How I Became a Games Developer

A couple of days ago I was asked on twitter about how I became a games developer. There’s not much of a short answer to that, for me.

I first became aware of computer games when I was around four years old. Our family was poor, so we didn’t have the latest and greatest. Rather, games trickled down into my life through consoles and computers older than I was. The very first computer I ever owned (and not shared among my family) was an Amstrad that ran BASIC. This was before windows and other GUIs (Graphical User Interfaces). Everything you did, was presented first and foremost through text commands. What graphics the system had were crude and minimal. Alongside the computer came a manual. A huge tome, teaching you how to run games, print things, and write your own programs. That’s where it truly all began; I was about 7 or 8 years old.

I loved making games and programs, no matter how simple they were. But the manual was limited. There was no information available in my local library, and only very few people had access to the internet (I was certainly not among them). At school, computing was limited to teaching a roamer robot to move forward and to turn a bit, and later ‘learning’ using word processors.  The national curriculum might have easily ended my interest in computers, had I not my ancient Amstrad at home and essentially no friends. A lot of kids in my generation were educated in a similar fashion in the UK, and it frustrates me to this day that computer literacy was taught so poorly back then.

When I left high school, I didn’t think for a moment that IT was what I wanted to go into. Instead, I went on to study art at college and university. I was suffering from severe depression and increasing disability at this point and tried and failed many times to get my degree. I dropped out, and focussed on music performance, recording and composition as my career, as well as a welcome return to writing and drawing comics. I still do both.

During these years, computers played a very central role in both my doing uni work and extracurricular activities (and no, I’m not referring to porn). Despite coding and scripting a lot (using Linux and coding websites), and fixing a whole load of friends’ computers, I didn’t really see myself as doing anything unusual. At some point, I decided to learn python. I’d done bits and pieces here and there in different languages, but this was the first time in a long time I’d sat down and actually made a concerted effort to learn a computer language. I can’t even remember why, other than for the reason that I love working with computers. I love tinkering and I’m naturally very, very curious. Some people say I seem to have done a bit of everything.

But I didn’t really see myself taking it anywhere, other than for the sheer love of it. I knew a number of programmers, and they seemed so much more knowledgeable. I didn’t have any confidence my skill, and I’d certainly never studied programming in any official capacity. For me it was a hobby. A really fun, satisfying hobby.

My music career became more and more difficult. I started to really grasp how impoverished most musicians were and who was I, a musician who can’t even climb onto most stages or access most venues, to even think I had a chance? I grew depressed. And somehow, along the way, I started getting pretty good at programming and I didn’t realise it.

In July 2013, I had my first game released: an interactive fiction called ‘My Name is Tara Sue’, made using Twine. Within the first few days, I’d had more reviews for than for all of my albums, EPs and comics over the past five years combined. The coding I did for it was extremely minimal, as I wanted to focus on the writing and design, but the attention that I received for the game made me realise that this was something I could do. Something fun, and engaging something that I could, with time and practice (particularly on my programming skills), integrate my music and visual art into without the need to engage with physical spaces for presentation.

Over the next year and a half I worked tirelessly to learn everything I could about making games. It was like the veil had been lifted. I’d finally been able to tell myself “Yes, you can do it”. I participated in a number of online game jams, submitted an application to receive help from an arts organisation, and managed to get mentoring. Having one-to-one support was really life-changing. I’d never been taught to code in any official capacity and was self-taught. But mentoring really helped me to piece together all the random, loose, disorganised knowledge I had together. I concentrated on learning C++and SDL to train in some of the more complex issues of computer science and games development. Within six months, I’d put together my first game engine. Within eight, I’d made an even better and more complex game engine.

Following my overwhelmingly positive experience with mentoring, I decided it was time to bite the bullet and return to university. This time, to study computer games technology. And that’s where I am now. I’m really excelling at my university work. I recently submitted a game design document and achieved 100% marks, and three weeks later submitted my game.

For me, games are incredibly exciting. Where else can I apply my love and experience in music, art, programming, astrobiology, story writing, critical theory, history and maths all in one? And with such satisfying results?

Everyone’s story is different. My path to becoming a games developer has been a very, very long one. I skipped plenty of details, but the essentials are there. However, if there is one truly definitive moment in my life where I became a games developer, it was when I decided to never let myself or anyone tell me I couldn’t do it.

If you’d like to see my current project, Star Monogatari, here’s a video of it so far:

A huge thank you goes to my mentor, Niall Moody!

If you’d like to see some of his work, please visit his website here.

And if you’d like to support my work, please consider visiting my patreon page!