This week we are doing our research and working out the best ways to be efficient with our time during this process.
Do you love games? Of course. You live and breathe games, you play them, you read about them and you even have an idea for your own game. However the actual process of game development seems like a terrifying and unachievable endeavor. Well this series is for you. Over the next 3 months I will be researching whether someone with no experience in game development can learn the ropes. This isn’t a guide to get rich quick, or an overly complex lesson from a member of the industry. This is a series written by someone like you, someone who wants to make games but just doesn’t know how.
Each week we’ll break down a specific aspect of game development, so I highly recommend you check out the series previous entries, so you don’t get lost or confused along the way.
Game Development Terms to Learn This Week
- Corrupt Save: Save files record your progress in a game, so you don’t have to start from scratch every time you start playing. If a save file is corrupt, it means it is broken and all your progress has been lost.
- GDC: An annual conference where game developers meet up to share industry knowledge.
- Match Three Games: Games like Bejeweled, where you progress by lining up several objects that match.
- Net Profit: The actual profit you make after working expenses have been subtracted.
- Simulator: A game that tries to simulate a real world process e.g. hunting, farming or managing a rail yard.
- AAA Game: A top tier video game, created with high budgets, substantial marketing costs, large teams and with the backing of a publisher. A ‘AAA game’ compared to an ‘Indie game’ is the same as a Hollywood blockbuster compared to an independent Sundance film.
Save Time, by Taking Your Time
“Fast is fine, but accuracy is everything. In a gun fight… you need to take your time in a hurry,” (Wyatt Earp). This quote is symbolic to how you should view making your first game. I don’t say that as someone who knows exactly what I’m doing, I say that (and everything else talked about in this piece) because it’s what talented members of the industry believe. You need to work quickly and frequently, but you also need to take your time and think things through. These may seem like two contradictory notions, but let me explain. Like myself, many of you will have other priorities and commitments. Maybe you work full time, have other projects on the go, or are studying at university. You’ll also need time for family, friends or your significant other. You might have chores to do or need to take some time to relax after a long day.
Like me, you don’t have all day to focus solely on this project, so it’s crucial that you use your time wisely. Your first instinct may be to jump into development, but first allow yourself time to prepare. I’ve spent the last week looking for advice from other creators in the industry.
Finding a Mentor
I believe that in 2018 we’re currently incredibly privileged in regards to education. In university I studied Communication and Advertising, not game design. I live in New Zealand, where many people play games, but there is a relatively small game development culture. Auckland based developer Grinding Gear Games released Path of Exile in 2013, and they are one of the only New Zealand based game developers of notoriety. There are some small websites like NZGamer, but no real games journalism presence. 15 years ago there would have been virtually no chance of me finding a mentor in the games industry without moving overseas.
However thanks to Skype, podcasts and YouTube, you can find suitable mentors and advisers, without them even knowing who you are.
Where Bethesda Puts its Focus
I started by looking for advice from some of the industry’s best. On the latest episode of the podcast, The AIAS Game Maker’s Notebook, Ted Price the CEO of Insomniac (Ratchet and Clank/ Spiderman) interviews Todd Howard, Director of Bethesda Game Studios (Skyrim/ Fallout). Howard and Price discuss a variety of topics focused on how Bethesda makes games. They discuss subjects like; the process of crafting the lore in Skyrim and moving the less impressive elements of your game out of the spotlight. The most interesting point made in the podcast, is one involving focus. The Bethesda team often stresses over minor details, like foot movement animations. It is at these times that Howard helps remind them what their consumers are worried about and where their focus should actually be. Gamers aren’t worried about animation issues, they’re worried about whether their save files will corrupt 40 hours in. When you’re in the thick of development, you often forget what players really want the most. That’s something to be aware of going forward.
If you want to get into the industry, focusing on a specific skill e.g. programming or art, may help you find a job at a big developer. Howard however brings up the valid point that many Creative Directors and Game Directors in the industry grew up learning all elements of development. Constantly looking to learn new skills, enjoying what you’re creating and sharing those creations with others will go a long way. Howard urges aspiring developers to come up with an idea, start small and let the project naturally flow and find its own way.
