If you’re going to make a game, you’ll need to do some programming. Even the best drag-and-drop or building-block environment won’t always be enough. At some point, you’ll have to make something new, something customized for your on game. But there are a lot of options out there. Some of them are easier, some more complex. Which one to choose?
In this post, I’ll offer my opinion on that tough decision. I’ll try to keep my own personal feelings about a language out of it, but I can’t promise anything. Also, I’m admittedly biased against software that costs a lot of money, but I know that not everyone feels the same way, so I’ll bite my tongue. I’ll try to give examples (and links!) of engines or other environments that use each language, too.
No Language At All
For a very few cases, especially the situation of kids wanting to make games, the best choice of programming language might be “None”. There are a few engines out there that don’t really require programming. Most of these use a “Lego” approach, where you build logic out of primitive “blocks” that you can drag and connect.
This option is certainly appealing, especially for those that think they can’t “do” programming. And successful games have been made with no-code engines. Retro City Rampage, for example, is a game created in GameMaker, and a number of HTML5 mobile games are being made in Construct2. Some other engines have now started creating their own “no programming required” add-ons, like the Blueprints system of Unreal Engine 4.
Programming, especially game programming, is hard, there’s no doubt about it. I can understand wanting to avoid it as much as possible. Some people can, and they can make amazing things. If you can work within the limitations of your chosen system, that’s great! If you need more, though, then read on.
Of course, the sheer number of engines might be the language’s downfall. Phaser might be one of the biggest pure JS engines right now, but next year it could be all but forgotten. (Outside of games, this is the case with web app frameworks, which come and go with surprising alacrity.) On top of that, HTML5 engines often require installation of NodeJS, a web server, and possibly more. All that can be pretty daunting when all you want to do is make a simple game.
C++ (with a few words on C)
C++ is the beast of the programming world. It’s big, complex, hard to learn, but it is fast. Most of today’s big AAA games use C++, especially for the most critical sections of code. Even many of the high-level engines are themselves written in C++. For pure performance, there’s not really any other option.
Unfortunately, that performance comes at a price. Speaking as someone who learned C++ as his second programming language, I have to say that it’s a horrible choice for your first. There’s just too much going on. The language itself is huge, and it can get pretty cryptic at times.
C is basically C++’s older brother. It’s nowhere near as massive as C++, and it can sometimes be faster. Most of your operating system is likely written in C, but that doesn’t make it any better of a choice for a budding game programmer. In a way, C is too old. Sure, SDL is a C library, but it’s going to be the lowest level of your game engine. When you’re first starting out, you won’t even notice it.
As much as I love C++ (it’s probably my personal favorite language right now), I simply can’t recommend starting with it. Just know that it’s there, but treat it as a goal, an ideal, not a starting point.
Examples: LÖVE, many others as a scripting or modding language
Lua is pretty popular as a scripting language. Lots of games use it for modding purposes, with World of Warcraft by far the biggest. For that reason alone, it might be a good start. After all, making mods for games can be a rewarding start to game development. Plus, it’s a fairly simple language that doesn’t have many traps for the unwary. Although I’ll admit I don’t know Lua as well as most of the other languages in this list, I can say that it can’t be too bad if so many people are using it. I do get a kind of sense that people don’t take it seriously enough for creating games, though, so take from that what you will.
As for the language itself, C# is good. Personally, I don’t think it’s all that pretty, but others might have different aesthetic sensibilities. It used to be that C# was essentially Microsoft-only, but Mono has made some pretty good strides in recent years, and some developments in 2015 (including the open-sourcing of .NET Core) show positive signs. Not only that, but my brother finds it interesting (again, thanks to Unity), so I almost have to recommend at least giving it a shot.
