The game industry is often difficult for newbies to break into. The sheer volume of people interested in securing a job in this field ensures that competition is high and starting salaries are low. Hours are frequently long, and only the most dedicated professionals will succeed in this fast-paced and rapidly-changing environment.
1. Obtain a passion for games. A game programmer is often expected to work twelve hour shifts and meet countless deadlines as a team player. The video game industry is tightly knit and made up of dedicated fans, and you should be comfortable in this element. While it is a skilled full-time job, game programmers could easily make more money for less work and time in a more traditional industry.
2. Go to school for computer science and math. Fast, low-level programming languages such as Assembly Language, C and C++ should be the focus of your curriculum. If you have an opportunity to learn 3D programming, take it. Mathematics is the core skill that a game programmer requires. You are creating worlds, and the way that humans express absolute concepts like gravity, velocity, orbit and light is through mathematics. You should focus very heavily on linear algebra as much of what a game programmer does mathematically makes heavy use of vectors and matrices.
3. Volunteer in the industry. This puts you in touch with actual companies and gives you an understanding of both the market and the playing field. Gamers are a well-networked group and there are countless online news sites and organizations that discuss and disseminate information on new games. Every year the Game Developer’s Conference (gdconf.com) is open to interested parties who wish to network and learn about the state of the multi-billion dollar industry. If you subscribe to game development magazines, such as Game Developer (gdmag.com), you will receive discounted invitations to this conference yearly.
4. Build your portfolio. It doesn’t take a full team of creative professionals to make an innovative game with great game play and mechanics. As a solo programmer you will not have much in the way of resources, but you can still build a demo that shows you are competent with programming game systems and building mechanics. You should have a demo available that you are proud of, which you can take to all prospective employers and describe in detail. It doesn’t matter if it is made of stick figure drawings, you aren’t showing off your skills as an artist.
5. Put your foot in the door. It’s no secret, it is hard to get your foot in. As games become more corporate and are bought out by central companies, large and faceless organizations may be your first experience. Many enter the industry as an entry level game programmer, but it will require you to convey your passion and interest. It is very common for big companies to closely track programmer performance and fire the bottom half of their recruits each year, leaving regular openings for new talent.
Another way into game development is through the back door approach. If you join a company who contracts regularly with a game studio, work on technology that will put you regularly in contact with the producers and team leads of various game companies.