Video Game Developers

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Frequently Asked Questions:

The questions we've been asked most frequently are grouped into the following topics:

How do I get started?

What is the industry really like?

What skills will I need?

Is the field open to women and minorities?

Where can I get more information?
      Websites, Newsgroups, Books, Magazines,
      Colleges, Conferences

 

How do I get started?

I want to program games just like everyone else but don't know where to start.  Even though I've learned C++, I don't know how to apply it to game programming.   I was hoping you could point me in the direction of a good book to teach me the fundamentals of game programming.  There is so much information out there that I don't know where the beginning is. 

I teach a class in video game programming at a local community college.  We use Windows Game Programming for Dummies as our textbook.  There is a link with info on the book on our class website:  http://www.edmagnin.com/CSIS240/textbook.html.  It is a good book for learning about making a game in windows, especially since you are already familiar with C++.

My Mom met you at the Electronics Boutique the other day and you gave her your card.  Can you give me a little information on the "C" language?

"C" or now "C++" are programming languages used to create games and other programs.  You can get books on "C" or "C++" at most large bookstores.  Palomar and other community colleges have introductory programming classes.  If you are in High School you can probably get a permit to go to your local community college.  If you're in Jr. High, you may have to wait, or ask your counselor to check with the community college for you.

Please give me some advice so that I can become a professional game programmer like you. I want to know what I should be doing now so that I can be the best that I can be in the video gaming world. I am a computer science freshman, and I am doing good so far.  However, I am not satisfied. I want to go on my own and write programs for video games.

If you want to do PC Games, I would learn as much C/C++ as I could, plus Windows programming, etc...

The Color Game Boy games I have been doing are in Z80 Assembly Language.  I do use C to write utilities to prepare graphics, sound, music, etc. to go into the cartridge.

I teach a Video Game Programming class at a local community college. There is info on the class and the textbook we use at: http://www.edmagnin.com/CSIS240/textbook.html

Try that book, or any other books you can find and just keep at it. Prepare a demo of your work.  Most game companies want someone with experience, which you won't have -- so a demo game is a one way to prove you can do the job.

My son is a high school senior.  He wants to be a video game designer and is trying to determine whether he should attend regular college or technical school.  What major or subjects would be appropriate?  Where can we find more information?

When you say video game designer does that mean he wants to design the games and does not program them?  The career path for a lot of game designers and producers is to start out as a playtester at a game company, then becoming an assistant producer, and eventually a producer. They usually know a lot of different games, and tend to borrow a lot of ideas from other games they have played.  A good book is Inside Electronic Game Design by Arnie Katz and Laurie Yates, which unfortunately is out-of-print, but may be in a local library. I am not sure there are any entrance requirements to being a playtester, other than being good at playing games, and the ability to write a coherent description of what happens when you encounter a "bug".

If he plans to design games and lay out levels, then art background, and especially computer art, would be very helpful. Learn to use program such as Adobe Illustrator (for 2D art) and 3D Studio Max (for 3D).

If he wants to program games then he should take as many classes as he can in programming in C, C++, and assembly language. Game companies would rather have experienced people than college graduates, so the next best thing is to spend some time creating a demo game or two, to show off what you can do. There are a number of good books on game programming.

Should he attend college or tech school?

There is a school in Redmond, WA named DigiPen that specifically trains people for the video game industry. It is expensive. They offer 2 programs for a certificate and 4 year programs leading to a degree. They have a long waiting list, and many more people than they can possibly accept, and I believe you have to submit some kind of portfolio or samples of your work to be considered.

I am currently attending a community college in New York.  I am in a software engineering program and have come to a conclusion that I have no idea what I am doing here.  I have currently researched information on trying to get into game development and have come up empty.  I am searching for information on what kind of degree to obtain as well as what other classes to try and take and also a good school to go to get these things.

Take as many C/C++ classes as you can, read as many books on game programming, and start working on a demo.  Most companies want people with experience, so how do you get your first job? You make a demo that you can send to them so they can see what you can do...  I teach a single class in video game programming at a local community college in the evening. I just finished programming several Color Game Boy games and I'm just starting another one.  The goal of the class I teach is to give an overview of what is different about programming games that other kinds of programming, and give a feel for what it's like to work in the industry.  There is a school dedicated to game programming called DigiPen near Seattle. I understand they are very selective in who they take and they have a long waiting list. 

I have always wanted to be involved in video game designs, however I've always been told and actually thought "Hey that's far fetched". Well I'm 24 and not at all pleased that I've put this dream on hold. What I'm hoping is that you can steer me in the right direction.  What schools offer what I'm seeking, if at all? 

