Computer Science

How to Become a Game Developer—And Which Schools Have the Degree(s) You’ll Need

How to Become a Game Developer—And Which Schools Have the Degree(s) You’ll Need
If you want to succeed as a game developer, you're going to have to put in maximum effort—and that's not easy. Choose this career only if you have a genuine passion for game development that won't be defeated by the challenges and frustrations endemic to the industry. Image from Unsplash
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry October 1, 2019

A love of video games isn't all you need to become a game developer. Making a game that people will actually pay for requires programming chops, connections in the gaming industry, and awareness that building games isn't as fun as playing them.

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You want to create a video game? It’s surprisingly easy. Download GameMaker, review some free how-tos, and start programming. You’ll be shooting zombies or collecting candy hearts in no time.

Becoming a professional video game developer is more challenging. Think about just how many games are created for computers, consoles, and mobile platforms. Did you know that most make little or no money? According to a 2021 report from Fortunly, “While video game industry growth statistics point to record breaking revenues, the reality is that only a fifth of all game titles achieve profitability, and less than 5 percent of all games that go into production turn a profit.” Even among games produced for Nintendo, Xbox, and other high-profile platforms, just 20 percent are profitable.

As you set out to become a game developer, you need to know that video game design is a labor of love that may neither provide steady work nor pay well. If, however, you feel passionate about turning your love for games into a career, know that it can be done. Others have succeeded in this field, and if you’ve got game—sorry, couldn’t resist—so can you.

In this article, we’ll cover:

  • What game developers do
  • The skills you’ll need to become a game developer
  • Educational commitment to become a game developer
  • The best bachelor’s and master’s degree programs for video game developers
  • What else you’ll need to do to become a video game developer
  • The typical advancement path for game developers
  • The pros and cons of becoming a game developer

What game developers do

Except for very simple mobile games, video game development requires a large team. On the creative side, you need writers and artists. On the tech side, you need programmers, QA testers, and engineers. Video game development is a business, so you also need marketers, accountants, and managers. Most people, however, who aspire to become game developers are interested in careers in computer programming.

Because modern video games include a lot of elements (online gameplay, 3D graphics, custom digital sound, custom game physics, artificial intelligence, etc.), video game developers have to solve some pretty challenging computer science problems. They often specialize in specific areas of the software development process.

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What are these specialized roles?

Gameplay programmers

These professionals are pivotal in creating the interactive components of a game. They not only develop the core gameplay mechanics but also integrate other elements like physics, graphics, and sound to create a cohesive and engaging game experience. Their work directly influences how players interact with the game world and how the game responds to player actions.

UI programmers

UI (User Interface) programmers specialize in developing the interfaces through which players interact with the game. This involves creating the layout and design of menus, dialog boxes, and other on-screen elements. They focus on usability, aesthetics, and ensuring a seamless integration of the interface with the game’s overall functionality.

Game engine programmers

These programmers work on the development and optimization of game engines, which are the core software components of video games. They handle various aspects including graphics rendering, physics simulation, and other fundamental game functions. Their work enables the creation of a versatile and efficient platform upon which games can be built.

Physics engine programmers

Specializing in the simulation of physical systems within a game, these programmers create realistic and consistent behaviors for in-game objects. They develop algorithms that dictate how objects move, interact, and react to various forces, contributing significantly to the realism and immersion of the game.

Graphics engine programmers

Focused on the visual aspects of game development, these programmers design and develop the software for rendering 2D and 3D graphics. Their work is crucial in bringing the visual elements of a game to life, ensuring that they are rendered efficiently and effectively across different hardware platforms.

Artificial intelligence programmers

AI programmers develop the algorithms that control non-player characters (NPCs) and other automated elements within a game. They work on creating behaviors that mimic intelligence, allowing NPCs to make decisions, adapt to player actions, and contribute to a dynamic and engaging game environment.

Network programmers

These programmers specialize in the online aspects of gaming, developing the code that enables multiplayer gameplay over different networks. They ensure smooth communication between different players’ game states, manage server-client interactions, and optimize network performance for a seamless online experience.

Audio programmers

They are responsible for integrating sound into games, including music, sound effects, and voice. Audio programmers work on the development of sound engines and tools for effective sound playback, manipulation, and mixing, contributing to the overall auditory experience of the game.

Input programmers

These programmers develop the software that interprets player input from various peripherals like keyboards, mice, gamepads, and motion sensors. Their work is crucial in ensuring responsive and intuitive control systems that are fundamental to the gaming experience.

Porting programmers

They play a key role in adapting games for different platforms. Porting programmers modify and optimize game code to function on various operating systems, consoles, or devices, ensuring that the game maintains its features and performance across different hardware setups.

On smaller projects and indie games, generalists may do all of these things and more. On larger projects, there may be multiple people in each of the roles. There also are video game programmers who specialize in creating games for specific platforms or creating certain types of games (e.g., action/adventure games or puzzles).

The skills you’ll need to become a game developer

The most important assets you’ll need to become a game developer (besides the obvious aptitude for programming) are soft skills. Video game developers need tons of patience because programming is an exercise in problem-solving and troubleshooting hard-to-find errors.

