Graphic & Multimedia Design

How to Become a Graphics Developer and Bring Game Concepts to Life

How to Become a Graphics Developer and Bring Game Concepts to Life
If you're really good at math, are detail-oriented, and you love technical challenges and using code in creative ways, you'll enjoy life as a graphics developer—even if you're not a big fan of actually playing video games. Image from Unsplash
Christa Terry profile
Christa Terry November 8, 2019

Creating graphics for video games and other digital applications is a science as well as an art. Graphic designers may create the initial concept artwork, but it's graphics developers who render it all into a language computers understand to bring that artwork to life.

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A wide receiver leaps high in the air, executes a one-handed catch, and lands in the end zone. A warrior celebrates a victory by dancing the floss, the electric shuffle, or the orange justice. A diminutive Italian plumber eludes fireballs to destroy a monster and save a princess.

These striking video game graphics must be painstakingly programmed, at rates of up to 60 frames per second. That doesn’t just happen; someone’s got to make it happen. Meet the graphics developer.

A graphics developer (or graphics programmer) writes (or operates) software used for rendering, lighting, shading, and shadowing graphical elements in applications, games, and films. Many graphics developers work in the video game industry, where they help create complicated 2D and 3D motion graphics.

The job is more technical than creative. When you become a graphics developer, you want to make applications beautiful, but you also need to think about getting graphics to run at the right frame rate and the best way to implement a specific rendering effect. You need to understand things like the graphics pipeline.

Not that long ago, graphics developers needed to program everything from scratch; their work required a deep understanding of advanced math. Now there are lots of commercial and open source frameworks like OpenGL, Unity 3D, WebGL, and DirectX that make it easier for programmers to animate complex images without a lot of coding.

That doesn’t mean you don’t have to learn to code, however. On the contrary, becoming a graphics developer requires that you do that and more. In this article, we’ll cover:

  • What graphics developers do
  • Kinds of graphics developer careers
  • Graphics developer versus graphic designer
  • Educational commitment to become a graphics developer
  • Skills graphics programmers need
  • Certifications for graphics developers
  • Pros and cons of becoming a graphics developer
  • Is this the right career for me?

What graphics developers do

One of the loveliest descriptions of what graphics programmers do comes from Quora. As blogger Steve Baker wrote on the platform: “We paint pictures with math.” While a bit fanciful, it does sum up the tasks graphics programmers undertake.

Here’s the more technical description: Graphics developers use computer code to get visuals in applications and games to display the way the creator wants them to. They don’t design characters, backgrounds, and animations, but they do make them look lifelike and believable.

When you become a graphics developer, you spend your days:

  • Writing code related to all aspects of rendering
  • Calculating coordinates of figures, images, and objects in applications
  • Enhancing and creating graphics features
  • Testing to make sure those features work within wider systems
  • Profiling and optimizing graphical features
  • Working closely with artists, the art director, and content creators, as well as other types of software developers
  • Analyzing games and applications to identify and fix rendering-related bottlenecks
  • Developing new and enhancing existing graphics technologies
  • Debugging engine-level code
  • Working with preexisting graphics engines

If you work in the video game development industry, what you won’t be doing is working on gameplay. All you care about is that every visual element in the game renders beautifully while maintaining the highest possible frame rate.

Kinds of graphics developer careers

Graphics programmer and graphics developer are not certified titles, which means every company has its own expectations of what someone in this role does. If you become a graphics developer, the chances are good you will work in the video game development world. However, you could also work for:

  • An effects studio in the film and TV industry
  • A robotics company (in its modeling department)
  • A company that creates computer-aided design and drafting software
  • Some other type of software development firm

You might also work in scientific visualization, architectural rendering, and simulations.

Your actual day-to-day responsibilities will depend not so much on the company you work for but rather on how that company defines your role. At one company, the graphics developer might be responsible for such particular tasks as the development of real-time shaders and render pipelines and the optimization of frame render times. At another, the graphics programmer—who might be called a computational graphics engineer—might be responsible for developing “exciting visuals” (as one ZipRecruiter listing put it) and making sure code is “tight.”

There are also subspecialties in graphics development, including:

  • Rendering engineer (designs and builds renderers)
  • Visual effects engineer (builds tools to create different effects and filters)
  • Technical artist (serves as a liaison between artists and the technical team)
  • UI programmer (writes layout engines and does shader work and text rendering)
  • Shader author (writes shader programs)
  • Plugin programmers (writes add-on software that’s in application packages for artists)

You should read job listings before you launch your career. By searching for graphics developer and graphics programmer jobs on sites like Monster and Indeed, you can get a feel for what employers expect professionals in this role to do and what qualifications they’re looking for.

