The first step to creating anything is actually starting, and that can be easier said than done. For those of us who’ve dreamed of making our own game, but haven’t tried before, the process can seem daunting and the required knowledge too great. But in reality, these are just excuses. If you want to make a video game, or at the very least try to make a video game, there’s never been a better time than right now.
This guide is about more than the tools you’ll need to make a video game, it’s about the steps you’ll have to take to create something playable. That doesn’t necessarily mean a game to be published on Steam or sold on the App Store, just a complete project that you actually finished. So here we go – six easy steps you can take to make your own video game.
Step 1: Don’t spend money just yet
This is important. There’s so many free resources and tools out there that you may be thinking you’re going to have to pay for a bunch of software to get started, but you don’t. Previously, we did a list of the best free game engines on the market right now, including Unity, Unreal Engine, and GameMaker Studios. But we’re going simpler than that this time.
Stencyl is an easy to use, drag-and-drop game design program that you can try for free. It’s not made for big 3D games, so trash any ideas you have about making the next Half-Life, but you can make great little 2D games with it.
Game developer Zoe Quinn said Stencyl “uses a Lego-like approach to coding”, adding that “if you’re starting to get the hang of coding, you can switch to a mode that will let you view and edit the code in these “blocks,” allowing you to tweak or even create code from scratch that will work with everything else in the program.”
Another great engine for first-timers is Construct 2, which like Stencyl features a drag-and-drop interface. In short, there’s a ton of options out there, but to make it easy on yourself try using Construct 2 or Stencyl first. If they’re really not doing it for you though, a more specialized game development program like RPG Maker or GameMaker Studios could be right for you.
Step 2: Start experimenting
Don’t get sucked into the trap of thinking you have to have a full game fleshed out in your mind already. What you really need is the time to dig around inside your own head and find the ideas living in there.
Shaz Greenwood, a producer at Free Lives, says first-timers should start making small prototypes and that you should make “small little games to test out bigger ideas you might have.” It’s a sentiment echoed by Garry’s Mod creator Garry Newman, “Concentrate on the basics, don’t spend all your time creating editor tools or browsing the asset store. Use cubes for placeholders. Gameplay gameplay gameplay.”
Every game has to start somewhere, so focus on one thing. Make a ball bounce when you hit it, or a character run and jump when you press a button, then add ideas on top of that. Aim for something really simple.
Step 3: Set a schedule
This is going to be hard, but totally necessary. Projects live and die by how much time we’re willing to give to them, so don’t set unrealistic goals. If you can only spare two or three hours a week then do that and stick to it.
Another way to prioritize work is by setting up activity blocks. Frank Viola is an author of over 24 books uses this method to keep himself on track. “I’ll chunk large projects into manageable activity blocks that are not based on time at all. I’ll work on that activity until I’m not motivated by it anymore, then I’ll move on to another activity block.”
You could start by focusing on making your character move, then if that gets too boring shift over to getting the title screen to work or the stage layout to make sense. It’s also important to keep focused on what you want to make and not get bogged down in adding too much to your game.
“As you make your first game, you will also experience the same thing every other developer has: “feature creep” or issues with scope,” explains Zoe Quinn. “You will likely want to put too much into your first game—too many mechanics, too much content. Your ambition will push you toward any number of traps. This is okay, as long as you fix it or “scope down”.”
Step 4: Make a functional game
Think about the game Pac-Man. On the surface, it looks simple, right? But really think about what is going on in that game and what you’d have to do to recreate it. Ghosts that can chase you, but also be destroyed for a certain amount of time after Pac-Man eats one of the big dots. Levels that can be beaten and reset when all dots are gone, randomly appearing fruit for extra points, tunnels that teleport Pac-Man from one side of the screen to the other. Suddenly Pac-Man doesn’t look so easy, does it?
“Let’s face it – you’re not going to make Mario or Super Meat Boy on your first go,” explains writer and game developer Michael Rundle. “But the more you start to experiment with tools … the more you’ll learn. At its best, making a game is like solving a wonderful puzzle – in fact, it’s pretty much a game in itself.”
The point is this – even the simplest game is actually pretty complex and trying to come up with the next Pac-Man is pretty hard. What you need to make is a super simple game, much like Pong which obvious rules and simple pick-up and play mechanics.
So how can you apply this to your project? Once you’ve gotten through the prototype stage you should have some idea of what you want your game to be, so focus on that. That ball you made bounce? Maybe make a net for it to go into. Whatever kind of game you’re making get it to a point where it’s an actual ‘game’ and then iterate from there.
Step 5: Build upon what you have with art
Going back to Pac-Man for a minute, the reality is that game would have functionally worked even if Pac-Man was a yellow square and the ghosts blue triangles. They didn’t need to be anything, but they were designed to give the game personality – to make it stand out. If your game is going to stand out it’s going to need good art and music, two areas that are highly specialized.
For art in video games, and especially 2D games, you can’t beat OpenGameArt. Designed to let digital artists share assets, the site is filled with a bunch of free to use characters, backgrounds, and tilesets.
There’s also Pixabay, which is a repository of stock images that are also free to use, which can be handy if you’re looking for textures or specific photos.
You’re also going to need music and sound effects, which is where Freesound comes in. When browsing OpenGameArt you may notice they have a bunch of music and sound effects, but Freesounds has a much wider selection, especially when it comes to music.
These free asset sites all use Creative Commons licenses, but the type of license does vary, meaning some will require you to credit the creator while others can be used without crediting anyone. Be sure to check what type of attribution each asset needs before using it, especially if you intend to monetize your game.
If you need to edit your characters or backgrounds GraphicsGale is a great option for 2D artwork. It’s designed for pixel perfect artwork, so assuming you’re going with a 2D style it’s going to become a very handy tool. For audio, Audacity remains the best free audio editing software available, and like GraphicsGale it’s completely free.
Step 6: Finish the game!
Once you’ve got all your elements together it’s time to cross the finish line. Actually finishing a game is not a small step, but at some point you have to declare it done, otherwise you’ll be stuck in your own Duke Nukem Forever style development hell.
The next thing you need to do is find someone you trust and have them play your game. Zoe Quinn feels this is a big part of the development process, saying that “you can learn so much about the design of your game by sitting down someone who hasn’t played it—and ideally isn’t a relative or significant other—and having them play your game.”
Extra step: Actually start
“When you’re a kid you have this illusion that the world is run by other people. Not by your kind,” Garry Newman told me last year when I asked him about getting into game development. “Once you peek behind the curtain you realize how easy this is, how no-one really knows what they’re doing, how they’re terrified of anyone that does and can call them out on their bullshit. The world isn’t as big as you think it is.”
The point is that you may look at game development as an insurmountable mountain, but if you never even attempt it you’ll never know how high you could have climbed. Now is such a great time to make games, and there are so many places you can go to learn how to do it. And if you’re good enough, there’s plenty of ways to make money from the fruits of your labor. But none of that means anything if you don’t take that first step and try for yourself.
Thinking about diving into game development? Let us know your game ideas in the comments below and when you plan on getting started.
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