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Game Development: The Best Programming Languages for Building Games

    Lucero del Alba
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    As the world of video games continues to grow, so does the need for talented programmers. Game development is a complex process that requires the use of specific programming languages to create the code that makes games function.

    So, which programming languages are best for game development? It depends on the type of game you want to develop. For example, if you want to develop a 2D platformer, you might want to use a language like Lua and even JavaScript. But if you want to develop a 3D first-person shooter, you might want to use a language like C++ or C#.

    In this article, we’ll take a look at the best programming languages for game development, and discuss the different types of games that can be developed using each language.

    1. What Is Gaming Development?
    2. About Game Engines
    3. The Best Programming Languages for Game Development
    4. Which Programming Language Should a Beginner Start with for Game Development?
    5. Best Programming Language for Simple Games
    6. Best Programming Languages for Complicated Games
    7. Conclusion

    Best programming language for game development

    What Is Gaming Development?

    Gaming development is the process of designing, creating, and coding a game. This process can be done in various ways depending on the type of game and the size of the development team.

    There are many different types of games:

    • text based, 2D, 3D, and real-time
    • single-player and multiplayer
    • focused on the graphic design, the story line, or the gameplay mechanics

    … But you surely know all of that, so let’s see how to actually develop games!

    About Game Engines

    We’ll be mentioning game engines a lot throughout this article, so let’s say that a game engine is a software development environment designed for people to build video games. It provides a framework for game developers to work in, and can be used to create both 2D and 3D games.

    There are too many to list them all, but here are some of the ones we’ll mention:

    Engine Popular games License Languages Remarks
    Amazon Lumberyard Star Citizen, Squadron 42, New World Proprietary C++, Lua (scripting) Native support for Amazon Web Services, which makes it easy to deploy games online
    Buildbox Color Switch and The Line Zen Proprietary C++ Specifically for 2D games
    Clickteam Fusion Five Nights at Freddy’s, The Escapists, Baba Is You Proprietary
    CryEngine Crysis, Far Cry, Kingdom Come: Deliverance Proprietary C++
    Cocos2d-x FarmVille, Geometry Dash, Badland Free C++, Python, JavaScript
    Construct Delivery Quest, Hypnospace Outlaw Proprietary C++
    Defold Candy Crush Saga, Bubble Witch Saga, Farm Heroes Saga Free Lua
    GameMaker Studio Spelunky, Hotline Miami, Undertale Proprietary GML
    Gideros Free Lua
    Godot Cruelty Squad, Hardcoded, Kingdoms of the Dump, Commander Keen in Keen Dreams Free C++
    Java 3D Free Java
    jMonkeyEngine Free Java
    LibGDX Ingress, Slay the Spire Free Java
    LÖVE Mari0, Journey to the Center of Hawkthorne, Move or Die Free C++, Lua (scripting)
    Phaser Vampire Survivors Free JavaScript
    PixiJS The Grotesque and Pixelesque Free JavaScript
    RPG Maker Alpha Kimori, Ao Oni, Aveyond series, Corpse Party, Eternal Eden, Laxius Force, One Night Trilogy, Super Columbine Massacre RPG!, To the Moon, Yume Nikki Proprietary It that can be used to create role-playing games (RPGs)
    Solar2D Free Lua
    Source Half-Life, Counter-Strike, Team Fortress Proprietary C++, Lua (scripting)
    Twine Depression Quest, Analogue: A Hate Story, Cibele Free JavaScript, CSS
    Unity Pokémon Go, Cuphead, Monument Valley Proprietary C++ Popular engine
    Unreal Engine Fortnite, Gears of War, Borderlands Proprietary C++ Popular engine, relatively easy to get started with, thanks to its Blueprint visual scripting system

    You can also check out 11 tools to get you started making video games, by D. M. Moore on The Verge.

    The Best Programming Languages for Game Development

    These languages are all popular choices for game development, and each has its own strengths and weaknesses. Let’s take a detailed look at each language.

    C++

    The C++ logo

    C++ is a good programming language for game development because it’s fast and efficient. Game developers use C++ to create high-performance games, and it also has plenty of debugging tools, which is important for game development.

    Other languages, such as Python, are designed for readability and simplicity. This makes Python an excellent choice for prototyping game ideas, but it wouldn’t be suitable for developing a final product.

    As a compiled language, C++ is converted into machine code before it’s run on a computer. This makes C++ programs run faster than interpreted languages such as Python. C++ also offers a variety of programming paradigms, such as object-oriented and data-driven programming.

    Many of the most popular game engines support C++, which means that there are a variety of tools and libraries that developers can use to create their games.

    Popular game engines using C++:

    • Unreal Engine
    • Unity
    • CRYENGINE
    • Amazon Lumberyard

    Cons of C++ in general:

    • it’s difficult to learn
    • it’s a memory-managed language
    • it’s not cross-platform

    Java

    The Java logo

    Java is a versatile and powerful programming language that’s widely used in many different industries. It can also be a good choice for game development, because it has many of the C++ strengths, plus it runs on a variety of platforms.

    As a platform-independent language — thanks to the Java virtual machine (JVM) — Java games can be run on any operating system, including Windows, macOS, and Linux. This makes Java another popular choice for developing mobile games, as it can be run on iOS devices and Android. Java is, in fact, the language to develop native apps with Android Studio.

