding of the fundamentals of programming.

Truly independent

The third reason I want to mention is that if you have some basic programming skills, then you should be able to use any of the modern game making tools to actually make a game of your own. It probably wouldn’t be a big professional looking triple-A game, but you could certainly make a small indie game. And game designers, they do that all the time. It can be a lot of fun to make your own game. So that’s reason in itself to do it.

Ahead of the pack

But that’s not the only reason that you should do it. When you make your own little games, it also looks great in your game design portfolio that you’ll show to employers when you apply for jobs. Making little games of your own, it just sets you apart from all of the other game designers who might be applying for the same jobs. So it can help kick start your career, especially when you’re first starting out.

You can also use programming skills to quickly make little prototypes for any game ideas that you might be working on. It’s a good way to test out different features that you might be designing for your game. For example, I’ve worked with game designers who like to prototype in tools like Game Maker or Unity 3D because it lets them experiment with the feel of a new game feature they might be working on and then they can sort of experiment with it and tweak it just the way they want. Then they can show that prototype to a game programmer and that helps to ensure that the game programmer understands what they’re trying to do with the feature, and they can implement it in just the way that you wanted.

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Recommended, not required

So those are three very good reasons why learning to program can boost your career as a game designer and open up opportunities that you would not have if you didn’t know how to code. Having said all that, I do know game designers who are very good at their jobs even though they don’t know how to program.

But the best game designers do have a range of skills. It doesn’t have to be programming. It could be some other game dev areas like art, or creative writing or user experience. The best advice might be just to learn a little bit of everything. Learning everything that you can about all areas of game development will make you a better game designer and it will make you a more desirable candidate to get hired for your next job opportunity at a professional game studio.

Thanks to Dylan for that question and thank you for spending a few minutes geeking out with me today about video game design and programming. If you have a question of your own stop by the website and leave a comment or send me an email and I’ll answer it on a future episode.

Remember to hit that subscribe button or the like button on whatever software that you’re using to listen to this right now, it’ll make sure that you never miss an episode. For more information and inspiration on getting a job and growing your career making video games, visit me a I’m Jason W. Bay. I will see you again next time right here on the Game Industry Career Guide podcast.

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