Take a look at the DigiPen link on my links page.  They are in Redmond, WA, have a long waiting list, and many more applicants than they can take, but if it's something you really want to do, I would definitely check it out.

I am a 15 year old high school senior who has her heart set on becoming a video game programmer and/or designer.  The only problem is that I do not know where to start.  I have been reading your website and others to find out what to do. I am about to buy Microsoft Visual C++ and the Windows Game Programming for Dummies, but I was wondering if you could answer some other questions, such as:

- Which college or university is best for video programming?

As far as colleges there is one in Redmond, WA (there's a link on my web page). They are very picky and have a long waiting list, not to say you shouldn't try. There are hardly any other schools. There is an occasional course here or there. If you know how to get onto news groups you will see a lot of messages on:

alt.games.programming and

comp.games.development.industry

If you don't have access to the newsgroups you can get to them via
http://deja.com

-Since I just started learning a little C++, what other books do you recommend for beginners?

You say you've done a little C++ programming. Are you good at it? Do you like it? Programming can be both very fun and very frustrating. It takes a certain kind of personality. I would learn as much C, C++ and Windows programming. The Windows Game Programming for Dummies book expect that you know some C or C++ and some Windows programming.

- Do you know of any programmers or developers in the D.C. area that I might be able to work or intern for?

There aren't many game companies in Washington, DC area. There are a few in Baltimore: MicroProse and Firaxis and I have a friend who works at Kesmai (Game Storm) in Charlottesville, VA

You may find some others...

I am a curious and "love-to-be" Game Boy developer.  I was wondering if, based on your experience, it is a "must" to become an official licensed Game Boy developer before trying to get a game marketed and distributed by a software publisher?

I became an authorized Game Boy Color developer after I had already done a number of games.  I'm not sure they would just let someone become one before they had proven themselves so to speak. It's kind of a chicken-and-egg problem. How do you get your foot in the door?  I guess you work for a company that is an authorized developer or is under the wing of a publisher that is.  Then after you have some experience you ask them to review your application. 

I also warn my students at the college that it is very unlikely that you will make a game and take it to a publisher and they will sell it.  It does happen, but it's extremely rare.  Usually companies have many more projects and ideas for projects than they have the money to fund. Even if your game was completely done, they would have to decide how well they think it will sell before they risk their money paying Nintendo to manufacture it for you.  It is more likely that any program you have done will serve as an entree in to the industry, to prove you can do the work, before they offer you a job.

How the heck do I do this stuff?  I'm 11 years old and I want to make my own video-games.  I'm not a computer wiz. Please, give me some starting tips, like graphics, animation and things like that. I've never designed anything on the computer, except a picture on the paint program.

It depends on what you want to do.  Are you good at math? You may like being a programmer.  Do you like to draw?  Then you may like being an artist.  There are a number of good art programs. 3D Studio Max is one of the better ones for 3D animations.  There are also a number of good books on it and other game programming topics these days.

You're young so you have a lot of time to figure out what you like and what you're best at.

I'm interested in finding out what sorts of knowledge and equipment are necessary if someone wants to create video games.  I'm an Industrial Design graduate with an interest in pursuing video game design as a career.

It depends on what you want to do... art, design, programming... Since you've had some design background I'll assume that's what you're interested in. There is a good book, but unfortunately I believe it's out of print, although you might find it at a library:

Inside Electronic Game Design by Arnie Katz and Laurie Yates

Also, there are some links on my web page under links to Gamasutra and Game Developers Magazine...

I met you at GameWorks in Las Vegas.  You gave me your business card, and you talked about how you were working on Spy Hunter and Moon Patrol for the Game Boy color.  I am a freshman in college and I am undecided in my major.  I sat down one night and visited websites on where I would like to work.  It looked to me that I wanted to work at places like Nintendo, RARE, Lucasfilm, Disney, Pixar Animation Studios, and Warren Miller Productions.  I think I may have found my calling...

I see that you have been working with people and know the video games business very well. Could you please tell me what these companies like to look for when people apply?

They look for experience, which of course is a chicken-and-egg problem, so the next best thing is to have a demo of your work. The people at Shiny told us they look at your demo disk first, and then if they like it they look at your resume.

What schools are great for video games and film? 

The only school I know of specifically for Video Games is DigiPen. There's a link on my website. They're in Redmond, Washington near Nintendo and have a long waiting list. And I believe they want to see some sort of demo of your work as well... Film schools - California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, CA and of course USC and UCLA both have excellent film schools.

