Game Designer vs. Game Developer: Key Differences

Game Designer vs. Game Developer: Key Differences

The video game industry thrives with creativity, passion, and innovation. Behind the scenes,  development teams of designers, programmers, writers, artists, and testers—to name a few of the many roles—come together to craft these incredible titles, often over several years.

Although the various roles involved are so numerous, two main ones stand out: game designers and game developers. At face value, they might sound very similar. After all, their role is essentially to create an actual game, right?

While that fact might be true, there’s more than meets the eye. Game designers and game developers have different skill sets and perform different tasks in the gaming world. These two superheroes are behind the fantastical worlds and gameplay mechanics that we fall in love with when we boot up our systems. But below the surface, it’s apples and oranges.

This article will serve as your guide to distinguishing game designers from game developers and potentially help clarify the gaming profession that might suit you best.

Table of contents:

What is a game designer?

The game designer is the heart of the game, bringing emotion and life into the game itself. They’re tasked with creating and drawing up those all-important blueprints that will eventually become the premise of the video game.

Their role involves important responsibilities such as creating game concepts, crafting storylines, inventing fresh gameplay mechanics, and developing aesthetically pleasing and intuitive user interfaces.

Game designers spend most of their time diving into the depths of their imagination. They’ll dream up profound ideas for thrilling side quests, plot twists, and memorable characters to get players hooked.

But it’s not just the inherent story that these designers craft—they’re also required to nail down how the game actually functions. That requires another sort of creativity to bring the gameplay alive. They might design how the scoring system works, work through level design, and determine important game rules to work toward storyline development and player engagement.

All this is communicated through various design documents and prototypes that detail everything from how a character’s ears look to what happens when players press a certain button on the controller. It’s essentially the world build magnum opus that the entire team refers to throughout the game development process.

What is a game developer?

Game developers are in control when it comes to the technical aspects of video game creation. They’re responsible for using their programming skills to turn the game designer’s ideas into a fully realized, playable game.

Like game designers, the game developer’s role involves putting on many hats. One minute, they might be knee-deep in complex programming languages such as Python, Java, or C++; another, they could be engaging in hands-on experimentation with sophisticated algorithms and game engines such as Unity or Unreal Engine.

These game engines are indispensable to game developers as they are the software development tools used to create and develop the video game into existence. They can handle multiple aspects of a video game, including character animation, graphics rendering, and physics simulation. Developers manipulate 3D models, texture, and more to fine-tune the gameplay experience.

Educational background and skill sets

Whether you’re an aspiring game designer or game developer, each role requires more than just a passion for gaming—they also require the education and skills to get the job done right.

Game designer

As game designers are responsible for conjuring up the unique concept of a video game, they often need a blend of creativity and technical wit. While experience often trumps formal education for this role, many video game designers enter the field with a bachelor’s degree in animation, game design, creative writing, or something similar.

That educational background can equip them with a broad base of key skills and knowledge, such as an understanding of game mechanics and insight into creating a stellar user experience. Hard skills like 3D modeling and scripting often have a steep learning curve, but they’re an essential part of the game designer’s arsenal.

Concocting entire worlds, detailed storylines, and an overall engaging and one-of-a-kind game experience is a tough task, which is why they need a deep understanding of what makes a game engaging, challenging, and fun.

Being successful in this role requires interest and familiarity with a wide range of games and gameplay above all else. Knowing what’s trendy and what gamers want today will ultimately make the difference between a successful game and a lackluster one.

Game developer

Game development also demands a combination of imagination and technicality, but a strong background in computer science and software engineering sets it apart from game design.

Game developers must be significantly skilled in computer science principles. Most importantly, they need to be proficient in relevant programming languages like Java. Any complex coding to build the base of video games requires a rigorous understanding of them.

At the same time, practical knowledge of game engines and software development frameworks is also essential for game functionality. These skills typically require years of study and hands-on experience to master at the level required.

Beyond the technical know-how, game developers also need soft skills. Imagine the number of scenarios where characters don’t move as planned or bugs are detected in the gameplay. Problem-solving skills are essential to help developers fix the issue.

Like game designers, game developers also need the zeal and knowledge of the video game landscape. A naturally curious nature means being able to ask questions like “What types of games are most popular with developers at the moment?” and “How could our game stand out?” to boost the game’s success.

Salary

So, what’s the pay for these roles? Like any other profession, salaries can vary quite a bit depending on factors such as location, experience, qualifications, and whether the company is a startup or established enterprise.

