Playing the Game—But First, Making It
by Robin Hegg
Video games today are a far cry from where they began, but from Pong to the latest motion capture and 3-D graphics technology, engineers have been the backbone of this exciting and entertaining industry.
Early video games were entirely the creation of computer and software engineers. As the video game became more complex, their development required people from many different disciplines, such as graphic designers (who design a game’s graphics), game designers (who design the gameplay, rules, and logic of a game), composers (who score a game’s music), and writers (who write a game’s storyline and dialogue). Not only do engineers program the core of each game’s functions, technology developed by engineers determines how much freedom and creativity every other contributor can have in doing their job.
Engineers have played a huge role in the impressive and quickly growing technologies of video games. Today, video games can be played on many different devices, such as personal computers, mobile phones, tablets, and multiple video game consoles, each with their own unique operating system and approach. Video games also use several input devices, such as mice, keyboards, console-specific wired and wireless controllers, and motion- and heat-sensing cameras.
One of the main ways new video game technology is felt by the player is in the increasingly realistic and impressive graphics and sound that games offer. While graphic and sound designers deserve much of the credit for these, they wouldn’t have been possible without the help of engineers. Engineers created the tools and programs that allow designers to build advanced, 3-D, and motion-capture graphics. They also created the programs and systems that allow for higher quality and fully integrated sound effects and music.
Engineers are needed to program the core engine of the game—the basics of how it works, how objects move, and how graphics are displayed. But as engineers have expanded the technology available to video games, and as this technology has become more advanced, more (and more specialized) programmers have been needed.
3-D graphics programmers specialize in the creation of 3-D graphics. These engineers use complex mathematical concepts, like quaternions, linear algebra, and vector and matrix math to render these impressive graphics. Other programmers focus on sound. While almost all games, even the simplest of them, involve sound, some games today have their own musical scores, and employ advanced technology like 3-D positional sound, which produces sound using a variety of sound sources positioned throughout a three dimensional space. Sound programmers often create and maintain the tools used by sound designers to assign different sounds to different events, characters, and actions, along with applying atmospheric music to different moments or settings within the game.
Physics engine programmers work specifically to develop the physics needed in a game. Different video games require different types of physics to be simulated. Many games will require that gravity, density, and water viscosity be rendered, while sports, racing, and fighting games can bring up more specific physics needs.
Certain games require an artificial intelligence programmer—someone to develop the game’s logic in order to develop the actions of the player’s computer-run opponents. Other programmers specialize in programming the user interface for a game or group of games.
As technology has advanced, many games and gaming systems now allow players to team up or compete using the Internet. This has created the need for network programmers who focus on developing the network systems of a game.
Other engineers specialize in creating the tools used in the building of the games themselves. These tools are used for things such as scripting, building game levels, and importing and converting art, and can make everyone’s jobs much easier.
Porting programmers specialize in converting a game from one platform to another, so that mobile phone game can also be played on your PC, or the hot new game is available for people with a PS3 and an Xbox. The porting programmer needs to know the two operating systems and their languages in order to convert all the different elements of the game successfully.
Video games are not only fun, they’re often at the cutting edge of new computer, interactive, graphics, and sound technology. Engineers have been, and will continue to be, major contributors to video games, improving technology and making even the most creative ideas into on-screen reality.