What are the salary ranges like, and how difficult is the competition?

Starting artists may make somewhere around $30K/year. Experienced 3D artists $75K+. Programmers start around $40K+. I tell people you're worth about double that once you finish your first published game. There has been a lot of consolidation, companies buying and merging with each other. But each game requires programmers, and it seems we're turning out more games every year. 

Do you have any magazines or websites that give more information on the different fields?

Follow the link to Gamasutra and Game Developer magazine on my website.

I don't have much experience in programming or in graphics, and I'm scared that I may have started too late in doing so. Could you please help me with this great field, and what I can do to be competitive?

It's never too late!  I started teaching deaf students and was an administrator of a non-profit service agency.  Then the Apple II came out in 1978 and I taught myself how to program and I've never turned back!

If it's your passion to make games and you make up your mind whether you're good at math and logic and might like programming, or whether you'd rather design the artwork that goes into the games. 

Since you're already in college, if you're interested in programming take all of the programming classes you can (C/C++ and Assembly Language).  If you're more interested in art, start learning all you can about graphics design, Adobe Illustrator and Photo Shop for 2D artwork and 3D Studio Max for 3D artwork.

I was wondering what does it take to become a video games programmer.

The short answer is you have to know how to PROGRAM and like to make video games. Study C/C++. Try taking a C/C++ class at a local community college. If you're still in high school, get a permit to take a class, instead of one of your high school electives...

I want to know about the link between graphic design and videogame.

Artists design graphic elements to be included in a game. Sometimes they are flat pieces (2D artwork), sometimes they are 3D models. Games need good art AND good programming. If either one of them is not good enough the game won't be that great.

How much schooling is needed?

That depends on how good you want to be, or where you plan to apply for a job.  Some companies require a degree in computer science, others would prefer to look at what you're capable of doing.

What courses and majors would be good to take?

Take as many programming classes as you can, especially C, C++, Windows Programming, Assembly Language and these days Java might be useful as well.  Make sure you have a good understanding of both Physics and Trig.  Programming 3D games requires a better understanding of matrix math. 

Which is better college or tech school?

That depends on who's interviewing you.  We have a very good computer science program at Palomar College (a 2-year community college).  We tend to have smaller classes and more interaction with the professors.  Others might be more impressed if you had taken the same classes at a more prestigious university. 

Do employers value education or experience more?

They definitely prefer experience!  The problem is that they can't always find experienced people, so they have to be willing to accept some entry level people with the right educational background.  

I have worked for a number of major game companies and actually saw very little of a formal training program.  The exception was MicroProse, which hired a professor from John Hopkins University to come in the evening in the summer and teach us all "C".  It was well worth it.  I wish other companies spent more time on helping train their employees and helping them improve their skills.

What can I do now to build myself up?

Start learning on your own.  Most of my programming background was self-taught from books and long hard practice.  Find some good books and start now.  If nothing else, you'll see whether you like it or have an aptitude for it.  After all programming takes a special kind of personality.  You have to not mind making mistakes.  You also have to be able to construct your own experiments to see why something isn't working the way you expected it to.

I am currently seeking employment as a software engineer. I was wondering if you could tell me where Magnin & Associates is located.  This information does not seem to be on your Web site.

We are located in Carlsbad, California (near San Diego).  We are a small company and do not anticipate hiring any programmers in the near future though.

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What is the industry really like?

Working conditions:

relaxed office environment
casual attire
long hours
serious deadlines

Do people work in teams or individually?

Definitely in teams.  Even on the Game Boy projects where I was the sole programmer, I had to work with artists, musicians, producers, playtesters...

How many working hours are typical in a week?

Many game programmers work well over 40-hour weeks, especially when they get down to the end of the project.  No one says you have to work more hours, they just want your game done by a certain deadline and you figure out that to do so you need to spend more hours on task. 

Are people paid by the hour or milestone?

The only programmers I know that are paid by the hour are contract programmers on very short term jobs.  Most game programmers either work for the publisher and are paid a monthly salary, or are independent developers and are paid by the milestone.  A project is basically divided up into a number of milestones, that are often about a month each in duration.  You only get paid when you actually finish the milestone, not just that you spent a month and you still need more time.  As a new programmer it is more likely that you would be an employee of a company until you had proven yourself, so that companies would trust you with their projects.

Can people work at home or do they have to commute to a company?

