Tuesday, April 1, 2014

How to Start Making Games

Looking to make the switch from gamer to creator? Indie game developer James Earl Cox III shares how he got started and what he's learned along the way.  ♦ 

Ethos and Logos Intro

Q: Why does your opinion and advice matter, James?

A: Well, it may not fit everyone. But I'd like to think that I'm doing well. As of now, 2.5 years since I started making games for myself, I've created over 30 freeware games, most of which can be found on my GameJolt page, and/or on my website. 17+ of them have been written about to varying capacities on game news sites and blogs (totaling over 64 features, reviews, lists, combined), and with many of then being accepted and shown at conferences and conventions for a total of 11+ times combined. They have also won 3 awards, the most prominent being a silver medal at Serious Play. No doubt, there are plenty of better qualified people out there than me to give advice on creating games (professional game creators for example), but my thoughts on how to get started just making games is still relatively fresh, and I'm still learning!

Ethos, Pathos, Logos Backstory

Early in the Summer of 2012, I sat in my apartment, slightly frustrated about the shape and future of my creative endeavors. I wasn't doing horridly, as I had written plenty of stories and had dabbled in film, but what I really wanted to do was make games, digital games. That summer I was taking a heavy school course load to ensure that I would graduate on time, as well as participating in a research lab. It wasn't a useless summer, yet, as I sat at my desk in my room, I thought about the various opportunities I had missed because I didn't know how to code. Why didn't anyone want to work with me? I felt as if I was somehow poisonous. I had indeed created a few games with others, but those were either under classroom constraints (OG DarkWhite) or for Global Game Jam (MEchine). I had a good time designing and art-ing those games, but outside of confined spaces, it felt like no one truly wanted to work with me; that I couldn't just create when I wanted to. And when I tried to seek help or collaborations from developers, it usually resulted in non-committal responses.
       It was then that I decided, if I couldn't find anyone to help me code my games, I would learn it myself.
      I downloaded GameMaker 8.1 and began working my way through the suggested tutorials. I made a fruit click game. And then I made a small top down shooter. I then began to watch YouTube tutorials on GameMaker. People like 14silverX revealed alternative ways to build these games, showing the multiple ways one could drag-and-drop games into existence. And from there, I branched off and started trying to make my own games; ones that, while they did use bits of the previous tutorials, were ideas I came up with. My first completed completely solo game was Landers. It was scary. I hadn't dealt with variables carrying across rooms before. But I made it, and it felt amazing. From there, I just dove in and got addicted. Friends hosting a party? Someone visiting from out of town? Meeting someone's new significant other? I'd show up to say hi, but quickly run off to get back to game making.
       I made Don't Kill the Cow, the new DarkWhite, and Cat Licker in this way; using mainly drag-and-drop, but each time including a bit more actual code as I hit barriers that drag-and-drop couldn't pass. Occasionally, I watch new GameMaker tutorials that helped teach GML.
       At some point, I realized that I was working with other people on a lot of my games. And it wasn't forced cooperation. It all had happened organically. I would need music, and I'd ask a friend and he'd say "sure thing!" and within a week or two, I'd have music in my game. Occasionally, as I continued to feed my game-creating addiction, someone would ask to work with me. In some cases, they'd have games of their own, and everything worked out fine; we both understood the ins and outs of making short freeware. But other times, they wouldn't know how to make games, which is fine too. I often find that the best collaboration partners have nothing to do with games. For instance, a poet may provide the best dialogue you could ever ask for, while a historian may provide some neat insight into the time period you're trying to recreate. But those people seldom ask to make games. The ones that don't know how to create games, and ask to collaborate, have bad ideas. They pitch their game idea and expect you to make it. They design it and you do the rest. It 's a bit of a turn off. Why would I want to build their game when I have plenty of ideas of my own? Do they know how needlessly complex the game they pitched would be? I would be friendly and give these people a non-committal answer.
       Which is when it hit me: I was now on the other side of the fence. These not-yet-designers and not-yet-developers are in the same boat I was about two years prior. They were probably frustrated that no one wanted to work with them. I feel bad for these budding game creators. But realistically, there is no good reason to spend time collaborating with them when there are plenty of other potential collaboration partners with shiny games and a proven drive. It's just a risk not worth taking. This revelation felt good; but in a bitter-sweet way. If I time traveled back and met me before I made games, I wouldn't collaborate with previous James. He didn't know what he was doing and wanted way too much credit for just having ideas.
       Since then, I continued to make small-ish freeware games, each one pushing some comfort zone for coding, design, or art. Some are successes, some are failures. Some made it into conferences and conventions, others hide in the darkness of the Internet.
       And that is how I got here today. Lots of games and lots of collaborations. I've met and become friends with some developers I never would have dreamed of friending. And the best part is that we all have the passion and drive. I'm slowly branching into larger projects as well, taking baby steps of course. I don't want to spent a year on a failed project. I still mostly work in GML but am slowly seeping into Unity.

