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Making Your First Game

Making a video game for the first time can seem just as hard as climbing a mountain before we’ve written the even first lines of code. If we follow the right steps, though, any task is doable. Here are the crucial steps we should follow when making our first video game.

Early Game Maker Prototype ~2013

The Idea and Prototyping phase

People like to say ideas are a dime a dozen, and that’s mostly true. What’s also true is that great ideas are rare, and they don’t always come out of the blue. Over time, as we explore our initial idea, it will evolve to meet the practical constraints of game design. If we want to make video games that grab players and don’t let go, we have to come up with an original game premise. To achieve that, we must brainstorm. Good brainstorming means looking at many games with original and straightforward concepts (such as “Scribblenauts,” “Portal” or “World of Goo”) and thinking about the core mechanics that make them fun. We may want to tweak an existing concept to explore new gameplay possibilities. What if we combined the portal-hopping mechanics of “Portal” with the time reversal mechanics of “Braid,” for example? The possibilities are endless.

The Plan and Game Design Document

Making a game has never been more doable. The internet offers dozens of free and low-cost game design tools, from Game Maker and Unity to RPG Maker and PlayCanvas. When setting out to make our game, we need to pick our design software, including our game engine, and draw up a project schedule that estimates the number of hours we’ll need to complete each stage of development. Hofstadter’s Law states that a project takes longer to complete than we expect even when we take this law into account. Nowhere is that more accurate than in game development.
We ask ourselves these questions:

What is the core mechanic of the game?
How big will the worlds be?
How many variates of foliage will there be?
How many variates of wildlife are there?
How complex are the animations for the characters going to be?

Choosing an Engine with the right Tools

Hundreds of game engines have been built over the past few decades. We need to try a few to find one that fits our needs. GAMEBIN.tv is an interactive site built with JavaScript, so many of the packages and examples here are designed to work with our open-source framework, kp-core. When trying out engine demos, we should keep in mind that many engines with shimmering, out-of-the-box graphics, complete with “tons of perks” may not be as user-friendly as a more simple framework with just the essentials such as Input, Rendering, and Audio support. Since this is our first video game, we should find and stick to a simple engine.

Many javascript game engines exist, and some people are even building their own! Check out this developer making experiments of their own!

Gathering and Producing the Assets

Making a video game can become a decades-long ordeal if we don’t restrict our game assets to a manageable amount. Game assets are just the elements that make up a game. They include music, sound effects, 2D sprites, 3D models, text, game modules, and many other things. Some game design apps let us make all the assets in the software itself, such as Unity and its huge library of Unity Assets, Game Maker, and RPG Maker, while other apps require us to port assets into the game from other software. Large development teams often entrust each member to design one type of assets, such as 2D sprites or music, whereas small teams typically work on many of the assets together. Game jams–that is, 24-to-72 hour collaborative design sessions intended to produce video game content quickly–are an excellent way for developers to smash through creative blocks and make many assets. If we want a crash course on how to start making assets, we should host a game jam over the weekend.

The Programming and Configurations

If programming isn’t the most underappreciated part of game development, it’s close. Everything comes down to code. Some developers program the engines of their games from scratch, designing everything from the in-game physics to the inventory and dialogue systems. When we design our engine, we can more easily change 3D models and script events. That’s much work, though, and we’re just starting, so it will be advantageous to stay in 2 dimensions. We should instead consider using frameworks, code packages, and similar tools to make the design process more straightforward. If we want to design the game from the ground up, a reasonable programming language to use might be C++, Javascript, Java, etc., and the list goes on.

Story and the art of Level Building

Although many classics of the video game industry lack compelling stories, such as “Tetris” and “Pac-Man,” a story is another way to synthesize the game’s art, music, and gameplay into a harmonious and memorable experience. We need to make sure the story doesn’t get in the way of gameplay. Unless our game is an RPG, in which case the story is a core aspect of gameplay, the story in our game should be simple. We should also make sure the story beats dovetail smoothly with the gameplay. That is, the toughest challenges in the game should happen during the climax of the story, ensuring the game’s tension rises and falls satisfyingly. If the game has dialogue, we should keep it short and punchy to avoid boring the player. Also, beating the game should give the player an exciting conclusion to make the journey worth it.

Art, Animations and Special Effects

Talented artists are everywhere. If making sprites or models for the game is too hard, we can always bring an artist into the development process to help us. Whether our game has pixels or polygons, it needs a vivid style to keep players transfixed. The gaming industry these days runs the stylistic gamut. From the black-and-white silhouette world of “Limbo” to the watercolor saturation of “The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild,” we have no lack of artistic inspiration. The game’s style, however, shouldn’t get in the way of gameplay by being too complicated. It should feature a clear, crisp visual language that draws attention to the game’s goals and mechanics rather than just pretty scenery.

Sound Effects, Music, and Environmental

Music and sound effects can make or break a game. When composing the music for a game, we should strive for a balance of melody and ambiance. Memorable melodies can make a game fun, but overusing them can get on the player’s nerves. We should fill the game with melodic, subtle ambient music in places to give players time to breathe. Also, the musical scores throughout the game’s stages should share motifs to make the experience feel cohesive. When it comes to sound effects, it’s a good idea to give each player’s action a crisp and satisfying sound, such as a chime when the player collects a coin or a crash when the player destroys a crate. This way, the player’s actions feel more tactile. 

Getting the word out and Marketing

If we want to get our finished product into the greatest number of hands, we have to market it. That means building a home page for it, visiting independent gaming conventions and creating a social media profile to share our work far and wide. Even if we don’t have much of a marketing budget, we can find ways to spread the word. For example, we can make a profile on an online patronage site and offer perks for people who invest in our game’s development. Most importantly, we should ask our friends and family to tell as many people about the game as possible. Word of mouth is one of the most valuable tools at an independent developer’s disposal.

The Last 20 Percent isn’t a chore

The 80/20 Rule states that the last 20 percent of a project takes 80 percent of the work. That’s because polishing anything to perfection is very time-consuming. When we start developing our game, the process may feel smooth and easy, but every change to the graphical user interface takes the game in new directions, potentially slowing development a crawl. Refactoring and optimizing the game in its final stages may feel tedious, but it must be done if the finished product is to succeed.

Now, on to Making the Next One

Now that we’ve finished making one game, it’s time to start over. Every gaming project is just practice for the next one. As we learn more and more about the design process, we can keep refining our methods and building our skills until we’re making games that win awards and earn tons of money.

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