Engineering

Game Programmer

Game programmers are software engineers who primarily develop computer or video games or related software (such as game development tools). Game programming has many specialized disciplines; practitioners of any may regard themselves as “game programmers”. A game programmer should not be confused with a game designer; many designers are also programmers, but not all are, and it is rare for one person to serve both roles in modern professional games.

Responsibilities

Kef Sensei Game Programmers are responsible for the coding behind the games. They are the ones that put the different pieces together and mix them to get the ultimate game experience.

A contemporary computer game may include advanced physics, artificial intelligence, 3D graphics, digitized sound, an original musical score, complex strategy and may use several input devices (such as mice, keyboards, gamepads and joysticks) and may be playable against other people via the Internet or over a LAN. Each aspect of the game can consume all of one programmer’s time and, in many cases, several programmers. Some programmers may specialize in one area of game programming, but many are familiar with several aspects. The number of programmers needed for each feature depends somewhat on programmers’ skills, but mostly are dictated by the type of game being developed.

Disciplines

Game physics programmer

A game’s physics programmer is dedicated to developing the physics a game will employ. Typically, a game will only simulate a few aspects of real-world physics. For example, a space game may need simulated gravity, but would not have any need for simulating water viscosity.

Since processing cycles are always at a premium, physics programmers may employ “shortcuts” that are computationally inexpensive, but look and act “good enough” for the game in question. Sometimes, a specific subset of situations is specified and the physical outcome of such situations is stored in a record of some sort and is never computed at runtime at all.

Some physics programmers may even delve into the difficult tasks of inverse kinematics and other motions attributed to game characters, but increasingly these motions are assigned via motion capture libraries so as not to overload the CPU with complex calculations.

For a role-playing game such as Might and Magic, only one physics programmer may be needed. For a complex combat game such as Battlefield 1942 or The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, teams of several physics programmers may be required.

Artificial intelligence programmer

An AI programmer develops the logic the game uses to carry out a large number of actions. It has recently evolved into a specialized discipline, as these tasks used to be implemented by programmers who specialized in other areas. An AI programmer may program pathfinding, strategy and enemy tactic systems. This is one of the most challenging aspects of game programming and its sophistication is developing rapidly. According to Game Developer Magazine, many contemporary games dedicate sixty percent of their programming staff to AI.

Casual Games usually don’t make such use of AI and are based on users improving in the game instead of basing the game on users frustration where AI makes more sense while the Game must beat the user…

Graphics programmer

Programmers who specialize in developing and modifying complex 3D graphic renderers. Some 2D graphics skills have just recently become useful again, though, for developing games for the new generation of cell phones, PDAs and Casual Games

A 3D graphics programmer must have a firm grasp on advanced mathematical concepts such as vector and matrix math, quaternions and linear algebra.

Programmers specializing in this area of game development can demand high wages and are usually a scarce commodity. Their skills can be used for computer games as well as games for game consoles such as the PlayStation 3, Wii and the Xbox 360.

A 3D graphics programmer may also specialize in a subset of 3D graphics programming, such as pixel shaders or vertex shaders.

Sound programmer

Not always a separate discipline, sound programming has been a mainstay of game programming since the days of Pong. Most games make use of audio, and many have a full musical score. Computer audio games eschew graphics altogether and use sound as their primary feedback mechanism.

Many games use advanced techniques such as 3D positional sound, making audio programming a non-trivial matter. With these games, one or two programmers may dedicate all their time to building and refining the game’s sound engine, and sound programmers may be trained or have a formal background in digital signal processing.

Scripting tools are often created and/or maintained by sound programmers for use by sound designers. These tools allow designers to associate sounds with characters, actions, objects and events while also assigning music or atmospheric sounds for game environments (levels or areas) and setting environmental variables such as reverberation.

Gameplay programmer

Though all programmers add to the content and experience that a game provides, a gameplay programmer focuses more on a game’s strategy and the “feel” of a game. This is usually not a separate discipline, as what this programmer does usually differs from game to game, and they will inevitably be involved with more specialized areas of the game’s development such as graphics or sound.

This programmer may implement strategy tables, tweak input code, or adjust other factors that alter the game. Many of these aspects may be altered by programmers who specialize in these areas, however (for example, strategy tables may be implemented by AI programmers).

Scripter

In early computer games, gameplay programmers would write code to create all the content in the game — if the player was supposed to shoot a particular monster, and a red key was supposed to appear along with some text on the screen, then this functionality was all written in C or assembly language by a gameplay programmer.

These days, large game projects have a team of scripters to implement this sort of game content. Scripters usually are also game designers, and it is easier to find and employ a qualified game designer who can be taught a script language, as opposed to the difficulty of finding a qualified game designer who has mastered C++ on the target platform.

UI programmer

This programmer specializes in programming user interfaces (UIs) for games. Though some games have custom user interfaces, this programmer is more likely to develop a library that can be used across multiple projects. Most UIs look 2D, though contemporary UIs usually use the same 3D technology as the rest of the game so some knowledge of 3D math and systems is helpful for this role. Advanced UI systems may allow scripting and special effects, such as transparency, animation or particle effects for the controls.

Input programmer

Input programming, while usually not a job title, or even a full-time position on a particular game project, is still an important task. This programmer writes the code specifying how input devices such as a keyboard, mouse or joystick affect the game. These routines are typically developed early in production and are continually tweaked during development. Normally, one programmer does not need to dedicate his entire time to developing these systems. A first person shooter such as Quake may need a very complex and low latency input system, while the needs of a turn-based strategy game such as Heroes of Might and Magic are much lower.

