Becoming a Game Coder: Career Outlook for 2023

Video games have skyrocketed in popularity since their inception, bringing in billions of USD each year (and growing). As you might expect with this sort of growth, video game jobs have likewise gone up in demand – including the game coder career. However, what this career entails may not be immediately obvious – nor whether or not this is a good career match for you personally. In this article, we’re going to dive into the career aspects of becoming a game coder so you can understand not only what to expect, but make an educated decision about whether becoming a game coder is a path worth your while. If you’re ready, let’s dive in.

What is a Game Coder?

Whether we’re talking about a game on a console, mobile phone, or computer, every single one has coding going on behind the scenes. This includes games as simple as Pong, to games as complicated as the massive open-world found in Skyrim. Game coders are the personnel responsible for programming game logic into a game project using a programming or scripting language.

Man hunched over a computer thoughtfully working

To understand this further, let’s take a step further back and explore this idea. While you can find more in-depth articles on what coding itself is, at the baseline coding is just instructions. For a game, just to example, any sort of input is programmed is an instruction. Game coders more or less tell the computer something like, “When the player presses the space bar, the character should move its position upwards and then return to the ground (i.e. jump).” Of course, this extends beyond just player input and includes things like how an inventory UI should work, when to play a sound or animation, how the enemy AI functions, and so forth. At the heart, it’s all just instructions that we give to a computer to perform.

However, where a game coder differs from the average person is their knowledge in both computer science and programming languages. Unfortunately, computers do not speak human, so you can’t just command, “Make my character move!” Instead, you need to use an established programming language, plus an understanding of what information can and can’t be used, to write the command. Thanks to compilers and interpreters (which you don’t need to create yourself) these programming languages are then converted to information the computer does understand – thus resulting in the instruction’s execution.

So, ultimately, game coders are simply people who specialize in programming languages (and by extension game engines) understood by computers and have the knowledge and skills to take a human idea (A) to a workable, technical instruction (B) for a game project.

What are the Game Coder’s Job Responsibilities?

Now that we understand what a game coder is, let’s talk a bit about what they actually do all day in the workplace. Keep in mind, mileage will vary here, as some responsibilities largely depend on the company and situation. So, some of these are simply theoretical activities that could be completed by the game coder. Additionally, we’ll also need to relateable talk about specializations – as that may influence your exact situation as well.

Image of someone's hand on a mouse

Activities

Working with the Concept

As a game coder, you’ll generally be expected to be the expert when it comes to the programming aspects of a project. However, this extends beyond just knowing “how to code.” You will be assumed to know best coding skills and practices, limitations of languages and engines, best tools or algorithms to use for certain situations, and so forth.

Thus, before any coding can even be done, you’ll need to work with the creative and technical teams on the direction of the game as a whole. You will get a crucial input on certain features, not only in terms of how the data will be structured, but also how to implement them based on what can actually be done with current technology. In turn, you’ll spend a lot of time in meetings and communicating with others – but are rewarded with being able to influence the game in a ton of different ways.

Additionally, you’ll also need to take some time to plan how to implement certain features, so expect tons of time planning as well.

Building Engines or Tools

While many companies will use pre-built engines such as Unity or Unreal Engine, others will actually make in-house engines. You may have heard of some of these, such as CryEngine developed by Crytek or the Frostbite Engine developed by DICE for EA. The purpose of this is to more easily provide everyone on the team with the tools they need to bring a project to life – as sometimes an existing engine may just not have the features needed to build a specific game (or games).

Game coders may in fact be tasked with building a game engine from the ground up – including all the tools, the rendering, and so forth. While a monumental task and somewhat abstracted from the game project itself, it is still crucial for many companies to do.

Additionally, even if you’re not building an entire engine, you may be building additional tools for pre-existing engines. Once again, though not the game project itself, it is an important activity that can help aid the rest of the team with their own efforts.

Programming Core Features

As should be no surprise, another activity for the game coder is to program the actual game features. This includes a variety of things from the input systems, to the UI, to AI components, and so forth. If it needs functionality in the game, you can bet your dice the game coder will have a hand in it.

However, bear in mind how much programming you’ll be doing can vary. If you’re working solo or in a small company, it becomes more likely you’re going to be programming everything yourself. If you’re working for a bigger company though, you may only program a few specific features in the game. This is where the specializations, which we’ll discuss in the next section, come into play. Just know you can become an expert on only coding one specific aspect of all game coding skills, so that may be a route worth considering.

