This is an experiment to see if someone with no idea how to make a video game… can make one on their own.
This week we break down the goals of this series, explore what is achievable, settle on an idea, and choose an engine to work with.
I’ve been playing video games since I was five years old, and writing about them since I was 19. I’ve gone from playing Spongebob Squarepants: Revenge of the Flying Dutchman, to writing complex breakdowns of the games industry at large and how it relates to social, political and personal issues. However I have such a small understanding of how something so pivotal to who I am is created. I don’t understand the difference between creating art for video games, and illustrating a book. I wouldn’t know where to start when it comes to good level design. I have a lot of experience as a writer, and can understand the process for writing a game, but not how to make it meaningful. I literally have no idea how to code. Apparently there are various languages within coding. What does that even mean???
Therefore I am conducting this experiment. An experiment to see whether someone with no experience, education, or understanding of game development can learn the ropes. I’m going to take you through a step by step breakdown of everything I learn when creating my first video game, and I’m going to do it on a weekly basis over the next 3 months.
Yes, I may ask for advice from experienced game developers along the way when I get stuck, but the point of this is to make everything on my own. Wish me luck, because from what I’ve been told, this is not going to be easy.
Game Development Terms to Learn This Week
- Game Developer: An artist, programmer, writer or individual who contributes to making a game.
- Engine: A software used to make video games (kind of like Photoshop for making photos or Premiere Pro for making videos).
- Game Maker Studio 2/ Unity: Two different software you can use to make your video game.
- Programming Languages (e.g. GML, C#, UnityScript and BOO): You make a game by writing in a programming language, in the same way you write a book with a written language. Programming languages can be different, in the same way writing in the English language is different to writing in Japanese.
- Indie: A game made by one individual or small company without the backing of a big publisher like Ubisoft or Sony.
- Game Jam: A 48 hour competition where game developers try and prototype a project.
- Spiritual Successor: A game or idea that takes the core concepts of one game, and then recreates them with a new brand or I.P.
- I.P: An intellectual property is another way of referencing a game or brand, e.g. Assassin’s Creed is an I.P. owned by Ubisoft.
- Publisher: A publisher is a company that helps fund, market and release games (made by developers or studios) on various systems.
- Mechanic: Something you can do in a game, e.g. walk, interact with objects or teleport.
- 2D platformer: A game where you move within a two dimensional world, which has a focus on jumping from one platform to another to complete a level.
- HTML 5: Is a language used for producing content for the web. I’m assuming it is similar to the other programming languages I’ve mentioned, but at this point can’t say for sure.
About Me and my Experience
OK, so first things first; let’s break down who I am and what transferable skills I might have to aid me. My names Chris Bowring and I’m 21 years old. My name and age aren’t really skills, but it’s a good place to start.
Skills, Experience and Education:
- I’ve been a writer for several years, that’s really my strong suit. During my teenage years I wrote countless short stories, young adult horror novels, kids’ books and poems. I self-published, co wrote and illustrated my first children’s book when I was 17.
- I’ve worked in the games journalism/entertainment industry as a freelance writer for a few years. I’ve produced countless feature pieces, wikis, reviews, news pieces, opinion pieces, video features, graphic designs and podcasts over the years. If you consider this experience alongside the fact that I play and beat roughly 100 games a year, I know the industry pretty well.
- I launched a website in December of 2017 called Quiet Stories. Under this brand I’ve been compiling some of the best journalistic content I’ve created for other websites (check out a piece I did about the future of Star Wars games), and launched the podcast Fist Fight. Fist Fight is one half video game debate show, and one half indie developer interview. Each week I talk with an indie developer from around the world about their newest game and the development process. In the first episode I interview the team behind the indie game Beholder, which you can check out at, https://quietstoriesblog.com/. This in itself could be instrumental to me acquiring the knowledge I need to succeed in this experiment.
What is Actually Achievable?
When deciding what to make as your first game, the options are limitless. However with a little research you’ll soon find you NEED to limit your options rather substantially. I’m not going to make a competitor to Red Dead Redemption in 12 weeks. A total of 10 studios worked on Assassin’s Creed: Unity (2014). Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag (2013) only had 7-8 studios working on it, and it employed a team of nearly 1000 people. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag producer Martin Schelling and Mission Director Ashraf Ismail both stated that they began the project in the summer of 2011, so that means the game was in development for around two and a half years. I don’t have that kind of team size or development time, so let’s start with something smaller.
Games Created by one Individual
Let’s take a look at what is achievable as a solo developer. What scope is realistic when the entire games development rests on your shoulders?
- Axiom Verge seems to be a fan made spiritual successor to the 2D Metroid games. It was created by Thomas Happ, who was an engineer on games like NFL Street and Tiger Woods PGA Tour. He made the game in his spare time, over 5 years. It’s found a reasonable amount of success, so recreating my own version of a much beloved series could be the way to go.
- Eric Barone worked on Stardew Valley for nearly 5 years as well. He was looking to add to his game design portfolio after graduation and ended up creating an indie hit. Stardew Valley is fairly extensive in scope and game length, but works with admittedly simplistic visuals.
- Lucas Pope, an American living in Japan, used his own personal experiences to create Papers, Please. Papers, Please was lauded for its uniqueness and so perhaps I should consider making a game with a topic I’m familiar with or feel passionately about.
Games Created in a Short Period of Time
Time is also a crucial factor. I have a short window to produce a final product, so I can’t afford to get hung up on the little details. Game Jams have become rather common. Developers of all backgrounds and experience levels team up, and put out the best game they can within a 48 hour window. I have a bit longer than 48 hours, but I’ll also be learning as I go, so these could be some good references for what I could actually create. These were some of the best projects from the Game Makers Tool Kit Game Jam, which had over 700 applicants.
