From Mario Brothers to Angry Birds: The shifting landscape of game design

From Mario Brothers to Angry Birds: The shifting landscape of game design

Armed only with an uncanny jumping ability and an 8-bit fireball, an unknown plumber launched a revolution in 1985. This plumber, the red-overall clad Mario, ­­­­gave countless lives to save the Princess from the evil clutches of Bowser and, in the process, ushered in a new era in video gaming when Super Mario Brothers was introduced for the Nintendo Entertainment System.

With the launch of the Nintendo Entertainment System and its advanced graphics and gameplay, video games leapt from coin-rattling arcades into the living room. The success of the NES revitalized the video game industry, leading to the “console wars” that continue nearly 30 years later between Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft.

These so-called console wars are big business, indeed. As of January 2012, according to Nielsen, 56 percent of all U.S. households own at least one current generation gaming console. The big three consoles—Nintendo Wii, Xbox 360, and Playstation 3—continue to battle for gaming supremacy.

Gaming Platform

2012 Total Unit Yearly Sales

Total Unit Sales To-Date

Nintendo Wii



Xbox 360






*Source:, USA Yearly Chart, 2012

Long live the revolution: Games leave the confines of home

Not long after gaming consoles came to dominate the living rooms of millions of Americans did gaming companies realize there was an even bigger market to dominate: mobile gaming. In 1989, Nintendo once again continued the gaming revolution by introducing the Nintendo Game Boy, an 8-bit handheld device.  The Game Boy and its successor, the Game Boy Color, have sold nearly 120 million copies since being released.

Again, other companies have followed suit. PlayStation has developed several mobile gaming devices, including the PlayStation Portable (PSP) and the more recent PS Vita. To-date, over 19 million PSPs have been sold. Nintendo gave consumers the DS and 3DS, both of which have sold remarkably well. The DS has sold over 52 million devices to date and the 3DS has sold approximately 7.8 million.

Even with the success of mobile console gaming industry, another frontier began to take shape, a frontier that has clearly emerged as the future of gaming.

Revolution, schmevolution: Modern gaming turned on its head

Like Mario before them, three emerging technologies have not only spurred new ways to play games, but have completely transformed both the concept of gaming and who plays games. The revolutionary triumvirate includes the Internet, social networking and mobile devices.

Previously, gaming meant playing individually or with up to three other people, depending on the console. Today? Gamers can jump into a social networking game such as Farmville and join millions of other virtual farmers to tend crops, and buy and sell goods with one another. New gaming companies including Zynga, Rovio,, and Wooga have leveraged these new technologies to bring a dizzying array of new gaming options to the marketplace.

Like traditional consoles, these new social and mobile games are attracting big business. According to data from AppData, Zynga has 10 Facebook games that average 10 million or more users per month, including CoasterVille, Farmville 2, Texas HoldEm Poker and Bubble Safari.

Gaming, once bound by the limits of consoles, its mobile siblings, or PCs, is now free to explore the potential of Facebook, the Internet and mobile devices, especially iPhone and Android-powered phones, and tablets.

According to Nielsen’s 2012 report, “U.S. Gaming: A 360 Degree View,” these new mobile gaming devices continue to work their way into American households:

·         Android OS Smartphone: 28 percent (of households)

·         iPod Touch: 22 percent

·         iPhone: 22 percent

·         iPad: 15 percent

Tablets and other mobile devices have directly led to more time spent playing games—a 7 percent increase—notes Nielsen.

Joining the revolution: Becoming a game designer

In 2012, market research firm NPD Group revealed U.S. consumers spent $14.8 billion on content for games (digital, used, physical and downloadable). Digital games and their downloadable content saw a 16 percent increase between 2011 and 2012, with sales reaching $5.92 billion.

The demand for games appears to be growing worldwide as well. According to a 2012 Forbes article, the global market for video games is expected to see a $15 billion bump—from $67 to $82 billion—between 2012 and 2017. The central part of meeting that demand? Creating new games.

It’s been a phrase that’s probably been uttered millions of times: “Wouldn’t it be cool to work on video games?” Well, the shift to downloadable and digital games has opened new potential paths to a career in game design. This new field—developing software apps for mobile devices—didn’t even exist until a few years ago. Since Apple opened the floodgates to freelance designers four years ago, those designers have earned over $6.5 billion, according to a 2012 New York Times article.

For individuals not ready to cash in their existing 401(k) to launch a start-up company, there are other paths to careers in the industry. The Bureau of Labor Statistics outlines numerous major job areas frequently employed by game design companies. Examples of those career fields include the following:

·         Designer (e.g. lead designer, content designer, game mechanics designer)

·         Programmer (e.g. graphics programmer, physics programmer)

·         Artist (e.g. art director, concept artist, animator, writer)

Currently, there isn’t a surefire track or simple list of educational requirements to enter the video gaming industry, especially since there are so many different types of careers in the field. But according to a recent infographic entitled How to become a game designer, a bachelor’s degree in interactive media or game design, or a related field such as computer art or animation, could be helpful—along with a strong portfolio.

And just like our good friend Mario, you might have to deal with your fair share of Goombas and turtles, pick up plenty of fireball-power-granting flowers, and book lots of travel time in green sewer pipes on your quest to become a game designer. Okay -- that last one was a squib.


Developer Leaderboard,
Work for Play: Careers in Video Game Development, Bureau of Labor Statistics
The Gaming Landscape is Changing as Digital Sales are Up While Physical Sales are Down,
New Reports Forecast Global Video Game Industry Will Reach $82 Billion By 2017,
Trends in U.S. Video Gaming – the Rise of Cross-Platform,
As Boom Lures App Creators, Tough Part Is Making a Living, The New York Times
USA Yearly Chart, 2012