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Game Programming vs. Game Design

What are the differences between game programming and game design?
game programmer typing on keyboard

To an industry outsider, the distinction between game design and game programming might seem negligible, but if you plan to make a career out of one or the other, you need to know what's different. It's not quite night vs. day, but you could definitely call it concept vs. execution.

While there is little overlap between the two careers, they do go hand in hand. A game can't be created without both the designer and programmer working closely together from start to finish.

Game designers are responsible for the overall creative vision of the game while programmers have the technological know-how to implement the game designers' ideas and bring them to life using computer code. That's only the surface of what these jobs cover within a company, however.

What Is Game Programming?

Game programming involves taking the design specifications of the game designers, integrating the art and sound, and translating it all into a playable game. Doing this requires a lot of mathematics, logic and computer skills, particularly in the area of programming languages like C/C++, scripting languages and application programming interfaces or APIs.

The programming of a game is a complex endeavor and includes the following:

  • Mapping the terrain of the game environment
  • Implementing artificial intelligence for non-player characters
  • Connecting player input via the controller to the events happening onscreen

It's no wonder that programmers account for a huge proportion of employees at any given game studio. There are also a number of sub-specialties within game programming, which may include these (among others):

  • Graphics programming
  • Network programming
  • AI programming

Becoming a Game Programmer

Like other software engineers, game programmers usually hold a bachelor's degree or higher in a discipline such as computer science or software engineering. Essentially, the most important prerequisite to the job is proficiency with at least one of the major programming languages used in gaming. Familiarity with the game industry is also a plus.

What Does a Game Designer Do?

A game designer differs from a programmer in that this is a much more holistic and creative career than a programming career. Game designers have an innate knowledge of what gamers want in a game, and they possess the ability to see the "big picture" as far as a particular game goes. They study how the game will work and flow from start to finish. Some designers have experience as programmers or as software developers, but not all have knowledge of graphic design. On the job game designers accomplish the following:

  • Create the structure of the game, how it will be played and what its rules will be
  • Collaborate with all members of the team to successfully bring the game to market
  • Develop the game's layout, concept and gameplay
  • Create and manage product documentation
  • Entry-level designers may focus on simpler tasks, such as level design or object placement in the game

Becoming a Game Designer

Traditionally game designers earn a bachelor's degree in game production or game art and design in order to enter the field. Game developers usually look for candidates with a genuine passion for gaming, good problem-solving abilities, analytical skills, and willingness to work well within a team when they hire game designer roles.


Because it is a technically skilled occupation, game programmers earn competitive salaries and are often among the highest-paid professionals in the game production industry. Game programmers are part of the larger field of software developers. Game designers work closely with developers and may report to them on the job.

Job Title Median Annual Salary Job Growth Through 2030
Software Developers, Applications $110,140 22%, much faster than average
Game Programmers $89,190 -10%, slower than average

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' 2020 Occupational Employment Statistics and Outlook Handbook.

Actual salaries may vary greatly based on specialization within the field, location, years of experience and a variety of other factors. National long-term projections of employment growth may not reflect local and/or short-term economic or job conditions, and do not guarantee actual job growth.

The game industry is highly desirable, though. Competition for jobs can be more intense than in other areas of software programming and designing—so don't bypass any knowledge or education that can give you an edge.