So you want to be a video game programmer? – part 3 – Getting Started

…CONTINUED from PART 2. Or start at Part 1.

Some kid is always asking me, “I love video games, how do I learn to program them?”

First of all, a warning. Reaching the skill level to be a professional video games programmer takes years. There are no shortcuts. You can not possibly go from nothing to professional grade skills in less than perhaps 2-3 years — and for that you’d have to be an uber-genius — usually it takes 5-10.

The good news is that you can start very young (8-10 — I started at 10) and you can do it on your own with common equipment and readily available information.

There are two basic approaches: home training and school. And while I personally recommend both, I’m going to use this post to give my own “origin story.” In followups we can apply these lessons to the present (programming itself hasn’t changed all that much in 30 years — there are just more libraries).

[ BTW, if you’re new to the blog and wondering who the hell I am in this context, click ]

Rewind to 1979. Some of my favorite things in the world were Dungeons and Dragons and arcade games. I was really too young to actually play D&D accurately, but I loved reading the books and modules (besides my regular diet of fantasy novels). I went to the Apple Store (not actually owned by Apple or nearly as glamourous as they are today — in fact, the owner resembled Gandalf) and saw the game Akalabeth running on an Apple II (not a + or an e, but an old school II). Boy did that set me to dreaming!

Then in 1980 my science teacher brought into class a Heathkit H8 her husband built (yes built). This early computer ran a lousy version of BASIC and possesed the world’s worst storage device: the audio tape drive. Actually punch cards were worse, but with the tape drive, saving your program bordered on impossible (at least for the sharing audio tapes with the rest of the class) and so you had to type it in repeatedly. We were given a single mimeographed sheet of paper with the BASIC commands. I read this a couple times and then wrote out longhand the first draft of a text-based RPG where you wandered around and fought orcs and trolls for gold and tretchure (this is how I spelled treasure at 10). During lunch I typed in and debugged the game, editing my paper copy as needed. I used my friends as beta-testers. It may seem overly ambitious to try and recreate D&D as one’s first program, but it illustrates the programmer principle of: program what you love.

Then my best friend got himself a brand new Apple II+ (just released). This was a slick update of the Apple II. It had a whole 48k, came with BASIC, and was often (but not always) accompanied by a 143k floppy disk drive! Low low price of $900 just for the floppy drive! In any case, the II+ was so much more awesome than the Heathkit. It even had graphics!

So I began pestering my father for an Apple. This took 9-10 months of continuous harassment — the machine was expensive — and all sorts of creative techniques to convince him. I offered to mow the lawn for free. I explained how various accounting software would make balancing his checkbook a breeze, etc. Once I was victorious (Jan 1981) we got the accounting software, but he never used it, leaving me to my own devices on the machine. And I think I kept getting paid for the lawn. Still, this episode illustrates another important programmer principle: persistence.

After the Apple arrived, I spent nearly all of my free time (perhaps 6-8 hours a day) on the thing for years. This is essential. You must offer up blood onto the alter of the programming gods. Principle: sacrifice. I used this time in many ways. I played a lot of games. I used every piece of software. I taught myself to program. I hacked. Principle: market research. But I couldn’t afford as many games as I wanted and in those early years the available library was small, so I was always trying to make my own.

I wrote totally lame versions of nearly every arcade game ever made. In BASIC at first (we’ll get to the issue of environment later). I would generally spend a day or three banging these out until they were marginally playable and then move on to new projects. Lesson here: practice. I chose more and more ambitious games and would use each one to teach me something new. I did this in incremental steps, mostly 1-2 day projects. By way of example, I might upgrade something or I might add a load/save system (requiring learning about I/O). My early games didn’t have much in the way of collision, later ones did. I started with text, then moved up to lores graphics, then highres, then shape tables, then bits of assembly language subroutines for blitting. Principle here: baby steps.

Baby steps are incredibly important. You can’t learn everything there is to know in computers in one shot. Each little area takes multiple projects and days — at least — to learn and master. Take file I/O. I’m sure I got something up and going the first day or two back in the early 80s when I decided to add a load/save system, but I was still learning about file I/O 25 years later on Jak 3 (of course then I was inventing new ways of doing stream I/O, but it was learning nonetheless). Your first pass might work, but often you barely understand any of the principles involved.

