You might find my own story interesting with regards to this subject. I more or less fell into game design, and although I still don't get paid for what I do, I get a great amount of enjoyment and satisfaction from it.
As for languages: a familiarity with C++ is a must. Once you have down the basics, most other "C" based languages will be pretty easy to pick up.
The project I work on has also recently released the source code for the Medusa Engine SDK, a fully featured MMO development platform. the same one we are using to create the game DarkSpace.
Medusa is being licensed under one of three different licenses depending on how you want to use the source code. In a nutshell, If you want to make money off the source code, then you will have to pay a fee. If you just want to make games and release them for free or just for fun, the source code and engine is free of charge. Download it at http://www.palestar.com./
The following text is an except from my blog on http://www.mmoprg.com/
(http://www.mmorpg.com/blogs/Drafell/022009/3337_DarkSpace-Development-Blog-Introduction), giving an overview of how I got into game design.
I hope you enjoy it.
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First, I would like to introduce myself to you all, and explain my role in the DarkSpace community.
Several years ago, I was idly rambling through cyberspace,looking for a new game to play, when I stumbled across an odd title called DarkSpace. Although not your classic MMO, something about it appealed to me, so I downloaded the client and got sucked into losing the next few months of my life.
The initial introduction was bleak. There didn't seem to be a great number of players, and I was a little confused to start with as to what exactly the aim of the game was. I was on the verge of quitting when a clan offered to teach me the ropes and learn the basics on how NOT to die. I realized that a small community did not automatically mean that a game has no future, and I soon became an avid supporter of the game, administering the DarkSpace arm of a clan fleet called the Shattered Star Confederation. Six months later I was asked if I would like to join the DarkSpace Moderation team - a group of player volunteers who help police the community, dealing with player queries and helping to prevent exploitation of the game system.
Naturally I said "Yes," and real life was postponed for another couple of years.
As time passed, I gradually took on more and more responsibility whilst seeing the game evolve through many variations, and just helping out where I could, or where I saw a need for assistance. Note that I have had no training, and no formal education with regards to community management or public relations. This is probably very apparent from my particular style of communication, and I have a tendency to ramble into totally unrelated topics, such as now...
As time passed, I started to get more and more into actual game development. I had an interest in music, and so made a few, somewhat questionable tracks (you have to admire anyone that can actually write and produce music. It is not as easy as it may look, or sound). I also developed an interest into graphics, and through playing a multitude of other games, I got interested in the concepts of game balance and design.
Eventually this coalesced into me and a friend (Jack) submitting a general balance proposal to the owner of the DarkSpace game and head of development, Richard Lyle, and despite having few coding or development skills between us, we were given access to the source code and development environment for the DarkSpace game. I was getting into LUA scripting, and had messed around with creating my own little DarkSpace themed HTML game, and somewhat cheekily stated that I would probably be able to learn C++ in a few weeks. Ignorance is bliss, and a few years on my "C" skills are still questionable, to say the least.
It took a few months for me to get familiar with the tools at hand, and before II was ready to make my first contributions. It was not long after I began my changes that I noticed some odd peculiarities, and uncovered a whole raft of bug's and issues. the most notorious would have to be a drive path issue, which was a legacy from changing over from an old code administration model, and porting it to SVN. This had gone unnoticed for years before I joined the team and was the route cause of many common issues with the game during that period. Unmodified game assets were not affected by this issue. But given that I had already made close to a thousand edits before I worked out what was wrong, it turned out to be a major headache to fix requiring an inordinate amount of time.
Now, let me explain that DarkSpace is largely dependent on volunteer labour - an MMO is not cheap to run on any scale, and so none of the development team take any wages, which means we have to have real jobs to pay for that bothersome thing called life. Due to this necessity, it took a long time to get anywhere. I had to wait almost two years before I could see the first results of my labour, and it has been a constant learning process since then.
It is only since October 2008 that development for DarkSpace has really begun to kick off again. I have lost count of the number of internal revisions that we have been through since then, and we have had some close calls with serious bugs making it into the live versions, which is a sad by product of a limited testing base. Yet I believe we have prevailed and are creating something that is quite unique, and improving with each passing day.
I admit that DarkSpace is not for everyone. It is a very PvP-centric game, and we have been doing what games like Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning like to call realm vs realm since 2001 (although in our case it is faction versus faction). I can only say that designing and implementing such game play concepts is not easy. The most difficult thing is imbuing each 'faction' with it's own individual play style and personality whilst maintaining a common set of game mechanics so that players wishing to switch factions will not be at a total loss as to what to do.
Balance is also something that is often underestimated, and made even more difficult in our case as we do not have an artificial skill system and due to our focus on PvP; after all, killing other players is much more fun than farming mindless AI for hours on end. Nothing in DarkSpace is dependent on the roll of a die, except with the recent addition of of Enhancements which are a type of loot drop in DarkSpace. If you shoot at an enemy, you are not guaranteed to hit as your target can simply dodge your weapons fire. Trying to draw a correlation between actual player skill, and whether something is 'overpowered' is not easy. Is a given ship 'overpowered' entirely due to the players using that vessel being unusually skilled, or is it indicative of a real issue with the design?
Despite spreadsheets being able to give general indications, a lot of fine tuning comes down to intuition, and trying to understand what effect giving a 1% damage increase to a certain weapon type will have on the construction (crafting) aspects of the game. It may seem unrelated, but even such 'minor' changes can subtly shift the game balance in a direction you do not wish to go. Will it impact the introduction of the game for new players, and de-emphasize other important aspects?
I have to say that creating game balance is like trying to walk a tight rope with elephants bouncing on each end of your pole, whilst blindfolded.
Anyway, time to wrap up and back to the original point of this post...
My name is Robert Kelford, 29 years old, and otherwise known as Drafell or Mr Black, DarkSpace Community Administrator, DarkSpace Developer, and all number of other pseudo roles, and I approve this message.
Over and out.