How to Become a Video Game Designer

Photo of a Game Developer

Andre LaMothe is a computer scientist, author, and game developer. He began writing games in 1977, and went on to triple major in mathematics, computer science, and electrical engineering at San Jose State University.

He boasts some impressive accomplishments, including a project at NASA's Research Institute for Advanced Computer Science, and several international best-selling books, such as "The Black Art of Game Console Design," and "Tricks of the 3D Game Programming Gurus." He also created one of the world's first video game console development kits, XGameStation. Currently, Andre is the CEO of Nurve Networks, LLC, and he is also a professor at GameInstitute.com.

What is video game development?

In modern times, there are three primary aspects to "video game development". There is the story or narrative component, which doesn't require much technical background whatsoever. Anyone that can spin a story with characters, etc. can perform this job.

Then moving along, there is the "artwork" of the game. This consists of 2-D art, background, 3-D models, textures, and the generation of the world, including levels, architecture, and so forth. Imagine building the world of Avatar; same thing here. There are hundreds of artists generating assets. These workers are typically quite technically adept, not programmers of course, but they are familiar with using tools designed for game development such as 3-D modelers, character animators, physics simulators and custom tools. Also, there is sound design and music. A sound designer or team of designers handles this task.

Finally, the hard part: a modern game consists of millions of lines of computer code, 2-D and 3-D engines that mimic the laws of physics, lighting, and visualization. These tools and software are developed by small groups of programmers, software engineers, and specialists in fields such as physics, rendering, artificial intelligence, and so forth. These workers typically have advanced degrees in mathematics, physics, AI, computer science and related subjects. Back in the '70s and '80s most games were written by one to three people and took 6-12 months. Now, games are developed with the "movie" model, and 200-300 developers will typically work on a AAA title and take three to five years to complete, spending $5-50M+ in development.

Why did you decide to enter the field of development?

I like to build things. From 3 years old, I took everything apart; I have an innate desire to know how everything works. When personal computers came out in the '70s, I was the first there mesmerized by these machines, and then the first thing I wanted to do was make D&D games on the computer. The rest is history.

Are there common misconceptions about your profession?

Yes, that it's easy or "kid" stuff. I personally have three degrees, have written or co-authored over 100 books, and I work at least 120 hours a week on this stuff. It makes brain surgery look like mowing the lawn. It's hard, serious, and takes up your life. Also, it's a multibillion dollar industry, much larger than the movie industry. It's serious business with serious players. Most seasoned engineers in their 30s and 40s couldn't write a PacMan game if their life depended on it. It's that hard, it really is.

What do you find most interesting about video game development?

Video game development is the most challenging and complex form of engineering on the planet. Not only do you have to know multiple fields of engineering, but more or less you have to simulate an alternate reality in a machine. Everything that happens, you as the programmer made happen, and modeled in one way or another.

Additionally, with the current level of computational power of modern computers exceeding the trillion of operations per second mark, and massive parallelism available today, photorealistic simulations are nearly here, and the tipping point to making artificial intelligence that can think and process information as our brains do will happen very soon. Ironically, "games" will be the tool and field that drives and has been driving the bleeding edge in computer science and research into processor design and new architectures. There is nothing that motivates companies more than a business that generates $30-40B a year in revenue. So, not the cure to cancer, not putting men on Mars, but video games -- drive the advancement of computer science, so companies can entertain consumers!

What do you find least interesting about video game development?

Nothing. I love it all. But, like anything, the management of many people, and the interfacing with people that have no real interest in it that are part of the business machine. Also, the sales and distribution are very tedious. Therefore, in a word, the business aspect of it. And along with that, the fact that it costs so much to develop games that they must make a profit. Therefore, games have become profit-driven, instead of works of art and passion that they used to be. Thus, they have lost some of their "humanity" in a sense.

What is a typical day like for you?

Just work, work, work. Trying to keep up with multiple projects, manage assets, hit deadlines, and solve problems. Each day, everything goes wrong. You have to keep your head, work the problems, and breathe, otherwise it will overwhelm you. Of course, in this economy, the bottom line is making money, but I try to have a little fun, and work something cool into each project I do, so that I have some personal satisfaction with it.

Are there subfields of video game development and programming that students might not be aware of?

Video game development is more or less -- how would you build a universe? Thus, anything you need to do that, you need to know, such as:

1. Physics modeling, fabrics, fluid dynamics, aerodymamics, rigid and soft body physics, etc.

2. Computer programming.

3. Computer design.

4. Networking, massively networked computer systems, maintenance of said systems, etc.

5. Artificial Intelligence, Swarm Intelligence, Emergent Behavior, Digital Biology, etc.

6. Mathematics, game theory, statistics, etc.

7. 2-D art, 3-D art.

