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Game Design vs Game Programming: Understanding the Difference

Your favorite video games are a product of intricate and painstaking game development. To create an awesome game, development takes several steps, including game design and game programming. Both are integral parts of video game development, but industry outsiders might find it difficult to distinguish between game design versus game programming.

Game design and game programming are two aspects of game development that overlap, making the general confusion between the two understandable. However, there are major differences between the two in terms of game development. If you are outsourcing video game development, one of the important points of discussion is to clarify what you want done. Generally, game designers are responsible for the creative vision of a game while game developers ensure the technical implementation. In video game development, both work hand in hand to create visually amazing and enjoyable video games.

In this article, we make the distinction between game design versus game programming to understand how both affect game development and what game designers and game programmers do.

a woman game developer explaining the game interface to a game designer

Game Design versus Game Programming: What’s the Big Difference?

Before we take a closer look at the two, let’s have a general overview of the difference between game design and game programming.

When creating a video game, game design and game programming are two essential stages of game development. These aspects of game development are pivotal and the people who do game design and game programming are highly valuable to any game development team. In fact, in the industry, game designers and game programmers are some of the most in demand positions.

The main difference between game design and game programming is which aspect of a video game the position focuses on. On the surface, game designers focus on the creatives while game programmers focus on the technical. However, there are several layers of complexity entailed in both jobs and a single mistake from one end can cause major problems for a game.

While it may seem to be two very different aspects of video game development, video game design and video game programming need to work together in order to create a game that players will enjoy. Likewise, game designers and game programmers need to work together closely to ensure that a game turns out great. So every time you play your favorite classic games such as Tetris and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild to more recent notable games such as Pokémon Sword and Shield, think of the highly skilled team of game designers and game programmers behind them.

Male video games designer working in studio

What Is Game Design? 

To understand what game design is, think of your favorite games. What did you like about it?

Was it the aesthetic or visuals? Was it the plot and world building? Was it the NPCs or characters that made it your favorite? Was it the gameplay and general progression of the game? Whatever it may be, you will probably have to thank the game’s designers for it.

Game design usually focuses on the creative side of game development–what makes the game interesting. In game development, game design takes on the task of visualizing and setting a direction for a game. Game designers are generally responsible for the overall design of a game, however, depending on the company and complexity, several designers may be divided into teams to focus on particular aspects of the game. Game designers take on a ton of responsibilities as they not only create the framework for a game, but they also ensure its flow.

Some of the general responsibilities of video game designers include:

  • Identifying trends in the gaming industry
  • Testing out multiple genres and themes for new games
  • Researching what players wish to play or experience
  • Creating the game structure or how the game is meant to be played, including rules and game progression (both in terms of story and gameplay)
  • Develop the game’s layout, concept, and gameplay
  • Collaboration with other game development teams during the game launch to successfully bring it to the market
  • Create and manage product documentation
  • Simpler yet highly important tasks such as level design or object placement

Game designers are highly skilled individuals that have a highly analytical mind and incredible problem-solving skills that help in developing games. Because of the complexity of the position, major gaming companies are always on the lookout for skilled video game designers. After all, without the conceptualization and research from game designers, games wouldn’t come into existence.

close up of woman's hands typing on apple macbook

What Is Game Programming?

From 2D video game art to 3D modeling for games, the execution of the game designers’ vision lies in the hands of the game programmers.

In the comparison between video game designers versus video game programmers, we pointed out that the latter focuses more on the technical aspects of video game development. While designers had to look at the bigger picture, programmers have to make the game designs become actual playable games.

The job of video game programmers is a lot more technical as they deal with code and other game development languages to create enjoyable video games for people. Video game programmers must have a knowledge of mathematics, logic, computer programming, and an understanding of several programming languages to craft sophisticated and enjoyable games.

With their knowledge and skill sets, video game programmers usually have the following responsibilities:

  • Transforming game designs into functional and playable games
  • Play test to spot and fix errors in the game
  • Collaborate with software developers
  • Inspect older games to spot errors in the code and improve upon said errors
  • Implement AI to character movements in game

Game programmers are integral members of a game development team as they create the blocks that realizes the vision of game designers. In a sense, game programmers are the builders of the gaming industry. Each programmer is responsible for making sure that video games run as designed and envisioned with minimal issues.

Because of the high level of technicality and difficulty that programmers face, video game programmers have a wealth of knowledge in the technical aspect of video game development, particularly in coding and computer science. Game programmers usually have a specialization in terms of game development since video game programming can be quite broad and encompassing.

Video game programmers may have some of the following sub-specialties:

  • Graphics programming
  • Network programming
  • AI programming

Video game programming is not easy — which is why in most video gaming companies, programmers are in high demand. Being able to transform game design and ideas into actual playable games takes skill and effort, making the game programmers a valuable and irreplaceable part of the gaming industry.

Man typing on laptop with hologram of game console on screen

Game Design versus Game Development versus Game Programming: Which is Which?

To industry outsiders, game development, game design, and game programming could all just be the same thing. There is, however, a distinction between the three. While the difference between game design and game programming can be quite clear, there can be further confusion when the term “game development” comes into the mix.

So, what is the difference between game design versus game development and game programming?

Circling back to the major difference between game design and game programming, the former refers to the game’s vision while the latter refers to the actualization of such vision. In game design, game designers think of a concept, flesh out the idea, and create the framework for the initial game. Meanwhile, game programmers take these ideas into reality by utilizing software and programs to create an actual playable game based on the game design.

So where are game developers in all of this?

The simple answer: in every step of the way.

The process of producing a game or the game development encompasses everything from ideation to execution. Game development is basically the entire process from ideation, production, launch, and updates. Both game designers and programmers are involved in these stages.

While the term “game developers” may be interchanged with “game programmers” in some companies, there really isn’t that big of a difference in terms of its significance in the gaming development process. After all, it is undeniable that without game programmers, no game designs would come into existence–creating a gameless world.

Male game designer sitting at the table at home and making animation for video game character

Game Design versus Game Programming: The Final “Battle”

Game design and game programming are essential aspects of video game development. One without the other would simply result in a world with no games. With such pivotal roles, game designers and game programmers truly are the MVPs of the gaming industry.

For people who wish to enter the gaming industry, being able to recognize the duties and responsibilities of a game designer versus a game programmer is pivotal. After all, they are two massively different positions that both require incredible skill, acumen, and passion for gaming. Knowing the difference between game design and game programming helps individuals which path they are more suitable for.

On a technical level, knowing the difference between the two greatly helps in understanding how bestselling games work. After all, no game would be a success without an incredibly skilled game development team behind it.

At this point, there is no “battle” between game design versus game programming–only an acknowledgement of their significance, importance, and an excitement for what these incredible designers and programmers can do with future games and technology.