Unless you decide to work as a contractor—designing games from start to finish for companies that don’t have in-house programmers—you’ll also need the ability to work well as part of a team and to communicate effectively.

Working as a full-time game developer can also involve long hours, short deadlines, and stress. And, of course, you’ll need mad multimedia, graphic design, and programming skills. Not everyone is up to the challenge.

Educational commitment to become a game developer

The best way you can prepare to be a game developer is to develop games, the rudiments and fundamentals of which you can learn on your own. However, if your goal is to work full-time for a big company, there may be education requirements. You probably will need a bachelor’s degree and perhaps a master’s as well.

Not so long ago, aspiring game developers could only choose between computer science or software engineering degrees—but today a variety of game-specific bachelor’s game design degree programs exist. You could pursue a more general development degree or software engineering degree, but be aware that there are schools that offer degrees in game technology, game development, mobile development, game art, and game and simulation programming.

As you browse bachelor’s degree programs in game design schools, look for those with coursework that helps build fluency in the object-oriented computer code and programming languages commonly used in game design (e.g., Java, Python, C, and C++). Ideally, you’ll be able to take classes in simulation programming, 3D modeling, scripting, character animation, artificial intelligence, world design, algorithms, game engine development, and other topics specific to game development.

Best bachelor’s degree programs for video game programmers

Clark University

“The Bachelor of Arts in Interactive Media—with tracks in 3D Art, 2D Art, Audio, Programming, Production, Writing, UI/UX, or Design Your Own—is a groundbreaking, nationally ranked interactive media program that will allow you to pursue your passion for games while preparing you for a career in the $160 billion interactive media industry.”

DigiPen Institute of Technology

“The Bachelor of Arts in Game Design helps you create compelling interactive systems—from sophisticated user interfaces to polished games and applications. In addition to extensive design coursework, you’ll delve deep into psychology, communications, and user experience with an eye for crafting powerful experiences.”

Drexel University

“Drexel Westphal’s Game Design & Production major, recognized by The Princeton Review as one of the top undergraduate game design programs in the country, combines a strong comprehension of animation and interactivity, along with an understanding of design and programming.”

Michigan State University

“The Game Design and Development Program at Michigan State University was founded in 2005, and has grown by leaps and bounds into a Top 10 Ranked program by the Princeton Review. The program offers a mix of disciplines and backgrounds, with faculty and students comprised of designers, artists and programmers.”

New York University

“The Game Design BFA is a 4-year Bachelors of Fine Arts program. We are located inside NYU’s famous Tisch School of the Arts program, and like other Tisch programs in film, dance, and theater, we look at games as a creative form of art.”

Rochester Institute of Technology

“Nationally ranked as a top school for video game design by The Princeton Review, you’ll be prepared for a dynamic career within the professional games industry or a related field such as simulation, edutainment, or visualization.”

University of Southern California

The BS in Computer Science Games program is a college degree tailored for students interested in both computer science and video game development. It’s a comprehensive program that blends the technical aspects of computer science with the creative and practical skills needed for game development.

Worcester Polytechnic Institute

“WPI’s pioneering, top-ranked Interactive Media & Game Development bachelor’s degree will both stretch and focus your talents as you explore the technical and artistic aspects of game development. In our close-knit Interactive Media & Game Development bachelor’s degree program, faculty and students alike share a passion for finding new ways of looking at traditional media in order to create new media.”

Full Sail University

“The Game Design bachelor of science program, designed to enhance your ability to work in a game studio environment, is comprised of high-level game design and production courses that will take you deep into the game development pipeline.”

(Source: The Princeton Review)

The best master’s degree programs for video game developers

DigiPen Institute of Technology

“The Master of Science in Computer Science expands your knowledge and expertise in some of the most prominent topics of modern computing. In addition to working on original game projects with an emphasis on designing core technologies and applied algorithms, you’ll have the opportunity to develop and defend a thesis on a computer science topic of your choosing.”

Drexel University

“Drexel’s MS and PhD level graduate programs in Digital Media are available for students and professionals who are interested in exploring, researching and building advanced media design and production careers. The programs reflect the fast-paced, constantly evolving field in which art, technology and science intersect and are based on an innovative, interdisciplinary and project-oriented curriculum.”

Michigan State University

“Our master’s program focuses on instilling a comprehensive knowledge base and developing research skills so our students can succeed in the emerging careers that these fields are producing. Our games studies, human-computer interaction, media & policy, and media/ information management all explore various dimensions of this exciting field.”

New York University

“The NYU Game Center MFA is a 2-year Master of Fine Arts degree in Game Design. Located within NYU’s famous Tisch School of the Arts, we stand shoulder-to-shoulder with other forms of art, media, and culture. Our students study the design and development of games in a context of advanced critical literacy, becoming game designers and developers, artists and curators, critics and scholars.”

Southern Methodist University

“Recognized as one of the best graduate schools for game design, SMU Guildhall trains the next generation of game developers. With a faculty of industry veterans and specializations in all four cornerstones of game development, we have been commended for our multi-disciplinary Team Game Production curriculum, which yields award-winning student games.”

