So you want to make video games, but you’re still at school

Game development is easy to get started in — and there’s no need to wait to begin. Learn how to get started today!

I was talking to a friend recently, and she mentioned her 15 year old son was interested in game development, and was wondering what he can do to get into the industry. I wrote him back the following email, and I thought I’d share it publically in case it helps anyone else who’s unsure of where to start. I’ve cleaned it up a bit and made it more “blog-friendly”. There are many other guides on how to get into the industry, and this is my personal view of it—and doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of my employers 😊

Hi there!

Getting into games development is a really fun, but also difficult process. It’s great that you’re already considering what you want to do in the future—most 15 year olds have absolutely no clue 🙂 I work at Xbox for Rare Ltd, on the game Sea Of Thieves; a multiplayer pirate adventure game. If you already know specifically what part of games development interests you, that’s great, if not, there’s a lot of areas to choose from.


The major disciplines

👩‍💻 First up, there’s programmers—they write the code that puts the game together. This is a lot of problem solving, logic, and in some cases mathematics. There’s a lot of freedom in how you approach programming though, so it’s not case of being a monkey being told what to make! Within programming, as with any discipline, there’s lots of further specialisations.

🎨 There’s also artists. These people do anything from making drawings and paintings that define the style of the game, to actually making 3D models (like of players and monsters!), to animating the models, or even making the textures that give those models colours and life.

🎼 Every good film needs a great soundtrack, and the same goes for video games. We’ve got many sound engineers and composers who both write music for the game, as well as making all the noises that you hear while exploring the world. This might be the footsteps beneath you, the roar of the ocean, or the explosion of a gun!

A drawing of CTF_Mexico.
Some early concept art I drew for CTF_Mexico, a map I made for Team Fortress 2.

🎲 Designers have the job everyone thinks they want—they decide how the game plays. But there’s so much more to it than being an “ideas guy”. Our designers spend lots of time, talking with each other, looking at other games, and really considering the implications of everything they choose to put in the game. They hone the experience and bridge the gap between the player and the game, and make it as seamless as possible.

🕹️ Testers are a key role in ensuring the quality of our games. Against popular belief, testers don’t simply sit there and play games all day! Their job is to rigourously check for bugs and uphold quality in our process. Skills required here include organisation and the ability to communicate well.

👀 The eyes and ears of any game is the community team. They’ll be out talking to real players, helping foster a fan-base around your game. Masters of social media, they’ll be first on the scene to talk to fans about new features coming out, gather feedback, or message out about bugs and issues. They may also work closely with the marketing team to create advertising campaigns!

A list of possible gamedev jobs.
There are a huge number of roles, and this isn’t all of them!

Of course, you don’t have to be any one of these four major professions—we have VFX artists, which straddle the line of programmer and artist. I’m a gameplay programmer, so while I’m mostly a programmer, I work closely with the designers and help realise their vision in the game. On the other side, an engine programmer would do all the behind the scenes groundwork that I’d build upon.

There’s also many more roles, which would be hard to cover here. They might be part of the game company’s HR team, on-site facilities maintainers and cleaners, script-writers, security, UI designer, website maintainer, translator… The list goes on!


How to get started

As for what you can do if you’re interested: start making games now! Nothing is better for a games employer to see than someone who has a great portfolio of finished games under their belt (even if they’re very simple). There’s a whole host of great, free or cheap tools you can use to get started, which you can start using without any programming or art experience. GameMaker and Scratch are simple starting points.

Unity is a very powerful 3D game making tool, which is very easy to get started with. Big games are made in it too, such as Rust, Cuphead and Hearthstone. At Rare we use Unreal Engine 4, another very powerful and freely accessible game engine. This is the engine behind Fortnite, PUBG, Gears Of War 4, and many others.

If you’re interested in getting into 3D modelling, Blender is a very popular free tool to get started with. You may also be able to get student licenses for 3DS Max and Maya, which are industry standard modelling programs.

You can also look into tools like Ink to write interactive stories—they’re just as much real games as anything else. Planning out Dungeons and Dragons campaigns, or making your own card games can also help get creative juices flowing. The tabletop game Ex Novo can help with this. I personally spent a lot of time building maps for Team Fortress 2 in the Source Hammer editor, which got me into world design and basic logic.

A screenshot of CTF_Mexico ingame.
CTF_Mexico, built using the very powerful Hammer editor. Drawing out my ideas ahead of time, really helped cement what I wanted to create! This took months of design, creation, and play-testing with dozens of real people to tune correctly.

Make, make, make!

Make as many games as you can. You’re still young and at school, and likely have a lot of spare time.

Blog sidenote
This might not apply to you, particularly if you’re out of school and have a full-time job or a family. In these cases, spare time may be a precious resource. Don’t feel if you’re not spending every waking minute making games you’re somehow failing!

This gives you a great opportunity to build, test, design, iterate as many games as you like. Make small things that show off the core idea of a game, and give it to your friends to play. I was lucky enough at school to have the opportunity to set up a game making club. We’d commandeer one of the IT rooms every Wednesday, have tools like Game Maker and Flash installed, and all try to make games. Some of us would even give tutorials to the room about how to implement certain features! (And of course, some just turned up to play Counter-Strike and Quake…)

A key part here was getting other people to play your games! You can spend all the time in the world perfecting your game in your bedroom, only to find out 90% of players will never make it past the first level. Modern game engines like Unity make it very easy to share your creations with many people.

A screenshot of the Nyan Cat game.
Nyan Cat’s Explosive Adventures Through The Interhoods was a game I built in Java. A friend let me host it on their website and integrated a high-score system. Over 3000 people played and competed against each other!

Further education

I know it’s still a few years off yet, but whether you want to go to university or not, and what you want to study there if you do, is likely to start coming up at school in the next few years. I personally recommend you do not take a Game Development degree or similar. This is because you may discover game development isn’t actually what you want to do!

Taking computer science, or 3D tech, fine arts, or music, or whatever your passion is — these will help you get into games, but will also let you go into other professions if you so wish. Having a games specific degree will lock you down somewhat.

If your degree has the opportunity for a year out at an internship, I say jump at it. You’ll learn so much during an internship, but don’t have the same risks and expectations that full-time employment can bring with it. You’ll return for your final year at university with a fresh new perspective.

Of course, not everyone wants to go to university, nor is it a requirement. Many prominent game developers don’t have a degree — they worked hard, built up a solid portfolio, and demonstrated their skills to get where they are. However, do be aware that it may be harder to get your first job and foot in the door without a degree. In this case, internships are invaluable.

Sea of Thieves.
During my internship at Rare, I got to work on both Rare Replay and Sea Of Thieves! I now work for them full-time on Sea Of Thieves.

Do more than games

Other things we look for in the industry are well-rounded people. Just because you may love video-games, it doesn’t mean that should be all you do! Make sure you take up other activities, like sports, music or dance. It’s important to also work on people-skills, and how to effectively work in a team. We meet many applicants who have done game degrees without ever interacting with another student, and just don’t know how to work with other people. This is a shame, as game development, like all large projects, is based entirely around the team trusting and believing in each other!

As such, take any opportunity you can to work in teams with other people—particularly those with different skills sets, personalities, and backgrounds to you.

I hope this has encouraged you to look further into what options you have. Working in game development definitely is a viable career—just remember that it’s a lot of hard work as well as fun :)

Let me know if you have any more specific questions!
Have a lovely day,
Topher Winward