Screenshot of an action RPG project

Working with Rendering 

Rendering is another aspect of game coding skills that we’ve decided to include as its own section. While the core engine and features are all great, none of it means anything if your system doesn’t actually know how to render graphics. While most people don’t immediately consider it, since a lot of popular engines have pre-built rendering instructions, rendering itself is achieved by programming.

In turn, depending on a project, you may need to actually dive into the rendering code and build custom functions for it. This can be reasons based on technology limitations, specific graphics needs, or even just to improve efficiency. The reasons are countless, but game programmers can expect they may have to address rendering at some point in their careers.

Porting

When making a game, there is usually a primary target platform that is aimed for. Or, even if the project starts out with the intent to be cross-platform, other platforms may be desired later (as we’ve seen often with VR). Unfortunately, a lot of code does not work out of the box on certain systems without some major tweaks.

So, one activity a game coder may be pulled in on is simply just porting a game project to a different system. While you may not write any new features for this one, you will need to code here in order to achieve the intended functionality for the system. This can especially be the case when we start factoring in multiplayer, which is a huge monumental feature that needs vast customization for almost every system to work properly.

Shader Graph showcase in Unity

Optimizing

Another task for the game coder is going to involve optimization. Though technology is improving at a rapid pace, it is no secret that it still has its limitations. In addition, no matter how good of a game coder you are, when you first start a project not all your coding is going to be at its best. Much like writing a novel, you may actually need to make “drafts” of code for specific features to ensure everything works in the first place. Even when you’re confident in your code, it also may turn out simply that too many devices are unable to handle your specific rendition of a feature.

Thus, game coding also involves a lot of rewriting and reworking to make sure the game project plays as smoothly as possible for as many people as possible. Sometimes this means rewriting entire sections of code, and sometimes it just means fine-tuning and tidying up what’s already there. Either way, making sure resources are used to the best of their ability is something every game coder should want!

Testing & Bug Fixes

Last on our list of duties is testing and bug fixes. Obviously, when making a game, you kind of need to know that what you’ve coded actually works. So, as a game coder, you’re probably going to be tasked with testing out features you’ve programmed.

Unfortunately, this forces us to acknowledge game coders are not perfect. You’re going to wind up programming a lot of things that just don’t work. Sometimes your data structure doesn’t play out as you expect, sometimes you didn’t account for rare use cases, and other times you’ll have made a silly mistake like forgetting a pesky semi-colon in the middle of 1000 lines of code. Thus, after testing, game programmers will spend a good amount of time fixing bugs to ensure the game functions exactly as was intended.

Image of a woman watching something on her phone with headphones on

Specializations

As promised, we need to also acknowledge specializations in this brief section. While you can absolutely be a generalized game coder who works on everything, sometimes that isn’t enough. Especially for bigger companies who are making immensely complicated games, they can often seek game coders who are experts on one specific topic. This ensures that, even though their game has hundreds of little different things going on, this specialist can still make it work. We won’t include every specialty possible (believe us, there are a lot), but we are going to tackle some of the most common ones you might see.

User Interface Game Coder

By the name, you might easily guess that game coders can specialize in user interfaces (i.e. the UI). What we see on the surface for games is not all there is to it. In fact, more happens behind the scenes in the code than what users actually see. That being said, we do need ways to translate certain aspects like inventories, mini-maps, and so forth to something the player can use to guide them and provide crucial game information. Game coders who specialize in the user interface work on those specific aspects of communicating the backend information to the player in a way that actually makes visual sense. However, keep in mind this is no small task – especially when you have a complex game with something like twenty different user interfaces that all need to work together.

Sound Game Coder

An often overlooked aspect of games are the sounds. While certainly, you can get by playing games in complete silence, sounds can really enhance the experience. Whether that means providing a stellar soundtrack or the sound effects, they can be an important aspect. However, as they are a piece of multimedia, you need ways to actually trigger them appropriately in the game based on what’s going in said game. Game coders who specialize in sound do just that, and develop a complex network of systems that are able to react to player interactivity and play an appropriate sound based on this. They also often develop tools for the sound game designers to work with as well – ensuring the game sounds as good as it looks.