Surviving as an Independent Developer
This idea of starting small echoes throughout the industry, especially amongst smaller developers. RealTutsGML (who helped us decide on an engine last week) stresses that this is what new developers are doing wrong. They spend their time playing games like Call of Duty and The Witcher. They then have a grand idea for how to make a better FPS than the ones they play. They start working on the project on their own, but eventually lose focus and commitment. Their natural instinct is to then start work on an even bigger and more ambitious project, this time an MMO or RPG. The cycle continues on and on; they start work on a project far too dense for their own skill set, lose focus and never finish anything.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Laura Körting, one of the developers behind Schacht, on the latest episode of my podcast, Fist Fight. To the untrained eye, Schacht may seem like a relatively small and achievable project to develop. Yet between 20 to 40 university students worked on the game, and then the three co-founders of Lab 132 continued work on the project well after graduation. It isn’t unachievable to create your first game straight out of university, but even projects that are small take time and large teams.
At GDC Jake Birkett discusses how he has survived as a solo indie developer for 11 years, without a single hit. The key to his success was starting slow and starting small. His main focus over the years has been match three games. He started off programming and using stock images for art. He then progressed from project to project, learning each time and improving on his craft. When he could afford it he hired artists or split the profits with them. After creating several games within the same genre he started incorporating themes or known I.P. into his projects. Sometimes he had to do contract work for other companies to help cover costs, but he stresses that he made more as an indie developer than he did contracting for an established studio. By the end of 2016 Birkett had shipped over 10 games, each one of them profitable.
However that doesn’t mean the process was easy. While making his first game, Birkett was working full time making business software and staying up until 4am just to work on his passion project. After all this commitment he realized the game was too big and there was no market for it, so he discarded all the work. His first published game took 250 hours to make, cost $170 and made a net profit of $1800… over 10 years.
These examples aren’t meant to scare or you or erase your enthusiasm. They’re meant to make you think realistically. Yes you can make a game on your own with very few resources, but it will take massive amounts of time, flexibility and your first game won’t be the grand RPG you envisioned. Both you and I need to be aware of that going forward.
Remove a lot From Your Game Before You Even Start
If you want to make a game in a short period of time, like we’re trying to do with this series, you’ll need to remove a lot of the features you’d like to include. Mathew Viglione, the founder of SomaSim Games; left his job, developed and published a game in just 14 months. You may want more time than that to fine tune and experiment with your game, but unless you’re planning to do this while working another full time job, you need to be efficient and fast before your savings run dry. SomaSim’s first game was a city building simulator called, 1849. To finish on time, they cut major features like their envisioned multiplayer system.
I also had the pleasure of interviewing Isaac Ashdown of Inbetweengames. Despite his team having experience working on AAA titles like Dead Island 2, they didn’t have time to polish everything on their game All Walls Must Fall, like they originally hoped. However view these limitations as a way to be creative. The Inbetweengames team didn’t have time to fully animate their main character, and so instead found a way to incorporate this into the overall aesthetic of the game.
Cutting features doesn’t always have to be a negative. Sometimes working with less means you find more creative and unique ways of working with what you do have.
Understanding Your Engine
I believe it’s also imperative to understand the tools you’re working with before starting to use them. You learn how to drive a car before getting your full license. You don’t just start driving and hope for the best, so game development shouldn’t be any different.
The YouTube channel Gamefromscratch provides a series on game engines called, Closer Look. In one episode he provides a review style approach to analyzing the systems and interface of Game Maker Studio 2. Within it he clearly and concisely breaks down nearly all the main features of the software, and how to get a simple game up and running. You may have a do it yourself attitude and prefer to just dive in with the software blindly, but I urge you not to. This thirty minute video made Game Maker feel familiar and accessible without me even having to use it. I highly recommend watching the video yourself or just doing a little research on your engine of choice.
So How is Any of This Going to Affect Our Game?
This is what I mean by taking your time, to save time. By doing a little bit of research, watching YouTube videos, listening to podcasts or talking to knowledgeable people over Skype, you can learn a wealth of knowledge. Maybe some of this information has put you off learning more. That’s fine. If preparing yourself for the large amount of work ahead isn’t something you’re willing to do, you probably aren’t going to be able to see development of your game through to the end.
By taking this week to do some research, we can hopefully avoid some massive time wasting mistakes. The game I develop throughout this series needs to be small and short, maybe only an hour long. It needs to have as many features cut from it from the outset, and we need to start thinking about how to creatively utilize what is left. So the boss fights and varied enemy designs I initially planned, they’re going to have to go. If you checked out Gamefromscratch’s Game Maker overlook, you probably have a better idea of how to jump into the engine and start putting things together quickly. According to Bethesda’s Todd Howard we’re already on the right track. We’re going into this with the plan of handling every aspect of development on our own, so fingers crossed we get to make the next Skyrim in a few years.
Well done, you’ve done your research, you’re prepared and ready to get going. Next week we are going to make our first game with Game Maker.