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How to Become a Video Game Developer

Video game developers use their storytelling abilities, creativity, and knowledge of coding languages to create cutting-edge gaming software. This article explores strategies to break into this exciting and competitive field.
Written by Timon Kaple, Contributor

How to become a video game developer 

Video game developers, also known as game programmers, use coding languages to bring creative concepts to life. Their code turns ideas into playable, enjoyable games on computers, mobile phones, and web browsers. These professionals are in-demand today and the average video game developer salary is well above-average, at about $89,190 per year according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Wondering how to become a video game developer? While there's no guaranteed path to a job in the gaming industry, you can position yourself for exciting game developer careers in various ways. This article offers advice on pursuing a video game developer career and walks you through some steps you can take to get there.

What do video game developers do?

Video game developers possess a diverse skill set that prepares them to develop and program all of the creative components of a video game. They use their coding knowledge, problem-solving abilities, and creativity to turn game concepts into a functional, playable game world. 

From building the graphics, AI characteristics, and game mechanics to testing and troubleshooting works in progress, video game developers may play an essential role at just about any point in the video game creation process. These professionals often work as part of a collaborative team at small or large studios. They work directly with designers, artists, project leaders, and managers. 

Video game development skills

Similar to other creative industries where professionals need to create a digital working product, video game development takes a combination of analytical and creative skills. They must work collaboratively to develop or advance a concept for a game while following project timelines, communicating with team members, and working with a budget. These professionals rely on their abilities to harness their creativity, communicate effectively with others, and stay on-task.

Soft skills

  • Teamwork
  • Communication
  • Time management
  • Problem-solving
  • Storytelling skills

Hard skills

  • Software engineering skills
  • Math and physics skills
  • Knowledge of OOP languages including C++, C#, and Java
  • Following workflow and project guidelines

Expectations before becoming a video game developer

A career in video game development may sound quite exciting. Before you approach a career in this industry, it's wise to think through all of the practical components of that decision. Let's take a look at some hard facts.

It's a highly competitive field.

Careers in the gaming industry are competitive. Successful video game development careers take a significant amount of hard work and networking. Getting started on the right foot means investing in a valuable degree or self-training program. Even if you already have some of the essential skills for this career, a bachelor's degree in software engineering or computer science can distinguish you from other aspiring video game developers.

You'll want to start developing your own games to strengthen your portfolio.

Another critical component of your video game developer career is your portfolio. The portfolio showcases actual work you've completed, especially your original ideas and games you've developed on your own or with a team. A prototype or game showing your technical skills and creative side can go a long way when you're in the competitive job market.

Expect heavy collaboration and communication with teammates.

Are you a lone wolf or a pack hunter? Most game studios employ teams to carry out the creation of a game from concept to finish. Successful teams possess mutual respect and a shared vision for what the final product is to become. They also need open communication, regularly scheduled meetings, and team members to respect any established chain of command.

Math and physics skills will be essential.

Video game developers rely on their coding skills to bring a concept to life. Effective coders need a strong understanding of math and physics. To prepare for this type of work, aspiring video game developers should study applied mathematics, discrete mathematics, geometry, trigonometry, linear algebra, and basic algorithms. You would also benefit from exploring delta time, unit and scaling vectors, scalar manipulation, and dot and cross products.

You can work for a studio or work independently.

Video game developers usually seek full-time employment with a game studio or work independently as "indie" game developers. Each comes with pros and cons. If you're looking for flexibility and want to work in your spare time, the indie route may be a good choice. If you're more concerned with job security or want collaborative work, pursuing employment with a game studio is for you.

How do I become a video game developer?

There's no guaranteed route toward a career as a video game developer. However, with careful planning, creativity, and training, you can stand out from the crowd in the job market and become a competitive candidate.

  1. Earn a bachelor's degree.

Earning a bachelor's degree is one of the best ways to develop a solid foundation in several critical knowledge areas in video game development. Your school must hold regional or national accreditation to ensure the quality and value of your education. 

Some colleges and universities offer bachelor's degrees in game art and development or gaming design. Computer science or computer engineering degrees are also a good choice. While concentrations such as game development or animation are great options to have, that's not a deal-breaker.

Employers want to see that you have a strong foundation in computer technology, mathematics, and physics. When possible, choose elective courses that relate to video game development. Classes that cover 3D computer graphics, network fundamentals, game algorithms, and coding languages are good ones to have on your transcript.

2. Create game projects and build your portfolio.

Regardless of whether you want to be a freelancer or work in a studio or indie group, an essential step toward that career begins with a strong portfolio. If you're in school, your program may even offer classes, internships, or apprenticeship opportunities to help you develop a portfolio. 

The portfolio is an online collection of work that should showcase multiple projects in which you played a significant role and include detailed information on your development process. Also include an example of a team project if you have it. When showing work from a team project, be explicitly and concise about your role and contributions. 

3. Learn coding languages and new skills.

Aside from a brilliant game concept, the code that runs it is probably the most critical aspect of game development. The two most common languages for video game developers are C++ and Java. The more you know about coding languages, including Assembly, Python, Lua, Perl, and C, the more you'll be able to create and offer your future employers.

Aspiring video game developers can choose from many different tools and programs to learn coding languages. Consider looking into guided courses such as those offered by MasterClass, CodeAcademy, and Udemy. There are also video games that teach you how to code, including Code Monkey, CodeCombat, Robocode, and Codewars.

4. Pursue internship(s).

Studios of all sizes today offer paid or unpaid internship positions for learners looking to gain more hands-on experience, bolster their portfolios, and sharpen their skills before jumping into the job market. Depending on your area of focus, internships give you the chance to shadow a mentor and work on your programming and communication skills. Some studios may require applicants to take an aptitude test before accepting them as an intern.

5. Apply for jobs.

You can find entry-level positions at game studios of all sizes. When you apply, make sure your portfolio is strong and you explicitly show any previous work experience. Aspiring freelancers should showcase work they've developed for previous clients. Look for gigs on Fiverr, UpWork, or similar sites to gain some experience.

Online forums, blogs, and social media are great tools to make employment contacts. You can look for industry contacts on LinkedIn or Facebook and ask for one-on-one meetings with them. Show up with a list of good questions, ask for job hunting advice, and don't be afraid to articulate your strengths. Remember, this is a competitive field, so keep making contacts and applying even if you get several rejection letters.

What is a video game developer's salary?

According to BLS, computer programmers, including game developers, make a median annual wage of $89,190.

How long does it take to become a game developer?

A bachelor's degree in video game development, computer science, or computer programming takes about four years to complete. Some game developers may learn through shorter bootcamp programs or teach themselves, which takes less time.

What does it take to become a game developer?

Today's video game developers need a strong understanding of programming languages and excellent communication, storytelling, and math skills.

Can I be a game developer without a degree?

Yes. You do not need a degree to pursue a career as a video game developer. A bachelor's degree, however, may provide a significant competitive edge in the job market.

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