Rochester Institute of Technology

“In the game design and development master’s, students explore the entertainment technology landscape as well as other related areas. The program simultaneously covers the breadth of the game design and development landscape through study in topics such as computer graphics, game engines, interactive narrative, and game world design.”

University of Central Florida

“The MA program in Digital Media engages students in theoretical frameworks, methods, and critical media practices related to computational, interactive media. Through rigorous creative and research projects, the MA prepares students for continued study in a PhD program or employment within the industry.”

University of Southern California

The Master of Science in Computer Science (Game Development) program is a specialized program that teaches students how to make video games. It gives a strong base in computer science (basically the nuts and bolts of how computers work) and focuses on building serious gaming skills. This includes learning how to create the backbone of a game, understanding how games can affect our minds, and making games that are not just for fun but also for learning or training.

University of Utah

“The MEAE is designed as a cohort model where students remain together throughout the entire two years of the program (fall and spring semesters only). Students apply to one of four possible tracks (Game Arts, Game Engineering, Game Production, or Technical Art) and will take a series of courses focused on their specialty.”

Many of these programs require students to complete a capstone project, during which they develop a game prototype. That prototype shouldn’t represent your entire portfolio. As you pursue your bachelor’s degree (and master’s degree), think about how you can use your class projects on game design programs to build out your game programming portfolio. It will be more important than your résumé when you’re looking for work after graduation.

(Source: The Princeton Review)

What else you’ll need to do to become a video game developer

The most important qualification for this job, of course, is the ability to develop games. Start building your game production portfolio right away. You don’t need to wait until you’re enrolled in a bachelor’s program. There are plenty of books, online tutorials, and bootcamps that can teach you much of what you need to know to create simple games. It’s never too early to get started.

You also need to network. Even if you’re still in school, going to conventions and trade shows will provide a window into the game development world and help you make valuable connections. These may eventually lead to opportunities you wouldn’t otherwise find. You can network on social media, too. Not every experienced game programmer will want to chat with a newbie, but you might land an amazing mentor just by reaching out and saying hello.

Finally, pursue an internship even if your bachelor’s degree program doesn’t require it. This is a smart move for two reasons:

  1. First: You’ll make valuable industry connections just by showing up!
  2. Second: You can learn a lot about the industry and how it operates even if you’re not doing much more than fetching coffee. Obviously, not every aspiring gamer can land an internship at Sony and EA Games, but even the connections you make at indie game developer firms can lead to big things.

The typical advancement path for game developers

Many game developers begin their careers as junior computer programmers. These entry-level generalists typically work on small programming tasks, which may be related to physics, audio, artificial intelligence, level design, graphics, interactive design, or any of the specialty areas mentioned above. What you do as a junior game developer will depend on your employer’s needs and the size of your team. On larger teams, you may only work on specific aspects of a game. On smaller teams, you may have an iron in just about every fire.

As developers gain more experience, some decide to specialize. The opportunities to do so usually depend on the size and structure of their employer. The bigger the company, the more opportunities there will probably be for developers to work only in their chosen area of specialization.

The most experienced video game developers work in lead programmer positions. In this role, you still do technical work, but less of it, as much of your time is spent on project management tackling managerial duties like creating budgets and strategic plans, overseeing teams, and hiring new talent.

Pros and cons of becoming a game developer

Pros of becoming a game developer

The job: You’ll be a game artist working on video games, which you love.

The pay: The money is good! Junior game developers earn about $88,976 per year on average, and full-fledged game developers can earn an average annual income of more than $154,062.

Game developers can earn a good living, but the job isn’t all bonus points and free games. Which brings us to…

Cons of becoming a game developer

The competition: Securing a job in the video game industry is notoriously difficult because there are more aspiring developers than there are jobs available. Only the best of the best are hired at the biggest and most famous studios, which can afford to be choosy when taking on new talent.

The workload: It’s a challenging job. Developers routinely deal with too-short deadlines, overly ambitious plans, long hours (especially during crunch time), and mid-stream changes. Layoffs are frequent.

The anonymity: Game development also doesn’t involve a lot of personal glory, and even though the pay is decent, advanced programmers in other industries are often paid a lot better. Jennifer Scheurle of Opaque Space explained why in a GameDeveloper.com article about burnout in the video game industry: “We are constantly told that we are lucky to work in games, that our jobs are dream jobs and that we should be grateful to work in the field—this is especially true for prestigious franchises where there is a long line of developers waiting to take your place if you can’t take the pressure.”

All of which means that if you want to succeed as a game developer, you’re going to have to put in maximum effort—and that’s not easy. You should probably only choose this career if you have a genuine passion for game development that won’t be defeated by the challenges and frustrations endemic to the industry. If all you really want is to see your name on a computer game, you’ll save yourself a lot of stress by making simple mobile games in your spare time.

(Updated on January 3, 2024)

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Tom Meltzer spent over 20 years writing and teaching for The Princeton Review, where he was lead author of the company's popular guide to colleges, before joining Noodle.

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