Recently, a university undergraduate asked me on twitter for advice on becoming a graphics programmer within the games industry. I wrote a fairly detailed email response and thought the information was good enough to make an article for AltDevBlogADay. This is all my personal opinion of course.
If you’re at university, you should research whether there’s a programme to do a summer or year long internship at a games studio. There was nothing like that when I was at the University of Liverpool ’97-’00 (or I wasn’t aware of it), but I’ve seen people come through that kind of programme with much greater practical game development knowledge and it goes a long way towards persuading an employer to take you on. EA, Lionhead and other large companies tend to run this sort of programme so look on their job pages too. Beware that sometimes companies don’t respond to intern applications for various reasons (team is deep in crunch, budget spent elsewhere, etc) and places are extremely limited.
Your best bet is to make a graphics demo, either on your own or with a small group of people. You learn more by doing than by just reading. Pick a modern graphics technique that interests you and implement it. Even better, do more than one. This is also great training for motivating yourself to get a project finished which is often the hardest part of games development, for all disciplines. Make sure you’re prepared to talk in detail about the choices you made, performance (in milliseconds, not frames per second!), quality, alternatives and trade offs in a job interview.
When I was in university I did a straight computer science course – there were barely any games courses available back then, but I still think that employers still value computer science graduates above games graduates as there’s a perception that you learn a greater range of software engineering skills. This could be a misconception though, as games courses are a lot better than they used to be, but you may have to fight your corner in an interview and prove you know your stuff (and not just the curriculum you were taught).
Computer science courses also tend to be quite maths heavy (I would hope games courses are similar), which is vital for graphics programming. Make sure you understand homogeneous coordinates, matrix maths, dot products, cross products, quaternions, normal vectors, tangent bases, etc and how these things (and countless others) are useful for transforming and lighting geometry. Learn big O notation for algorithmic execution time, understand colour spaces, gamma correction, what high dynamic range means and so on. Learn some basic lighting models - Lambert, Phong, Blinn, etc.
In my experience, Visual Studio is pretty much universal as a code IDE (except for Apple, Linux, Android and Nintendo games), though you can of course use your favourite editor if you really want to, as long as you know Visual Studio. There is a free Express edition available from Microsoft (www.perforce.com) is a good choice as a lot of game studios use it and it’s free for single users. Try to learn it on a project with other people as merging, branching and integration are good skills to have. With all source control systems, similar concepts apply so it’s essential knowledge to have. Shockingly, my university course never mentioned source control and I was naive enough to believe that people just shared code over the network or on floppy disks.
As you’re unlikely to have access to devkits at home or in university, you’ll most likely be learning your skills on PC. In what may come as a surprise from someone with a decade’s game development experience, I don’t know much OpenGL as there’s never been a pressing need for me to learn it. Most PC games use DirectX, though if you learn DirectX 11, make sure you also learn DirectX 9 as it’s still current for Xbox 360 and many PC games still use it to support the dwindling, but still large Windows XP market. DirectX 10 is completely superseded by DirectX 11, so it is not worth learning (you can write DirectX 11 games for DirectX 10 hardware, and even DirectX 9 hardware).
Also there are a few good blogs posting regularly about graphics. A few good examples…