Video game programming with game console controller

Best Programming Languages for Game Development

The video gaming industry is valued at $85.86 billion in the U.S. and $178.37 billion worldwide—and those numbers are only expected to rise. Professional game developers make an average of $71,295 per year, according to Glassdoor, and the most popular game of 2020 (Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War) brought in $59.6 billion on its own.

Whether you plan to develop video games as your main career, a side hustle, or a hobby, learning to code with the right programming language should be on your to-do list. 

What is the best programming language for game development?

Video game programmer building a game on their laptop

Game developers use several programming languages, sometimes more than one at a time. The right language depends on the project, what features you need the language to have, and your experience level as a programmer. 

1. C++

C++ is the foundation of most major console and Microsoft Windows games. It’s an object-oriented programming (OOP) language, meaning it organizes code into self-contained, reusable units. Those objects are designed to be reusable and movable, so you can code complex games without building everything from scratch.

C++ is a powerful low-level language built for machine readability. It’s a challenging language to learn for beginners compared to languages like Python, but C++ is well worth the trouble for game developers looking to maximize their creativity.

How do game developers use C++?

C++ is the most popular language for creating game engines—the development environments where game programmers create and host their interactive worlds. Game engines provide the technology for every aspect of a game, from graphics, physics, and sound to the behavior of AI-powered game bots.

Developing your own engine is the best way to gain complete creative freedom and control over your game. If you decide to go this route, you’ll absolutely need to know C++; it is the industry standard, and you will need its versatility and high-performance capability.

Designers also sometimes use C++ to program in pre-existing engines. Creating an engine from scratch is extremely time- and resource-intensive, but you can get nearly as much flexibility from a commercial engine if you can do some of your own programming. Many of today’s most popular engines use C++, including:

C++ lets you get more out of these engines and develop more customized, higher-performing games.

Why is C++ used in games?

C++ is a popular video game programming language because it is fast, powerful, and flexible:

  • It’s a very fast language. Gamers expect high performance and minimal to no delay in a quality game. Unfortunately, video games are prone to high server load, which can lead to latency if the code converts too slowly. C++ converts quickly, even when multiple tasks run at the same time.
  • It works in close proximity to hardware. Video games rely on hardware for control functions. C++ operates closely to that hardware, so engines perform better with less chance of stalling.
  • It works cross-platform. C++ lets you release projects on multiple operating systems and gaming platforms.
  • It features high-performance tools. C++ has a rich set of open-source libraries that take some of the legwork out of coding. There are C++ libraries for many different aspects of game development, from graphics design to debugging.
  • It’s compatible with other game programming languages. C++ gives you the flexibility to incorporate languages like C# or JavaScript to improve particular aspects of a game, like graphics or audio.

2. C#

C# (“C-sharp”) is a simpler, more accessible language than C++. It’s a high-level language, designed for humans to understand. Its syntax encourages code reusability, which makes it efficient, and its compilers reduce runtime errors by warning the programmer in advance.

What does C# do in video game development?

C# leads the pack as a video game scripting language. Scripting languages lay out the game’s mechanics and tell the computer what to do as the game progresses. If you want a player to see a certain graphic or message when their character picks up an object, scripting makes that happen.

Where does C# show up in game development?

Video game developer testing their VR creation

C# is the default language for Unity 3D, a popular game engine. Unity was the engine of choice for 61% of developers in 2021, making it the top engine of the year. It’s the powerhouse behind many popular mobile games, including Pokémon Go and Temple Run 2. Unity is also a popular game engine for VR games—90% of all Samsung Gear and 53% of Oculus Rift VR games use Unity. If you want to create games in Unity or for VR, C# should be in your toolbox.

C# is also a back-end language; in web-development contexts, developers use C# to communicate with the server rather than the user. When a player takes an action in a multiplayer game, C# tells the server how to interpret that action.

Many developers have used C# to create Xbox and other Microsoft games on the XNA Framework. Although Microsoft has retired XNA, C# remains compatible with its successor, MonoGame. It’s also the scripting language behind many Playstation console games.

3. JavaScript

A leading front-end web development language, JavaScript is primarily used in computer programming to add interactivity to web pages. If you use a drop-down menu or click to play a video, JavaScript usually powers that action.

How is JavaScript used in game development?

JavaScript is often used to program games for hosting in web browsers. Today, online games usually run using the core web technology HTML5, which packages JavaScript code together with markup languages HTML and CSS.

JavaScript-powered HTML5 games run in web browsers and on mobile platforms like iOS and Android. You can host these games directly on a website, so they’re easier to share than console games. They’re also easy to maintain, thanks to the built-in stability of the JavaScript language.

What game engines use JavaScript?

JavaScript game developers have access to JavaScript-specific and compatible engines, such as:

  • Three.Js
  • Famo.Us
  • Goo Engine
  • Allegro
  • Impact.Js

Because JavaScript is such a popular web development language, it has a diverse set of tools and frameworks, including the cross-platform graphics library WebGL and HTML5 game framework Phaser.

