Game Developer: What is it & How to Become One

Game Developer: What is it & How to Become One

Whether for fun, escapism, competition, or something else, many people in the world play games. In fact, according to research obtained by Gaimin, the gamer population is about every 1 in 3 people – which suffice it to say is a lot!

With this huge of an audience, there is also a huge demand for game developers. Thankfully, many players have wanted to take that next step of setting aside their controllers (or keyboards) and putting on their creative hats to make their own games. However, this next step may not be so clear, especially if you only have a vague idea of what a game developer actually might be doing all day, let alone how you might actually take the steps to become one. In this post, we’re going to talk at length not only about what a game developer is, but also some simple steps you can take to become one! If you’re ready to change your career path or start a new hobby, let’s dive in!

Female with back to the camera playing an FPS game on PC

What is a Game Developer?

We will first talk about what a game developer is. You can’t exactly become something if you don’t have a general idea about that in the first place, after all.

In short, a game developer is someone who makes games – whether at their own direction or at the direction of someone higher up. They are the creators who take the idea for a game, and perform the magic needed with code and graphics to make that idea a reality.

While this is a simple definition, there is a lot more to it than meets the eye. This is because the process and general activities of a game developer contain several steps that, at the heart, are completely different from each other. Additionally, game developers can also specialize in specific subfields. So, even if the activities stay the same, what the game developer focuses on might be extremely distinct from what another game developer on the same team is doing. Let’s talk about both of these in-depth though.

Activities

A game developer’s general activities can be divided into four main ones, though keep in mind these won’t tackle every small detail that is involved. However, this should give you a general overview of what to expect in terms of what the average game developer is up to!

Man in cape holding computer leaping over various devleopment related graphics drawn on a wall

Planning/Designing

The first activity of a game developer is to plan or design the game. You can’t exactly make something if you don’t know what you want. After all, a real-time strategy game is quite different from a turn-based RPG, which is in turn entirely different from an FPS game. So, a game developer will spend a lot of time planning out what sort of game they want.

Now, keep in mind, this goes beyond things as base as genre. Game developers also need to design what specific mechanics the game will have. Will there be crafting? What about jumping and swimming? How will users interact with certain mechanics – UI or simply proximity interaction from the player? How might a quest system be implemented efficiently?

There are tons upon tons of steps and questions to answer here, but each aspect of the game – even things like UI and story – need to be planned out by the game developer at this initial stage. A game developer, at this time, might also plan out the specific structures of the code that will become the game as well. Either way, this is a very involved and robust process, but also an essential one that informs all the other activities a game developer participates in.

Man drawing a graphic on a transparent wall

Execution

Once the game is designed, the next activity of the game developer is to oversee its execution – i.e. the actual creating part of the game with multimedia and programming. This is an activity that may vary depending on the game developer’s situation, though.

For example, in some larger companies, a game developer may in fact delegate specific programming tasks to other members of the team, especially for things like UI/UX where it is often better to have someone who is specialized in that area of development. In those cases, the game developer would focus largely on overseeing the process and making sure the plan is followed.

More often though, and especially for smaller indie developers, the game developer will do the programming themselves. In addition, a game developer for an indie studio may also be in charge of making the game assets themselves or, at the very least, making sure to obtain some whether through public domain, licensing, or providing a dedicated game artist details for a required asset. Again, though, as you can see, there is a lot to this activity beyond just the word “making.”

Screenshot of a Unity game engine project for an FPS experience

Testing & Debugging

The third main activity of the game developer is testing the game – which wildly varies from game to game and developer to developer. Of course, most game developers will, at the very least, playtest the game themselves to check for bugs. However, a game developer may also participate in bigger sorts of tests that involve organizing other groups of playtesters. These bigger tests can involve arranging mediums for feedback, organizing systems to process that feedback, and so forth.

Beyond this, a game developer, as part of the testing process, will also utilize several different sorts of tools to monitor for things like performance to make sure the game performs optimally on the target platforms it’s being released for.

Included in these activities, is, of course, processing any feedback and fixing the game accordingly. This can be a range of things from fixing bugs, to simply rebalancing a game to create the most enjoyable experience possible. How thorough this debugging process is largely depends on the game, but a game developer is still expected to polish their product as best as possible.

Group of people around a table testing VR headsets

Maintenance

The last major activity of a game developer can be considered maintenance. In some cases, this means what the activity literally implies: maintaining the game and creating patches for reported bugs through its support lifetime to make sure it still works. However, there are two more sub-activities here of importance.

First, in some cases, “maintaining the game” can also mean making more content for the game. This can include various DLC, server events for multiplayer games, and so forth. Of course, other activities play a role here, but keeping the game fresh and new for its audience can be a very large part of maintenance. This may also involve a lot of R&D through analytics and player feedback to determine the best course of action and what content players want.

Second, and an often overlooked part of maintenance, is documentation. Beyond making the game, the game developer is also usually in charge of documenting everything about the game’s construction. This is an important activity for game developers working in a team, as they may not be in charge of the game for its entire lifetime. As such, other game developers will need this documentation in order to take over activities for the game as the previous game developer moves on to new projects.