Game designer

The average yearly salary for a game designer is $105,950 and ranges from $92,899 on the low end to $120,733 on the high end. For contract roles or one-off projects, the hourly rate for this role is typically $51 per hour. The more years of experience a designer has, the higher the earnings.

Game developer

For game developers, the average annual salary is $113,515, with a range from $100,570 on the low end to $124,902 on the high end. Taking up a by-the-hour role? Expect to earn an average of $55 hourly. Have several years of experience? There’s a great chance you’ll earn even more.

Career paths and industry outlook

Looking at those numbers, these roles look lucrative. But what is the industry outlook really? And what do the career paths look like? Here’s a quick tour through the career paths of game designers and game developers.

Game designer

The career paths for game designers within the industry are exciting and varied. Maybe you’ll choose to become a level designer, which focuses on the environment and space of each world or level of a game. Or perhaps you’re more into storytelling and prefer to adopt the role of a narrative designer.

What’s more, the future is bright for game designers, as demand has grown year after year. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there’s a predicted 16% total increase from 2022 to 2032.

Seeing as the game design field is continually being molded and shaped, staying updated with any industry changes will give you a leg up on the competition. It’ll also open doors for new career paths.

Emerging trends such as virtual reality (VR) and artificial intelligence (AI) have elevated and morphed the gaming world, thanks to their ability to take gaming to a whole new level. Web development advancements are also making their presence known, hosting high-performance games right in a web browser.

Game developer

Developers usually branch out into more specific niches, unlike game designers, who are more of a “unicorn” in the field. They might find themselves working specifically in sound effects design, AI programming, or graphics. Some of these branches are more in demand than others, but with the industry booming, evolving, and broadening, there’s always a demand for fresh and novel content.

The demand for game developers (including software developers, quality assurance analysts and testers) is projected to grow by 25% from 2022 to 2032. And since technologies such as VR and AI are continuing to weave their way into the video game industry, there’s so much potential for developers to expand their skill set to make themselves more marketable.

If you’re confident, you may also choose the path of becoming an independent game developer, where you’ll handle all the creativity and technical processes on your own or with a micro team. Think Eric Barone (ConcernedApe) and his highly successful farming simulation game, Stardew Valley. He spent four years and many grueling work weeks developing it and ended up creating what is recognized as one of the best video games ever.

The development process and team dynamics

Because we’re discussing the game designer and the game developer as separate entities, we might forget that all team members involved in the process work very closely together.

A gaming company’s office is much like a beehive, buzzing with activity. Although the video game development process starts with initial design concepts crafted by game designers, any activities afterward involve a lot of back and forth, constant refinement, and an ever-changing daily schedule.

Game artists, sound designers, and developers continuously polish every element for quality assurance and ensure their work aligns with that of other teams before they can even think of releasing the final product. Whether you adopt a full-time role or work as a freelancer on a project basis, teamwork makes the dream work.

Key differences summarized

The roles of game designers and developers might bleed into each other at times, but their career paths, skill sets, and responsibilities are distinct. While game designers are the architects, game developers act as the builders—each role complementing one another in the process of game production.

Frankly speaking, one would be lost without the other, as well as the multitude of other players who work to create these engaging gaming experiences.  

Game designer Game developer
Main responsibilities Developing storylines, designing characters, creating environments, forming game rules Coding the game, creating software for the game to run on, debugging and testing, putting ideas into action
Skill sets Creativity, storytelling, understanding of gamer psychology, visualization and conceptualization Proficiency in programming languages, strong problem-solving skills, creativity, familiarity with game engines and software development tools
Career paths Working in game studios, consulting for companies, selling ideas Working in game studios, independent creation, specialization in one aspect of game development, being a generalist
Role in game production Imagining the initial game concept and fleshing out the design Bringing the game design to life through a functional gaming experience

Find game designers and developers on Upwork

Are you looking for a creative talent who can help you develop the next blockbuster game? Or perhaps you need help refining a standout idea? You can find top-notch independent game designers and developers on Upwork.

If you’re a game designer or developer ready to put your skills to work, Upwork is the ideal place to connect with businesses and search for new projects to get your foot in the door.

Upwork is not affiliated with and does not sponsor or endorse any of the tools or services discussed in this article. These tools and services are provided only as potential options, and each reader and company should take the time needed to adequately analyze and determine the tools or services that would best fit their specific needs and situation.

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Game Designer vs. Game Developer: Key Differences
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