A game developer works with a model.

Video Game Development: The Ultimate Guide for STEM Students

In the past decade, the video game industry has grown by leaps and bounds. An article from Mashable summarizes some of the most significant shifts: The availability and popularity of video games has grown to become a global phenomenon; demographic shifts have made gaming an all-inclusive hobby that crosses cultural, demographic, and gender lines; and technology itself has advanced considerably, resulting in some of the most sophisticated game development ever. The video game industry is flourishing, which is not only a boon to gamers, but also to those who are interested in a career in developing games.

How a Game Is Developed

Many years of training and development experience are needed to take a video game from its initial concept to a market-ready product. The work can be challenging, but also exciting and highly rewarding, particularly for those who wish to combine their technical acumen with creative license. Video game development is a field in which STEM students may find ample opportunity for success.

A good starting place is to consider the lifecycle of game development. It’s important to note that the process isn’t formulaic, and that each game may involve unique steps in its development process. Additionally, standard practices may vary between computers, consoles, mobile devices, and other gaming platforms. With that said, it can generally be assumed that the development of a game will proceed in three stages: Ideation; development and design; and programming and engineering.

Ideation

Every game starts with an idea, but nurturing a concept is by no means a simple task. The ideation process can involve brainstorming ideas, creating sketches or prototypes to test those ideas, and evolving or streamlining an idea as needed. Ideation may begin with one person having a “light bulb moment,” arriving at what they think is a winning premise. Typically, however, a full team of developers is involved in shepherding a gaming idea through to the next steps.

Initially, ideation may involve generating a large number of ideas. Those ideas may be discussed by the group and filtered until only the best concepts remain. Following sketches and prototypes, additional ideas may be added or subtracted. The goal is always to create a game experience that feels streamlined, with nothing that detracts from the gameplay experience.

Scope is another key concept in the ideation process. The questions to ask include how big, immersive, or complex should the game be? The answers depend on the gaming platform as well as the relative experience of the design team. Setting clear parameters for a game’s scope is an important way to keep the ideation process on track. Some helpful insight into the process can be found in Interaction Design Foundation’s What Is Ideation — And How to Prepare for Ideation Sessions.

Development and Design

It is during this next stage that the basic ideas of the game are refined, fleshed out, and given some sense of structure. Game development and design are largely concerned with the big picture. The development team will step into the shoes of the gamer, and consider how the game will work from start to finish. According to the IGN article  The Game Production Pipeline: Concept to Completion, some of the common considerations made during this stage include:

  • The rules of the game
  • The flow and “feel” of the game
  • The play controls, e.g., how players physically engage with the game
  • The story, theme, or actions necessary to bring the game to life

While this is a highly conceptual and creative stage of game development, a technical background in computer programming or graphic design can be key to keeping the project grounded in the realm of the attainable.

Programming and Engineering

The third stage in the game development process is programming and engineering. This is where things get technical, and where STEM expertise becomes essential.

Programming involves taking the design of the game, integrating visuals and sound, and turning it into something playable. Engineering refers more specifically to the software development and implementation needed to turn a game into a finished product.

The demands of the programming and engineering phase can vary depending on the game, but some common tasks include:

  • Mapping out physical terrain
  • Creating AI (artificial intelligence) for non-player characters
  • Ensuring the right connection between player input and what’s happening on the screen

The programming and engineering phase typically requires work from a number of sub-specialists within the game development field, including graphic programmers, AI programmers, and network programmers.

Game Development Tools

There are a number of different tech and digital tools that are foundational to the development of video games. Some are highly specialized and complex, while others may be familiar to STEM students of any age or experience level.

Programming Languages

To take a game from its conceptual stage to something playable, computer programming skills are a must. Often, a full team of programmers works to build out the environment of the game, and sometimes they will be joined by members of the game development and design team.

The specific programming languages that are employed vary depending on a number of factors, including the user console and the type of game. Some common computer programming languages used in the video game industry include:

  • C++
  • Java
  • HTML5
  • CSS3
  • JavaScript
  • SQL

For game developers using Unity, a popular programming engine, it may also be important to know C#. Additional details are available in Unity’s Extra Credits: Making Your First Game.

Engines and Platforms

A game engine refers to the basic architecture that is used to run the game. It allows the developer to include things like physics, rendering, collision detection, and AI. There are a number of popular game engines, including:

  • Unity
  • Unreal Engine
  • GameMaker
  • AppGameKit

Note that several of these engines, including Unity and Unreal, have freeware versions available, which make them excellent starting points for K-12 students or those who are just getting into the game design world.

When choosing an engine, it’s also important to consider the platform on which the game will ultimately be played. Additional platforms may be used during the development process, allowing for a playable prototype of the game in a rough form. A full list of free game engines is available in G2’s 5 Best Free Game Engines to Create Your Game.

Additional Tools

A number of other tools are essential to effective game development. A few examples are outlined in It Still Works’s  Video Game Designing Tools. They include:

  • Animation tools, which allow the development team to create characters and establish the physics of the game. Maya and Blender are two commonly used animation tools.
  • Modeling tools, which help the development team establish 3-D shapes. These shapes can include characters, buildings, vehicles, or other objects. 3Ds Max has long been a favorite modeling tool among video game designers.
  • Sound tools, enabling games to have both sound effects and musical accompaniment. Pro Tools is one example of a popular sound tool.
  • Video tools, allowing real actors to be motion-captured, providing the game a more realistic appearance. Many game engines come with their own built-in video tools, including Unreal and Unity.

Game Development Resources for STEM Students

STEM students have a number of valuable resources at their disposal, whether they are pursuing a career in game development or simply embarking on their own personal game design projects.

Guides, Publications, and Online Groups

For those who are just getting their feet wet in the world of game design, a good starting point is to connect with written resources or online communities. Some solid references include:

Resources for Music, Graphics, and Other Elements

STEM students who are looking to get into game development will want to locate resources for music, graphics, and other elements. Some starting points include:

Programming/Development Tips and Advice

For those who are looking for tips and advice on video game programming and development, here are a few resources:

Explore the World of Game Development

The video game industry continues to blossom, offering countless opportunities for aspiring designers and developers to find challenging, creative, and meaningful work. Use the resources assembled here to help guide your exploration of this exciting career field.

Note: This article is from 2012, but it’s an in-depth piece providing lots of still-relevant insider knowledge, from a very well-known source in gaming.