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4 Industry Buzzwords Defined for the Novice Game Programmer

Before an aspiring game programmer can dive into working on a title, they've got to learn the lingo. Here are four of the important buzzwords you'll hear from day one of video game programming and design.

Nowadays, it seems like pretty much everyone is designing or developing a video game, whether it’s in a big studio with hundreds of game programmers or with a small group working on an app. Do you have an idea for a game you wish you could make or just a desire to be a part of this exploding industry?

Before you can hit the ground running, realize that as with any other skill, learning video game design or programming takes time and practice, and can be a nerve-wracking process. The first critical step when just starting out is familiarizing yourself with the industry jargon, game design terms, and names of development tools. You’ve got to talk the talk before you make video game characters that can walk the walk.

To help you get started, here is a brief game design glossary that focuses on the buzzwords you’ll hear from day one starting out in your game programming career.

What is a Game Engine?

There are a lot of assets to manage in game programming, including graphics, sound, and the physics of how in-game objects interact. Game engines are powerful pieces of game development software that help game programmers manage all of those assets, including art, sound, and code. For example, Telltale Games uses the self-named Telltale Tool to develop its story-driven titles like “Batman” and “The Walking Dead.” At the heart of each and every major video game release is a game engine, and it’s a tool that I am immensely thankful for — especially platform-agnostic game engines like Unreal and Unity that can be used for multiple projects across multiple computers (Mac and PC), and multiple mobile devices (Android phones, iOS phones, and tablets).

What is AI?

Artificial intelligence (AI) might sound like a fantastic plot device out of a sci-fi novel, but game programmers are already very familiar with the concept. AI is the code that guides every character in a video game except the one that the player is controlling — these are known as non-player characters, or NPCs. Think of AI as a list of goals that these NPCs will try to achieve. For example, in “Final Fantasy XV,” the enemies of player character Noctis have AI goals of “attack the player,” while his three allies have AI goals dictating how they help the player, whether that is “attack enemies” or “defend the player.”

What is GUI?

You’ll almost never hear the full term “Graphical User Interface” being used in game development — for brevity, it’s almost always referred to as GUI. This video game concept includes everything onscreen that the user is going to see as part of their gaming experience. Common elements you’re going to find on a GUI include the player character’s health and gear, or like in “Rise of the Tomb Raider,” a map helping guide the player to his or her next objective. The start screen and all of the icons also make up the user interface being important parts of the overall user experience.

What are Alpha and Beta?

You won’t need to learn the entire Greek alphabet to become a video game designer or programmer, but these two terms are awfully important. They describe two critical parts of a game’s development life cycle when it’s almost completed. The term “alpha” is the first build shared with testers where most of the game’s assets are in place and functional — but with a lot of the finishing touches still needed before a commercial release. The “beta” version takes that a step farther — it’s extremely close to the final version, and like last year’s “Battlefield 1,” can even be released to the public for a hype-generating play test before the commercial release. When game development teams do that, it’s an “open beta,” rather than a “closed beta.”

For more game design tips and industry insights, check out the Cogswell College Perspectives blog here.

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