Some people find that reading a great book, listening to a great song, or watching a great movie gives them more than a great way to pass the time. It inspires them; it makes them feel that they might be able to create something like this themselves. Eventually, they take the leap and become creators. This is an ability we all have.
Creative people are rarely interested in only one thing. Many musicians aspire to be actors, many writers to be filmmakers. Thanks to the pandemic, more and more people are recognizing this multifaceted aspect of themselves. Some, especially performers, have done so because of inability to engage in their usual favorite endeavors; others have had so much time on their hands that they have had to fill it with new pastimes and passions.
Video games are one consequence of the need to be creative. They are a bit like music these days. Whether people know it or not, there’s something out there for everyone: [fighting games, Metroidvania, roguelikes, adventure games, RPGs, and story-focused games][link to any relevant articles on the website that cover these topics. I have ones for the first three and the last] fill the shelves, giving you an almost too bountiful banquet to pick from.
Both new and veteran gamers wonder whether they can make a video game themselves. The answer is yes. You can too.
Why You Can Make Games
There are four main concerns most people have when thinking about getting into game development.
- Whether they can make enough money to justify the time.
- Whether the field is too saturated to justify the effort.
- Whether bad behavior in the industry will make their experience too unpleasant to be worth it.
- Whether they have the skills, resources, and time to make video games.
In answer to the first concern, we can point to the fact that the gaming industry made more in 2020 than sports and film combined. So it’s not as if there isn’t enough money to go around. As far as saturation goes, any worthwhile industry—or any worthwhile anything—tends to be a little overpopulated. Whether it’s a good restaurant or a great city, people tend to flock to something of high quality. It’s harder to get in, but wouldn’t you rather make the effort than chug away at a boring office job the rest of your life?
Bad behavior in the video-game industry is a more complicated question. Steps are being taken to fix it, as in the recent lawsuit brought against Activision/Blizzard . Moreover, the new generation of video game makers is not quite as patient with bad behavior as older game companies have been. And there’s always the indie option, even if money is a little tighter in the indie world.
But it’s the fourth worry that we are most concerned with here: whether you have the skills, resources, and time to make video games. This is often the biggest reason that people don’t even try to get into game development. Learning these skills is an effort.
Fortunately, creating video games is more doable than you may think.
Learning to Make Games
Like filmmaking, making video games is a multi-disciplinary art. Some studios are small and full of people wearing many hats. Other studios take a corporate approach and hire large groups of specialists. There’s a place in game development for creative persons of every stripe. Musicians, writers, designers, artists, and programmers can all find a home there.
Many people feel that if movies are like magic, gaming is sorcery straight from the elder gods. But it’s a lot simpler to see the craft behind these tricks and master the tricks yourself than it may seem. In large part, you have this capability thanks to the many and various game-development tools that are available to anyone, as well as the resources that teach you how to use them.
Let’s start with the development tools, which are core to making a game into a game. Although the AAA world is dominated by the Unity engine and the Unreal engine, there are many options to choose from. We may categorize them with respect to ease of use. Some of these options aren’t technically development engines or tools, but the technicalities aren’t important here.
First, there are professional development tools like the Unity engine and the Unreal engine. To use them, you will probably have to use hardcore programming.
Then there are the accessible engines, which use simplified and accessible coding languages or something called “visual scripting.” Visual scripting enables you to put prefabricated pieces of logic together to assemble a storyboard and tell the game to behave the way you want it to. These engines include LOVE, GameMakerStudio, and RPGMaker, among others.
Finally, there are every-person engines. Although some may dispute that they are development engines, they are in fact used to make games. These engines are very simple, often have tutorials built into the games, are available on consoles, and are surprisingly powerful. The greatest of them are [Dreams][Link to my article on Dreams] on PS4 and Game Builder Garage on Switch.
The more complex tools are capable of much more but are also harder to learn and less accessible to creators who lack programming experience. So it may be smart to start with a simple engine and see how you like it. Using Dreams may be a good way to figure out which part of the gaming discipline you favor. Writers can use Twine to practice writing interactive and branching narratives.
Most of these engines are either free or cheap to start using. It may be less expensive to start making games than to take up painting or guitar.
Lessons On Demand
There’s also another way to approach this. If you want the ability to code your own games, you could skip the simpler options and learn to use more complex development engines. This too is easier than it seems.
