When I first started my career in game development, programming was much simpler than it is today, and I was able to develop my games in BASIC (Beginner’s All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code), with certain functions such as graphics and AI pathfinding done in assembly language. Games in general were much simpler than today’s games, and I was able to do the game design, art (such as it was) and sounds all by myself.
However, over time, games became larger and larger in scope, and more people were needed to develop a game. The lone developer was replaced by a two- or three-person team, which gave way to a half-dozen member team, which in turn evolved into a twenty, then fifty, and eventually a hundred-person team. Now a major AAA game title might involve over a thousand people, sometimes with several studios and art houses working together.
The production values of games also evolved, and so-called “programmer art” could no longer cut it. Therefore, development teams needed artists who knew how to draw, animators who knew how to animated, writers who knew how to write, and audio engineers who knew how to compose music and create sound effects.
Even these disciplines gave way to sub-disciplines on large-scale projects. The design department might be comprised of a lead designer who oversees system designers, content designers, user interface designers, level designers and writers. The programming department might be lead by a technical director who supervises the engine, physics, artificial intelligence, user interface, audio, multiplayer, and tool programmers. The art director in charge of the art department manages concept artists, texture artists, 3D modelers, riggers, animators, and environmental artists. The sound department might have different professionals specializing in music, sound effects and voice over. Each of these developers need to have their tasks scheduled and coordinated so that everyone works together as a team, and so that responsibility would fall to a producer or director, often assisted by a project coordinator and/or production assistant.
Each of the game’s thousands of assets, whether they be character animations, game levels, or cut scenes, might involve many different developers as the asset goes through conceptualization, design, production and implementation into a team. Creation of these assets involve an assembly-line kind of process, called a pipeline, and an individual developer might spend his or her time on the game just doing one step in this process, over and over again.
Many people who aspire to work on AAA games imagine themselves as having complete creative control over the entire game, but that’s not how major games are made nowadays. If you want to work in the game industry, you need to be able to take satisfaction in simply contributing to the game, even if your role is confined to creating the textures for all the rocks, tweaking all the attributes of the items for sale, or programming in the buttons for all the menus. You will likely be part of an assembly line, and your source of pride needs to be in the entire team’s collective work on the game.
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.