The video game industry is booming: nearly 300,000 people work in the industry in the US alone - more than double the number employed in 2010.
Interest in becoming a game developer is as high as it’s ever been, but what does a game developer do, how do you become one, and what can you do today to help launch your own career in game development?
This article covers:
- What is a game developer?
- What degree do you need to become a game developer?
- Tips on starting a career in game development
- How to become an indie game developer with GameMaker
What is a game developer?
Video game developers are the technical wizards who bring a game’s designs, physics, mechanics, and art style to life. Coding and computer programming are the backbone of their profession.
Game developers can choose to be generalists, capable of working on many areas of a game’s code, or can specialise in certain aspects of game development, such as:
- Game genres, like first-person shooters and management sims
- Platforms, such as consoles, desktop, or mobile devices
- Game engines, such as GameMaker
- Coding languages like C++
- Technical niches, like UI (user interface) or level design
Without game developers, Crash Bandicoot wouldn’t spin, Max Caulfield wouldn’t turn back time, and CJ wouldn’t have needed to follow the damn train (which, to be fair, would’ve saved us all a lot of grief).
Big Smoke’s infamous line from Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, developed by Rockstar Games
How much does a video game developer make?
The average game developer salary is $71,295 a year in the United States, and £38,838 per annum in the UK.
Types of game developer
Game developers are typically divided into four different ‘types’, depending on who you work for and what kind of games you’re making:
- First-party game developers create games exclusively for a single console. Development studios like Naughty Dog, Double Fine Productions, and Next Level Games are first-party developers for Sony, Xbox, and Nintendo respectively
- Second-party game developers create exclusive games for a single console, but aren’t fully owned by the console manufacturers themselves. Game Freak make Pokémon games exclusively for Nintendo systems, but since Nintendo don’t own the company, they can release other games (like Little Town Hero) to rival platforms
- Third-party developers like EA and Activision Blizzard aren’t owned by any console creators, make their own games, and can choose to release them on any platform
- Indie developers are either solo game devs like Undertale’s Toby Fox, or work in small independent games studios like Forager developers HopFrog
Little Town Hero, developed by Game Freak
What’s the difference between a game developer and a game designer?
Here’s a question for you: who developed Metal Gear Solid?
Your first thought was probably Hideo Kojima, but he was actually the designer. However, as the man who originally came up with the concept, and the public face of the franchise for so many years, he’s often thought of as the game’s developer.
The real answer is Konami, and the real real answer is the individuals who worked on the game's AI, animations, programming, etc.
Examples like these are why so many people get game developers and game designers mixed up, but they perform two very different roles:
- Game designers come up with the blueprints for the game, including its world, characters, levels, themes, and mechanics
- Game developers bring those ideas to life, building, coding, and programming the world the designers have conceptualised
The phrase ‘game developer’ can refer to both the company who developed the game (in this case, Konami), and the individual team members who worked on the game.
If game design sounds more your thing, check out our ‘How to become a game designer’ article for more information.
Metal Gear Solid, developed by Konami
What degree do you need to become a game developer?
Development studios often look for candidates with a degree in computer science, software engineering, or a related field. Some universities now offer standalone game design degrees that will serve you just as well.
Maths, physics, and coding are the major skills that underpin these degrees, and game development as a profession.
Can you become a game developer without a degree?
Absolutely you can.
If you’re hoping to work somewhere like Bethesda or Auroch Digital, a degree certainly helps, but it's perfectly possible to start a career in game development based solely on the strength of your portfolio.
What’s the best coding language to learn to become a game developer?
That depends on what kind of developer you’d like to be.
If you’re looking to work for the Bungie’s or Square Enix’s of this world, the majority of game development roles will require knowledge of the C, C#, or C++ coding languages:
- C is the fundamental coding language that underpins # and ++
- C# is widely considered the easier language to learn
- C++ is commonly used in console and PC games
If you’re looking to become an indie game developer, or if you’d just like to make your own games for fun, you don’t need to learn how to code at all.
It’s perfectly possible to create games using visual or ‘drag-and-drop’ editors, which let you build games with pre-built blocks of code, rather than coding every aspect of your game line by line.
Tips on starting a career in game development
1. Start small
If you’re not ready to make your own game from scratch, start small.
Make a character move using keyboard inputs, create an old-school shooter like Asteroids, make an AI follow a certain path. It might not feel like much, but it all adds up.
2. Build a portfolio
Your portfolio is your biggest asset. Fill it to bursting with examples of your work: show potential employers what you’re capable of.
Whether you’re creating mods, code examples, or full-blown games, leave them in no doubt as to what you can do and the standard you can do it at.
3. Go indie
You don’t need to work for a AAA development studio to become a game developer. All you need is a game engine, an idea for a game, and the determination to make it happen.
We’ve written a comprehensive guide to the best game engines for beginners to help you determine which is right for your project.
Undertale, made in GameMaker, developed by Toby Fox
How to become an indie game developer with GameMakerIf you’re ready to begin your game development career, download GameMaker today!
GameMaker is a 2D game engine that’s completely free to download, perfect for beginners and professionals alike. The software has been used to develop well-known indie games such as Undertale, Hotline Miami, and the award-winning Spelunky series.
You can even create your first game within half an hour with our Hero’s Trail tutorial. We offer hundreds of guides and tutorials to help you grow your skills and become a fully-fledged indie game game developer.
You can also sign up to the GameMaker Forum and pose any game-making questions you may have to the indie game dev community.