You’ve played video games. Now you want to learn about making them.
What is Video Game Development?
In its simplest form, video game development is the process of making a video game.
You take an idea or a concept for a game, and you develop, program, engineer, render, record, mix, produce, test, etc. until you have a full-fledged game.
That definition is a good place to start, but it’s far from the whole picture.
More pieces of the picture:
The popularity of the video game development field is booming. It’s grown quite a bit in the past 10+ years.
There are a number of reasons for this. Some of the obvious ones are the continued growth of the gaming industry. As video games become more accessible and gain a bigger following, more people consider participating in what goes on behind the scenes.
Another reason: probably the internet. Everything is so accessible! Including tutorials, games, and articles talking about how fun it is to be a successful indie games developer.
Also, depending on your age, you might blame millennials for the game dev boom. (zing!)
The popularity boom means more opportunities to learn, as college educators rush to satisfy the demand and hoard your gold (while you rake in dat debt). It also means more competition as you’re now in a pool of thousands of like-minded students hoping to nap the “golden ticket” that is a degree in game development.
Here’s the truth–you don’t need to go to college. There are other options. And just because you go to college doesn’t mean you’re getting the “golden ticket.” In fact, there’s only one place we’ve seen a golden ticket actually work, and it’s in Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. (Technically…two places we’ve seen it work, since, you know…remakes.)
So, the good news: You have more opportunities to learn game development, how you want and when you want, than ever before!
Bad news: So does everyone else, and there are only so many jobs.
Solution: You need to put the time in. This guide will help you find the best way to do that (take that golden ticket to the chocolate factory, baby!).
You don’t need any formal education. You don’t need to rule out formal education. You don’t need to wait until you have an elusive entry-level job before you start developing games.
You can become a game developer right now by opening up YouTube and a game engine and building something simple.
This guide will give you tips, tricks, tools, and the basic knowledge you need to get your snowball rolling in the right direction.
But first, a showdown.
There can be only one! (Or is there even a difference?)
Featured Game Development School
Video Game Development vs Game Design
It’s true, game design and game development are different things. Sometimes you’ll see them used interchangeably. Here’s a reason why:
On a small team, you’ll have people dipping hands into the design and the development side. Game Development encompasses both game design and game development. That’s why sometimes game studios are called game developers. It’s kind of like the rectangle/square debate.
So, this isn’t the hard and fast rule, but it’s a decent rule of thumb to work from:
Game design deals with the conceptual side of things. Designers come up with the initial vision for a game. The mechanics, the core concepts, the aesthetics, the characters, levels, narratives–these elements tend to fall under the scope of game design.
Game development involves bringing these ideas to life. Developers take games from the conceptual phase, through *development*, and into reality.
A game developer can refer to a single person/occupation, or to describe a whole game studio.
The development side of games typically involves the programming, coding, rendering, engineering, and testing of the game (and all of its elements: sound, levels, characters, and other assets, etc.).
You (kind of) know the difference…but what kind of roles can you expect as a game developer?
Stages of Video Game Development
“I want to be a game developer where do I start” – I hear you crying out. Well, it starts from nothing, essentially. You need to make sure that you have a reliable team of artists, programmers, and more.
Here are the following stages of game development, and the best ways of learning game development (step by step).
Step 1: High Concept
The first major step in how to develop a game is the high concept. This is a general idea. It’s a very brief description where you try to distill your ideas down to a few sentences
Step 2: Pitch
This is the big one. You pitch your idea in a summarized form to best communicate ideas and their goals. It’s also a time to promote why it would be a prudent idea to develop financially and commercially.
Step 3: Concept
Further along, this is the lovechild between the high concept and pitch. This is where you outline and describe all of the aspects of the game. We’re talking story, demographics, risk analysis and a boatload of further information.
Step 4: Game Design Document
This document includes aspects tied to actual gameplay and may include prototypical aspects of your project.