Network programmer

This programmer writes code that allows players to compete against each other (or play together) connected via a LAN or the Internet. Programmers implementing this feature of a game can spend all their time on this one task. Network programming is one of the most challenging game programming roles. These programmers have to deal with network latency, packet compression, and dropped or interrupted connections. Though this type of programming can consume the entire development process, network programming is, unfortunately, often put off until the last few months of development, adding additional difficulties to this role.

Game tools programmer

One of the less recognized members of the development team, the tools programmer can make game development heaven or unbearably difficult. Tools are used on almost every game for tasks such as scripting, importing or converting art, modifying behaviors or building levels. Some tools, such as an IDE, 3D graphics modeling software and Photoshop are COTS products, but many tools are specific to the game and are custom programmed.

It is the tools programmer’s job to write the tools that handle these game-specific tasks. Some tools will be included with the game, but most will not. Most tools evolve with the game and can easily consume all of several programmers’ time. Well written and fairly bug-free tools make everyone’s development tasks easier.

Porting programmer

Porting a game from one platform to another has always been an important activity for game developers. Some programmers specialize in this activity, converting code from one operating system to work on another. Sometimes, the programmer is responsible for making the application work not for just one operating system, but on a variety of devices, such as mobile phones. Often, however, “porting” can involve re-writing the entire game from scratch as proprietary languages, tools or hardware make converting source code a fruitless endeavor.

This programmer must be familiar with both the original and target operating systems and languages (for example, converting a game originally written in C++ to Java, DirectX to XNA), convert assets, such as artwork and sounds or rewrite code for low memory phones. This programmer may also have to side-step buggy language implementations, some with little documentation, refactor code, oversee multiple branches of code, rewrite code to scale for wide variety of screen sizes and implement special operator guidelines. They may also have to fix bugs that were not discovered in the original release of a game.

Lead game programmer

The lead programmer is ultimately in charge of all programming for the game. It is their job to make sure the various sub modules of the game are being implemented properly and to keep track of development from a programming standpoint. A person in this role usually transitions from other aspects of game programming to this role after several years of experience. Despite the title, this person usually has less time for writing code than other programmers on the project as they are required to attend meetings and interface with the client or other leads on the game. However, the lead programmer is still expected to program at least some of the time and is also expected to be knowledgeable in most technical areas of the game. There is often considerable common ground in the role of technical director and lead programmer, such that the jobs are often covered by one person.

Languages and tools

Most commercial computer and video games are written primarily in C++, C, and some assembly language. Many games, especially those with complex interactive gameplay mechanics, tax hardware to its limit. As such, highly optimized code is required for these games to run at an acceptable frame rate. Because of this, compiled code is typically used for performance-critical components, such as visual rendering and physics calculations. Almost all PC games also use either the DirectX or OpenGL APIs (or SDL) to interface with hardware devices. Xbox games use an API similar to DirectX.

KefSensei Studios developers develop games in in C++, C, C#, Unity3D, Cocos 2D, Objective C,  XNA, DirectX and OpenGL . Web Games are being developed in Flash, Actionscript  and .Net, Java, RoR or PHP, MSSQL and MySQL or NoSQL databases.

Various script languages are also used for the generation of content such as artwork and especially AI. Scripts are generally parsed at load time (when the game or level is loaded into main memory) and then executed at runtime (via logic branches or other such mechanisms). They are generally not executed by an interpreter, which would result in much slower execution. Scripts tend to be used selectively, often for content design and high-level game logic. Some games are designed with high depedency on scripts and some scripts are compiled to binary format before game execution. In the optimization phase of development, some script functions will often be rewritten in a compiled language.

Java is used for many web browser based games because it is cross-platform, does not usually require installation by the user, and does not pose security risks, as may a downloaded executable program. Java is also the dominant language for mobile phone based games. Adobe Flash is also a popular development tool for browser-based games using the ActionScript language (there is some debate as to whether Flash actually constitutes a “language,” but it is a popular web-based game development medium).

As games have grown in size and complexity, middleware is becoming increasingly popular with the industry. Middleware provides greater and higher level functionality and larger feature sets than the standard lower level APIs such as DirectX and OpenGL, such as skeletal animation. In addition to providing more complex technologies, some middleware also makes reasonable attempts to be platform independent, making common conversions from, for example, PC to PS2 much easier. Essentially, middleware is aimed at cutting out as much of the redundancy in the development cycle as possible (for example, writing new animation systems for each game a studio produces), allowing programmers to focus on new content.

Other tools are also essential to game developers: 2D and 3D packages (for example Photoshop, Maya and 3D Studio Max) enable artists to produce cutting edge art and animations; source control systems keep precious code safe, secure and optimise merging; and IDEs with debuggers (such as Visual Studio or CodeWarrior) make writing code and tracking down bugs a less painful experience.

History

In the early days of video games (from the early 1970s to mid-1980s), a game programmer also took on the job of a designer and artist. This was generally because the abilities of early computers were so limited that having specialized personnel for each function was unnecessary. Game concepts were generally light and games were only meant to be played for a few minutes at a time, but more importantly, art content and variations in gameplay were constrained by computers’ limited power. Later, as specialized arcade hardware and home systems became more powerful, game developers could develop deeper storylines and could include such features as high-resolution and full color graphics, physics, advanced artificial intelligence and digital sound. Technology has advanced to such a great degree that contemporary games usually boast 3D graphics and full motion video using assets developed by professional graphic artists. The desire for adding more depth and assets to games necessitated a division of labor. Initially, art production was relegated to fulltime artists. Next game programming became a separate discipline from game design. Now, only some games, such as the puzzle game Bejeweled, are simple enough to require just one fulltime programmer. Despite this division, however, most game developers (artists, programmers and even producers) have some say in the final design of contemporary games.