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How Does Game Programming Work?

Game programming is an incredibly nuanced field of study. If you’re looking at a variety of games, chances are they all use different code, different graphics engines, and different logic systems. The code could be written in one of the many programming languages currently in use. To help you learn the ins and outs of programming, we’ve put together a concise breakdown of the basics for your convenience.

What is game programming?

Fundamentally, game programming relies on math and logic to develop software. As a subset of game development, it requires proficiency in any number of given coding languages. Additionally, specialized programming skills are required for certain aspects of game development. Specializations such as physics, artificial intelligence, and audio programming all require specific sets of skills.

Although programming is a chosen profession, many people learn by practicing how to code in their spare time. There are many official tertiary education options available, but it’s entirely possible to learn what you need to know all by yourself. There are articles, tutorial videos, and other guides which you can find online, many of them available free of charge. That being said, the difference in the level of expertise between an amateur and a professional tends to be quite significant.

Whether you decide to attend an official course or learn it all by yourself, game programming is by no means an easy profession. It requires meticulous attention to detail, highly proficient problem-solving skills, and a fair amount of creativity. A degree in maths or science, such as computer science (for example), will greatly improve your chances of becoming a good programmer.

What are the processes involved?

Depending on which aspects of game design you’re interested in, there are several processes to consider. Each stage of a game’s development requires different programming specializations. For instance, the prototyping stage is ideal for experimental, creative programmers, whereas the design phase is conceptual in nature, requiring ideas and concepts rather than any actual coding.

The overall development process can be broken down into five main stages, namely prototyping, game design, production, testing, and maintenance. Each stage usually happens sequentially, but they can often overlap, or, in the case of agile game development, be interchangeable to varying degrees.

The production stage is where programmers do the proverbial heavy lifting. From 3D graphics programmers to AI programmers, a wealth of tools and skills unique to programmers make up the foundation for any game in question. Most programmers have to work with other departments, designing systems in tandem with creative artists, producers, testers, and more.

As with most industrious pursuits, the size of any given development team will largely depend on the scope of the project. Smaller games mean smaller teams, but they are limited in scope. Bigger teams have to manage more human resources, but the scope of the project is normally much larger. Either way, a programmer's job is to execute a concept and, like any other job, some will do it better than others.

Which tools do you need?

All games need source code, a compiled body of code often referred to as an integrated development environment (IDE). Which IDE is used will depend on the target platform. For example, the reason why Playstation titles need to be ‘ported’ to PC, is because those games were developed on IDEs native to Playstation.

Many development companies will also create custom tools to assist with programming tasks. Tools such as asset conversion programs are common additions to IDEs. Some games even ship with some of these tools available, such as map editors or modding capabilities. A good programming department will usually have several tools integrated into its IDE systems.

All programming relies on standard coding languages, of which there are several currently available. Programming languages, like IDEs, only support specific platforms. Apple’s Swift language, for example, only interfaces with Apple Products. C++, on the other hand, is object-oriented and used for numerous application programming interfaces (or APIs for short).

The end goal

For any programmer, the ‘game loop’ is the most important aspect of video game development. The game loop is a set of running commands that are stable enough to operate without user input. Basically, the game must be playable before it’s played. A well-built game doesn’t need interaction to work. Instead, interactivity is what provides forward momentum, providing a sense of progress in what is essentially a cycle of user input vs. coded design.