This report outlines the research, developed work and learning that came from investigating whether someone with no experience in game development, could make their own game. This also serves as the fifth and final part of an ongoing series which you can find on the Quiet Stories Blog. Along this journey I had no mentors or assistance, I merely learned from the teachings of academic and industry professionals, who have shared their knowledge online. I didn’t meet the high expectations I set myself, but learned an enormous amount.
Most people think they can make a video game. They’ve played countless matches of Call of Duty (Infinity Ward, 2003–2018) or completed every Zelda (Nintendo, 1986-2017) title in existence, which pretty much equates to 20 years of professional experience. By combining these accomplishments, their passion for playing games and an idea they have where aliens fight cyborgs (which they claim is totally original), they are just a ticking time bomb of potential. If you can’t tell, I’m being sarcastic… because playing games and making games is drastically different. As someone who has worked in the games industry as a freelance journalist for several years, I’ve learned that a passion for writing and content creation is far more important than a passion for games.
Well I also have a passion for telling stories, and video games are on the forefront of unique narrative design. So I decided to investigate how difficult it would be for someone with a story to share, to ACTUALLY break into this industry. I set out with the goal of creating the next Mario, but there is a reason Nintendo is who they are, and why game development isn’t for the faint of heart.
I gave myself 12 weeks to see what I could accomplish, but instead of jumping in and beginning to code blind, I looked into what was possible for someone like me. I looked into the quality of work that comes out of a 48 hour Game Jam, the scope of projects taken on by a single individual and the core principles and frame works that lead to well-designed games.
Educators often recommend that young/ aspiring game developers take part in events known as Game Jams. Chris Hecker and Sean Barrett kicked off the first known Game Jam in March 2002, when they asked established developers to create content with a specialized engine (Chen, 2017). From there Game Jams began sprouting up all over the world in more formal shapes, challenging developers of all nationalities and skill levels to prototype games in a short period of time, guided by a central theme. The events foster collaboration, creativity and community, while imitating many of the core realities of professional game development. I had a bit longer than 48 hours (the average modern Game Jam length) to create my game. However by viewing the more successful applicants in the Game Maker’s Tool Kit Game Jam (Brown, 2017) I saw one clear connection. They all took simple mechanics and utilized them in a multitude of ways, saving critical amounts of development time.
This could be considered a form of permaculture, the idea of taking the patterns and relationships found in nature and relating them to others aspects of life and creation (What Is Permaculture, n.d.). Specifically it reminds me of the idea of renewable resources; resources that once created, can be used countless times and serve a variety of needs.
I also chose to investigate the teachings of lone developers like Jonathan Blow (Braid, 2008), Eric Barone (Stardew Valley, 2016) and Toby Fox (Undertale, 2015). I wanted to explore what was possible for someone working solitarily. Blow has spoken candidly in interviews about how independent developers need to distinguish themselves from their corporate competitors. They don’t have the big budgets of the Battlefields (EA DICE, 2002-2018) or the Assassin’s Creeds (Ubisoft, 2007-2017), so they need to work unconventionally and focus on the idea of, less but better (Parkin, 2008).
Going into the creation of my first game I knew that I needed to utilize renewable and reusable game development resources to cut down on production time and that I needed to create something simple yet effective if I was going to work on my own, but before I could get started I needed to understand what makes a game enjoyable at its core. I wasn’t striving to just make a game, I wanted to make a fun game.
The MDA framework is a good place to start. Breaking down this framework into its three core pillars, we first strive to create an intriguing aesthetic. A games aesthetic could embrace narrative (games as a drama), discovery (games as uncharted territory), or expression (games as self-discovery). A game’s aesthetic is achieved through dynamics. To embrace narrative you may focus on culturally relevant themes or place a heavy emphasis on player choice. To embrace discovery you may teach the player the rules of the game through trial and error or exclude commonly expected elements of a genre for moments of reflection. Mechanics are the technical aspects that allow all of the above to be accomplished. This may include a lack of shooting abilities in a run n’ gun, adorable but provocative sprites, and a branching dialogue system (Hunicke, LeBlanc and Zubek, 2004).
In the last decade mediums used for storytelling have become far more accessible to the average person. Thanks to software like Premiere Pro, Illustrator and Photoshop, anyone can produce professional quality photographs, books and films. Video game development is one of the newest mediums for storytelling, entertainment and expression. However is this platform as open to the public as film and photography? Can someone with a passion for games but no experience in programming or art design make a game themselves?
