Game programmer

A game programmer is a software engineer who primarily develops computer or video games or related software (such as game tools). Game programming has many specialized disciplines; a practitioner of any may regard themself as a "game programmer."

Table of contents
1 History
2 Disciplines
3 Platforms
4 Experience Needed
5 Compensation
6 Job Security
7 Languages
8 Notable Game Programmers
9 External links


In the early days of video games (circa 1970s to mid-1980s), a game programmer also took on the job of a designer and artist. This was generally because the abilities of early computers were so limited that having specialized personnel for each function was unnecessary. Game concepts were generally light and games were only meant to be played for a few minutes at a time, but more importantly art content and variations in gameplay were constrained by computers' limited horsepower.

Later, as specialized arcade hardware and home systems became more powerful, game developers could develop deeper storylines and could include such features as physics, advanced artificial intelligence and digital sound. Contemporary games usually boast of 3D graphics and full-motion video designed by professional graphic artists.

The ability and desire to develop such in-depth games necessitated a division of labor. Thus, game programming became a separate discipline from game design and art production. Nowadays, most games are of such complexity that teams of programmers, each specializing in certain aspects of game programming, are needed to develop a professional game. Some games, such as the puzzle game Bejewelled, are simple enough to require just one fulltime programmer, but games such as this are the exception instead of the norm for commercial games.


A contemporary computer game may include advanced physics, artificial intelligence, 3D graphics, digitized sound, a custom musical score, complex strategy and may use several input devices (such as mice, keyboards, gamepads and joysticks) and may be playable against other people via the Internet or over a LAN. Each aspect of the game can consume all of one programmer's time and, in many cases, several programmers. Some programmers may specialize in one area of game programming, but many are familiar with several aspects. The number of programmers needed for each feature depend somewhat on programmers' skills, but mostly are dictated by the type of game being developed.

Game Physics Programmer

A game's physics programmer is dedicated to developing the physics a game will employ. Programmers of these features normally only develop the subset of physics routines that the game actually employs. For example, a space game may need a gravity system, but have little use for a water viscosity system.

Since processing cycles are always at a premium, physics programmers may employ "shortcuts" that are computationally inexpensive, but look and act "good enough" for the game in question. Sometimes, a specific subset of situations are specified and the physical outcome of such situations are stored in a record of some sort and are never computed at runtime at all.

Some physics programmers may even delve into the difficult tasks of inverse kinematics and other motions attributed to game characters, but increasingly these motions are assigned via motion capture libraries so as not to overload the CPU with complex calculations.

For a role-playing game such as Might and Magic, only one physics programmer may be needed. For a complex combat game such as Battlefield 1942 or Halo, teams of several physics programmers may be required.

Artificial Intelligence Programmer

An AI programmer develops the logic the game uses to carry out a large number of actions. It has recently evolved into a specialized discipline; these tasks used to be implemented by programmers who specialized in other areas. An AI programmer may program pathfinding, strategy and enemy tactic systems. This is one of the most challenging aspects of game programming and its sophistication is developing at a frightening clip.

Game AI programming should not be confused with academic AI programming and research: game programming has little use for developments in this area of study. Though both areas do borrow from each other from time to time, they are usually considered distinct disciplines.

Some games such as puzzle games may require no or just one AI programmer. Complex games such as strategy games like Civilization III or role-playing games such as Neverwinter Nights may require dozens of AI programmers. Many contemporary games dedicate sixty percent of their programming staff to AI.

Graphics Programmer

Historically, this title usually belonged to a programmer who developed specialized blitters and clever optimizations for 2D graphics. Today, however, this title is almost exclusively applied to programmers who specialize in developing and modifying complex 3D graphic renderers.

A 3D graphics programmer must have a firm grasp on advanced mathematical concepts such as vector tranformations, matrices and quaternions, and linear algebra. Often practitioners in this specialty are accused of speaking a foreign language when they discuss advanced topics in this area.

