So You Wanna Make A Game? Thoughts on getting started in game design, Part I

When you’ve been building games as long as I have ( 10 years professionally and 20 as a hobbyist ), it’s easy to take for granted that if you want to build a game, you can just sit down and start coding away. Every game developer started somewhere – had some flash of inspiration or desire to ‘peek behind the curtain’ and create a game of their own. But where, how, exactly, do you get started?

That’s what I’d like to try and shed some light on over the course of the next few blog articles. In part one, we’re going to look at motivations, the perils of the industry, inspiration. We won’t get technical until part two.

It’s probably time for a little background on me and how I got started. It’s a pretty familiar tale actually. I had access to my father’s old PC from about the age of 7 – it had a monochrome, 4 colour screen, two floppy drives and no hard drive. This is the tech equivalent of telling one of those “I walked uphill through the snow to school, both ways” stories – except that it isn’t, because I loved it. I had a few great adventure games like Zork and Kings Quest, which I played obsessively. So much so that I ended up looking at the source code with some primitive HEX editors that allowed me to see bits of the story I hadn’t before. Trust me, I had no idea what I was doing, just clicking on random files and seeing if anything made sense. But that was about the extent of it. Games were made by strange, distant wizards, an arcane art that I had no idea how to replicate.

adventure_book

It was a stroke of fortune when a childhood friend of mine lent me the book which would get me started on my game development journey, the Usborne “Write Your Own Adventure Programs” book. It explained the basic concepts of game design to me, things like variables, arrays, strings – stuff that I still use today. The book had a sample game in a language called BASIC – if you ever owned a Commodore 64 you might even be familiar with the language yourself. You could do hilarious things like create endless insulting loops just by typing:

10 PRINT “YOU SMELL”
20 GOTO 10

This, of course, proved immensely amusing for my 8 year old self.

After a few weeks of tinkering around with the sample game’s source code, I had built my own variation, a Tolkeinesque adventure called “Dark Dungeons”. I made quite a few games in BASIC, mainly text adventures with simple ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ style plots and from there the floodgates were opened. I’ve gone on to make hundreds of small games – I’ve never worked in the Triple A games industry ( the league where the big boys play in teams of hundreds and with budgets of millions) but I’ve had my share of successes including, of course, Swords and Sandals and Death Row , both of which have been played many millions of times.

Anyway, this blog isn’t about me – it’s about you. Where do you get started?Why do you want to be a game designer? How in blazes do you get there?

Game Design is Hard

Firstly, what are your motivations for wanting to be a game designer? If they’re purely financial, you can close this tab now and walk away. As someone wrote to me in the comments section of an earlier article, “You’re more likely to make money collecting and recycling bottles than you are releasing games on the App Store.” A sobering thought. For every Flappy Bird there are thousands of infinitely better  games that flounder in obscurity, never played by anyone. There are massive, evil juggernauts like Zynga and King.com who clone, clone and clone smaller titles, market them within an inch of their lives and then sues anyone who even blinks at them funny.

It can be a scary, volatile business. The good news, however, is – if you’re not in it to make money, but just want to make a good game, chances are you may just beat the odds and become successful. You’re essentially buying a ticket in a lottery, the odds are slim but you’re at least in the game.

wonka


Game design can be a long and tedious process. It’s hard, not in the way coal mining is hard or being a soldier is hard, but it’s mentally fatiguing and filled with repetition and menial tasks. There’s probably about 20% “Wow, I really love this, it’s working out great” joy to 80% “This is broken, this is terrible, this will never work!” fretting. There’s a constant fear that your work is inferior to others, that it doesn’t live up to your vision. All creatives go through this, the game industry is no different. Even hugely successful game designers like Peter Molyneux of Fable and Phil Fish of Fez fame are constantly disenchanted with their work. 

So, it can be daunting. But, with that negativity out of the way, if you’re still here, good for you. You’re going to be a great game designer – because you’re persistant.

Game design is awesome. 

