To anyone who finds this question on Google or elsewhere
3 years after asking this question I've had a lot more experience with game design, and I have a good idea what I was lacking in understanding.
To anyone who has a lot of programming experience, in and out of school, but has no idea where to start with gaming, I highly suggest starting with Game Programming Patterns by Robert Nystrom. This book helped explain to me a lot of the issues faced with developing a game and the clever solutions that have been developed over the years.
Although despite it being the 9th chapter, I strongly advise starting with the Game Loop, as this will give you the skeleton code you need to start writing a game.
Before reading this book I tried jumping into Unity3D, or XNA, or even simple tools like ALICE - but I didn't understand why sound had to be its own "component" or how to handle meta-game concepts like inventories or levels. Without a thorough understanding of exactly what Unity3D was abstracting for me, it didn't do me much good. This book gave me the boost that I needed to start making my own games.
I asked this earlier in this thread at stackoverflow.com. One of the early comments redirected me here to gamedev.stackexchange.com, so I'm reposting here.
Searching for related questions I found a number of very specific questions, but I'm afraid the specifics have proved fruitless for me and after 4 hours on Google I'm no closer than I started, so I felt reaching out to a community might be in order.
First, my goal: I've never made a game before, although I've muddled over the possibility several times. I decided to finally sit down and start learning how to code games, use game engines, etc. All so that one day (hopefully soon) I'll be able to make functional (albeit simple) games. I can start adding complexity later, for now I'd be glad to have a keyboard-controlled camera moving in a 3D world with no interaction beyond that.
My background: I've worked in SEVERAL programming languages ranging from PHP to C++ to Java to ASM. I'm not afraid of any challenges that come with learning the new syntax or limitations inherent in a new language. All of my past programming experience, however, has been strictly non-graphical and usually with little or extremely simple interaction during execution. I've created extensive and brilliant algorithms for solving logical and mathematical problems as well as graphing problems. However in every case input was either defined in a file, passed form an HTML form, or typed into the console. Real-time interaction with the user is something with which I have no experience.
My question: Where should I start in trying to make games? Better yet- where should I start in trying to create a keyboard-navigable 3D environment? In searching online I've found several resources linking to game engines, graphics engines, and physics engines. Here's a brief summary of my experiences with a few engines I tried:
Unreal SDK: The tutorial videos assume that you already have in-depth knowledge of 3D modeling, graphics engines, animations, etc. The "Getting Started" page offers no formal explanation of game development but jumps into how Unreal can streamline processes it assumes you're already familiar with. After downloading the SDK and launching it to see if the tools were as intuitive as they claimed, I was greeted with about 60 buttons and a blank void for my 3D modeling. Clicking on "add volume" (to attempt to add a basic cube) I was met with a menu of 30 options. Panicking, I closed the editor.
Crystal Space: The website seemed rather informative, explaining that Crystal Space was just for graphics and the companion software, CEL, provided entity logic for making games. A demo game was provided, which was built using "CELStart", their simple tool for people with no knowledge of game programming. I launched the game to see what I might look forward to creating. It froze several times, the menus were buggy, there were thousands of graphical glitches, enemies didn't respond to damage, and when I closed the game it locked up. Gave up on that engine.
IrrLicht: The tutorial assumes I have Visual Studio 6.0 (I have Visual Studio 2010). Following their instructions I was unable to properly import the library into Visual Studio and unable to call any of the functions that they kept using. Manually copying header files, class files, and DLLs into my project's folder - the project failed to properly compile.
Clearly I'm not off to a good start and I'm going in circles. Can someone point me in the right direction? Should I start by downloading a program like Blender and learning 3D modeling, or should I be learning how to use a graphics engine? Should I look for an all-inclusive game engine, or is it better to try and code my own game logic? If anyone has actually made their own games, I would prefer to hear how they got their start.
Also- taking classes at my school is not an option. Nothing is offered.