Programmers specializing in this area of game development can demand high wages and are usually a scarce commodity. There skills can be used for computer games as well as video game consoles such as the PlayStation 2, Gamecube and XBox.

A 3D graphics programmer may also specialize in a subset of 3D graphics programming, such as pixel shaders or vertex shaders.

Sound Programmer

Not always a separate discipline, sound programming has been a mainstay of game programming since the days Pong. Though not all games have sound, most do and many even have full custom musical scores. For games with just rudimentary sound, sound programming is not even a single full-time job on the project. For games with more advanced facilities such as 3D positional sound, one or two programmers may dedicate all their time to building and refining the game's sound system.

Gameplay Programmer

Though all programmers add to the content and experience that a game provides, a gameplay programmer focuses more on a game's strategy and the "feel" of a game. This is usually not a separate discipline, as what this programmer does usually changes from game to game. Since this is not a separate discipline, and often not a dedicated programmer, this title is informal and not always clearly defined.

This programmer may implement strategy tables, tweak input code, or adjust other factors that alter the game. Many of these aspects may be altered by programmers who specialize in these areas, however (for example, strategy tables may be implemented by AI programmers). Since this programmer is something of a "jack of all trades," he is usually paid the least out of all the programming staff and is usually easily replaced. In many cases, the workload of this programmer can be picked up by other members of the programming team, though the work he does is usually appreciated.


In early computer games, gameplay programmers would write code to create all the content in the game—if the player was supposed to shoot a particular monster, and a red key was supposed to appear along with some text on the screen, then this functionality was all written in C or assembly language by a gameplay programmer.

These days, large game projects have a team of scripters to implement this sort of game content. Scripters usually are also game designers, and it is easier to find and employ a qualified game designer who can be taught a script language, as opposed to the difficulty of finding a qualified game designer who has mastered C++ on the target platform.

UI Programmer

This programmer specializes in programming user interfaces (UIs) for games. Though some games have custom user interfaces, this programmer is more likely to develop a library that can be used across multiple projects. Though most UIs look 2D, contemporary UIs are more likely to use 3D technology, especially in a 3D game, so some knowledge of 3D math and systems is helpful for this role. Advanced UI systems may allow scripting and special effects, such as translucent controls.

Input Programmer

Input programming, while not a job title or even a full-time position on a particular game project, is still an important task. This programmer writes the code specifying how input devices such as a keyboard, mouse or joystick affect the game. These routines are typically developed early in development and are continually tweaked during development. Normally, one programmer doesn't need to dedicate his entire development time to developing these systems. A first person shooter such as Quake may need a very complex and low latency input system, while the needs of a turn-based strategy game such as Heroes of Might and Magic are much lower.

Network Programmer

This programmer writes code that allows players to compete against each other (or play together) connected via a LAN or the Internet (or in rarer cases, directly connected via modem). Programmers implementing this feature of a game can spend all their time on this one task. Network programming is one of the most challenging game programming roles. These programmers have to deal with network latency, packet compression, and dropped or interrupted connections. Though this type of programming can consume the entire development process, network programming is, unfortunately, often put off until the last few months of development, adding additional difficulties to this role.

Game Tools Programmer

One of the less recognized member of the development team, the tools programmer can make game development heaven or unbearably difficult. Tools are used on almost every game for tasks such as scripting, importing or converting art, modifying behaviors or building levels. Some tools, such as an IDE, 3D graphics modeling software, and Photoshop are off-the-shelf, but many tools are specific to the game and are custom programmed.

It is the tools programmer's job to write the tools that handle these game-specific tasks. Some tools will be included with the game, but most will not. Most tools evolve with the game and can easily consume all of several programmers' time. Well written and fairly bug-free tools make everyone's development tasks easier. Poorly written or poorly documented ones can seriously hamper development and jeopardize the project.