The Advice

Make games. It is as simple as that. To break it down further:

Yes, you can code. Sit down and watch tutorials. Take in what they say and implement it yourself. Reinforce the tutorials by completing other tutorials of the same game. It seems that many not-yet-designers and not-yet-developers believe that they simply can go from school, or their current job, to a game company pumping out top sellers; zero games under their belt to working on the next big thing. That rarely happens, and you're not the exception. You need to practice and learn. Take that first step and mess around in GameMaker. It's really not hard. It just takes time.

Yes you have time. If you're doing well enough on Maslow's hierarchy of needs (I'd say somewhere above the red), then you don't have any excuses. Its simply a mater of what you value higher. If you'd rather join friends in a cross country trek, go for it! It sounds like a great time and I wish I could come. Just don't tell anyone that you don't have time to make games. Same idea applies to social gatherings, TV, movies, the Internet, and, most of all, playing games: if you have time to spend consuming those, you have time to make games. To go a bit further, if you really want to make games, you should make games. Any free time you have should be devoted to games (within reason of course--I wouldn't skip a wedding or funeral to make games; that's just silly and alienating).

Your idea is too big. Throw it out. You're not going to make the next Bioshock or Portal or Mass Effect. Even when you're good enough to be on a team to make such a game, the team is making the game. Not you. As such, your first game ideas should be about 15 minutes of play time or less. This is also a good way to power through many different games. Ones that you can learn something new from each time, and ones that you can put online and get feedback on. If you spend a year on a large project that ends up being scrapped. That's demoralizing and a year you just lost. You may have learned things from it, but there probably won't be anything to show.

Your game is too feature-heavy. Prune it. Making games are like constructing arguments. Only the best and most important points should remain. If your game is about the anxiety of being a pre-treen, then allowing the player to pick out what clothes they wear would fit the theme (you don't want to get bullied in school for your outfit, do you?) but I would find it hard to merit this game having achievements or leader boards. Those would undercut the significance of the player's choices in game and refocus their play to racking up points.

Throw out your first five ideas. I'd feel bad if I said "Don't even write them down," so I guess you can do that. Just make sure to hide the paper somewhere you can't find it. Your first five ideas for any central game topic will be the same ones everyone else is coming up with. It probably will look a lot like games already out there. Not that Mario-clones aren't useful or good in their own right, but it is a surefire way to blend into the crowd.

Find your voice. Much like writing or film making or any other medium, everyone has their own unique voice; their own style of games. You learn about yourself, what kind of games feel good to make, what art you like to use, and what mechanics and themes you revisit. This will also help you stand out and become unique.

It takes time. You'll need to spend a lot of time working on your craft. Be sure to make friends along the way. Find communities of people that fit your style and speed and talk with them, and once you're comfortable enough, even collaborate with them. When I wrote this, I was about 2.5 years in and still have a lot to learn.

Do it for you. If you want to make games, you should enjoy making games. This shouldn't be a painful process and don't expect anything from it besides bettering yourself. Plus, in the case of turning it into a career, no mater what area of game making you want to end up doing, having a general well rounded sense of all the elements that go into games will prove to be extraordinarily helpful (its easier to talk to a graphic designer if you know how .gifs and images work within the code). And if you find the process of game making to be too trite, boring, or painful, then maybe making games isn't for you.

That's about it, I think. Even though others told me the same advice here and there, I had to learn it the hard way over the course of three years. I'm sure some of it won't sink in for others until they learn it first hand as well. But maybe someone might find this useful! And that would be splendid.

  • About the Author
    James Earl Cox III is a game per­son who makes games. On the side, he goes to uni­ver­sity. His fic­tion has been pub­lished in The Ram­pal­lian, The Vehi­cle, and The Canary Press. Find him at Seemingly Pointless or on his GameJolt page, and follow him on Twitter.

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