- Power core is a tower defense game with simplistic but stunning visuals. You play as a cube with a multitude of functions, from stunning enemies to capturing power nodes. Each mechanic in the game serves a variety of purposes, so creating a single mechanic with a multitude of functions seems to be a good way of speeding up the development process.
- Lock step also uses a cube as the main character. Its visuals are simple but it plays with a unique co-op function. As the two players come closer together the camera pans inwards, making proximity to other players an actual mechanic to be aware of.
- Resize is a puzzle platformer where you’ll actually need to use your mouse to resize and reshape the window the game is being played in, allowing you to traverse the environment and manoeuvre past obstacles.
What are my Inspirations?
So from the examples above we can learn a few things about what to consider when making a game on your own, in a short period of time.
- It seems 2D animation over 3D is the way to go. You can create simplistic designs, without having the overall game lose its visual quality.
- The key to making a game in a short period of time is taking simple mechanics and either, utilizing them in a multitude of ways, or twisting them into something creative we haven’t seen before.
- Having a game that is somewhat inspired by a famous retro or smaller game helps; focus the project, provide a guide for the overall design, and draw in players of the franchise that inspired your game.
- Basing your game around a core theme that you are familiar with or passionate about may help you stand out.
After completing this research I considered some games that meet this criteria and that I’d like to create something similar to. My personal inspirations for this project include; Super Mario Bros., Super Meat Boy, Super Time Force and Super Hot. I’m going with all the supers, except Super Man 64.
I’ve been fairly triggered/engaged in the ongoing conversations around video games in the United States. President Trump has gathered various individuals from the video game industry to discuss the impact of games on American youth. These conversations are topical and something I’m very passionate about.
Therefore for this project I will designing a 2D platformer focused on video game violence.
What Software/ Engine should I use to Make My Game?
This is a big one. When you put together a video, you use Premiere Pro and After Effects. When you edit a photo or create an illustration, you use Photoshop and Illustrator. So what is the best software to use when making a game, specifically your first game? From extensive research it ended up coming down to two finalists, Unity and Game Maker Studio 2. RealTutsGML provides a video with a pretty reasonable breakdown of the two options.
Unity is a cross platform game engine that allows you to produce games for desktops, consoles and mobile devices.
Pros for Unity:
- Unity has been used to design some of the best indie games of the last few years. In 2016 alone, Unity was used to produce; Firewatch, Furi, Inside, Oxenfree and Super Hot. Three of those games were on my game of the year list in 2016, Super Hot is one of the inspirations for the game I’m making during this project, and Inside was a game of the year contender at major sites like IGN.
- Can be used to make 2D and 3D games, but is better at creating 3D games.
- You can merge 2D and 3D elements with ease. For example you could make a 2D platformer with 3D objects in the background.
- It is easier to optimise your games for multiple platforms, compared to Game Maker.
- All versions of Unity are royalty free, provide access to development for any platform and include all core engine features.
- The base version of Unity is free.
- Unity Plus is $35 a month, and includes game developer courses, 20% off the asset store, analytics and some other stuff that I don’t really understand.
- Unity Pro is $125 a month, and includes all the features of Plus, Pro level services and premium support and source code access (also not sure what that means).
Game Maker Studio 2 claims to be the most intuitive software for developing 2D games. You can produce games for desktop, mobile, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.
“Making games development accessible to everyone means taking away the barriers to getting started. Using our intuitive ‘Drag and Drop’ development environment you can have your game up and running in a matter of minutes without ever having to write any code! GameMaker’s built-in language (GML) helps you learn to program as you go and not jump in at the deep end of coding.”
Game Maker Studio
That all sounds pretty good to me.
Pros for using Game Maker Studio 2:
- Game Maker Studio was used to create games like; Downwell, Hyper Light Drifter, Undertale and DEADBOLT.
- Can be used to make 2D and 3D games, but is better at creating 2D games.
- Game Maker Studio 2 offers a drag and drop (DND) option, which allows you to create entire games with no programming knowledge or coding. It’s also a good way to learn Game Maker’s coding language GML. (Unity doesn’t really have this option)
- It is quicker and easier to prototype game ideas than in Unity.
- Game Maker has extensive development tutorials on their website, and an active YouTube, and forum community, who seem to be extremely willing to provide help and advice.
- Game Maker announced, in just the last 48 hours, that games can now be developed for Nintendo Switch using their software.
- Game Maker Studio 2 offers a free trial, which includes the majority of the software’s features, but doesn’t allow you to publish final products.
- The Game Maker Studio’s Creator package gives you all the software’s tools, allows you to publish on either Windows or Mac computers and is $39 a year.
- The Game Maker Studio’s Developer package gives you all the software’s tools, allows you to publish on either Desktop (Windows and Mac), the Web (HTML 5) or Mobile (Apple and Android), for a one time price that ranges from $99 to $399.
- The Game Maker Studio’s Console package gives you all the software’s tools, allows you to publish on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, and costs between $799 and $1500 a year.
From this breakdown I believe Game Maker Studio 2 is the best option for this project. Both Unity and Game Maker are capable of creating great 2D games. Both software provide extensive tutorials and support. Both software are capable of publishing on multiple platforms and offer a free trial. Yes, Unity offers the choice of three different coding languages compared to Game Maker which forces you to use GML, but Game Maker’s drag and drop feature will be invaluable to someone like myself, who has no programming experience and is trying to put together a prototype quickly.
Conclusions for This Week
So we’ve highlighted what we aim to accomplish with this project, broken down my skill set, researched what kind of project is achievable, narrowed down the project to a 2D platformer with a core theme, and decided which software we’re going to make this game with.
It’s now time to download the free version of Game Maker Studio 2 and see what we can achieve in our first week of development on Video Games Made Me Violent.
By Chris Bowring