It speaks to the universal appeal that as long as computers have existed in society, people have attempted to use them to build video games. In the 1970s and 1980s, well before the internet had become a household mainstay for average Americans, popular gaming systems like the Atari and Nintendo consoles and games like Pong and Space Invaders drew legions of fans around the world. By the end of the 1980s, many families had a gaming console under their TV at home.
While games (just like computer consoles and the Internet) today have evolved far beyond the imaginations of even their earliest aficionados, the science behind designing and video games remains based on a fundamental building block -- programming languages. From the graphics and sound effects that immerse you in the world of the game, to the menus and user interfaces that let you take control of characters or build new worlds, every element of a video game is a result of painstaking coding and design work behind the scenes.
Today, game development is supported by a variety of popular programming languages, with certain languages being more useful and applicable than others depending on the vision of the finished product. Because of the continued popularity of gaming worldwide, jobs for video game programmers and designers remain plentiful, provided you have the right skill set to help turn drawings and flow charts into an interactive experience that users will enjoy.
So how do you begin your career as a video game programmer? What are the essential programming languages used to make video games today? In this guide, we will explore some of the more popular and robust languages in use today, as well as some helpful hints for how to improve your own experience and start building your own games (or helping others to build their ideas) as soon as possible.
You Need To Know The Difference Between Web Programming and Systems Programming
Assuming you are already a video game fan, you know that most games today are offered either through specific gaming consoles (like the PlayStation, Xbox, or even your PC or laptop) or through your smartphone or web browser. Programming for consoles (which are suites of hardware specifically tailored for gaming, although they can be used for other things) is often referred to as systems programming.
Meanwhile, games that operate directly through your browser or through apps on a smartphone fall under the heading of web programming -- since the games are directly tied into a web browser or the application’s code.
So what’s the main difference? Well, games designed through systems programming are often significantly more complex (and thus, offer significantly more features and a more immersive gaming experience) due to the capabilities of the consoles that support them. Browser games are often more simplistic, which makes them remarkably similar to the early forerunners of the industry, like Pong, which relied on limited user controls and graphics. However, as web-based programming languages have continued to evolve, many browser games now can offer remarkably intricate graphics and user features, far beyond their predecessors.
What Programming Languages Are Most Popular for Systems Programming
Given the significant demands for graphics, audio, user controls, and interactivity of modern systems-based video games, it’s no surprise that the key programming languages used to make video games for systems need to be robust and offer significant customization and abilities. However, a few languages stand out among the rest as the top choices among experienced video game developers and designers:
Many consider C++ to be the gold standard for systems programming. Originally released in 1985, C++ has undergone decades of updates, variations, and reimaginings, often driven by the needs of programmers for new features. While C++ is not the easiest language to learn, the language is widely praised for its advanced capabilities (such as memory management). Despite the learning curve, it continues to reign as one of the most popular choices in coding today. Apart from the appeal of its features and functionality, the popularity of C++ is also widely attributed to the Unreal Engine, an incredibly popular game engine known to practically anyone (it is very likely, if you are an avid gamer, that you’ve experienced this engine yourself). Another significant advantage of C++ is the abundance of libraries and frameworks available to simplify the development process. Some of the most popular games developed using C++ include Counterstrike, Starcraft, and World of Warcraft.
Known as C Sharp, C# is both a more recent addition to the programming world (released in 2000 by Microsoft) as well as an easier option for beginning coders to learn. While it draws heavily from languages like Java and C++ that preceded it, C# still has some unique elements of its own that differentiates it. The release of C# is closely tied to the .NET Framework, which debuted alongside the language. The .NET framework offers developers all of the tools to develop web applications and other solutions. While it lacks the speed of C++ and doesn’t offer as many features to its developers, it is also significantly easier for a new video game programmer to learn. Perhaps the biggest claim to fame for C# is Unity, a dedicated C#-based engine that is nearly as popular and widely used as the Unreal Engine. Some of the most popular games built with C# include Hearthstone and Pokemon Go.
One of the foundational languages of programming in general, aside from video games, Java has been a language in constant evolution since its initial creation in 1991. These days, it remains one of the most popular languages worldwide, driven largely by its ever-growing variety of use cases. In terms of video game programming, the single biggest factor behind Java’s popularity is its near-universal compatibility. Specifically, Java code can be converted into generic bytecodes that can be executed on any system. Some of the most popular games developed using Java include Assassin's Creed II, Runescape, and Star Wars Galaxies.
What Programming Languages Are Most Popular for Web-Based Games
Other Game Development Languages and Tech You Should Know
For those of you who have experimented with virtual reality technology like the Oculus Rift, you know that the newest frontier for game development will be those geared toward headsets and this field. While the games that operate on these hardware sets are often designed using similar languages (for example, virtual reality and augmented reality titles are typically developed on C++ or C#), there are some obvious intricacies to the hardware that make developing for these platforms a bit different than traditional consoles. There are also other languages, like Python, that were once widely used for game development, but have fallen a bit by the wayside as the languages we’ve highlighted here have gained more popularity and a wider following.
How Do You Learn How To Program For Video Games?
Have you decided that you want to build video games as your dream career? Here are some easy steps to follow to start building your skills and learning the ropes of video game design and development:
- Do you want to build the front-end or back-end? While certain simple games would let you do both, most game developers and designers working at the highest level often specialize in one or the other.
- Start learning one of these essential programming languages - Whether you are completely new to development and programming, or have some experience with one of the key languages we discussed and need to hone your skills specifically for video games, finding a great place to take online coding classes is always an affordable and convenient option. The best online coding class providers also often provide code playgrounds or sandboxes for you to actually experiment, giving you the chance to try to build your own simple games while you build up your experience.
Seek out internships or academic courses nearby. As gaming has transitioned from a hobby to a legitimate field of study in academic settings, there are an ever-growing number of academic programs and internship offerings available in the industry. Browse the catalogue of your local trade school or university, or explore some of the major gaming companies (like Electronic Arts or Blizzard, for example) -- you never know when new introductory positions might be posted.