Lead Game Programmer

This position is similar to lead programmers in more mainstream contexts. This programmer is ultimately in charge of all programming for the game. It is their job to make sure the various submodules of the game are being implemented properly and to keep track of development from a programming standpoint. A person in this role usually transitions from other aspects of game programming to this role after several years of experience. Despite the title, this person usually has less time for writing code than other programmers on the project as they are required to attend meetings and interface with the client or other leads on the game (such as the Lead Artist and Producer). Despite this, they are still expected to program at least some of the time and are also expected to be knowledgeable in most areas of the game.


Most game programmers specialize on one platform or another. For example, a programmer can specialize on the XBox, GameCube, Playstation 2 or the PC. Other platforms include cell phones, handhelds such as the Palm OS or the Game Boy or the Apple Macintosh. So in addtion to specializing in one game programming discipline, a programmer may also specialize in development on a certain platform. Therefore, one game programmers title might be "Playstation 2 3D Graphics Programmer." Some disciplines, such as AI, are transferable to various platforms and needn't be tailored to one system or another.

Experience Needed

Game programmers often have a bachelor's degree in computer science, just like other kinds of programmers. Programmers with mathematics degrees are often found writing some of the most difficult systems in games that require a strong physics and math background, such as the game's physics system, camera system, and graphics.

Notably, there are many game programmers with no formal education in the subject, having started out as hobbyists and doing a great deal of programming on their own, for fun, and eventually succeeding because of their aptitude and homegrown experience, and because of their love of programming. Most job solicitations for game programmers specify a computer science degree "or equivalent experience" for this reason.


Salaries for game programmers vary from company to company and country to country. In general, however, pay for game programming is generally less than for comparable jobs in the business sector. This is despite the fact that game programming is some of the most difficult of any type. However, most game programmers feel it is worth the sacrifice in pay for the fun and casual working environment. But lower salaries are not always the case.

Generally, lead programmers are the most well compensated, though some 3D graphics programmers may challenge or surpass their salaries.

Job Security

Though sales of video games rival other forms of entertainment such as movies, the video game industry is extremely volatile. Game programmers are not insulated from this instability as their employers experience financial difficulty.

Third-party developers, the most common type of video game developers, depend upon a steady influx of funds from the video game publisher. If a milestone or deadline is not met (or for a host of other reasons, like the game is cancelled), funds may become short and the developer may be forced to make a RIF or declare bankruptcy and go out of business. Game programmers who work for large publishers are somewhat insulated from these circumstances, but even the large game publishers can go out of business (as when Hasbro Interactive was sold to Infogrames and several projects were cancelled; or when 3DO went bankrupt in 2003 and ceased all operations). Some game programmers' resumes consist of short stints lasting no more than a year as they're forced to leap from one doomed studio to another. This is why some prefer to consult and are therefore somewhat shielded from the effects of the fates of individual studios.


Most code in commercial computer and video games are written in C++, C, and some assembly language. Most games, especially console games, tax the hardware to its limit, and tight, optimized code is required in order to allow the game to run at its target frame rate of 30 or 60 frames per second. Hence the requirement for compiled rather than interpreted code for functions that are executed often.

Various script languages are also used for the generation of content such as artwork and especially AI. Scripts are generally executed by an interpreter, resulting in much slower code execution than compiled C++, C or assembly code. Scripts are therefore sometimes used sparingly, mostly for content design and not for modules where high speed is critical such as rendering logic. Some games are designed with high depedency on scripts; the scripts are compiled to binary format before game execution so they can execute with little degradation compared to native code. In the optimization phase of development, some script functions will often be rewritten in a compiled language.

Java is used for many web browser based games because it is cross-platform, does not require installation by the user, and does not pose security risks, as may a downloaded executable program. Macromedia Flash is also a popular development tool for browser-based games (there is some debate as to whether Flash actually constitutes a "language," but it is a popular web-based game development medium).

Notable Game Programmers

A few game programmers have garnered renown among game developers and game players alike.

External links

copyright 2004