Many fantastic classes and other online resources are available to anyone who wants to learn how to make games. Many are free and engine-specific. You can also find tutorials on making game art, on design, on writing branching narratives, on hardcore coding, even on specific genres of games. You just need to know where to look (see the resource section below).
Keep in mind that it may be a better use of your time to first learn the fundamentals of design using a simpler engine and only then to invest in learning to code—or vice versa. Follow the sequence that is best for you, but don’t try to learn ten things at once.
Finding Your Niche and Building or Not Building a Community
Since gaming is a multidisciplinary art, you must decide whether to fly more or less solo or as part of a team. Some game makers want to be involved in every aspect of development; others would rather stay in their own wheelhouse. If you’re an artist, writer, musician, or designer—this last being the one who crafts the key gameplay and other gamified aspects—sticking to your specialty means that you need to find people to handle other jobs as necessary.
Many people want to advance from playing games to making games. But unlike many other hobbyists hoping to get to the next level, gamers are well-versed in the online world. Reddit, Discord, and Twitter host many communities of aspiring game developers who are always looking for teams to work with. Although their projects rarely reach fruition, they can help you build a network and gain valuable experience, both of which can help you get a real job in game-creation.
On the other hand, perhaps you’re multi-talented and don’t want to work with anyone else. You can do art, music, writing, coding, design. Or maybe you can do most of them and can pay someone to handle the few missing pieces. There are a lot of freelancers out there. That’s fine too. Some famous games, like Undertale, were created by a sole developer. Others, like Hollow Knight, were created by an extremely small team. But if you fly solo or largely solo, make sure you have a firm grasp of your scope so you don’t spend years and years working on something that becomes obsolete.
The key to mastering any art, including the art of game development, is practice. Pick an aspect to focus on and practice it regularly. Draw, write branching narratives, compose music. If you’re into design, play Tabletop RPGs with friends or draft board game ideas and try playing them by yourself. It’s a powerful way to exercise your creative muscles.
This list focuses on general resources and resources for designers. We will point to more discipline-specific resources in a future article.
- Unreal Engine
- o A free and very powerful engine for making 3D games. But there is a learning curve.
- o Also free, with a great community. Unity can make 2D and 3D games, but it is better at 3D games. It is simpler than Unreal and includes abundant tutorials.
- Game Maker Studio 2
- o Simple, standard, and now free. A great place to start, with many tutorials.
- RPG Maker
- o Much like Game Maker, but geared toward role-playing games.
- o A free 2D engine with a great community.
- GODOT 3
- o An open-source 2D and 3D game engine that is becoming increasingly popular with developers.
- o Designed for writers, Twine creates choose-your-own-adventure games, and it is great for learning the branching narrative that is the basis of game writing.
- PlayStation Dreams
- o A game on PS4 that is more like a massive development engine. The controls take some getting used to. But PlayStation Dreams is incredibly powerful, with many built-in tutorials.
- Game Builder Garage
- o Like PlayStation Dreams, Game Builder Garage is a Switch title with a simplified and surprisingly useful game-making engine. It also has built-in tutorials.
- o You will be surprised by how much good stuff you find by searching YouTube for “how to make a shooter in GODOT 3” and the like.
- CS50: Introduction to Computer Science (Harvard)
- o A Harvard professor teaches you all the basics of programming in this brilliant course, complete with homework assignments. Provided free. Highly recommended.
- CS50: Introduction to Game Development (Harvard)
- o A follow-up to “Introduction to Computer Science,” this course applies programming skills to game development. The course also teaches game design.
- Will Wright’s Game Design MasterClass
- o Taught by the creator of the Sims, this class focuses on the design side of game development and includes all sorts of exercises.
- A Theory of Fun by Raph Koster
- o The premier textbook on game design for beginners. Short, sweet, powerful, to the point.
- Unity Learn
- o Unity’s collection of tutorials. There are few better places to start if learning Unity is your goal.
- Engine-Specific Communities
- o Many of the engines listed above have communities on their forums. If you’re focusing on an engine, these are the best places to start.
- o Get Discord. Many game development communities use it now, and you will probably be asked to join the Discord group of the community you’re interested in.
- Game Create Repeat
- o This is a relatively new group of aspiring game developers who have gathered to make a game. Although they are small and the core development team is even smaller, they’re quite active and friendly. (I’m a member of the development team.)
o Although Reddit has its share of awful people, it’s also a good resource. R/gamedev is the place to start your search. The communities there are always changing and growing, and if all goes well, you will find a good group to chat with away from Reddit.