You have to start simple, build up blocks, and go from there. That’s why interpreted languages and text programs are a good way to begin. You need to learn about variables, scope, and flow of control before you can jump into 3D graphics. And forget about complex unforgiving environments like C/C++ or assembly to begin with. Those come later and are just one more thing to spend a series of baby steps on. Just learning about makefiles or projects and compile options could stop a novice dead. So don’t — yet. Each task (and thing to learn) should be broken into some chunk that only takes a couple days at most to digest — or at least make some headway on. This leads to a virtuous feedback loop of progress and learning.

I kept writing those lame little games for about 3 years (100s of them). Of all my friends with computers (we all programmed in that era because computers didn’t do much if you didn’t program) my games were the coolest. I used them to invent all sorts of excuses to develop new skills. I wanted to learn about interpreters so I made an engine to allow the creation of text adventure games using a custom scripting language. Once I got this going I upgraded it to graphic adventures, which proved to be a perfect excuse to implement an idea I had seen in the Sierra games where line drawing and fill commands were used to compress images to a fraction of their raw size. On the Apple II a raw graphics screen was 8k. So a floppy only fit 17. A normal compressor (ancestor of zip) might squeeze this to 3-4k but that is still only 30-35 images. This “save the drawing commands” style made them a fraction of that. But for it to work I not only had to create the “renderer” (including an assembly fill routine) but I also a whole “paint program” to allow the recording/creation of these proprietary images.

However, each of these sub-steps resulted in satisfying progress on its own. Principle: chunking. For example that fill routine. It took several days, and my mastery of recursion in assembly wasn’t the best so it left little corners unfilled, but it was cool in of itself. My first fill routine (in BASIC) took 5 minutes to do a fill, and the assembly one only a second or two. Plus, I was to keep using it in all sorts of programs for years (with improvements). Principle: reuse. Building on the tools you make is essential to programming.

In 1982, I met Jason Rubin. He also programmed. He was an amazing (by the standards of the time and our age) artist and his games LOOKED REALLY COOL. But they crashed a lot. Mine rarely did. From the beginning I hated crashing. Still can’t tolerate it. I have trouble leaving the keyboard if a crash bug is still outstanding. Principle: perfectionism. My programs also did much cooler “programming” stuff. They just didn’t look cool. When we combined our talents, things really took off! Our games now looked cool AND ran decently. Impressive stuff. Lesson: partnership. Not everyone can be good at every aspect of computers. Nor even of programming itself.

CONTINUED with Part 4 – School!


Parts of this series are: [WhyThe Specs, Getting Started, School, Method]

Subscribe to the blog (on the right), or follow me at:

Andy:  or blog

Or more posts on video gaming here.

And what I’m up to now here.

So you want to be a video game programmer? – part 1 – Why

This post is a sequel of sorts to my How do I get a job designing video games. The good new is — if you’re a programmer — that nearly all video game companies are hiring programmers at all times. Demand is never satisfied. And the salaries are very very competitive.

The bad news is that it takes a hell of a lot of work to both be and become a great game programmer. Or maybe that isn’t such bad news, because you absolutely love programming, computers, and video games, right? If not, stop and do not goto 20.

I’m breaking this topic into a number of sub-posts. Although this is the intro, it was posted a day after the second, number 2, on types of game programmers, but I’m backing up and inserting this new number 1 (I’m a programmer, I know how to insert). Other posts will follow on topics like “how to get started” and “the interview.”


So why would you want to be a video game programmer?

Let’s start with why you might want to be a programmer:

1. Sorcery. First and foremost, being a programmer is like being a wizard. I always wanted to be a wizard. Given that magic (as in the D&D variety) doesn’t seem to be real (damn!) programming is the next best thing. Computers are everywhere. They’re big, complex, and all sorts of cool everyday devices (like iPhones, set-top boxes, cars, and microwaves) are really basically computers — or at least the brains of them are. 99.9% of people have no idea how this technology works. As the late great Author C. Clarke said, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Yay computers! If you actually know the arcane rituals, incantations, and spells to controls these dark powers then you are… drum roll please… a wizard.