Step 5: Prototype
This is where you and your team can shine early on. Building the prototype will allow you to develop the methods in which you’ll fully execute your idea. It’s a good way to build a proof of concept, adapting your goals into a more tangible form.
Step 6: Production
- Level Creation
This is when the ball starts to roll. Things like sound and early graphical assets begin to be implemented. The game is lifted off of the ground and finally starts to take shape. This is where programming comes into the game development process.
Best Programming Languages
Programming is the language of game development. Game developers should learn game programming using one of the several coding languages to better their product. But the real question here for some more rookie game developers is how to learn video game programming.
Game developers can learn video game programming using a multitude of different ways. But first, they need to find the language that fits their style and level of learning. What is the best programming language for game development? How does coding work in video games?
The most popular and most widespread used programming languages currently are:
- C++: This is a gaming standard. It’s moderately more difficult than other languages like Java, but it allows for more autonomy and freedom when it comes to design.
- Java: Java is one of the most versatile programming languages ever made. It has been proven to run on nearly everything available, making it a favorite for many game developers throughout the years. The versatility is very attractive and could help you along with your project.
- HTML5: HTML5 (HyperText Markup Language 5) is a markup language used to customize the function and appearance of web pages.
When it comes right down to it, these are merely the different avenues you can take when programming your game.
What Does a Game Developer Do?
There are a lot of elements that go into creating and developing a video game:
- Audio assets
- Gameplay mechanics
The list goes on. But you could be a developer and be in charge of any of those elements. A lot of game developers are heavy on the programming side of things. They know how to code, and they do exactly that to bring the design concept to life.
The rule of thumb for game development is the smaller your team, the bigger your role.
In an independent developer setting, you might have an opportunity to take on the responsibilities for the audio, the character assets, and the level design.
In a AAA studio setting, you’d likely have a specific role within one of those categories. Maybe you’d be responsible for rendering enemies 1-5, or for developing a specific part of the in-game world.
It’s not uncommon for developers to specialize in one or two specific areas. But again, the size of your team and the scope of the project will play an important part in determining the breadth of your role.
In some cases, the role of designer and developer will blend. You could spend time brainstorming and concept character designs, and then take the final concepts and bring them to life in the game.
Game Developers have an advantage over game designers from a supply standpoint. Studios are often looking for great programming talent. The “shortage” of good programmers makes them indispensable to development-hungry studios.
Also, your concrete programming abilities are generally easier to quantify than an abstract skill like “creativity”, which is necessary for successful game designers.
What’s the Game Development Process
As we’ve mentioned, your specific game dev process will depend on your role within the team. You might work on a small part of the bigger project, or you could work on the whole thing.
But, generally speaking, this is how the process unfolds:
First, you start with a concept.
In many cases, you’ll have what’s known as a game design document. This is your “bible” for the game. It’s the complete how-to manual for creating the game.
It has all the details you need:
- Plot points
- Story details
- Character biographies and aesthetics
- Level designs and objectives
- Game mechanics and core gameplay concepts
- Themes and aesthetics for the game
The list goes on.
Sometimes the game designers will put this doc together. Other times you’ll have a hand in creating it with them. Once the team is on the same page with the majority of the design decisions, it’s time for you and the other developers to shine.
For you, this could mean 3D modeling: characters, objects, vehicles, weapons, items, structures, etc. Everything you see in a game needs to be developed by someone!
Maybe you’ll get to work on levels (an attainable entry job). The game design document will contain sketches, concepts, and aesthetic notes for the map. It will probably have notes on how the player is expected to interact with the level, the level’s relation to the characters and the world as a whole, and also the level’s role in the story.
All of these elements will factor in your development decisions (yes, even with the design document, you still get to make decisions!). Maybe you’re working on tweaking the game mechanics. Maybe you’re making adjustments to address balancing issues.
You could be deciding how fast the character should move. How big the enemy should be relative to other things in the world. How fast weapons should fire, or how accurate the projectiles should be. The level mechanics. The enemy spawns.
Every element needs to be programmed into existence.