4. Java

Java is a versatile language commonly used by small game development companies. It’s powered some of the world’s top iOS and Android games including Minecraft and Mission Impossible III. Plus, Java is a cross-platform language, so it runs on nearly any system including Microsoft and Linux.

Why learn Java for game development?

Java is used for mobile games and apps

Java is a beginner-friendly language that is popular for mobile apps and games. If you’re new to coding, you can get started on Java and start writing, running, and debugging code faster than with many other languages. 

A Java game will most likely run on a virtual machine—a software-based computing system that functions separately from  physical host computers. Virtual machines help make games and other software quicker and less costly to create, easier to distribute, and simpler to scale as they grow.

What are Java's game development features?

Just because Java is beginner-friendly doesn’t mean it’s limited in what it can do. 

The programming language supports multithreading, a feature that lets two or more instruction sets run at the same time. Game developers often prefer to have separate threads for different types of tasks, such as graphics rendering and gameplay logic.

Java also offers socket programming, which powers two-way communications with servers. This makes it easier for developers to create multiplayer games without the need for additional tools.

5. Lua

Lua may not rank among the popular programming languages in general, but it’s an ideal fit for game development. It’s the language behind popular games like Angry Birds and Age of Conan, and it powers engines like CryEngine, Gideros Mobile, and Corona SDK.

It’s an extremely lightweight language, meaning its small memory footprint doesn’t create drag. It also runs on virtual machines, so it’s fast and efficient.

Lua is a highly embeddable language, so you can easily integrate it into many other applications. That’s an important feature in game development, which often draws on multiple languages to get the desired effect.

Love2D, a free game framework, is a great learning tool for beginner game developers—and it uses Lua!

6. Python

A beginner-friendly language, Python was created to be readable by human beings. Its syntax is possibly the most English-like among programming languages, which is why it’s a common teaching language in software development.

Python is less widely used in the game development world, but it’s a good starting point for new developers. If you start learning Python, you can jump quickly into the game development library PyGame.

PyGame is a free Python library designed specifically for game creation. It’s easy to learn and features:

  • Readily available, easy-to-understand tutorials
  • Easy installers for Windows and MacOS
  • Flexible, mix-and-match core modules
  • Simple code designed specifically for game scripting

Learning Python also makes it easier to use GDScript, the programming language for the popular game engine Godot. GDScript’s creators built it to mimic Python’s readability and beginner-friendly syntax, while also offering features specific to gaming. If you already know how to code in Python, you’ll feel right at home writing scripts in Godot.

Python vs. competitors for game dev

Python is less well-known as a game development language, but it’s still a good choice in many circumstances. 

Is Python or Java better for game development?

If you’re a complete coding beginner, Python is a great place to start. It’s readable for non-programmers, and PyGame makes it easy to start developing simple games. Learning Python also makes it easier to transition to Godot, an increasingly popular game engine.

That said, Python’s functionality is limited for video games. Java is more versatile and supports more advanced functionality for mobile games, without adding much difficulty. It’s still a very beginner-friendly language, and the learning curve is much smaller than the C-based languages (C# and C++). It’s worth trying out Java to see if it’s a good fit.

Is Python or C++ better for game development?

C++ is the clear winner here. It’s harder to learn than Python, but its potential in game development is unmatched.  

C++ is:

  • Much faster than Python, which is prone to lag when faced with the heavy server load of a video game.
  • Compatible with more engines and programming languages, so you can do more with your game.
  • Ideal for developing your own game engine, which expands your creative potential. 
  • Rich with gaming-specific libraries of all kinds, to give you more options.

The downside is C++’s steep learning curve, which can be a barrier for beginners.

Why is Python not used in games?

Although Python is a powerful programming language, what it gains in usability, development time, and readability, it loses in speed. Python runs more slowly than other programming languages like C++, and it isn’t a conventional video game scripting language like C#. However, for newcomers, Python is one of the best starter programming languages—and game engines like Godot are basing their native scripts on Python to make it easier to program.

Is C# or C++ better as a game coding language?

If you want to create games from scratch, C++ is the way to go. It offers:

  • More control over hardware.
  • Customization options for rendering graphics.
  • Better memory management.

As an added bonus, learning C++ will give you an edge if you want to go further in software development.

If you want to script games using existing frameworks and engines, go with C#. You’ll get to:

  • Learn the basics faster and start coding games sooner.
  • Code within popular engines like Unity.
  • Receive error warnings if something’s wrong, so you learn quicker and see more success.

Where can you learn game development programming?

Two people tinkering with game dev tools

If you’ve never programmed before, it’s wise to start learning the basics with a beginner-friendly programming language like Python or Java. You will learn important programming concepts such as object-oriented programming and algorithms without needing to spend too much time worrying about syntax.

If you’re a more experienced programmer, you can start getting into the specifics of game development for your language of choice.

edX has multiple game development courses that cover:

Get started and learn video game development with edX today. Programming is extremely rewarding to learn, and it could be your first step toward making your game idea a reality.