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3D Game Programming's Past, Present and Future

Here's how 3D game programming got its start—and evolved into a phenomenon.
two game programmers collaborating

If you aspire to work in 3D game programming, you'll need to know the history of pioneer 3D games like "Wolfenstein," "Doom" and "Quake."

These (and many others) were some of the first innovations in the 1990s—a decade that ushered in the transition from raster graphics to 3D graphics in gaming.

What followed was a graphics arms race, both on console and PC platforms. Many game companies made it their goal to have the most realistic graphics out there, and 3D is arguably the forerunner in realistic gaming experiences.

Beyond the historical perspective, you'll also want to have a solid grasp of how the gaming industry is structured and what to expect out of a programming career.

Game Programming Past

The text-based games and primitive graphics of the 1970s and early 1980s used very different programming methods from today's fully-interactive, vividly-realized 3D Stereoscopic and 3D Vision games.

"Wolfenstein 3D" was one of the earliest games to try to simulate a 3D environment through texture mapping on walls and animated sprites, and though it wasn't strictly 3-dimensional by today's standards, it set the stage for the new wave of 3D game programming.

"Doom," "Quake," "Heretic" and "Unreal" soon followed, introducing game players to polygon-modeled 3D characters and objects and ushering in the modern era of C++ programming. Today's game developers need that core knowledge of C++, at a bare minimum, to break into a programming career. Familiarity with 3D art tools, scripting languages, object-oriented programming and APIs (application programming interfaces) is also useful.

Career Outlook for Game Programmers

Don't be surprised, though, if your 3D game programming career leads you into ever more specialized realms of expertise. Gaming grows more complex with every passing year, and development companies will need programmers who can focus on a particular area such as audio, artificial intelligence or multiplayer networking. Further, PlayStation 5, Xbox One S, Nintendo Switch and mobile and tablet platforms often demand specialty programming skills. Keeping up with the gaming industry—having a clear idea of where it's going AND where it's been—is a wise idea no matter where you are in your career.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics' current Occupational Outlook Handbook, the field of computer programmers is expected to decline -11.2% through 2031, but you can bet that programmers with the right skill set and experience will have the best job opportunities. Independent game development companies are on the rise, which may translate to more opportunities for entry-level or junior programmers. If you have coveted skills in 3D graphics programming as well as solid C++ knowledge, then you'll be in higher demand, even if you're just starting out.

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