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.
A game development company, also called a game developer or game studio, is a company that makes games. Although that may seem obvious, it is distinct from a game publishing company, which funds, markets, manufactures and sells games. Some game studios are owned by game publishers; an example of this would be Infinity Ward, which is owned by Activision. Others, such as Naughty Dog, are independently owned companies that may work for several publishers. Other developers are individuals or a group of individuals, called “indies”, who work freelance.
Most of the employees at a game studio work on one or more development team. A development team is managed by a development director (also called a producer, project manager, or team lead) who is responsible for assigning team members their work tasks, monitoring work progress, and providing them with what they need for doing their work. Large teams may have a number of production people involved in project management.
The rest of the team is comprised of people working in one of these three disciplines:
- Design: Responsible for determining the game premise, rules, objectives, obstacles, resources, story and other play elements. Large teams may be comprised of a lead designer overseeing system designers, user interface designers, technical designers, content designers, level designers and writers.
- Artist: Responsible for creating the game’s art. Large teams may be comprised of a lead artist or art director overseeing concept artists, user interface artists, 2D or sprite artists, 3D modelers, riggers, animators, and environmental artists.
- Programmer: Responsible for implementing the game design, art and other assets on the game platform. Large teams may be comprised of a lead programmer or technical director overseeing engine programmers, system programmers, user interface programmers, audio programmers, artificial intelligence programmers, multiplayer programmers, tool programmers and scripters.
Some development personnel may not be needed throughout the entire project and therefore work outside of the team structure so that they can assist multiple teams at the times when they are needed. These include:
- Middleware programmers: Responsible for developing tools that will be used on multiple projects.
- Audio team: Responsible for creating the game’s music, sound effects, and voice-over.
- Quality Assurance: Responsible for testing the game to make sure that the game is fun play along all player choices and that everything has been successfully implemented.
If the game’s scope is larger than the studio’s staff can handle or requires specialized skills, then the studio may outsource some of the work to third-party companies responsible for such tasks as additional artwork, cut scenes, motion capture or foreign language localization.
Finally, there are employees who handle the functions all companies need:
- Office manager: Responsible for ensuring that everyone has the supplies and resources they need to do their jobs.
- Accountant: Responsible for paying bills and handling payroll.
- Human Resources: Responsible for employee benefits and assisting in the hiring (and firing) of employees.
- Information Technology: Responsible for ensuring that employees’ technical needs, such as internet access and email, are met.
- Business Development: Responsible for finding new business opportunities and clients to work for, and keeping current clients happy.
Then there are the employees who work at a game publisher, but that’s another post for another day.