Well it’s traditionally been difficult to join the games industry. In the AAA development space, there are far more developers who have the skills required than there are openings at well-known studios like Rockstar, Valve and Nintendo. You needed an expansive portfolio of programming, art and audio work before you’d even secured your first job (Mullich, 2017). Fear not, for many industries the last decade has lowered the barrier to entry considerably. With AAA game development becoming ever more expensive, despite entry level game development being cheaper than ever, companies are doubling down on annual iterations of their most popular brands, leaving innovation to independent creators. The rise of the digital market place and easily accessible tools means you might not get a job at Naughty Dog, but you have the opportunity to make something all your own (Barish, 2014).
After considering to learn how to code using the game engine Unity, I stumbled across YoYo Games’ Game Maker Studio 2. Not only was the software utilized by developers behind games like Undertale (Toby Fox, 2015) and Hyper Light Drifter (Heart Machine, 2016), but it also toted the ability to make your entire game without writing a single line of code. They offered DND (Drag N’ Drop), a visual tile system for aspiring developers intimidated by having to learn an entirely new language like GML or C#.
I wanted to craft something small in scale but with a unique flare that took advantage of my personal strengths. My biggest strength was my experience as a writer. “In a study of people’s experiences with video games, players indicated that they not only enjoyed playing games, but that they also frequently appreciated them at a deeper, more meaningful level. These findings should be encouraging to video game developers who want to invest in producing games that examine more meaningful, poignant or contemplative topics,” (Swayne, 2015, P. 2).
So I began brainstorming ideas for my first game, Video Games Made Me Violent. Its aesthetic would attempt to elicit a sense of narrative, discovery and expression, core aspects of the MDA aesthetic pillar. I first began crafting themes, wanting to tell a story that was provocative, controversial and topical. The idea that real world violence is a causation of video games has been talked to death by politicians and games media, but games themselves have largely been quiet in the conversation. So I decided that I would create a thought provoking narrative about a man driven towards violence through video games, but also a narrative (that the player would come to understand over time) that tackles larger societal issues like gun violence and regulation in America.
From a gameplay perspective I was inspired by games like Super Meat Boy (Team Meat, 2010), Superhot (Superhot Team, 2016) and Super Mario Bros. (Nintendo Creative Department, 1985). The game would be a 2D, sidecrolling. run n’ gun/ platformer. However there are plenty of games in this genre, and I needed to distinguish myself while simultaneously having gameplay that supported my central themes. Therefore while facing enemies like the ‘PC Master Race’ and ‘KKKrazy Ghosts’ the protagonist ‘Bob’ would carry an assault rifle, that the player could never shoot. Initially the player would understandably be confused, wondering if the game had suffered from a glitch. They’d have to rely on movement mechanics and ‘time slow down’ abilities to avoid enemies and projectiles. Eventually they’d discover the actual narrative reasoning behind the lack of a shooting mechanic and (hopefully) see the unconventional uniqueness of this run n’ gun platformer.
Inspired by artists like Twisted Grim TV and the team behind The Unfinished Swan (Giant Sparrow, 2012), the game would be cartoony and minimal, to help dampen the blow of its serious themes, and tote a black and white film filter to complement the outdated views on guns that many in-game NPC’s possess. The simple style would mean I could reuse sprites and dedicate more time to polish.
It seemed to check all the boxes. Simple but effective mechanics, a controversial and un-tackled theme, permaculture inspired reusable assets to cut back on development time, and an overall package that seemed unique but doable.
Methodology and Produced Artifacts
The finished project wasn’t quite what I envisioned and didn’t exactly live up to all the before mentioned promises. I initially planned to produce a 12 part, weekly series, updating readers on my progress in this investigation. Due to outside circumstances and the complicated nature of what I was trying to achieve, this became a 5 part series… that released whenever it was ready (Bowring, 2018).
After two weeks of research and preparation I began working my way through Game Maker Studio with the aid of a tutorial series. It was far easier to learn than I expected. YoYo Games provided sprites for me to work with and the DND system was intuitive and easy to pick up. Learning to make your own game was far more accessible than I could have ever imagined. I eventually completed the tutorial and had a simple but playable top down shooter. Although I learned that straying from the path even slightly could lead to failure. My game would break completely if I forgot to type a single bracket or number in the right places. The software also made it very hard to track down where the issues were coming from. This was easily avoidable when following a tutorial, but became far more troublesome when I tried to experiment with my own game.
