Do You Have What it Takes
to Be a Game Developer?
Beauty, brains, talent, a computer...
I've always thought game developers were born, not made. True greatness
comes from within. If it isn't there, it can't be learned, and if it is
there, it can't help but be discovered. To be a game developer, you must
truly love games. Not just playing games, but understanding games. You
must love the whole concept of dissecting a game, breaking it down to
its smallest parts, and visualizing how the pieces fit into the whole.
The chapters in this web site deal with the programming aspects of
game development. It should be noted, there are other careers in game
development besides that of programmer. A typical game passes through
many hands on its way to final release. But the programmer is the critical
element. Without the programmer, there is no game. Period. And since
I am a programmer, this site will focus on game development from the
point of view of the programmer, with all other related occupations
As the game programmer, it is good to keep in mind that the more of
the other game development roles you can fill, the better. That is, if
you can do some of the other jobs involved in game development, then you
will own more of the final product. Let's consider what other jobs game
The Things Game Developers Do
The whole world revolves around the programmer. The programmer
is the one who takes the unrealistic expectations of everybody else
and finds a way to make them work. If the producer wants to change
the user interface at the last minute, it's the programmer who stays
up all night making the change. If the artist can't figure out how
SVGA palettes work, it's the programmer who writes a color-reducing
and palette-matching utility. Without the programmer, there would be
no computer games.
Artists are important too. In some games, such as Myst, I will
grudgingly admit the artists played a more critical role than the
programmer. This is the exception however, not the rule. The rule is,
the programmer is the pivotal element in all game development.
These days, many artists prefer to be called "animators". Many
garbagemen prefer to be called "sanitation engineers" too, but it
doesn't make a bit of difference in what they actually do.
They make music. They can make sound effects too. There are a lot
of them, and there is barely enough work to go around. Most of them
The producer oversees game development and makes sure all the
elements of the development are in place. A producer may, for example,
acquire resources for programmers and artists, may hand out money,
and may give orders. Sometimes a programmer or an artist may play the
role of producer, which often works well. Sometimes a producer is a
low-level manager with no particular game development talent, who
nonetheless involves himself in micro-managing the development process.
This occasionally spells disaster.
This is a nebulous term. Sometimes the producer thinks he is the
designer, when actually the programmer is the designer. The artist
should be the designer, being that he has the creative talent, but
nobody pays attention to the artist. Sometimes a person comes out of
nowhere and declares himself to be designer, and asks for millions of
dollars for selling a title and a story line. Ha! Fat chance.
If you are a programmer and you need design help, look to an
experienced designer with a track record in the type of game you want
to develop. There are people who actually excel at designing levels,
puzzles, likeable characters and entertaining story lines. Tom Hall,
formerly of id Software, comes to mind as a successful and well-loved
game designer. Really good designers like Tom are rare.
Play testers sometimes also act as beta testers. Technically
speaking, the beta tester tests for bugs and the play tester tests
for playability. But since most games are under-funded and behind
schedule, both functions are generally ignored more often than they
should be. If you want to break into game development, and you live
in the Silicon Valley area, you may be able to get a job as a play
tester. It's kind of like breaking into rock 'n roll by being a
roadie. Sure you're there, but you'll never be the star.
This is the guy in the suit who smokes a cigar and blows the smoke
in your face. He is very good at telling you why his part of the job is
really the hard part, and since he is taking all the risks, he should keep
95% of the profits and you should be grateful for your 5%. Less deductions.
Paid 6 months after he gets paid. Which is 9 months after the game hits
It's a good job, if you can get it.
This is me. At some point in my career, I have performed all of
the above roles and more. Now I have learned where my strengths lie,
and I find other people to give me artwork, music, design help and
publishing help. But I still take over each job when I need to. If the
artwork isn't perfect, I fire up my paint program and make adjustments
myself. If I can't reach a deal with a publisher, I self publish on the
web (see my latest effort, Diana
Gruber's 3D Casino Las Vegas). Sometimes I even make my own sound
effects by hooking a cheap microphone up to my Sound Blaster card. The
point is, I don't take a salary, I am not dependent on anybody else,
and I have the freedom to choose and abandon my own projects, and to
move on when I feel like it. Being a lone wolf isn't for everybody, but
to me it is the best of all possible worlds.
Minimum Requirements to be a Game Programmer
To begin with, you need to know how to program in some language.
The preferred languages for game programmers are C and C++. I have no
opinion on which is better, either one will take you far. If you are
just getting started, and you haven't learned C or C++ yet, you can
write games in another language. Lots of perfectly good games have
been written in BASIC, Pascal, and Delphi. Years ago I wrote some
pretty games in Fortran. It doesn't matter that much what language
you use, as long as you have mastered it.
Some knowledge of assembly language programming is important if
you are planning on writing your own low-level graphics routines. If
you not ready to tackle assembly language yet, don't worry about it.
You can use a commercial graphics library, such as
Fastgraph to accomplish the
You will need a (legal, not borrowed copy of a) compiler. If you don't
have a compiler, click
for some suggestions.
You will need some way to generate artwork for your program. A
paint program is good. A rendering program is better. A talented
artist is better yet. Whether you create your pictures yourself,
scan them, use clip art, or pay big bucks to a professional artist,
plan on having some source of artwork.
That's it! That's all you really need to get started. If you are
reading this online, then I will assume you also have a good, fast
computer, a modem, and some form of online communication. These are
valuable and will help you a lot.
Of course, there is one other element which I haven't discussed,
and that is talent. You have to be a good programmer, with
creative problem-solving skills. I assume you think you have that,
because otherwise you wouldn't still be reading.
Now I suggest you give your eyes a little break, go to the fridge
and get yourself a can of Jolt cola, and come back in a few
minutes and read Chapter 2.
PUSH AND POP QUIZ
Ancient history: who is this character, and what
name of his arch nemesis? [Answer]
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