Game design is actually a very rewarding hobby. It’s fun in an intangible way. The first time you make a character jump, or the first time your game actually surprises you by doing something unpredictable – that’s a lightning bolt moment.

lightning

 

Great games are, in essence, no different from good books or good movies. They’re about telling stories. Also, they begin, just like books, on paper. The first spark of a game comes from an idea in your head – perhaps you’re walking through the woods and start jumping from rock to rock on a lake ( …hey, what if the rocks moved, this would make a good game… ) , or you’re sorting through old photos ( … what if I matched all the winter themed photos together … ) . A game is born.

First thing you should do, grab a notepad and write down your ideas. If you’re like me, 1 in ten at best will even make it to prototype ( a working demo of your game ) , but you never know when you might revisit them. Sketch out in bullet point form what your game is about? Who’s the hero? Where is it set? What’s unique about it? How will it work?

Let’s use an example. I’m currently at work on a new game, tentatively titled “Flick Mountain”. Here’s how I’d brainstorm the game. The first line is the most important – what is your game in a nutshell?

  1. You must climb an endless mountain.
  2. With the flick of your finger, you will make an adventurer jump up. Up and up and up
  3. The mountain is made up of thousands of tiles, randomly generated – it can be infinitely tall.
  4. Enemies on the mountain include mountain goats, bears in caves and eagles guarding nests
  5. There are powerups on the mountain to help you climb – pick axes, spiked shoes, ropes.
  6. Challenge your friends – climb higher than anyone you know for bragging rights

So that’s it. In six bullet points – I know basically the where, why and how of my game. There’s almost no technical detail in there yet – that will come soon.

Now you have your game idea, try and describe it to your friends. Watch their reaction – do they sound interested? Do their eyes glaze over? Do they say “Oh, you mean like Game X” . Don’t be discouraged if it’s the third one. Most games stand on the shoulders of giants. Most games are like other games – the trick is to build on ideas. Don’t just make another “Match Three” game or desparingly awful Flappy Birds clone – have a point of difference – a real point of difference. Make a “Mario” style game where you’re the villain. Make a racing game where the drivers get stressed and fatigued. And so on.

Don’t be too precious with your idea. Despite what they say, it’s highly unlikely someone’s about to pounce on your idea and make millions. Bounce things around, get feedback – it will make your work better in the long run. Once you’ve canvassed your friends and thrown your ideas around on Twitter, Facebook, whatever forum you choose, you want to work out what you like best about the game – what in particular speaks to you. It’s very important to know why you’re building something – isolate the core mechanic of the game, the essence of what the game is about. Only you can really determine that, and sometimes that may not become apparent until you’ve actually started coding.

Next, start fleshing out your game idea. Is it a multiplayer game? Is it going to be 2D or 3D? What sort of art style would you choose, comic, realistic or pixel art perhaps? How many levels and environments do you want?

Once you have a greater vision about your game, next comes the hard part – cutting things out. You’ve got to be realistic with yourself, especially if this is your first game. This is old , but very very important advice:

Aim small. Smaller. Smallest.

Whatever your game idea was, halve it and halve it again. Thinking about 30 levels? Make it ten. 60 minutes of symphonic orchestra? Go for one catchy medley. 500 pages of dialogue? Cut it down to a few pages. Hard as this is, there’s a very important reason for this. You’re going to get overwhelmed and burnt out, especially if this is your first game. Trying to build the next World of Warcraft will end your career quicker than it began. Keep things small, throw out the extra details and stay true to the core of your game – if your work is released and it’s successful, you can always expand later. Better to release a game that had some of your ideas in it than to never release a game that had all of them.

footOfTheMountain

 

Sit on your idea for a few days before you start work on it. Play it out in your head. If you still like it in a week, it’s time to build – you’re at the foot of the mountain now!

Anyway, that’s it for part one. In part two, we’re going to talk about choosing the right tools to match your skills. Would you believe you can actually build a game without needing to know how to program? It’s not only possible, it’s a great way to learn concepts before diving in.

As always, thanks again for your feedback and comments. I really appreciate them – let me know what you want to hear about it and I’ll try and tailor the blog as such.

Cheers, may all your games be great.

Oliver Joyce

 

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