Now, as the game continues to take shape, it will likely need audio! Is there a dialogue between characters? The audio developers will be responsible for bringing voices into the game. The character developers will animate the facial movements to line up with that dialogue. The audio developers will work on the score, the ambient noises, the sound effects.
Everything needs to be developed! And, as a developer, all these areas of game dev are your oyster.
As the game finally comes together, it falls to developers, once again, to squash the bugs. We aren’t talking about a “spider in the house” sim…we’re talking about playtesting and quality control. Developers need to make sure the game works.
A lot of the time you can hire QA testers (or start as one yourself, you can be a game tester before jumping over to game dev!). There’s also software that automates parts of game testing for you (but it still needs some oversight from a game dev).
And, with any great project, there’s some change. Game development can be a nebulous process. Problems will crop up. So will bugs and glitches. So will impossible deadlines.
If you’re flexible, adaptive, and know what you’re doing, you’ll be just fine!
How Do You Learn Game Development?
Still with us? Like what you’re hearing?
Time to learn how to…learn how to develop games.
There are some basic options:
- College programs
- Summer programs
- Certificate programs
- Online courses
- The YouTubes (Check out the best game designing Youtube channels)
- The Internet at large
- Old-fashioned books (Here’s a List of Game Design Books We Recommend)
- Trial and error
The path you pursue will most likely be determined by several factors:
- Your financial resources (#sidehustle)
- Your time availability (full time or nights and weekends?)
- Your current level of experience (on a scale of 1-10, how comfortable are you with…game developing)
- Your end goal (hobby or jobby?)
What Parts of Game Dev Interest You Most?
This is an important question that you need to answer for the sake of your own sanity (probably) and for the sake of honing in on a couple of skills (definitely).
There are benefits to being well-rounded and there are benefits to specializing. There are cons to both as well.
If you’re looking for AAA employment, specializing will help you in the long run. It also limits the number of positions you’d excel in at an entry-level…but it makes you better at the jobs that do match your skills.
Say a studio is looking for a 3D animator or an assistant character developer.
If you specialize in 3D animation, and your portfolio shows 3D animation, and your resume talks about your 3D animation experience…they’re probably going to pick you over your peer who has a general “game developer” resume and portfolio and scattered development experience.
But, a small team looking to hire a Jack-of-all-trades type might go for someone who isn’t as specialized.
Are you looking to get into AAA work? Or do you want to support the indie development scene?
A good rule of thumb: Try everything once. See what you like. Stick with those skills!
Your Current level of Experience and End Goal
If you already have some experience, or you’re looking to make a transition, then certain programs will be a better fit than others.
The good news is, you can find exactly what you’re looking for. Need a course that teaches the basics? No problem.
Need complete A to Zebra training? There are complete programs both in and outside of colleges.
We’ll look at some of these options in just a bit.
There’s one more factor that will likely influence your decision, and it’s time. Or money. Or both.
You might not want to drop 200,000 USD over the next four years to get a college degree (or, if you do, that’s fine too!).
Maybe you need free. Maybe mom and dad offered to spend a few hundred bucks on a course for you for your birthday.
Or, if time is an issue, you can find flexible courses that will fit your schedule.
There are options for all of these criteria.
The point is, regardless of your situation, your resources, your time, your goals, your starting point–there are tools that can help you, and you can get access to them easily.
A degree in game development isn’t essential. But, if you do want to go to college for a degree in game development or game design, we have a number of resources detailing the best colleges for each. Go ahead and open those links in a new tab.
Summer programs are offered by a number of colleges around the country–it’s worth a quick google search to see if local schools are offering one near you. These are great opportunities to dip a toe in to see if it’s something you actually want to do. It’s also a great way to make some friends who share your passion for game creation (teen indie studio, y’all!).
Certificate Programs meet halfway between summer programs and college programs. These courses usually last 1 to 2 years and net you a certificate denoting your new skills. This is another way to “test the waters” without committing to a full four-year program.