Educational commitment to become a graphics developer

Most companies posting job listings for graphic developers (and graphics engineers) require applicants to have earned a bachelor’s degree in computer programming, computer graphics, computer science, or computer engineering. However, what may ultimately matter more than the name of your bachelor’s degree is the content of the program. Remember, the role of graphics developer is a highly technical one that involves a lot of programming and thinking about how visual elements display.

Purdue University – Main Campus has several degrees for students interested in the creation and management of computer graphics, including a BS in Computer Graphics Technology. There are also degree pathways that combine the art and science of graphics, like Northeastern University‘s BS in Computer Science and Design. But if your goal is to work in the video game industry, look for computer science programs that offer a video game design and development concentration or similar (like the one at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette).

Make sure that the bachelor’s degree program you choose includes classes relevant to graphics programmers. Take as many of these classes as you can. You may even be able to take graduate-level courses at the undergraduate level if you ask your advisor.

Do you need a master’s degree to work as a graphics developer? A lot of online job listings ask only that candidates have a bachelor’s degree, but don’t let that stop you from looking into advanced degrees. It will be much easier to get a job as a graphics programmer with a master’s degree. Columbia University offers an MS in Computer Science with a vision and graphics track, but if you want to create a career that combines development and design, look for programs like the one at Dartmouth College. It offers an MS in Computer Science with a Concentration in Digital Arts (CS/DA).

Graphics development is one of the few areas of application and game development where education makes a big difference. Your graphical tech and mod portfolio need to impress, but employers will also want to know that you can handle the complex mathematics at the core of this profession.

Skills graphics programmers need

Graphics developers need the following skills:

  • Advanced math: You’ll use vector math for positional calculations, linear algebra for a lot of things, and calculus to work out physics problems related to movement.
  • Physics__: This comes up in everything from shadow casting to the flow of fluids.
  • Programming__: C++ is probably the most common language.
  • Shader knowledge__: Employers will want to see you have extensive knowledge of vertex and pixel shaders.
  • An understanding of rendering algorithms and render pipelines.
  • Knowledge of graphics APIs like DX11/12
  • The ability to make 3D models using scripts

You’ll also need soft skills. Your ability to work on a team and to listen to other’s concerns will be invaluable in this role because you’ll spend a lot of time working collaboratively with artists, graphic designers, and developers.

Certifications and certificate programs for graphics developers

There are no specific certifications required to become a graphics programmer. Still, if you’re already working in games or software development after earning a bachelor’s degree in computer science, it’s worth looking into certificate programs. These beginner and graduate-level programs are less intense than full-degree programs but can give your résumé—and your skills—a boost.

If you have a computer science background but you’re new to graphics development, the University of California – San Diego offers a free six-week course on edX. It teaches students how to create images of 3D scenes and make a real-time scene viewer with graphics programming languages like OpenGL and GLSL. For $99, you’ll receive a certificate at the end of the course.

If you’re already working in graphics development or you have some experience in this discipline, Stanford University offers a graduate certificate in visual computing that covers such topics as:

  • Computer graphics
  • Computer imaging
  • Image display technologies
  • Mathematical and computational methods
  • Convolutional neural networks for vision

Pros and cons of becoming a graphics developer

There are good reasons to become a graphics developer as well as reasons to consider looking into other career options in computing. The salary you’ll earn can be a pro provided you have the right title. According to PayScale, the average salary for a graphics developer is only $48,927 per year. A graphics programmer, on the other hand, can earn more than $70,000 per year. A graphics engineer might earn a lot more than that. That’s a big range for titles that often cover the same responsibilities.

The main con to consider is that there are a lot of high-performance game engines out there. As a result, a lot of game developers don’t need a full-time dedicated graphics programmer. As engines improve, the role of graphics developer may become obsolete. For now, you may have a much easier time finding a job if you also have the knowledge and skills necessary to do generalist development work in addition to graphics work.

Is this the right career for me?

That depends. Are you researching how to become a graphics developer because you want to work in gaming, or you like creating puzzles for other people to solve? In that case, you might want to consider becoming a generalist game developer. You’ll be more involved in the creation of the actual game mechanics and have a bigger impact on the audience experience in that role. It’s also a career path that people think highly of and it pays slightly more. You might also want to consider becoming a web developer, front-end developer, or a full stack developer.

But if you’re really good at math, are detail-oriented, and you love technical challenges and using code in creative ways, you’ll enjoy life as a graphics developer—even if you’re not a big fan of actually playing video games.

(Last Updated on February 26, 2024)

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