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CAREER PATHS / FEB. 03, 2017
version 10, draft 10

How to Become a Game Programmer

man playing computer game on tablet
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Becoming a computer game programmer is a better idea than ever. The computer games industry is a rapidly growing market sector; it’s reportedly worth more than $100 billion at the moment. Some media and entertainment professionals project that the gaming industry has the potential to overtake movies as the largest entertainment industry in the world.

As the industry grows so do it’s employment opportunities as well. Games used to be created by a small team of programmers. But now with the introduction of the so-called Triple-A studios entire legions are employed for writing narratives, storyboarding, designing and of course producing games. This means there is a lot of demand from companies for talented candidates promising high salaries.

But how do you become one?

1. Research the Profession of a Computer Game Programmer

It’s clear that the modern gaming market represents a viable opportunity for people in pursuit of gainful and long-term employment. Let assume that you do not have little to no knowledge about the field; you will need first and foremost to acquire the relevant skills to work within the gaming industry. The first thing you should know is what does a programmer does. A programmer writes in a language that the computer understands, helping humans communicate with computers.

But computer game programmers are often much more skilled than their peers as their tasks are sometimes more complex and specialised, requiring a deep understanding of physics and artificial intelligence. Many programming roles themselves have also become specialisations themselves, but this usually happens on the job.

Here’s just a few areas of focus to give you an idea of the breadth of the discipline:

  • Game engines
  • I. (or artificial intelligence)
  • Graphics engines
  • Physics engines
  • Sound
  • User interface
  • Game Tools

Typical activities that a computer game programmer may conduct are:

  • Writing code for a Graphics Processors, Physics, game engines and libraries such as the Unreal engine, DirectX and OpenGL
  • Writing code to interact directly with a CPU
  • Writing code to create artificial intelligence within a game. For example so that the opponents within a game can implement complex strategies
  • Create code for a custom User Interface or to customise a pre-existing one
  • Write the code that enables players to compete over the internet or over a network

Expected Salary:

A large game company such as EA, or BioWare is going to be able to pay a higher wage than a small startup business. But the startup business may also have more opportunities for career advancement.

Junior Programmers

£25,000

Experienced Programmers / Head Programmers

£30,000 - £70,000

2. Meeting the Basic Qualifications and Industry Requirements:

You do not necessarily have to have a degree, however, it is generally preferred. The most valued thing overall in the industry is talent. If you have a real talent for programming and a love for gaming, then you are a much better candidate than a mediocre coder with a degree. The types of qualifications which are most favoured by the industry are:

  • Computer Science
  • Software Engineering
  • Computer Game Development
  • Math and Physics

Most Universities today offer specific coursework in programming tailored specifically to the gaming industry. Although it might have overlap with computer science programs it goes further in depth into gaming industry relevant skills.

Bournemouth University offers a degree in a Games Technology which emphasises programming skills, but also expands into artificial intelligence (a demand of modern gaming).

If you do not have a qualification in any of these topics, but are passionate about computer games, then these are the most important skills for a computer games programmer. You can learn these online for free now or cheaply using various resources and if you find them relatively simple, you may well indeed not need the training. But, it would be extremely beneficial to attend a course to learn about the whole development process:

  • C++, this is absolutely essential. It is the most common computer language for computer games to be written in. It is also a relatively hard language to learn.
  • C is also important. This is the precursor to C++. It is even harder to learn
  • Java is not as popular but games for Android devices are written in this language. It is simpler than C or C++ but also similar.
  • Objective-C and Swift are mainly useful if you plan on writing games for Apple iOS.
  • Assembly language this is very useful especially when writing to CPU’s and GPU’s. It is extremely difficult to learn.
  • Actionscript, this could be helpful if you plan on writing Flash games but it is not essential.
  • Python can be useful to help with tasks that you may encounter during the development process. It is also probably the easiest programming language to learn and good for teaching best practises.

Additional Skills You Need 

Aside from pursuing game development or programming as a hobby and producing practical examples of your work while you look for a job, it is also important that you are a good communicator. In any thriving marketplace, firms and employees must be willing to constantly improve, and the best way to achieve this is through open communication and an ability to deal with constructive criticism. This applies to both verbal and written communication, as there is a pressing need for you to be able to articulate your concepts effectively and sell your skill-set to commercially orientated senior managers.

It is also crucial that you display a keen knowledge of specific job roles and the need to communicate function to players. This is far more important than the artistic presentation of a title, as without clearly defined gameplay it is impossible to sell volume or forge a strong reputation for programming.

3. Career Progression and Opportunities

Although computer games are extremely popular and are only going to continue to grow in popularity it is not an easy industry to break into. It is also not a huge industry with only about 10,000 people employed in the industry in the UK. Most people get their first job through a work placement while at university, or some other similar vocational scheme.

Despite this if you have talent then you can rise relatively quickly so there are good opportunities for you to develop your career. As well as this, due to the overlap of skill sets there are good opportunities for you to use your coding skills in other areas of more lucrative areas of software development that may have better opportunities for career development.

As you can see, while it is a relatively well-paid profession it is also not an easy career path to break into. Becoming a computer games programmer takes a lot of time and effort, but if you have the talent and drive it may indeed be the job for you.

Have you ever tried to get a job in this industry? What happened? Let us know below…

This article was first published in November 2014.

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