Screenshot of a volume menu made with Unity

Graphics Game Coder

Similar to sound, most games need a way to deal with graphics. Above, we’ve already talked about rendering, and that is definitely included in this game coder specialty. However, there are a lot of different aspects to the graphics. For example, if you’re going to have animation, you’ll need programming setups to handle how those are triggered. You may also need ways to deal with things like open-worlds and similar, which require functions that can selectively render graphics based on player location. There may also be special optimization aspects to consider as well, so game coders who specialize in graphics are able to ensure that the non-user interface visuals of the game function in a way that reflects what’s going on behind the scenes.

AI Game Coder

Artificial intelligence is a huge aspect of a lot of games. While multiplayer games can work just fine without a single AI element, most single-player games do need AI to some degree. In general, this is relevant mostly to enemies – as without AI those enemies wouldn’t be able to challenge the player. That being said, AI logic is nothing to sneeze at. Certainly, you can go for something as easy as detecting player proximity and initiating a chase sequence. However, the more complicated the game, the more you’re going to need ways to introduce advanced strategies into the mix. Regardless of the setup, though, game coders can specialize just in this field and focus solely on getting a working AI for a game project.

Screenshot showcasing enemy AI state machine in Unity

Multiplayer Game Coder

Multiplayer is, for lack of a better word, very complicated. There is a lot to consider here. How do players connect to each other? How do you sync the actions from one machine to the next? How do you deal with servers? No matter what kind of base functionality a game has, implementing a multiplayer codebase can add that much more in the amount of difficulty. Given this, it should be no surprise then that game coders can specifically specialize in multiplayer technology. Not only will they adjust the code to work and sync across multiple devices, but set up every backend tool that might be needed to ensure issues can be fixed. Of the specializations on this list, this is perhaps the most common one to be found first, as multiplayer is just that complex.

Porting Game Coder

This last we’ve mostly discussed above already; some game coders will work on taking an existing code base and translating it into something that works for a different device. Well, because this task is both huge and tedious the bigger the game, there is actually a whole specialization around it. This can actually work in the favor of companies too, since game coders who specialize in porting generally better understand the system they’re porting to. As such, it can be a lot faster to hire a separate game coder for this than rely on generalized game coders.

Screenshot of a mobile road crossing game

Why Become a Game Coder?

We’ve talked at length about what a game coder is, what they do, and so forth. However, this leads us to our next section: why should you become a game coder and basically take a look at programming jobs?

Great Salaries

As game coders need highly specialized skills, this is compensated well by some great base average salaries (as is the case for many programming jobs). We’ve listed some of the averages below based on data in the United States and with most data being based on full-time work. That being said, keep in mind these salaries have a wide margin. Location can affect your salary (for better or worse), and the amount of experience you bring to the table can also help you in negotiating even higher salaries than those listed below!

Line chart of the worldwide market forecast for games

Industry Growth

It’s probably not surprising for you to hear that the game industry is growing rapidly. As of 2020, the game industry worldwide brought in $160+ billion, with NewZoo predicting it will reach almost $200 billion in revenue in upcoming years. With the explosion of gaming on mobile, there’s also been a demand for just mobile games as well. VentureBeat comments that by this year, mobile games alone will bring in over $100 billion in revenue.

For game coders, what all this growth means is that their specific job field is absolutely in demand. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the U.S. (which groups game coders with many other careers in the software developer category), there will be as much as a 22% increase in jobs from 2019 to 2029. Again, just the U.S., so when accounting for the entire world, that is a whole lot of new jobs. In this case, then, you won’t have to worry about getting stuck in a career that’s impossible to get hired in – there’ll definitely be something out there for you.

Line chart showing revenue forecast for mobile games

Indie & Big Company Job Opportunities

Company size might matter for some aspiring career searchers. Some people like working for bigger companies where they’re one cog of many and have an extensive company team to rely on. Other people prefer smaller companies, as it allows them more freedom and say-so in how the company grows. Regardless of your preference here, though, game coder is a great career for having a balance in both opportunities when it comes to programming jobs.

Of course, we’ve all heard of big-time game companies like Electronic Arts or Nintendo, which actively hire fairly often. At the same time, there are numerous indie companies on the rise as well. In fact, between 2015 to 2017, Statista recorded the number of indie games released over a period of two months almost doubled. This has obviously gone up since.