Screenshot of a battle royale style multiplayer game made in Unity

Summary

As you can see, making a game is not just simply waving a wand to make it happen. A game developer is someone who has to wear multiple hats in terms of their activities to see that game created. Planning, execution, testing, and maintenance all play a role for a game developer, and are the bulk of what defines what a game developer is!

Specialties

Earlier we mentioned that a game developer might also specialize in specific areas of game development, which in turn influences the activities. Briefly, we’re going to talk about what some of those areas are and give an overview of what that specialty focuses on. This list won’t cover everything, but these are major areas you’ll find talked about a lot.

Two men at a computer working in a vector art style

UI/UX Developer

The game developer who specializes in UI/UX development is primarily concerned with – as the name implies – the UI/UX. Any button, inventory window, on-screen overlay for health, ammo, etc. falls into the realm of UI. These developers not only focus on designing both an intuitive and aesthetically pleasing UI, but also make sure that the UI is capable of integrating with the game’s overall mechanics. These developers also continually tweak the UI based on user feedback to ensure that everything about the UI is clear – as a bad UI can often ruin a game.

Game Programmer

While most game developers are programmers, there are those who specialize in the programming part. They take the execution activity one step further and become experts in knowing the most efficient coding techniques to get the job done. While they of course participate in other activities, like planning how to implement mechanics, they do so always in the vein of the programming itself. These specialists can often be turned to when more intermediate features are required or when certain programming-focused activitives, like porting a game to a different platform or creating an engine, are required.

Screenshot of a game inventory window made in Unity

Game Designer

Similarly to a game programmer, while all game developers plan the games to an extent, a game designer is someone who specializes in the planning aspects of the game. They not only figure out what mechanics the game should have, but also focus a lot on balancing the entire game to make sure it’s fun. These designers may also play a big role in figuring out the setting and story in games as well, often working with writers to integrate these into the game as a larger whole. Beyond this, a game designer may also be involved heavily in executing a prototype to ensure that the mechanics are sound and provide balance fixes for the larger game project.

Sound Designer

A game developer who specializes in sound design is one who is concerning with every aspect of sound involved with the game. This can include both the background music and the sound effects used throughout the game. These developers have a wide set of skills – including being able to collect and edit audio as needed. However, these specialists also need to be able to actually implement the sound files in-game by making sure they’re timed correctly (such as with animations). This specialty is one that leans more towards the creative side of development but is important for determining a large part of the game feel.

Screenshot of a turn-based RPG showing the battle mechanics

Game Artist

The game artist is someone who specializes in creating assets specifically for games, whether that be 2D pixel art or detailed 3D models. Of the specialties on this list, this is the one where the game developer does not necessarily need to know how to program. That being said, a game artist does need to still understand a lot about the game’s technical features. For example, the assets may need to be different sizes, may need to fulfill certain criteria for platform performance, and so forth. As such, while definitely a creative specialization for those who don’t like programming, there are still a lot of technical features to master and continual asset tweaks to make after testing to get the game ready!

Game Animator

Last on this list is the game animator: the game developer who specializes in animation. These game developers are focused on taking the game assets they’ve received and animating the various actions that will be needed for the game. Beyond this, though, the game animators also will work on getting the animations working in the game. This can include making sure the animations play in the first place, that there are smooth transitions between animations, that the animations are timed correctly with collisions, and so forth. This is a well-rounded specialization for those who both like creative art aspects and technical programming aspects, and can really be a robust specialization to pursue.

Screenshot of a tree made with MagicaVoxel

Why Become a Game Developer?

Now that we understand more about what a game developer is, let’s take a moment to talk about why you should become a game developer!

In-Demand

As mentioned at the start of this article, game developers are in huge demand. According to CareerExplorer, there are currently 287,200 game developer positions in various specialties in the United States alone. Between 2016 and 2026, this was forecasted to grow 9.3% – meaning there will be over 20,000 more jobs added over the course of this 10 year period. Again, just for the United States.

With game developers present all around the world in various countries, and almost every country’s market increasing, the need to fill these positions is immense!

List of average salaries for game developers

Salary Potential

While every location will differ slightly, there is no question that the earning potential for game developers is significant. According to GameDesigning, the lowest average salary in the US, which is for Junior Game Designers, comes at around $61,292. Meanwhile, the average Senior Game Developer can earn on average $83,739. Other specialties, like Game Artists, also have even higher potential. For example, as researched by CareerExplorer, even entry-level Game Artists in the US average at about $47,350/year, while top-level artists can earn as high as $144,820/year!

Whatever specialty you enter, though, there is no doubt that you will be compensated accordingly!

Line chart showing the growht of the worldwide games industry

Market Growth

Though working for a professional company is all well and good, for those looking to strike out on their own, there is a huge pool of revenue potential for indie game developers. According to NewZoo, worldwide revenue for games increases by billions of USD each year, and this trend is expected to continue well past the early 2020’s. Much of this revenue is made up by the mobile game market, where billions of dollars come from various monetization models.