2. Career security. Computers are the foundation of the 21st century economy. Nearly every new business is based on them. Knowing the above incantations is secret sauce. All the growth is in high tech (product possibility frontier and all that). Hiring is supply and demand too. The demand is for programmers and other high tech specialists.

3. Even more career security. Programming is hard. It requires a big New Cortex style brain. This means lots of people can’t do it. It takes years of study and practice. I’ve been programming for 30 years and there is still an infinite amount for me to learn. Awesome!

4. It’s a rush. Creating stuff is a rush. Making the infernal machine bend to your warlocky will is a huge thrill. It never gets boring and there is always more to learn (related to #3).

5. It pays really well. This is related to #2 and #3. People need programmers and they can’t get enough, so they have to pay competitively for them. Even in the late 90s early 00s at Naughty Dog it was very rare for us to start ANY programmer at less than $100,000, even ones right out of school. Good ones made a lot more. And if you’re a total kick-ass grand master wizard (nerd) like Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg you can even start your own company and make billions. Take that you muscle bound warriors!

6. Solo contributions. You like spending time with machines and find all day dealing with illogical humans at least partially tedious. Sorry to say it, but even though most professional programming is done in teams a lot of time is spent at the keyboard. For some of us, this ain’t a bad thing.

7. Socialization. You need an excuse to hang out with others. On the flip side, because of this team thing you’ll be forced to socialize on and off between coding. This socialization will have certain structural support. This is convenient for the would-be wizard, master of demons but terrifying forces, but afraid of starting conversations.

So why would you want to be a video game programmer specifically?

8. Video game programming is really hard. Probably the hardest of the hard. It combines cutting edge graphics, effects, the latest hardware, artistic constraints, tons of competition, very little memory, and all sorts of difficult goodies. The really serious wizards apply here.

9. Other types. Video game teams have artists, musicians, and designers on them too. Lots of tech jobs don’t (although they sometimes have those pesky marking folks). Artists etc are cool. They know how to draw or compose cool stuff which makes your code look and sound much cooler.

10. Consumer driven. If you make it to work on a professional game they often sell lots of copies and people will have heard of what you do. This is much much cooler than saying “I worked on the backend payment scheme of the Bank of America ATM.” It’s so cool that it might even get you laid — which is an important concern for bookish wizards of both genders.

11. It’s visual. Seeing your creations move about the screen and spatter into bloody bits is way more exciting than that green text on the bank ATM. Talented artists and sound designers will come to you with said bloody bits and all sorts of squishy sounds which will make your coding look 1000x more cool than it would by itself. If you aren’t into bloody bits than you can work on a game where enemies explode into little cartoon rings. It’s all cool.

12. It’s creative. For me, I have to create worlds and characters. I’ve been doing so my whole life. Right now I’m not even programming but I’m writing novels, which is also about creating. Programming in general is pretty creative, but game programming is probably the most so.

13. Love. You love video games so much that working on them 100+ hours a week seems like far less of a chore than any other job you can think of!

I’m sure there are more reasons, but the above seem pretty damn compelling.

CONTINUED HERE with Part 2: “The Specs”


Parts of this series are: [Why, The Specs, Getting Started, School, Method]

Subscribe to the blog (on the right), or follow me at:

Andy:  or blog

Or more posts on video gaming here.

And what I’m up to now here.

So you want to be a video game programmer? – part 2 – Specs


There are a couple of broad categories of programmers working on video game teams. If programmer is your player class, then the following types are your spec. Programmers are all warlocks and mages so instead of “demonology” or “frost” you can choose from below. (NOTE: if you don’t get this joke, you don’t play enough video games) This is the real world however, and many programmers dual (or even triple) spec — i.e. they handle multiple specialties.

