Matthew L.’s Answer
Good question. The short answer is, you don't need a college degree to become a video game developer, but you probably do need some pretty sophisticated training to make a career out of it.
Most people (myself included) love video games. However, designing them is a whole different experience and you should experiment with design and computer coding to find out if it's really for you. Here is how you can get started.
Video games are a blast to play and make a ton of money for the companies that build popular ones. As a result, the demand for good video game makers (coders, graphic artists, designers, testers, environment designers, marketers) is pretty hot right now and probably will be for years to come. Virtual and augmented reality (think Pokemon Go) are going to change the gaming world in ways that no one understands yet. So it's a great career choice.
And just so you know, I am not a professional game designer, but I do love games, I work with technology companies and make games in my basement for myself.
So you mentioned you like taking classes on line. Well, you're in luck because these days there are tons of online learning opportunities and you don't need any money to learn to program or to start building your own really cool games that look just like a professional built it. Here is how I do it with no money. The only thing you need is a computer (not even a super powerful one) and an internet connection.
b. Free Code Camp
c. GA Dash
g. Khan Academy (my favorite)
h. MIT OpenCourseWare
Try different sites and see which one feels best for you and the way you learn. They all have different approaches. You don't need to learn these languages to start building your own games (see below) but if you want to someday build really sophisticated ones you will need to learn to code, depending on what specific job in the game industry you want. And even if you don't go into gaming for your career, being able to code will give you a big leg up in just about any career you choose.
If you want to build games for the App Store you may need to learn C#, Objective C, Swift, HTML5 and some other languages. I would focus on games for the PC and web for now (bigger audience, more opportunity).
I would also buy a couple books on coding and game design, or check them out at the library. Computer languages change really fast so it's easy to find really cheap books on how to code in a particular language that are only a year or two old but they've been replaced by a newer version. So you can get a $60 book for like $3 on how to code Python in the discount pile or on Amazon. Above all, practice coding as much as you can. That's how you get good at it.
Download a Free Game Engine - The really good news is you don't need to learn to code before you start building your first games. You can download a free game engine and just start making. A game engine is a piece of software that will let you actually build your game and the virtual world it lives in. It's the foundation or platform of your game. You can also write your own game engine using just about any popular coding language, but why bother? It will take a ton of time and won't be nearly as good as the ones that are already built for you.
Using a pre-built game engine is like landing on a new planet where you are going to build a city. All the basic background stuff is already built for you. Gravity, sky, physics, colors, lighting, camera angles, is all put together for you so you can focus on making your game. It's like there is a even a pile of boards, bricks and nails just sitting there waiting for you to build your new city (well, sort of).
Here are 12 if the best gaming engines that you can get for free. Most were built by real game makers to run/build their first games on and then they refined them and released them to the public for everyone to use within certain limits. Some are super simple to use with no coding required, others are more complicated:
a. Unreal Engine 4/Unreal Engine 3 UDK (really good but complex and harder to learn)
b. CryEngine V
c. Unity 3D (my favorite)
e. Source Engine/Source SDK
f. Source 2
j. Tomstone Engine (C4Engine)
l. Panda 3D
These are professional grade game engines and are the platforms that many professionals use to build their games on. Some are very intuitive and pretty easy to learn and some aren't. Check out a few and see which one you like best and which one fits your style of game best. You can also see video clips on Youtube of games that have been built with them and tutorials on how to use the software.
The only thing to remember about most of these is that you can only build games for your personal use. If you want to sell or distribute your games you usually have to buy a license from the software maker that will let you do that. I would just focus on building games for you and your friends to play for now.
Learn some Graphic Designing and Storytelling - Most (though not all) of the best games have good graphics and great story lines. If you want to build truly immersive games and learn game design skills that will be in demand in the future (for virtual and augmented reality), you will need to understand graphic design and storytelling. Get some practice with tools that design characters, clothes, weapons, game levels, concept design, environments, buildings, terrain and objects like trees and plants.
In big game design studios you might have specialists. Some people will just work on one component of the game design, like level design, concept, story, characters, environments or terrains. Maybe they have a guy who just makes trees. But in smaller studios, you might have to do it all. If you're building your own games, you will definitely have to do it all. Some tools game designers use are:
a. Blender (free tool for 3D design)
b. Photoshop (textures and painting)
c. Sketchup (3D models and design)
d. Gimp (free, like Photoshop for doing textures and colors)
Some are not free but you can sometimes get them really cheap (like Adobe products) if you're a student. Check with your school to see if they have arrangements with software makers to get the stuff free or cheap.
Start Making Your Game - It's probably best to have a simple game in mind before you start designing it. When I have a specific goal in mind, a project becomes easier because I understand why I need to learn this tool or that tool because I need to do this specific task. Just makes it easier and keeps me motivated. Start with a basic 2-D game and work up from there.
And don't get too hung up on planning. Get a basic sketch of your game and how will work and just start building and keep trying it and fixing it until it works. Then build another and another.
I'm not sure how many game studios there are in Ohio, but see about getting an internship there or just visiting for a day or two when you can shadow an actual game designer to see what they really do. There are at least a couple of companies I found that do game dev in Ohio (Designing Digitally in Franklin and Jam City in Toronto, OH). Do web search and see if you can visit companies you find and shadow a developer for a day.
If you have friends that want to develop games, build a group and work on games together. You can bounce problems off each other and get the work done faster.
Here is a link to the best 57 computer game design colleges (I know 57 is a weird number but that's how many there are): https://successfulstudent.org/best-video-game-colleges.
If you think you might want to start your own video game company someday, don't neglect the other courses you will need to succeed. You may want to study business as well as game design. Also, coding is a great skill to have because if you're good you can always get a job. Freelance coding pays very well and you can do from anywhere (a beach, your dorm room, an airplane, wherever).
Good luck. It's an exciting career and if you're passionate about it, you will succeed. Just never give up.
Matthew L. recommends the following next steps:
- Practice, practice, practice coding. It's the only way to get good.
- Learn everything you can about the nuts and bolts of game design. Learn to code and about graphic design.
- Download free game engine, graphic and 3D design software to start building your games.
- Learn about story and structure and create a story for your game before you start designing it. Having a game plan will make learning the tools easier because you're not learning them in a vacuum but in sequence as a means to complete the project and see your game come to life.
- Intern at a game company or shadow a working game developer. Work with your friends who enjoy gaming and put together a group to build your games.