If you think video games can be hard to play, try making ‘em.
In Blood, Sweat, and Pixels, author and Kotaku news editor Jason Schreier’s 2017 chronicle of how video games go from concept to reality, he went so far as to wonder aloud whether “every single video game is made under abnormal circumstances” — once you consider the challenges of interactivity, ever-changing technology, always-evolving tools, unpredictable scheduling and the sheer nebulousness of trying to pin down “fun.”
There’s no easy mode for how to become a game developer, either. The three experts we spoke with about forging a career path mentioned the need to master complex programming languages and self-direct your own professional development in a competitive job market. But one of the pros noted that merit matters, too, and applicants with strong portfolios and demonstrated skills stand out from the pack.
Tips for Becoming a Game Developer
- Remember the job market is competitive, but being able to demonstrate skills gives you the best chance.
- Make your resume stand out with experience outside the classroom.
- Showcase examples of your work on a portfolio website.
- Seek out opportunities to improve on your own time.
- Look into jobs in other industries to gain the experience you need.
Our panel of insiders includes Jez Sherlock, VP of engineering and technology at Aspyr Media; Shawn Warnock, an automation engineer at EA's mobile-centric studio-within-a-studio, Red Crow; and Curtis Ratica, president and CEO of Ratical Games, which focuses on family friendly mobile games.
How Competitive Is the Job Market for a Game Developer?
Between 2010 and 2022, the number of people employed in the U.S. gaming industry has more than doubled, reaching more than 298,000, according to Statista. Landing one of these coveted positions isn’t just about having the right education. It can also involve building a resume and portfolio that helps you differentiate yourself from the competition.
Sherlock: I would say it’s competitive in terms of volume, but really, if you have the right talent and you’re doing the right things, your resume is going to stand out quite prominently. As I say, just don’t expect that your degree is funding your job application. You’ve got to do more than that. But if you do do more than that, and if you have the talent, I think it’s quite easy to land that first job because talent is so rare.
Ratica: Programming is always the most sought-after role. A talented programmer who can demonstrate excellent programming skills in one or more areas — such as graphics engines, AI, server backend, tools, etc. — will have the best chance to break into the industry. The creative roles, like artists and designers, are generally much more difficult.
Larger companies have more specialized roles, such as separating character animation from character rigging, level designers, game designers, UI designers, UI artists, level artists, texture artists, etc. Whereas smaller companies will look for people who have many skills, such as a general artist who can perform all art tasks and designers who can design levels, UI and develop stories.
Warnock: I’d definitely say it’s very competitive. If you think you’re just going to get a college degree and then get a role… you’ll need more than that. You need to show a willingness to improve your skills on your own time and an ability to adapt pretty quickly. My day-to-day changes pretty rapidly.
There are definitely plenty of people playing video games and buying video games, so I don’t see there being any shortage of jobs, but you have to do everything you can to make your resume stand out. There are a lot more people looking for entry level roles than there are entry level roles available, I would think. So having a portfolio website, having GitHub repos with games created definitely helps.
Are There Entry Level Game Developer Jobs?
An aspiring game developer probably won’t land the job of their dreams upon breaking into the industry. Here’s some expert perspective on the types of entry level positions to look for as you try to break into gaming and how to keep your career path moving forward.
Sherlock: There are often roles that involve scripting that don’t necessarily see you jumping into hardcore systems engineering and C++. UI, gameplay scripting — you aren’t going to be creating an engine out of the gate. No one will let you do that. The fact is, people who are employed to do that have 10 more years of experience than you. So you have to buy into an entry level, scripting-level job. I’d say take a QA position if necessary, and then find out if there's a way you can put in some extra hours to help a game team.
How Much Creative Freedom Does a Game Developer Have?
If you’re interested in how to get into game development, it’s important to first understand what the job entails. Game developers are typically part of a larger team. Some positions may have more of a creative focus, while others are geared toward building someone else’s concept.
Sherlock: A lot of software engineers, or potential software engineers, are never going to be involved in creating or concepting or envisioning. This is what people don’t always understand. You don’t necessarily get to be that creative visionary who you look up to. You get to join a team and you’re often working on someone else’s idea. You are, for sure, a small cog in a big machine at many companies. I think many programmers come into the industry and eventually leave having never necessarily created their own game. If that was their goal, you know, they might want to think about going into the design side of things, or sticking with independent game development, where you can lead a project as a programmer and be more of a creative influence over it.
Ratica: The best game developers are all about being creative. From writing stories, to creating believable and immersive characters, objects, worlds and everything in between.
Warnock: Now, the game industry has multiple positions; it’s not like one size fits all. You have programmers, designers, artists, animators, development directors, technical directors, and creative directors. Everyone has their own role flow. People who are primarily focused on designing levels and designing narratives are game designers or system designers — you could call it like a game designer, which kind of encompasses it all. They’re the ones coming up with the ideas for the game and how they’re going to balance things and what features the game will have. Then your gameplay engineers and programmers are the ones who’ll implement the features. Usually that involves creating an in-editor tool that can be used by the designers to create the world. In a way, you’re helping to create the tools and programs that’ll be used by designers to make the game of it then.
What Are the Education Requirements for a Game Developer?
Game developers often take the route of earning a bachelor’s degree in a field like computer science. That doesn't necessarily prove you’re the right fit for the job though. Learning game development skills is important, but you also need to be able to show you know how to use them.
Sherlock: I’ve got an old saying: if you want to make games, make games. I don’t think a comp-sci talented person who’s got their own demo reel together is at all disadvantaged by someone who’s been through a game program. And actually, some of the game programs are known to be not that good. So it depends on which game program you go on, as to how it’s viewed.
