Roughly speaking, there are two broad categories for “game developers”: indie game developers and AAA (big budget, big studio) game developers.
I’ve been working as an indie game developer for a little more than a decade, so that’s what I can offer the best advice in. However, I know enough about the AAA world to know that you can move from one to the other, and many do. In fact, whether you want to make small indie visual novels, or big-budget open world games, doing the work of an indie game developer is probably where you’ll start.
How to become a game developer
Let’s explore what how you can become a professional indie game developer without expensive training.
Should I get a degree?
Get Unity (or another similar platform).
Study your discipline(s)!
Let’s look at the steps involved with becoming a game developer, shall we?
1. Should I get a degree?
If you want to learn how to become a game developer, should you go to school for it? It’s a simple question with a complicated answer. The first thing you have to figure out is, what do you mean by “game developer?” Do you want to make art for games? Do you want to write code? Do you want to design systems?
There are a number of different skills involved in game development, and the “school” answer varies greatly depending on what you’re looking to do.
Regardless of what you want to do, you will need to study hard and develop your skill. You can do this inside of a university program, or on your own.
If you have the financial security to pay for school, it can be a great environment to meet peers and team members and get feedback. School is also great in that you are forcing yourself to sit and focus on game development. So if you’re the kind of person who has trouble focusing, school might be advantageous in that way. However, if you’re a very self-driven person, there are so many resources online these days that you can pick up the skills you need on your own.
Going to school or not might come down to what lifestyle works for you and what your financial situation is like. But in either case, be prepared to study hard at whatever discipline you are focused on (we’ll come back to that in a moment).
2. Get Unity (or another similar platform)
Regardless of whether you go to school, I would so go to the Unity website now, download it, and start watching tutorials. There are a ton of really great resources for how to use Unity. It’s extremely popular, and there are huge communities out there waiting to help you with any problems you might encounter.
The point is this: you’re not trying to become a great programmer (unless that’s your specific goal). You’re just trying to build your experience with Unity. I think for a lot of people, especially people who think of themselves as more art-oriented and less STEM-oriented, learning programming can feel like a very overwhelming task.
You just have to learn your way around Unity enough that you can make what you want. Take it one step at a time, and learn what you need as you go.
For years, I had difficulty picking up programming because I found it so intimidating, and whenever I encountered a problem, I would quickly give up. “I’m not the programmer type,” I would tell myself. Those kind of doubts, based on our idea of our own identity, are one of the biggest obstacles to doing anything. So just know that it’s just a set of skills, like learning to play a new game, or learning how to bake an apple pie or something. You can do it.
Start small. Make tiny prototypes. Think about a simple game you’d like to create, and tackle it one step at a time.
Try cloning some very simple games, like Space Invaders. There are several tutorials that walk you through the creation of simple games; do them, and then modify the games you make. After you’ve done that, start thinking about a simple game that you’d like to make, and tackle it one thing at a time. Maybe your thought process will be, “OK so I want to make something that involves cards. How do I create cards? Well, players need to be able to click on a card and pick it up with the mouse. How do I do that?”
It will take time, but keep at it and you’ll get it. And when you see stuff come together, it feels really good, too.
3. Study your discipline(s)!
On a practical level, it makes sense to pick a skill or two as your main skill set. You can do everything for a game all by yourself, and often, especially in the beginning, you’ll have no other choice. But ideally, you’d find one or two other people who can fill in the gaps of your expertise, because it takes a long time to get really good at something.
A visual artist and a programmer can absolutely make a game together (and many games are made with only visual artists and programmers). Writing, music and sound, and other disciplines definitely help, but they are far lower on the necessity totem-pole than programming and visual art.
If you’re reading this, you’re also probably old enough to already have some experience in a thing or two. If you have any experience in one of the aforementioned skills, you’re in luck. If not, you are probably going to want to develop one or the other. And probably no matter what, you will want to get some basic competency in programming, just so that you can learn how to become a game developer on your own.
Here are some specific bits of advice for the two big disciplines.
For games, the most important skill is illustration, with graphic design and animation being also rather important. For illustration, there’s a ton to look into, but I would start with fundamentals. Andrew Loomis’ Figure Drawing for All It’s Worth is a great guide for character illustration and some other basics. For online illustration stuff, check out Ctrl-Paint and Proko. I would also recommend James Gurney’s Color and Light for advice on color.
I’m less equipped to give specific advice here, but programming is probably the skill best-served by online tutorials, in the form of videos and web posts. They’re everywhere. I would also look for a good IRC or Discord chatroom in which to ask questions. And be aware of Stack Overflow as another good resource. In addition that, you should get used to looking through the C# API (C# is the default language used in Unity). There are also a lot of good online courses that might be worth checking out.
You might be a great music composer, or a great game designer (i.e., a gameplay system designer), but no one will care. Even though these skills can absolutely make a game great, it will be very difficult to find a programmer or an artist who will want to team up with you if you only have these skills. And you can’t make a digital game without a programmer (although tabletop games might still be a possibility).
4. Make connections
Now that you have some kind of game prototype and/or possibly a small handful of people on your team, you should start bringing your game around to conventions and game meetups. Check for a local International Game Developers Association chapter and find out when they’re meeting up. The point is to expose your game to people and see what they think. Find good online communities (such as mine, hosted here on GoDaddy by the way!) where people want to talk shop about prototypes. You can also try to start a community of your own online once you have a game or two out.
Meet people in the game development community by attending conferences and joining online chats.
Also, it’s good to try to bring your game (if you can) to bigger shows like Game Developers Conference or IndieCade. Most people don’t have the money to get a booth at something like these, but it’s worth something to be there and meet people. Watch some talks and chat with the speaker afterward. These connections might be really important at some point.
You are now officially a game developer! Actually, once you started developing your game at all, I’d say you were a game developer, but now it feels really official.
Final thoughts on how to become a game developer without expensive training
Game development is a ton of work, and sometimes it can be really challenging and discouraging. A lot of game prototypes fail, and even for ones that seem to succeed, sometimes the responses from people just won’t be what you’re looking for. But that’s what it is to be a creator or an artist. And if you’re driven and you love the work, it will all be worth it. Good luck!