So you want to make games?
The world is full of ideas, and no matter how hard you may try to avoid it, one of them occasionally plants itself inside your brain and starts to grow. Your cerebrum can only hold so much and eventually the idea has to find its way out and take flight. For some that means writing a book or building some furniture, but there is a subset of the human species that is technologically minded, and for them the only outlet is the digital landscape.
Are you one of those of whom I speak? Do you dream in pixels? Are you a code junky? Perhaps a graphic designer looking for a new frontier? Or merely a geek with a dream? That was me, by the way, the latter, with a bit of code junky thrown in for good measure. There are, however, numerous avenues from which people come to the same conclusion that they want to make a video game. Over the last several years I’ve seen the same bits and pieces of advice posted over and over again on game developer forums. Some are helpful, some are not. Flame wars break out over what platforms to develop for, only to be later extinguished by an unexpected new technology.
In this series of articles I will be pulling together as much of the good information as I can into a useful whole. I obviously can’t take credit for all the ideas, and so I’ll be providing links to the incredible communities and resources that I have also learned from. Are you ready to get started with your game?
It all starts with an idea…
You’ve got one, an idea that is. I’ve heard a lot of them from people; some are good, some are not, some are derivative, and some are derivative in a good way. Whatever it is, if you follow a good, laid out process you’ll soon discover if it’s workable into a computer game or not.
Of course, then there’s the other crowd, the ones who don’t have an idea. They’re wanting to use the technology to make a quick buck, or a million or two. They dream of a newer, bigger house or fancy toys. Stories abound about the developers who are now multimillionaires from some “simple” game they made and sold it on an app store. There’s of course Angry Birds, the most popular game in the world on every platform imaginable, and to a lesser (though still in the tens of millions) extent, games like Minecraft that are teasingly simple looking on the surface but far more daunting a challenge to make than you think. I’m happy for those folks, really, but you need to understand that most of us don’t get that. For every success story, there’s hundreds of others who’ve failed. Like most work, there are dreary and repetitive days ahead, but if you can enjoy what you’re doing without only the goal of money to keep you motivated, there’s some rewarding times for you as well.
There is money to be made in this field of work, though on average it takes several years of consistent game building and skill refining to achieve. There’s some members of online communities that we really start to cheer for when they finally have a breakout hit and make some nice money. All of them seem to share the same startup experience though… a frugal life up until that point. Some have to keep their day jobs, and others find part time work on the side to help fund their project. Just keep that in mind if you’re planning to go full-time indie developer.
Parts of a game
If you’re still reading this, good for you! You’ve shown that you really are interested in learning how to make a game. Now that the less interested have been weeded out, let’s get to the good stuff.
A single game is made through several distinct processes. I’ll be adding a link to each of these sections below as I complete the articles:
Check back regularly to forward to the new sections!
What if I need an idea?
Admittedly, we all run dry on ideas at times. Sometimes they’re buried too deep in our psyche to find, or we’re going through something in life that makes it hard to think. The world we live in can also make it difficult to hear our own thoughts with all of the chaos, busy schedules, and crazy to-do lists we each have. Here are some important actions to take in order to create and catch those moments we need to generate something new:
Relax. I know that can be hard for some people. You don’t need to be relaxed all of the time, but you do need to find time to do it. When our brains are full of other thoughts, we can’t hear our own. Some people try meditation with the full on cross legged yoga thing, while others are better with sitting on the couch and turning off the television. The trick is find some quiet place without distraction. Maybe you like sitting under shady trees. Whatever it is, find time to do it and let your mind chill out once in a while.
Journal. When those ideas start coming (and they will come), you had better have something to trap them with. The proverbial net in this case would be a notebook or journal to write it down in. I started with a pad of paper, moved on to a spiral bound notebook, and now use an iPad with Noteability installed (my favorite note taking software). Make sure that whatever you’re writing stuff down in is portable, and something that you can organize for reviewing over and over again. Keep it with you, as you never know when an idea might clobber you over the head.
Experience. I took a class at a writers conference from Tracy Hickman once. I don’t know if it was his thought or if he was quoting someone else, but he jokingly said that nobody has anything really worth writing until they’re 40. There’s some truth to that. We are an accumulation of our experiences, and our own thoughts and ideas stem from that root system. So read a bunch of books, watch a bunch of movies, get out and try some archery, paintball, or laser tag. Heck, I sometimes wonder if Notch (the guy who wrote Minecraft) just liked to dig holes in his backyard!
Observe. Humility is the art of being teachable. Sometime it’s better to keep your mouth shut and watch others succeed or fail, and to learn from it. Play a bunch of other computer games. Play the good ones, but especially play the bad ones. Then ask yourself, why is this good or bad? Pick it apart into as many small pieces as possible. What grabbed your attention? What didn’t? Whatever you learn, write it down in your journal.
To end this section, I’ll provide you with a list of some good game developer communities you may wish to join and start listening too. I highly suggest you begin by perusing some old topics and keeping quiet until you get a handle on things. Almost everyone is very welcoming of newcomers, but even the best of people can get annoyed by answering the same question over and over again. Good luck! Here’s that list:
Indiegamer Developer Forum. This is a treasure trove of information for newbies and veterans alike. My only complaint is that so many of the developers who make it big end up leaving the group and rarely coming back.
Gamedev is known for their huge collection of articles and topics on game development. The community forum is full of answers too.
TIGSource is a news outlet for indie developers and indie game releases.