Most of the companies I have worked for would prefer that I work at their location.  On the other hand I learned a long time ago that I do my best work at home, away from all of the distractions.  When I was changing jobs, I could sometimes insist that I be allowed to work at home.  At one company I asked to be allowed to work at home after proving myself on two projects.  When they refused I went to another company that let me work at home.  When you're starting out it is unlikely that a company would let you work at home.  They like to watch you.  Once you've proven yourself, if they don't trust you, some other company might.

How many companies are making games at this time?

There are probably several thousand companies in some aspect of the game industry.  Just take a look at some of the directories on Gamasutra.

How long does it take to create a video game?

A Game Boy project might take about 7 months or so, some larger team projects are working on an 18-month to 2-year timeline.

Who gets to decide what the game will be about?

Sometimes I am asked to design the game around some topic or a license (such as a cartoon character or sports figure).  Other times the game was already done on another platform and they want to "port" it to the Game Boy.  It takes a certain amount of technical design to make it look as good or better on a new platform than it did on the original one.

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What skills will I need?

Programmer:

math, programming, physics, trig, problem solving, long attention span, self-directed, dedication,

Artist:

drawing, color theory, creativity, familiarity with a variety of computer drawing and 3D rendering software packages.

Game Tester: 

long attention span, ability to communicate effectively, good memory, excellent hand and eye coordination, detail oriented.

Producer: 

people skills, organization, communication.

Sound and Music Specialist: 

creativity knowledge of MIDI and sound theory, and familiarity with a variety of music programs.

Game Designer:

creativity, marketable ideas, knows how to make a game both challenging and fun to play.

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Is the field open to women and minorities?

What percentage of the industry is made up of women?

Unfortunately a very small percentage.  The companies I've worked at had a number of women, but very few were in the development area, more as artists, hardly any programmers.  Now why is that?  In theory the field should be wide open.  It is skill based.  Most companies would prefer to hire the best person that can get the job done on-time with as few bugs as possible.  Not as many women play games as men, or at least the kinds of games that seem to be the most popular, perhaps they are not as interested in pursuing it as a career.  A number of studies have been aimed at figuring out why more young women don't play games, or targeting games specifically at them.  Most attempts have not been that successful.

Do women typically make the same salary as men?

I wouldn't know.  It is not usually a good idea to compare salaries with fellow employees.  It usually doesn't accomplish much except making one person feel worse that he isn't earning as much.  I haven't seen any salary studies of our industry that break it down by sex.

What about minorities?

There isn't as high of a percentage as there should be, but again there is no inherent reason why there shouldn't be more.  You would be surprised how many foreign-born programmers have overcome language and cultural barriers to take up successful careers in our industry.

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Where can I get more information?

Websites:

So you want to be a computer game developer? http://www.makegames.com/

Gamasutra - http://www.gamasutra.com/

Newsgroups:

alt.games.programming

comp.games.development.industry

rec.games.design

If you don't have access to the newsgroups, you can search or browse them via http://groups.google.com

Conferences:

Game Developers' Conference - http://www.gdconf.com/

Magazines:

Game Developers Magazine - http://www.gdmag.com/

Books:


Game Over -- Press Start To Continue 
by David Sheff, Andy Eddy 
Poole, Steven. Trigger Happy: Videogames and the Entertainment Revolution New York: Arcade Publishing, 2000
Kent, Steven L.  The Ultimate History of Video Games  New York: Prima Publishing, 2001 
DeMaria, Rusel and Wilson, Johnny High Score! The Illustrated History of Electronic Games  New York:   McGraw-Hill Osborne, 2002
Inside Electronic Game Design 
by Arnie Katz, Laurie Yates (out of print, but may be in your local library)
Game Architecture and Design
by Andrew Rollings and Dave Morris
Fabjob.com guide to 
Become a Video Game Designer
by Phil Marley
Tricks of the Windows Game Programming Gurus
by André LaMothe
Game Design: Theory and Practice
by Richard Rouse III
Learn Computer Game Programming with DirectX 7.0 
by Ian Parberry
Advanced 3-D Game Programming with MS DirectX 7.0
by Adrian Perez 

Colleges:

DeVry University DeVry University offers a BS degree in Game & Simulation Programming at several locations around the country.  Ed Magnin teaches at the Dallas-Metro campus in Irving, TX.
Digipen DigiPen (near Seattle, WA) offers 2 and 4-year degrees in Real Time Interactive Simulation and 3D Computer Animation.
Full Sail Full Sail (in Orlando, FL) offers an Associate of Science Degree Program in Game Design.
Palomar College (a community college near San Diego, CA) offers video game programming classes and a Video Game Specialist certificate program, which Ed Magnin helped create.

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