1. Gameplay programmer. Programs enemies, characters, interfaces, gameplay setups etc. Probably also does things like AI and collision detection. These programmers are sometimes a little less hardcore technical than some of the other types, but this is the sub-field where the most “art” and experience are often required. Learning how to make a character’s control feel good is not something you can read about in Knuth. It takes the right kind of creative personality and a lot of trial and error. In a lot of ways, this is the heart and soul of game programming, the spec that truly differentiates us from the more engineering programming disciplines.

2. Tools programmer. Works on the extensive tools pipeline that all games have. This is the only branch of game programming where you don’t absolutely have to know and breathe video games inside and out, and it’s a little closer to mainstream applications programming. That being said, life at most video game companies is so intense, you better love them. Tools programmers tend to be very good at practical algorithms, data processing, etc. For some reason, perhaps because it’s more “behind the scenes” this spec is often viewed as less glamourous and there are fewer programmers who want to go into it.

3. Sound programmer. A very specific niche. Here you have to not only know how to program well, but you have to care about the esoteric field of sound. You need the kind of ear that can tell if there is a one sample glitch in some audio loop, and you need to care if the 3D audio spatialization is off or the sound field isn’t balanced. This is often a fairly low level area as audio programming is often done on DSPs.

4. Collision programmer. This is a really specific spec, and often overlaps with Graphics because it involves totally intense amounts of math. You better have taken BC calculus in tenth grade and thought “diffy-q” was the coolest class ever if you want to go into this.

5. Network programmer. In this era of multiplayer and networked gaming there’s a lot of networking going on. And programming across the internet is a bit of a specialty of it’s own. In general, video game programming takes any sub-field of programming to it’s most extreme, pushing the bleeding limits, and networking is no exception. Games often use hairy UDP and peer-to-peer custom protocols where every last bit counts and the slightest packet loss can make for a terrible game experience. If this is your thing, you better know every last nuance of the TCP/IP protocol and be able to read raw packet dumps.

6. Graphics programmer. Some guys really dig graphics and are phenomenal at math. If you don’t shit 4×4 matrices and talk to your mom about shaders, don’t bother. This sub-specialty is often very low-level as graphics programming often involves a lot of optimization. It may involve coming up with a cool new way of environment mapping, some method of packing more vertices through the pipeline, or better smoothing of the quaternions in the character joints (HINT: involves imaginary math — and if you don’t know that that means the square-root of -1 then this sub-field might not be for you).

7. Engine programmer. For some reason, most wannabe video game programmers hold this up as their goal. They want to have created the latest and greatest video game engine with the coolest graphics. Superstars like Tim Sweeney,John Carmack, and even myself are usually seen as falling in this category. The truth is that superstars do all kinds of programming, and are often distinguished by the fact that we are willing and able to handle any sub-type and tie it all together (see lead below). In my mind engine programmers are jacks-of-all-trades, good at building systems and gluing them together. The top guys often blend with Graphics and Lead below. There’s also tons of stuff like compression (nothing uses compression like games, we’d often have 8-10 different custom compressors in a game), multi-threading, load systems (you think seamless loading like in Jak & Daxter is easy?), process management, etc.

8. Lead programmer. People also dream of being the lead. All the great programmers are/were. This is the hardest spec, and no one ever starts out in it. You need to be able to do any of the other specs, or at least judge what approach is best. You need to be able to roll up your sleeves and dive in and fix crap anywhere in the program. You need to live without sleep (4 hours a night every day for years baby!). You need to be able to squint at the screen and guess where the bug is in others people’s code. You need to know how to glue systems together. You need to be able and willing to trim memory footprints and optimize (no one else wants to do it). In fact, you have to know the entire program, even if it is 5-10 million lines of code, and you have to do all the crap that no one else wants to do. Plus, you often have to manage a bevy of other personalities and waste lots and lots of time in meetings. Still want the glory? Being lead is all about responsibility!

CONTINUED with Part 3: Getting Started


Parts of this series are: [Why, The Specs, Getting Started, School, Method]

Subscribe to the blog (on the right), or follow me at:

Andy:  or blog

Or more posts on video gaming here.

And what I’m up to now here.