Online platforms are some of our favorites to recommend.
- They’re inexpensive.
- They’re flexible.
- They have extensive rating systems (most of them do, anyway) so you can see what hundreds or thousands of other students thought before enrolling).
- They’re short. They’re not such a huge time commitment that you have to be afraid to try it.
Three of the best online learning platforms are:
- Plural Sight
The courses on these platforms offer a good mix of a go at your own pace and accountability (an important ingredient for success).
The course loads are reasonable across the board. Most courses only ask for a few hours of your time each week.
As with any skill or learning opportunity, you’re going to get out what you put in.
Take your time shopping around for the right course. Udemy especially likes to offer discounts and sales. If you have your eye on a $100+ dollar course, see if they’re advertising any upcoming sales.
You can often grab a course like that (especially if it’s a year or two or three old) for something like the price of a large pizza (assuming a large pizza runs you about $15 bucks…).
If you’re not trying to spend any money (because you just spent the last of it on a large pizza or you just live for those goose egg deals), YouTube and the Internet at large are your friends.
YouTube and the World Wide Web
You can learn how to do just about anything with YouTube. And that includes everything you want to know about game development.
Need to learn a new game engine? Want to learn a coding language? Want to take your skills to the next level? Want help designing your first RPG? Or FPS? Got stuck somewhere in your dev process?
YouTube it. The platform has all the answers you need, and then some.
Another great thing about YouTube: new content is uploaded all the time. Online platforms (and college programs) don’t necessarily stay up to date on the latest software as often as they should. This isn’t the case all the time, but tech moves quickly, courses get dated, and it’s hard and expensive to keep up.
YouTube doesn’t have that problem. It just takes one person with the updated software and a knack for teaching to override last year’s dated material.
The internet has made it easier than ever to pick up the skills you need to get started with game development. And, you know what else? It’s made it easier than ever to get your games in front of people, too!
Maybe you don’t want to develop the next Superhot or Super Meat Boy on your own. Maybe you want to join a big dev team.
For that, you’ll need a job.
How to Get a Game Development Job
Before you start skimming this section we need to tell you the secret:
Build a great game design portfolio.
If you want a job in the industry, your portfolio is the only thing that will get you hired.
Some people will scare you and tell you that you need to have a degree otherwise you won’t even be considered! But they’re just trying to scare you because they had to go to college and they don’t want anyone to get in any other way.
The truth is, if you have an incredible portfolio, it probably won’t matter what your resume looks like.
Plenty of people have made it into the game industry without a college degree. If they can do it…why not you?
There are companies out there that hire 100% based on portfolios. They want to see what you can do, and your portfolio is your big opportunity to show them exactly that.
If you’re applying with a bunch of other college grads, what’s going to help you stand out? What’s the differentiator? Is it your Treasury role on the high school student council?
No. It’s your portfolio. Spend the time you need to on it! A little extra effort on your portfolio can go a long way in separating you from the 70% of applicants not spending enough time on their own portfolio.
Meet People and Know People
Unless you already “know people” in the industry, you’re going to need to meet some.
Go to gaming conventions. Go to meetups. Get involved in the mod community.
If you meet someone, you have an instant leg up over a stranger looking for the same position. People like to hire who they know. They don’t even have to know you that well, they just have to recognize you and you get the “familiarity” advantage.
And, if there’s one more tip, here, be easy to work with. Be likable. Everything about game development is team-based. It’s one big collaboration. You’re communicating all day with other team members. Being likable goes a long way.
Best Game Dev Companies to Work For?
Instead of a list for you, we’re going to give you a different way of thinking about this question. The best companies for us to work for are going to be different than the best companies for you to work for.
Try answering these questions, instead:
- Where do you live now, and where do you want to work? (there are game dev companies all over the world: USA, Canada, India, Denmark, France, etc.
- Do you want to work at a big company? (A number of them are in California)
- Do you want to work for an indie company? (These are everywhere, and they’re great opportunities for industry experience)
- What kind of games do you want to help develop?