Crunch is a massive part of the games industry. If it didn’t exist most games would never release. Yet it often leaves individuals recounting their days like this, “Eventually I’d give up for the day and go home, where I’d go straight to bed and hope that I’d get at least some sleep before the cycle started again — but unfortunately, caffeine, sugar and stress would make any rest difficult and fitful. Days were a minimum of 12 hours long. We worked six to seven days a week. Days off, if they came, would be spent using what little energy remained to deal with the details of living — shopping, cleaning and the rest of the mundane details of keeping yourself alive. . . I’m amazed I survived,” (Barnes, 2016, pg. 2).
If I was going to take on the thrill and reward of creation, I also wanted to experience and share the more grueling side of the industry. So although I had a detailed concept, I wouldn’t start development until the day before I showcased my game to the public.
I woke up at 6am, started working at 7am, and didn’t take a break or stop working (even to eat) until 4am the following morning. I was initially relaxed. I decided to tackle the most time consuming part of development first, the creation of background and character sprites. I took my time, creating assets that could be reused without the player noticing. However by the time I had finished all the assets for my vertical slice, I had wasted nearly the entire day. I suddenly felt my deadline looming ominously. I’d assumed the programming would be easy. From the tutorials I had previously followed I felt that with some slight tweaking I could create the mechanics I envisioned. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Nothing seemed to work. I spent the entire night going in circles. I sought help on Reddit, YouTube and the official Game Maker Studio forums. I constantly faced the same responses over and over. Anyone using DND was chastised for not working directly with code and urged to ‘stop taking the easy option.’
Now well into the early hours of the morning I genuinely believed I would have nothing to show for my hard work. I couldn’t figure out or find any aid in solving my programming dilemmas, the art I thought I had perfected was scarred by slight issues I had overlooked earlier on and my end goal seemed impossible. I thought back to an interview I recently listened to between actor Joseph Gordon Levit and Tim Ferriss. Levit discussed how many of the most memorable aspects of Jaws were Spielberg’s in the moment responses to things not going as planned (Ferriss, 2018).
I used what I had and created a simple demo that broke the fourth wall and criticized itself for being unfinished. I used the assets I had to create a polished yet purposefully unfinished look. It was 4am. I was exhausted, disappointed and discouraged. If this was my life for months, if not years, I don’t know if I could cope. Working endlessly to meet a deadline, just to have it launch, a shell of what I envisioned or was capable of, and be torn apart by players and the press.
So with all this now behind me, I say to you this. If you love playing games, talking about games or waiting for the next big reveal… don’t try and make a game. Don’t get into game development.
However if you love to create; have a story to tell, art to be admired or a mind that naturally understands code, and genuinely think you can achieve your goals in this medium, persevere.
Like many things, it is far easier to get into game development than ever. Indies have found their place in the market and are flourishing. You don’t need millions of dollars or an in-depth knowledge of coding. The accessibility of Game Maker Studio 2 has shown me, that despite my background in Advertising, it isn’t too late for me to share a new perspective and find success in this industry. More than ever, having an obscure background or lack of traditional experience may help your game stand out from the crowd. But you’ll have to work hard. It will take time to learn, problem solve and polish. After my limited/ self-imposed experience with crunch, I couldn’t ever see myself or recommend joining the rat race of traditional game development. I could however see myself tinkering away on a smaller game of my own design when I have time. So yes, if you have the time and the patience, anyone can make a video game with zero experience. The real question is, after hearing all of this, do you want to?
This is what all my hard work came out looking like…
00:00 for the demo I made following tutorials.
01:14 for the game I attempted making all on my own (in 24 hours).
- Barish, S. (2014). The Independent Game Development Boom: Interview with Stephanie Barish, CEO of IndieCade. Retrieved June 2, 2018, from https://www.nyfa.edu/student-resources/indie-game-development-interview-with-stephanie-barish/
- Barnes, J. R. (2016). The Invisible Workforce: Labor Abuses and Organizing in the Video Game Industry. Retrieved June 2, 2018, from https://www.ilr.cornell.edu/sites/ilr.cornell.edu/files/TheInvisibleWorkforce.pdf
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