So regardless of the type of company you prefer, game coder careers give you the opportunity to experiment and find what suits you best!

Indie game factoid infographic

Challenging Career

Not all challenges are bad. In fact, having a challenging career can be a good thing for many different sorts of people. It allows them to not only continue to grow and develop new skills, but also leave the workplace feeling more fulfilled in what has been accomplished each day.

Being a game coder definitely qualifies as a challenging career in that respect. It’s only been 36 years since the original Super Mario Bros. game came out, and in that time we’ve seen 4K & 8K resolution become a thing, mobile phones that can play games with 3D graphics, VR & AR technology, self-driving cars, and so much more. In short, technology has changed rapidly – and will continue to do so.

For game coders, this means you’ll be faced with an environment that requires you to constantly be learning. New programming languages will come out, new engines, new ways to deal with multiplayer networking, new AI technologies to explore, and so on. There will always be an opportunity to personally grow and challenge yourself in the game industry. So, if you’re someone who thrives on challenge and likes to learn fresh skills, this is a perfect career choice that will make you feel like an active participant in your career.

Group of people working together at a laptop

It’s Fun

Last but not least, being a game coder is simply just fun. At the end of the day, you are making a product meant for entertainment. As such, you get the chance to be both creative and play around with the game project that you’re making. Not only that, but each day will be a bit different from the last. Even if you are mostly just coding day in and day out, what you’re coding will change rapidly. Thus, you’ll have a lot of variety in the daily grind. Now, of course, this doesn’t mean there won’t be boring days. But on the whole, making a game can be an exciting and fun team effort that, at the end of production, allows you to bring joy to many players!

How to Become a Game Coder

We hope by this point we’ve piqued your interest a bit into becoming a game coder. The next step is obviously to start prepping yourself and learning the skills you need to become one. In this section, we’re not only going to break down what skills you need, but share with you online resources you can use to develop those skills outside of a formal classroom setting. While everyone’s path to becoming a game coder will be different, these resources will help you take the first step into your dreams!

Example of a chart made with Python and customer data set

Learn Math

Sorry for the math haters out there. The fact is, you’re probably going to need to know math to be a successful game coder. That being said, don’t expect to be doing calculus every day or anything. Still, you need to know the fundamentals and how you can utilize them. Remember, computers are at their best when math is involved, so most things we do on them are very focused on math.

Learn Computer Science

A step up from math, you’ll also want to have skills in computer science before you focus on how to write code. Good programming skills rely a lot on understanding not only how computers work, but their limitations. Plus, you’ll also want to dive into optimized algorithms you can use in order to achieve certain results in the game code.

Image of computer from the 1970s

Learn a Game Development Programming Language

Of course, if you want to be a game coder, you do need to have a programming language in your skill toolbox. While there are a lot of programming languages out there, for games there are generally only a select few used for the majority of games published. So, learning one of those will help set you ahead in preparation for being a professional game coder.

C++

C#

Java

JavaScript

Image of a JavaScript made platformer

Learn a Game Engine

Most modern games are now created with game engines, as they come with a variety of pre-built tools and APIs well-suited to make games of any type. As a game coder, after you learn coding with a programming language, you might also be expected to know a very specific game engine as well. While there are too many game engines to name, we can recommend skills for the most popular ones below with popular tutorials and online courses.

Unity

Unreal Engine

Godot

GameMaker

Phaser

Screenshot of a 3D action RPG made with Godot

Build a Portfolio

Finally, none of the skills above matter much if you don’t have proof you have them. Formal degrees and certificates are all well and good, but a lot of companies will also be looking for portfolios. In other words, they’ll want to see actual projects you’ve helped create so they have concrete proof your game coder skills are what they need. So, building games and a portfolio is essential to becoming a game coder! This is also your chance to show you understand the role of all development jobs – from game designers to sound designers – and that you can adapt to the work of others.

Mock up of a portfolio website

Final Words

Becoming a game coder can lead to some exciting opportunities. Not only is it a highly paid, in-demand career, but one with a lot of variety in terms of where you can actually go with it. Plus, we still vouch that, for the right person, it can be a very fun career filled with as much entertainment as there is work. You’ll get the joy both of making an amazing product while getting to know innovative game designers, and more. In either case, we hope this article has helped you decide whether being a game coder is for you. Whatever you decide, we wish you the best of luck!

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