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Career Spotlight: Game Programmer

Career Spotlight: Game Programmer

To a game fanatic with a technical bent, the idea of coding software for a game might seem like nirvana.

Real-world game programmers know better. And while many of them love their jobs, they also know the reality of the work: Game programming often requires long hours grappling with just one piece of a game.

"Most gamers get into games because they want to create games, and by ‘create' they rarely think of ‘write random code' or ‘make textures someone else tells me to make,'" says Brian Hook, an experienced gaming professional who contributed to "Quake 2" and "Quake 3." "It's like joining a band thinking you're going to help write songs, only to find that you're responsible for setting up the drums and getting out of the way."

Even so, game programming can allow you to work on a product you love while honing your software development skills for nongame jobs or a more significant role that involves contributing to a game's content and design.

Game Programmer Job Basics

"When you think of game developers, chances are good you think of a programmer," notes the Breaking In section of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), an important resource for aspiring and working game programmers alike. "No surprise there, since code is the core stuff of games."

As the IGDA site says, game coders need to specialize in order to succeed. Game programmers typically specialize in a specific platform -- PCs, consoles, cell phones or online -- and in a particular aspect of game development, such as special effects, artificial intelligence or network performance.

"At the junior- to mid-level, people are pretty fluid between [platforms]," says Phil Steinmeyer, founder of New Crayon Games. "At the senior level, part of what you're bringing to the table is expertise on a particular platform, so there is somewhat less movement between sectors, but it certainly still happens."

Sell Yourself with Samples

To break into game programming, you'll need a portfolio that demonstrates your enthusiasm and talent. Entry-level programmers can build their own games or volunteer on "mod" projects -- a modification of an existing game, Steinmeyer says.

Look to the Game Programming Wiki and for resources. In addition, connect with other aspiring game developers through the IGDA or online communities, perhaps as a way to collaborate.

"If you're a coder, make demos -- show what you can do," says Scott Miller, CEO of game-development studio 3D Realms. "Nothing convinces potential employers like a good portfolio."

Formal education in game programming is relatively new and in no way a prerequisite for breaking into the field, but the programs at some institutions, such as Full Sail, are well-known in the industry.

"Education in and of itself doesn't carry much weight, but if the education taught you skills and helped you enhance your abilities, that should show up in your portfolios/demos," Steinmeyer says.

Beware of Burnout

While game companies thrive on passion and creativity, they also push workers to the point of burnout, as an IGDA white paper notes.

Hook, now president of software development and consulting company Hooka Tooka, concedes that gaming industry workers typically burn out due to:

  • Working 50-hour weeks that can extend to 70 hours or more during crunch time.
  • Earning lower salaries than what they could make working for an IT or consulting firm.
  • Feeling like a cog in the machine instead of a creative member of a team.

But for all its faults, the industry is exciting. Says Miller: "This industry is still growing and needs fresh new talent by the truckloads. If you've got talent and know how to package it and yourself, you're a shoo-in."

Education programs to fit your profession