8. Character animation.

9. Architecture.

10. Story telling, story boarding, script writing.

11. Testing and Q/A.

12. Psychology, psycho-demographic targeting, sex and gender research.

13. Computer science, algorithms, optimization theory.

14. 3D geometrical analysis, rendering, rasterization, lighting, etc.

15. Business development.

And the list goes on and on...

What careers do students commonly pursue with a degree in video game development?

The primary disciplines, either they want to be 2-D artists, 3-D artists, programmers, or story tellers, then within each subdiscipline they specialize.

Is a graduate degree preferable for a career in video game development, or can someone enter the field with a bachelor's degree?

How about two or three degrees and a PhD? Yes, this is really hard stuff now. It's not fun and games; it's complex, serious, and competition is fierce. To survive, you must literally be the cream of the crop and extraordinary intellectually, and be able to endure 100- to 120- hour work weeks. This isn't for the weak of heart. It has to be a passion. But, if you have a degree in computer science, or game development from an accredited college, sure, you can get a job at the bottom and work your way up.

What personality traits do you think a student should have in order to be successful in a video game development program?

Good question, and I want to be honest. You need to be extremely intelligent. Also, you need to have multiple interests, a chameleon of sorts, and be interested in a number of elements of gaming. Also, you need a rock solid work ethic. Simply put, the hours are brutal, the concepts are difficult, and you can't "slide your way thru this". Talking to game developers in person, is like talking to someone that is thinking at warp speed, you have to keep up.

But most of all, passion! You have to be a passionate person about art and science and the fusing of the two. Finally, you have to have a healthy dose of ego; this field is full of "personalities" and if you don't have one, you won't make a dent in it.

What electives would you recommend that a student in a video game development program take?

Depending on their sub-discipline, I would suggest the hardest possible electives. For programmers, math, math, math. Physics, AI, robotics, networking, all of it, the more the merrier. For art students, the more 2-D and 3-D classes they can take the better. But, they need to understand how games are made and the process, thus, some programming classes are also recommended, just so they have an understanding of how complex it is to code the game and the limitations of what the computer can do.

But, across the board, do whatever you can do to be better than your peers. That is what we want -- we want the best of the best in game development, not average. We want extraordinary people that have a track record of doing more than everyone else.

Is there anything you wish you had done differently while studying to enter this field?

Not really, the only thing I regret is that it's really hard to find like-minded souls. Steve Jobs found Steve Wozniak, Bill Gates found Paul Allen, and so forth. Finding others to share your passion is hard in this world of fast food, Twitter, and 20-second relationships on Facebook. One thing I have learned is that to build something great, you must have collaborators. More than anything, that's the key to success, finding soulmates that share your passion and your dreams. All it takes is two or three people and you can literally transform the world with the right idea.

What study tips would you give to a student to help him or her succeed in a video game development program?

Like anything, know what you want to do, and work toward it. But, this has to be a 24/7 passion. If you go to school and do the bare minimum, you won't make it. You should be working on your own projects each week, learning more, developing programs, artwork, a portfolio and games! If you come to me wanting to make games and you are in your 20s, I want to see some games you have made. I started coding games at 10. By, 20 I was an "old man" in the field. So, start early and be honest with yourself, if you would rather play with Facebook when you get home, or watch TV, then this isn't for you. But, if you come home and can't wait to model that new alien, or code that new algorithm, then this is for you.

Do you think video game development is a subject that can be studied online, or is a traditional class environment ideal?

These days, I would say, learning game development is like learning mathematics, chemistry, physics, electrical engineering; you really want to be there with a professor, a mentor, and have the interaction with other like-minded students. But, that's not to say, you can't take an online course here and there. But, to really get it, you need to be immersed in a program where 24/7 you are making games.

What subjects should a prospective student of video game development study before entering a formal college program?

Again, it depends on the sub-field, but if they go the art direction, then they need to be very comfortable with 3-D modeling on a computer, understanding of 3D Studio Max, Maya, lightwave, and related tools. For programmers, they should have heavy backgrounds in math, physics, science, and programming, of course.

What pieces of advice, or caution, would you offer to a prospective student of video game development?

It's like the MATRIX. I can't tell you what the MATRIX is, you just have to know. Game development is the same thing, either you were born to do it or not. If not, don't waste your time. But, if you have a passion for it, then there is nothing like creating a game, an alternate reality that mixes art, science, and technology that can entertain and make millions of people smile and have fun. For a moment, someone else, steps into your dreams, into your reality. That's the coolest thing on earth, and I highly recommend it.

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