Ratica: For game development, education is of course important, but it takes a back seat to demonstrable talent and experience.
Warnock: Just having a degree is never enough. You need to have some type of proof that you can do the job for which you’re applying. If you’re a level designer at a website, that could be showing screenshots or videos of your levels. Or if you’re a programmer, GitHub repos of games that you’ve created.
What Programming Languages Does a Game Developer Need to Know?
There are so many programming languages out there that figuring out which ones you should invest time and effort into learning can be overwhelming. Our experts offer insight on which programming languages you should consider focusing on depending on the direction you want your game development career to take.
Sherlock: It depends on whether they’re going for AAA type games or more independent game development. C++ is still the language of AAA game development. And to some extent that’s out of necessity. But it’s created a big problem because the universities and schools aren’t really teaching it anymore. And most people, even if they’ve done a bit of C++, don’t know it well enough to learn the job. For independent gaming, you can typically get away with Java or C#, unity development. In fact, this route of using Unity or even Unreal Engine 4 in a game development program, it all [stems] back from people coming out of colleges not learning C++, because you for sure can’t make games without it. AAAs [need] C++.
Warnock: If you want to do engineering work, definitely C++. Most engines in the industry use C++. The popular engine Unity uses C#, so that would help with Unity development and mobile development. A lot of times, server-side work runs in Java, so knowledge of Java is always good. Python’s used a lot for any type of scripting, but that’s not really a necessity. C# and C++ are the two biggest ones.
C++ is mostly used because you have more control over memory management and performance and you’re managing memory yourself. Most AAA games require a high frame rate and good performance, especially multiplayer, hi-fidelity games. So that’s usually why C++ is chosen. But for Unity and mobile titles, a lot of times they’ll use C#.
How Do Game Developers Gain Experience and Build a Portfolio?
Moving up from an entry level position can be tough. It takes experience and a polished portfolio of videos to illustrate your proficiencies. The games you build early in your career don’t have to be complicated — they just need to be well made. And don’t forget to consider whether it might be best to further your career by spending time in a related industry to gain the experience you need before diving back into gaming.
Sherlock: A degree — even a degree that’s associated with a game program — is a large investment. You buy yourself a degree at the end of the day, not a job. It doesn’t automatically grant you that. And there are far too many candidates, I think, who turn up having paid for a degree doing almost the minimum, which is actually still a lot of work.
I don’t want to downplay that. But really, what have you done to suggest you [should] get that job in the industry above anyone else who’s attended university and got a piece of paper to show for it? If you want to make games, make games. You don’t have to be a professional to do it. But if you want to be a professional, [you need] games experience, polished experience. It’s the equivalent of an artist’s demo reel.
Videos of games are always going to be better than demos that interviewers need to compile and put together. A lot of candidates put source on GitHub. And that’s cool when you want to look at source. But it’s much easier to see what people do nowadays just in a video. And of course with a video, you can edit, put in the best bits of your work, even add a narrative. But certainly whatever way you do it, whether it’s videos and demos or whether you ask people to build your game and put source code together is, it needs to be examples of your own best work and not just courses you did at university.
Warnock: Definitely not waiting for the job to learn the skill; learn the skill beforehand. You can find tools like HackerRank or other places where you can do coding exercises. HackRank is really good because they do a lot of challenges that you commonly see in the interview process. So you can work on a lot of the questions that a lot of interviewers will ask.
And if your end goal is to get into the game industry, don’t be afraid to look into a different industry to get the experience you need. When I was studying automation and I left Epic, I took a little detour to a mobile app developer so I could get experience in automation and get professional experience with coding engineering. And that helped to beef up my resume and get me the job at EA. Sometimes it’s scary to do that because it’s hard to get into the industry, and then you leave and have to get back in. But it can definitely pay off.
Ratica: For programmers, start programming your own game and stick with it. It’s easy to start but hard to finish. Come up with an idea of a simple, basic game mechanic and make a game out of it.
Don’t try to do too much, otherwise it may be overwhelming and discouragement will lead to never completing it. Keep the game and game mechanic very simple, but polish the heck out of it. Make whatever it is work very, very well.
What Are Helpful Resources for Someone Who Wants to Become a Game Developer?
Here are a few final recommendations from our experts on resources to check out if you're serious about building the education, skills and experience to become a game developer.
Sherlock: I think if you’re looking to go into the gameplay side of programming, it can be great to offer mods for existing games, along [with] doing more original creative works with things like Unity and Unreal Engine 4. For the most part, you are going to be working in the script and languages they provide. And I certainly think modding is working with someone else’s ideas and putting your own, and that’s a great thing to show.
For systems engineering, more of the hardcore technology side and C++ — that’s a bit harder to get into. You should for sure make games or make demos of some kind. If you want to be a graphics programmer, you should probably offer your own graphics engine. But you should also be prepared to get an existing engine and modify it at the source code level. It’s amazing how many graphics programmers are not working on their own engine nowadays, but are authoring shaders and putting things into other people’s engines.
So [in terms of] modern communities for gameplay programmers, I think you’ve got to create your own projects as a systems-level engineer. And by all means, put them on GitHub. But again, don’t expect people to jump through hoops to compile your work. If you have work to show, make it easy for people to view it.
Warnock: I usually go on HackerRank a few times each week. There’s a whole bunch of practice problems you can do, and it lets you choose different languages to work in. I usually just stick with C++ and hone my skills a lot when I’m at home. So that’s a good resource. When you’re job searching, Gamasutra is a good website. And there’s also gamedevmap, which maps out pretty much every single game development studio in the world. And you can narrow it down to different areas, by country, by region, by city.