Not as satisfying as a list of the best places to work, but that’s really up to you. Find a company that matches you–don’t try to match a company! Every studio will have a different culture, different needs, different wants, and different ideas. Look for the ones that appeal the most to you!
Nothin’ to it but to do it
All that’s left is to open a new tab and keep on learning about game development.
Here are some great places to check out:
The Video Game Development Process
What does “AAA” mean in a AAA title game?
The triple-A game meaning refers to the production level of a particular game. Think of a AAA (or triple-A) game as a blockbuster movie, jam-packed with A-list celebrities. The budget will be massive, and hopefully, the quality will reflect in the final product.
Basically, it boils down to bigger budgets, more prominent publishers, and better advertising and marketing. Grand Theft Auto V and Halo 3 are classic examples of your quintessential AAA game.
The term triple-A has always been an unofficial classification used when describing big-budget games. The very first triple-A video game was the iconic Final Fantasy VII. Final Fantasy VII included impressive CGI, an insanely colossal development budget, and set the stage for high-value production games in the future.
Eventually, triple-A games had a few solid prerequisites, like multiple millions in development budget, marketing, and advertising. Each passing console generation has had a wealth of triple-A games. However, as nice as AAA games are to look at and play sometimes, they can foster some danger.
When a game undersells on the market (which could mean that the game still makes millions of dollars), the development studio could get sunk because of a lack of financial return.
What Are “Triple-A Plus” Games?
AAA+ refers to the ‘best of the best.’ Just because a game studio dropped millions on games doesn’t mean it’s automatically a hit; a AAA+ game sports all of the telltale signs of a AAA game and more. These are the behemoths of the gaming world. I’m talking Call of Duty, Destiny, and Grand Theft Auto V.
However, AAA+ has a double meaning. It can also refer to titles that, exhibiting great production values, aim to capitalize on that as much as they can. In the examples listed, microtransactions, online season passes, and other DLC are ever-present. This ensures a AAA game can go on living well beyond the release date.
Grand Theft Auto V has a thriving, extremely popular online community, even after being released in 2013.
Triple I Video Games
III, or triple-I games, are independent games (games without a big name publisher) with an impressive budget. In essence, these are quite like AAA games, minus the backing of video game financiers. A common, but not universal, aspect of III games is the indie development team has gained firsthand knowledge from working on AAA titles.
Why do many gamers consider AAA games as some of the worst out there?
A glaring negative of many triple-A games is the rise of microtransactions. Many gamers have, rightly so, been skeptical and downright hostile toward these marketing plans. You are already paying $60 for a video game, and you want to get your money’s worth.
Instead, you can often pop in an expensive game and experience a 7-hour single-player experience, tacked on with microtransactions and future promises of DLC.
Another negative aspect of AAA games is the lack of innovation. Many game studios have found immense success with titles like Madden and Call of Duty. If you make a smash hit game, why deviate from the winning formula?
It makes sense, but it makes for an uninspired gaming market, lacking risk-taking and new, more vibrant ideas.
The Future of AAA Video Games
Since gaming has never been more popular, you can expect a steady increase in triple-A games. Studios like Ubisoft, Electronic Arts, and other big-name studios will always be pouring millions upon millions into the development of their next title.
However, things like market stagnation will make the future of AAA game development a little bleak. While churning out multimillion-dollar games after multimillion-dollar games may work for some fans and companies, it drains the competition and quality out of the video game market.
When companies have no meaningful competition, what then? For now, the release of AAA games will continue to increase.
Written by Dustin Tyler [Updated June 10, 2021]
Initially focused on web dev, Dustin was introduced to game design by a friend after college and was immediately attracted to the combination of technical skill and creativity required to make an awesome game.
While not a professional game developer himself, he’s utilized his web dev skills and desire to help others by creating a resource where expert game designers can share what they’ve learned with the next generation of aspiring game makers. Meet the rest of the team.