Do You Have Something To Say? Make a Game

Want to try your hand at game development? Now is the perfect time.
January 23, 2017, 7:00pm

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There are a million reasons to want to make a video game, and all of them are valid. The world is burning right now, politically speaking. Maybe you have something to say about that. Maybe you have a story to tell: it might be your story, or one you made up. Maybe you want to explore something abstract, or personal, or uncomfortable, in a unique way. Games are uniquely poised to allow us to share experiences: putting players in distinct roles, forcing them to interact with the systems that you design.

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You can make anything. And you should!

The first step is not to be intimidated by that fact, or by the images you have in your head of "game development."

I never thought I could make games. I was always a very poor math student (I failed algebra 2 AND physics the same year in high school) and thought that you needed serious technical acumen for the practice.

That may have been true at some point in history, but it really isn't any more. Much has been said about the tools we have to make games now: user-friendly, easy-to-understand, etc. and it's true: You can make a functional game with very little experience or specialized knowledge.

But here is the really exciting part: You can make really weird, cool, personal or interesting games, work that is really expressive or even experimental—without years of practice or a computer engineering degree. You just need to know—really know—what you want to make.

The Playcentric Process

When I teach game design, there are two concepts I begin with. The first comes originally from Tracey Fullerton's Game Design Workshop, the playcentric process of game design, which basically states this: You begin with an idea. You create a prototype (a sort of functional rough draft). You play with it, and have other people play with it, and use that feedback to refine it and make it better. You rinse and repeat this process until you have something great.

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It's extremely simple in concept, but, naturally, a lot of work.

The second is the idea of player experience goals. You should design everything with the ultimate goal of what you want your player to feel and experience when they play your game. Do you want them to feel powerful? Disempowered? Sad? Do you want them to understand a specific point of view? Make every decision: about designing a system for them to interact with, right down to the art assets and UI—to support those player experience goals.

Header and Dishonored 2 concept art courtesy of Bethesda

Everything—in every style of game—flows from those two frameworks. This goes from tiny 5-minute stories made in twine to systems-heavy, mechanically ambitious games like Dishonored 2.

So here is my advice: Take a simple idea (scope modestly to begin with!). Think of something you've always wanted to play, and take a tiny slice of it. Maybe you've always wanted to make a 2D flying platformer with a rad sky-diving mechanic. Maybe you want to tell the story of how you lost your virginity on a boat floating down the Amazon river. Maybe you want to explore the idea of abstract landscapes from an ant's point of view.

Got it? Cool, you're going to make it.

How? Well, you have some options.

Twine

This is an ideal place to start for folks with no programming or art (or both) experience: Twine is a simple, powerful little engine for making interactive stories.

Forgotten screen courtesy of Sophia Park and SlimeKat

Twine games get a LOT of shit in some circles for not being "real games," and you shouldn't listen to any of that. It's perfect for getting the basics down for interactive storytelling—learning how to branch story paths based on player decisions, and get comfortable using variables, especially if you've never done any programming or scripting.

I love Anna Anthropy's simple tutorial for Twine. Take a look at it, it's clean, it's visual, and it is the opposite of scary.

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And once you have the basics down, you can start to get your hands dirty with sound and art elements. Forgotten is an excellent example of a recent Twine game that incorporates art and sound design beautifully.

Stencyl

I use Stencyl in my game design classes for teaching non-programmers how to make simple 2D games. The programming is basically abstracted and very easy to digest, but it does get closer to the level of a more robust game engine.

Stencyl scripting example, courtesy of Stencyl LLC

The best thing to do with Stencyl is get your hands dirty. Complete a sample project, and familiarize yourself with how everything works. I like this "crash course" for beginners, making a sort of quick and easy Space Invaders clone. What Stencyl does so well, and you'll see it in this tutorial, is ease you into thinking about game objects and scripting. There are "actor types" and other simplified ways of placing objects and scripting in your scene.

From a simple project like this, I recommend messing with the final game. Mess with the speed of the ship, or the background art. Now that you've built a functional game, poke around and make it your own.

You can make fairly robust projects with Stencyl: Lakeview Cabin, a cheeky horror-adventure, started its life as a Stencyl project. Spiderling is a unique platformer, and Ghost Song is a gorgeous, layered Metroid-style title.

Ghost Song screen courtesy of Adult Swim Games

GameSalad is another great, simple engine for this level of game design, as are good old Game Maker and RPG Maker.

Unity

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Unity is used by everyone from individuals to professional studios that make "AAA indies" like Firewatch and Gone Home. You can make basically any kind of game with Unity, and sure, it can look a little intimidating at first.

Firewatch screen courtesy of Campo Santo and Panic!

But the tutorials and community support are excellent.

The very first thing you should do in Unity is load it up and go through this complete beginner project. It's a simple 3D game, but the tutorial covers the basics of everything: the editor and interface, scene structure, and very, very basic scripting.

Within an hour, you'll have a fully working 3D game running in a robust engine.

From there, take on this tutorial series by Brackeys, on making a 2D platformer. Brackeys is amazing, he breaks down complex scripts in well-explained chunks, and you can have a fairly complex little game up and running in a few hours: with niceties like parallax scrolling, tiled backgrounds, 2D animation, and jumping physics.

Above: the first video in Brackeys' 2D platformer tutorial

Best of all, you'll actually understand how these elements all work in concert to  create a game. A game that's true to its player experience goals!

Brackeys also has a great series on learning C#, and creating a multiplayer FPS in Unity.

Okay, Now What?

I recommend doing these kinds of free tutorial "classes" until you start to feel comfortable, and then start experimenting. Take the sample 2D platformer that you made, and prototype that sky-diving mechanic. Maybe you just need to mess with the variables to make your player character fall faster. Maybe you can take that earlier twine game about losing your virginity on the amazon and add some graphics and music (er, maybe some alligator sound effects?).

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No matter what engine or tool you use, keep in mind those two mantras: Use the playcentric process, and design with your player experience goals in mind.

take your personal stories and abstract wanderlust and burning desire to put something into the world, and go make something

There are fantastic communities that you should check out, as well. Each of the tools listed here has a community and sets of tutorials, but if you are making something small or personal, you should check out the work available on itch.io and GameJolt, where folks chat about creation and post (with the option to sell) their work.

You might also want to make some friends and collaborate in a game jam—usually a short, focussed event where small teams try to complete games in set periods of time, with particular creative constraints.

Now, take your million reasons, take your personal stories and abstract wanderlust and burning desire to put something into the world, and go make something.