Even tangentially related technologies, like VR and VR games, are seeing a trend upwards in revenue – as Statista shows in the image below.

Line chart showing the revenue growth for VR

With revenue showing no long-term slowdown, this offers game developers plenty of lucrative opportunities to join the market themselves and create profitable games!

Indie Success

Things have changed drastically over the past few decades, and video games are no longer an industry where only AAA studios are able to succeed. In fact, some of the most popular games to come out recently, such as UNDERTALEStardew Valley, and Disco Elysium, were made by indie studios (or even 1-2 developers)!

According to Statista, from 2015 to 2017, the amount of indie games released on Steam nearly doubled over a period of June 13-August 13. With releases in the 1000s, there is no question that the game market is extremely accessible for any developer who wishes to create games for it, and offers access to the intense market growth we mentioned earlier!

Line chart showing increase in Steam releases from 2015 - 2017

Pursue Your Dreams

The last reason to become a game developer is simply to pursue your dreams! If you’re reading this article, we imagine you have an interest in creating your own games, whether as an individual, as part of a small team, or as a developer in a large studio. Whatever your goals may be, nothing could be better than pursuing your dreams and making them a reality!

How to Become a Game Developer

Assuming you’re now thoroughly convinced you want to become a game developer, it’s time to take that first step into making things a reality. With the resources and guidance below, we’ll walk you through just how to do that – with a primary focus on the indie developer path first and foremost.

Gain the Necessary Skills

As the saying goes, you need to learn how to crawl before you can walk. In this case, before you start making a game, you need to develop your development foundations. While you may want to focus on areas that you’re going to specialize in, at this stage, it doesn’t hurt to learn a little of everything. This includes the basics of making and importing game assets, how to program, and how to work with a game engine.

We’ve compiled a set of links below to help guide you along the path. However, you may also wish to check out our article on programming languages or on game engines as well – as this will help you decide which skills you should be learning.

Woman with back to camera watching a video lecture

Game Art

Programming

Game Engines

Build Your First Game

Screenshot of a mario styled platformer made with HTML5

Once you’ve mastered the foundations and learned about things like variables, operators, and so forth, the next step is to jump in and apply it. While it might seem a little soon, most development is best learned and cemented in your skillset by simply doing and actively using it in a project. Now, of course, you’ll want to make sure the scope stays reasonable – i.e. don’t start making a massive MMORPG to start. However, building your first game is a necessity even if you are seeking work at a AAA company, since you need something to show you know what you’re doing.

Below we’ve compiled a list of helpful resources and project tutorials so you can get those first games created!

Build Your Portfolio

Screenshot of a portfolio website mockup

Whether an indie developer or someone seeking a career with a bigger studio, you’ll next want to build your portfolio – adding the game from the previous step as your first entry. A portfolio is what will actually provide the evidence that you do indeed know what you’re doing. Even as a solo indie developer, this can be important for various reasons, whether because you’ll need to freelance on the side when starting your move to game development or because you want professional showcases as you build a dream team to help you make your next game project.

While building a portfolio is more or less repeating the step above until you have several games, there is an art to making the portfolio itself. So, below, you can find some resources on how to make the best portfolio possible.

Showcase Your Work

Group of people watching a coworkers VR demonstration

You have some game projects and a portfolio. However, if you’re the only one who sees it, it doesn’t really help you get your name out there. The next step, then, is to actually showcase your work to the public. This can mean sending your portfolio to companies, or it can mean posting your game publically on various platforms. Either way, you need to be front and center showing your work off to everyone. Not just for the fame, but also for the fact it’s a great way to get feedback and improve your craft as well!

We’ve included links on places you can post your work below:

Free and Easy to Post:

Requires Stricter Approval or License

Never Stop Learning

Finally, the last step to becoming a game developer is to never stop learning. New frameworks come out every month, engines like Unity have major updates every year or few years, new VR hardware comes out every year, and so forth. The technology around us is constantly growing, and you need to be prepared to grow with it. There is also the fact that there are always more concepts and techniques to learn – whether that’s a complex programming algorithm you’ve never tried before or some new art tool that will speed up your workflow. So, keep growing and learning as much as possible, and keep some personal projects on the side to help flex your game developer muscles!

Woman giving herself a thumbs up while looking at a laptop

Conclusion

And that concludes our guide on game developers!

Over the course of a few thousand words, we’ve helped you understand not only what a game developer does, but also how you can join their ranks. Now, there is a lot to this process we did not get the chance to cover. For example, game artists can actually be in itself divided into various subfields (3D modeler, 3D rigger, etc.), there are more tools than just profilers developers use to monitor game performance, formal education in terms of Bachelors degrees, and so forth.

However, we feel we’ve covered the broadest of strokes necessary to get you started. In the same vein as our last point above, don’t stop learning. There are plenty of resources available for you to conduct further research. Keep in mind, though, everyone’s path to becoming a game developer is also not the same. What works for you, may not work for anyone else. So, make sure to tailor your path to what your life goals and skills are.

Nevertheless, you’ve taken the first step, and we can’t wait to see where you go beyond here! Good luck, and may you create the game you’ve been dreaming of!

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