When we’re children, we like doing one of two things: playing games or inventing them. And while adults might look on in amusement when a child takes dominos or Scrabble tiles and turns them into an original game, we forget that for some people, inventing games is a career.

It’s called game development, and it’s a big business. Game developers create the games providing entertainment for the more than 2.6 billion mobile gamers around the world (as of December 2021), and the billions more who play console and desktop games. But how do you make the transition from inventing childhood games to becoming a serious, sophisticated engineer of modern-day digital fun? Here’s how to extend your passion into a serious paycheck by learning how to become a game developer.

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What Is a Game Developer?

pro gamer
Source: unsplash
Before a single user can take aim, someone first has to sit down and create the code and visual effects that make gaming possible.

Every game developer job description varies, but here’s what it means in a general sense: A game developer is a software engineer—or “coder”—who helps produce a video or computer game. 

What Does a Game Developer Do?

That’s a bit like asking what a construction worker does all day. It depends! A game developer can work on one, or many, aspects of the game’s production. They might assign code to visual elements, make tweaks to beta versions of video games, or contribute to the game’s graphic interface or design elements.

Large gaming companies can employ thousands of developers and assign miniscule tasks to ensure every element of the game is optimal. But some developers work only for themselves, constructing the entire video game from concept to publication.

Types of Games Developers Can Create

minecraft app
Source: unsplash
Minecraft, seen here in its mobile edition, was originally the brain-child of one developer: Markus “Notch” Perrson. 

If “developer” is a broad term, then so is “game.” One glance at your Apple or Google Play store will confirm this fact—the options are endless! For this reason, developers often specialize in a specific game category. Here are some of the most popular categories:

Sandbox Games

Sandbox games earn their name from a sandbox-style of play. The game introduces the rules and the environment, then lets the player decide what to do, much like playing in a sandbox. One famous example is the highly successful Minecraft game, which starts the player with nothing but a single character and a pile of resources ready to be mined, farmed, or crafted.

Educational Games

If you want to learn how to be a game developer, there might be a game out there to teach you how. Enter the world of educational games, which mix healthy amounts of information into their entertainment. Crosswords, for example, are sneaky ways to teach kids vocabulary and spelling skills.

Mobile Games

pokemon go
Source: unsplash
Released in 2016, Pokemon GO caused a sensation upon its release, encouraging millions of people to venture outside for their thrills.

Mobile games encompass any category of game designed to function primarily on your phone. Some games—like Minecraft—feature mobile versions of their desktop or console iterations. Others, like the famous Pokemon GO, are designed specifically with mobile phones in mind.

Adventure and Role-Playing Games

From first-person shooters like Halo and Fortnite to the storytelling immersion of Grim Fandango, adventure and role-playing games can run the gamut. Some enjoy strategy and digital physics, while others want movie-like immersion into a pre-written world of intrigue.

How to Become a Game Developer

It’s not hard to see why someone might want to be a game developer—imagine your nine-to-five doesn’t consist of meetings and reports, but deciding how to plot a video game character’s next adventure. However, the question isn’t how fun it is, the question is: Is becoming a game developer feasible as a career?

What Degrees Will You Need?

Generally, you’ll need a programming degree or a computer science degree at the bachelor’s level, according to Coursera. A software engineering degree is similarly useful. 

The good news is these are typically four-year degrees. As long as you enter college knowing what you want to do, there’s no reason you can’t enter the world of game development within a few short years. 

You aren’t typically expected to have a master’s or doctorate. It comes down to whether you’re fluent in the coding language companies use to create their video games.

Can You Use Experience Instead of a Degree?

While higher education isn’t technically necessary, you may find it difficult to get past hiring managers who want a minimum of a four-year degree. However, some video game companies might be perfectly willing to take a chance on you if you have demonstrable experience in their most-used programming languages.

Master the Appropriate Programming Languages

Speaking of those languages, what do companies use to “write” their video games into code? Here are some of the most common:

  • C++
  • C#
  • Java or JavaScript
  • SQL
  • HTML5
  • CSS3

Additionally, you may find success if you develop specialized skills in emerging sectors of the video game industry, such as virtual reality or metaverse development.

Certifications and Other Helpful Education

The ideal mix of background for a game developer includes these three elements:

  • Experience, especially relevant job experience using a company’s preferred programming language. Some video game developer students even try to build their own games to get a head start on their portfolio.
  • Specialized certifications, often in specific types of languages or skills, such as C#.
  • A background in APIs, or application programming interfaces, are the connecting wires allowing two pieces of software to interact with each other. Developing API skills is useful to just about any gaming company on earth.

How Much Does a Game Developer Make? 

Game developer salary numbers are looking good these days, with Glassdoor regularly reporting jobs paying $83,000 or more. Jobs paying as much as $174,000 are still within Glassdoor’s “likely” range. But “game developer” is still a pretty generalized keyword on job boards. Let’s look at some of the specific positions and what you can expect.

Game Developer Jobs

If you’re interested in game development, there are several career paths that could suit you in this ever-growing field. Let’s break them down.

Game Developer

You’ll typically see the job title “game developer” along with the graphics engine the company uses—for example, “Unity game developer” is a common posting on job boards, as is “Java developer.” In fact, before you start learning development, search the job boards to see what engines your target companies use most frequently. Then use that information as a reference as you plan for your own education and career.

Front-End Developer

A front-end developer handles the graphics and user interface design for a video game or website. They are responsible for the look and feel of the environment or digital platform. You’ll have to be skilled in both of these areas if you want to succeed as a front-end developer.

Software Engineer

One of the most common titles used in the gaming industry is “software engineer.” Why? This title typically indicates a role where you’re the one expected to turn graphics and interface ideas into the code making the game work.

Remote Game Developer Jobs

Game development happens on a computer—and like all jobs that require computers, it’s possible to work almost totally remotely. The listing for remote game developer jobs on ZipRecruiter shows a similar median salary to the rest, making it a great option for skilled workers who want to stay at home.

Freelance Game Developer Jobs

You don’t have to work full-time with a company just to get into the industry. Game developers will sometimes hire freelance or contract developers to supplement their staff, especially when they have one brief project that doesn’t require a dedicated team. This is also a fantastic way for you to build a portfolio of work experience while you’re still learning.

Game Time!

The gaming industry isn’t for everyone. It requires creativity, technical skill, and passion to create games people love. Fortunately, people love games, and there’s plenty of demand for those who want to entertain for a living. Make sure you pay attention to the climate of job demand and develop skills best suited for future employers, and you’ll have plenty of opportunities for work. But as a game developer, it won’t really feel like work, will it?

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Written by:

Dan Kenitz