The Many Meanings Behind The Term “Game Developer”
When I first started in the game industry over thirty-five years ago, I was kind of embarrassed to admit to people that I was a game developer; it sounded like a job that a real grown-up shouldn’t have. Or, when I did admit it, people would look confused at first and then say, “Oh, you’re a programmer.” That was true for my first couple of years in the game industry, until I became a game producer, and then it was hard to explain to people what I do for a living.
These days, it’s kind of cool to be a game developer — especially if you’re an indie game developer. But a lot of people are confused about what a game developer is, even the people who say they want to be one. Many think that a game developer is a game programmer, but that’s not necessarily so.
A game developer is a person or company that makes games. It’s a broad term that covers actually a lot of territory.
A company that makes games is also called a game studio. An example is Insomniac Games, the game developer that created Spyro the Dragon and Ratchet & Clank.
A game studio is not the same as a game publisher, which is a company that finances, markets and sells games. Electronic Arts is an example of a game publisher. Many game publishers also are game developers or own game studios to make some of the games they publish. However, an independent game studio, like Insomniac, is not owned or controlled by a game publisher and is free enter into publishing agreements with different companies.
Now, an indie game developer is not necessarily the same as an independent game studio. Indie developers are small teams or individuals who usually work without significant financial support of a video game publisher or other outside source. But a large and successful independent game studio might be comprised of multiple development teams and their projects are usually funded by a publisher with whom they have a publishing agreement.
Confused? It gets worse. As I said above, a game developer can either be a company or an individual.
When talking about game developers as individuals, most people assume that a game developer is the same as a game programmer. It is true that game programmers are indeed often called “developers”, as well as “coders” and “engineers”, but actually the term “game developer” can apply to any person on a game development team: a designer, an artist, an audio specialist, a producer, or a tester.
Then there are those people who say they want to be a game developer, thinking that they will be doing the design AND programming AND art AND audio on a game. Everything. And not just a casual browser game — they mean a AAA game like Call of Duty or League of Legends. These are the people who don’t realize that AAA games are made by teams numbering in the hundreds, with each person doing a very specialized task.
So, the next time you hear someone say they want to be a “game developer”, ask them for specifics about what they want to do. That alone will tell you how much they really understand the game industry.