The downside of C# for game programming? Yeah, learning it means you get to use Unity. But, that’s about all you get to use. Besides MonoGame and the defunct XNA, C# doesn’t see a lot of use in the game world. For the wider world of programming, though, it’s one of the standard languages, the Microsoft-approved alternative to…
Java is the old standard for cross-platform coding. The Java Virtual Machine runs just about anywhere you can think of, even places it shouldn’t (like a web browser). It’s the language of Minecraft and your average Android app. And it was meant to be so simple, anybody could learn it. Sounds perfect, don’t it?
Indeed, Java is simple to learn. And it has some of the best tools in the world. But it also has some of the slowest, buggiest, most bloated and annoying tools you have ever had the misfortune of using. (These sets do overlap, by the way.) The language itself is, in my opinion, the very definition of boring. I don’t know why I feel that way, but I do. Maybe because it’s so simple, a child could use it.
Obviously, if you’re working on Android, you’re going to use Java at some point. If you have an engine that runs on other platforms, you might not have to worry about it, since “native” code on Android only needs a thin Java wrapper that Unity and others provide for you. If you’re not targeting Android, Java might not be on your radar. I can’t blame you. Sure, it’s a good first language, but it’s not a good language. The me from five years ago would never believe I’m saying this, but I’d pick C# over Java for a beginning game developer.
I’ll gladly admit that I think Python is one of the best beginner languages out there. It’s clean and simple, and it does a lot of things right. I’ll also gladly admit that I don’t think it can cut it for game programming. I can say this with experience as I have tried to write a 2D game engine in Python. (It’s called Pyrge, and you can find the remnants of it on my Github profile that I won’t link here out of embarrassment.). It’s hard, mostly because the tools available aren’t good enough. Python is a programmer’s language, and Pygame is a wonderful library, but there’s not enough there for serious game development.
There’s always a “but”. For the very specific field of “visual novels”, Python does work. RenPy is a nice little tool for that genre, and it’s been used for quite a few successful games. They’re mostly of the…adult variety, but who’s counting? If that’s what you want to make, then Python might be the language for you, just because of RenPy. Otherwise, as much as I love it, I can’t really recommend it. It’s a great language to learn the art of programming, but games have different requirements, and those are better met by other options.
Some engine developers make their own languages. The reasons why are as varied as the engines themselves, but they aren’t all that important. What is important is that these engine-specific languages are often the only way to interact with those environments. That can be good and bad. The bad, obviously, is that what you learn in GML or GDScript or TorqueScript doesn’t carry over to other languages. Sometimes, that’s a fair trade, as the custom language can better interact with the guts of the engine, giving a performance boost or just a better match to the engine’s quirks. (The counter to this is that some engines use custom scripting languages to lock you into their product.)
There are plenty of other options that I didn’t list here. Whether it’s because I’m not that familiar with the language, or it doesn’t see much use in game development, or because it doesn’t really work as a first language, it wasn’t up there. So here are some of the “best of the rest” options, along with some of the places they’re used:
Swift (SpriteKit) and Objective-C (iOS): I don’t have a Mac, which is a requirement for developing iOS apps, and Swift is really only useful for that purpose. Objective-C actually does work for cross-platform programming, but I’m not aware of any engines that use it, except those that are Apple-specific.
Haxe (HaxeFlixel): Flash is dying as a platform, and Haxe (through OpenFL) is its spiritual successor. HaxeFlixel is a 2D engine that I’ve really tried to like. It’s not easy to get into, though. The language itself isn’t that bad, though it may be more useful for porting old Flash stuff than making new games.
Ruby (RPG Maker VX Ace): Ruby is one of those things I have an irrational hatred for, like broccoli and reality shows. (My hatred of cats, on the other hand, is entirely rational.) Still, I can’t deny that it’s a useful language for a lot of people. And it’s the scripting language for RPG Maker, when you have to delve into that engine’s inner workings. Really, if you’re not using RPG Maker, I don’t see any reason to bother with Ruby, but you might see things differently.
If there’s anything I missed, let me know. If you disagree with my opinions (and you probably do), tell me why. Any other suggestion, criticism, or whatever can go in the comments, too. The most important thing is to find something you like. I mean, why let somebody else make your decisions for you?