    While some game engines support Java, it’s not as fast as C++, which can be a drawback for some types of games.

    Game engines using Java:

    • jMonkeyEngine
    • libGDX
    • Java 3D

    Cons of Java in general:

    • not as easy to learn
    • it can be slow, particularly in legacy devices
    • it’s not as widely used as C++

    JavaScript (with HTML and CSS)

    The unofficial JS logo

    JavaScript (JS) is another versatile programming language that’s used for game development, and it has the advantage of being relatively easy to learn. While JavaScript isn’t as fast as C++ or Java, it’s still suitable for developing 2D games.

    While HTML and CSS aren’t programming languages strictly speaking, they can be important technologies for game development. HTML is used to create the structure of a game, while CSS is used to style the game.

    JavaScript games can be run on any web browser, which makes them easy to distribute. However, JavaScript games aren’t as widely used as games developed with other languages.

    Popular game engines using JavaScript:

    • Phaser
    • PixiJS
    • Cocos2d-x

    Cons of JavaScript in general:

    • not as fast as other languages
    • not as widely used for games
    • limited to the browser

    Check out the books HTML5 Games: Novice to Ninja, by Earle Castledine, Learn to Code with JavaScript, by Darren Jones, and How to Build a Game with Vue.js.

    C#

    The C sharp logo

    C# was created by Microsoft. It has many of the same advantages as C++, and it’s a particularly good choice for developing 2D and 3D games.

    One advantage of C# over C++ is that it’s easier to learn. C# is also a cross-platform language, which means that games developed with C# can be run on Windows, macOS, and Linux.

    The integration between C# and Visual Studio (also created by Microsoft) is excellent, and so are the debugging and testing tools.

    Popular game engines using C#:

    • Unity
    • Unreal Engine
    • Godot

    Cons of C# in general:

    • not as widely used
    • limited to the Microsoft ecosystem

    Lua

    The Lua logo

    Lua is a lightweight scripting language that’s used in many different industries, including game development. It’s easy to learn and use, and it’s also fast (which is an unusual combo!).

    Lua is often used for developing game logic, and it can be embedded into other programming languages. This makes it a good choice for developing games with complex mechanics.

    While some game engines support Lua, it’s not as widely used as other languages, but it’s still a great choice for making 2D games.

    Popular game engines using Lua:

    • Solar2D
    • LÖVE
    • Gideros

    Cons of Lua in general:

    • not as widely used
    • limited to the game development industry

    Which Programming Language Should a Beginner Start with for Game Development?

    Lua, of course! As we’ve already mentioned, Lua is a lightweight programming language that’s easy to learn and use. So it’s something of a no-brainer that, if you’re new to programming, Lua will give you a good foundation on which to build more complex games.

    Additionally, Lua has been used in a number of popular games, so there are plenty of resources out there to help you get started. On top of that, it’s a language that you can later use for scripting on many game engines while coding more complex projects on C++!

    Python as a Game Development Language

    The Python logo

    Although we didn’t get to mention it, Python is yet another language that’s popular among beginner developers. Just like Lua, it’s very easy to learn; and unlike Lua, it’s a general-purpose language that can open doors beyond the game development industry, such as data science and artificial intelligence.

    It’s not quite as lightweight as Lua, but it’s still a good option for beginners who want to develop simple games. And aside from being a scripting language supported by many engines (Delta3D, Godot, Source), it also has a fully fledged game engines itself, such as Pygame, Ren’Py, and Kivy.

    Check out The Python Apprentice book by Austin Bingham and Robert Smallshire to learn more.

    Best Programming Language for Simple Games

    If you want to develop a simple game, such as a 2D platformer or a puzzle game, you can use any programming language that you are comfortable with.

    Again, Lua and Python can be good starting points for prototyping; but even JavaScript can make for a good 2D shooter that can be created extremely fast, especially when using assistive programming, such as OpenAI’s Codex.

    Check out the Build Your Own Wordle For Numbers: Numble article by Olivia Gibson, or even the book Build a Rock Paper Scissors Game from Scratch with React, by Madars Biss.

    Best Programming Languages for Complicated Games

    Now, if you want to develop a 3D first-person shooter or an open-world RPG, you’ll need to use a more powerful programming language.

    C++ is probably your best choice for developing complicated games. It’s a low-level language, which means it gives the programmer more control over the game’s inner workings. This can be both good and bad: good, because you have more control over how the game runs; but bad, because it can be more difficult to write code in C++, and more difficult to debug.

    Java is another good choice for developing complicated games. It’s a high-level language, which means it’s easier to write code in Java than in C++; but it also means you have less control over the game’s inner workings.

    Conclusion

    With new technologies and platforms emerging every few years, the landscape of game development is constantly changing. As a result, the programming languages used to develop games have to change as well.

    If you’re new to programming, we recommend starting with Lua or Python. These languages are easy to learn and use, and they’ll give you a good foundation on which to build more complex games.

    If you want to develop a more complicated game, you’ll need to use a more powerful programming language. C++, C# and even Java can be the best choice for developing complicated games.

    C++ particularly, as a low-level language, will give the programmer more control over the game’s inner workings … but of course, at the expense of more coding and debugging time. 😅