So you want to be a Game Developer?

Starting to Program games

Game Programmer
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In the good old days, back when the Internet had about 10 users and the web was a far off vision, PCs were called Home Computers and anyone could learn to write computer games. Three of us set up in business to write and sell our own games for the ZX Spectrum (Aka Timex/Sinclair) and Commodore 64. We didn't sell many games but we were saved by getting into the game conversion business. A publisher would release a hit on the Commodore 64 and we'd write the Timex, Amstrad, MSX, CBM 16 etc versions.

It took about 3 months for one person to produce a game.

That was then but...

That was over 20 years ago and things have changed a lot since then. The games industry is now a massive multi billion dollar business and development teams can number 50 or more. My first game had me as programmer, artist, and beep designer - (well it wasn't proper sound!). I wrote and drew everything. Back then games were written in Assembly Language and you had to learn either 6502 or Z80.

Nowadays with a few exceptions games are written in C and C++ and even C# can be used. In fact with the release of Microsoft's XNA Game Studio Express for C# only, it's clear they intend to move away from C++.

The days of back room programmers aren't entirely gone- there is the 'retro remake' and 'indie' scene but unless you have an exceptionally brilliant idea, you are not likely to get into the mainstream game business as a one man outfit writing Blockbuster PC games.

It's not all bad news though- if you can program to a good standard and have learnt some of the techniques- eg 3d Maths, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and produce demos then you may be able to get your break as a full-time developer.

Getting Started

There are plenty of books and websites that will guide you through the intricacies of DirectX ,XNA (for .NET and XBox 360) or the Open Source SDL and before long you'll be a guru on Vertex Shaders etc.

You will have to be prepared to work long, in some case very long hours especially as deadlines approach. It is quite a tough business - when a game is under development, you'll live breathe and eat it for 18 months to two years.

Places to Break into the Games Industry

Both Microsoft and Sony have community development websites. Microsoft's seems more advanced, or at least more open than Sony. In February 2008, Microsoft made available paid games (roughly $10 each) for download on their Xbox Live service.

There are however other ways to get into the games business and I don't mean console development- unless you are already in the games business that's a hard one to crack though Microsoft now seem keen to open up XBox 360 to 'amateur' developers with XNA.

Alternative Game Genres

  • MUD - Multi-user dungeons: These have been around for 30 years and were the forerunner to the MMORPG (Massive Multi-player Online Role-playing Games) that now exist. These are still popular and you can find the source code to several in C or C++. I don't know if any make money as players are used to playing them for free.
  • Internet/Web based games: There are hundreds of these around. A good starting point is the vast directory at MPOGD. These range from free to monthly subscriptions. Anyone can set up their own website and games using any web technology- e.g. Perl, PHP, Java and C# (ASP.NET).
  • Play By Mail: This has now largely but not entirely moved into the Internet/Web Games area. There are still a number of games played postally or by Email. Flagship Magazine is a good source of information. A game I wrote Quest won Best New Play-by-Mail Game of 1993 at Origins. Quest is still played today!
  • Flash Games: Flash development is a skill in itself, though programming in ActionScript (which is JavaScript under a different name) is not that hard. There is a definite career path available through programming Flash games and there are plenty of books to teach you to write games in Flash. Flashkit website Flashkit is a good starting point online. Learning to program in C is a good tip as ActionScript is very C like in its syntax.
  • Mobile Phone and PDA games: This has become a big growth area recently and is likely to continue its growth as phones get more powerful. Its also one of the easiest to get into though not all phones are the same. Some mobile phones are programmable in C++ and apart from the iPhone (programmed in Objective-C) an increasing number of phones using Google Android's in Java. PDAs can be programmed in C#. Also see the Nokia link posted in the "Places to Break into the Games Industry" earlier.
  • The iPhone is an amazing success story from 2008 on in mobile games development for Apple. The iPhone includes the older 3G/3GS and newer 4 and their iPad and iPod Touch. With a touch screen, 480 x 320 (higher on iPad) multi color touch screen, internet access via 3G or Wifi and excellent audio it has made a lot of backroom developers a lot of money. Between July and November 2008 there have been over 1,500 games released for it and by mid 2010 well over 100,000. Developing on it costs the price of the phone plus a few hundred dollars for a Mac Mini or Mac Book laptop. Definitely the easiest way to get into mobile games development.

If you are learning to program games, don't neglect the power of the web. Sourceforge is home to thousands of open source projects including many games.

First though to program games you have to learn to program. Try our tutorials or have a look at the Game Conversion Project. This took an old Basic game of Star Trek and converted it to C, then C++. A 3rd part conversion to C# has also been done.


Since this article was first written, I've written quite a few games programming tutorials for C with others in C++, C# and Go to follow.

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