You’ve probably said something like this before in your life:
“Lazy developers couldn’t even get the game working at 60 FPS while outputting at 1080p.”
“This game only has one or two hours of post-game content? Yeah, really working yourselves hard there, aren’t you developers?”
“I just don’t understand HOW a major bug like this wasn’t caught by QA. Greedy developers are just rushing their games out to trick us out of our money.”
We’re all guilty of it. In a world where anything seems possible with the power of technology, it seems like, with some coding ingenuity, anyone can make anything so long as we can dream it. As a result, there’s this bizarre conflicting perception about game development. It’s near impossible to break into game development because learning how to code is effectively like learning how to decipher ancient runes and drawing on their powers to enchant their computers into working, yet at the same time, once you learn it, it should be as easy as flipping a switch on your game engine that says “Stop breaking”.
As it turns out, there’s a lot more to game development than just programming and coding. There are a variety of positions one can find in the industry that require minimal computer skills. Several major hits of recent years, like Undertale and To the Moon, were created by people who probably couldn’t tell you the difference between C+ and C#, as widespread, cheap gaming engines are making it possible for someone to build an entire game without the proper education.
So if it’s so easy, why not try it for yourself? It’s a very time-consuming process, and you may not get anything off the ground, but it’s worth knowing the general steps most designers and studios take to build their games.
1. Conceptual Design
We’ve all got a story in us we want to tell. Maybe it’s of brave knights saving the kingdom, but discovering hidden secrets about the world along the way that change their perception about the world around them. Or maybe it’s a personal, quiet story about a relationship gone sour and personal growth that comes from it. If only you had the technical know-how, you could start getting your ideas in place and set the gaming world aflame with your brilliant story!
The above listed are not game concepts. Confusing story with what the game is about is a very common mistake many make. The major appeal of games comes from their interactivity and connections that they can make with their players. Trying to build a game around a story means you’re immediately limiting how a player will be able to interact with and play with your game. Writing out an entire story first might sound great on paper initially, but then when it comes to deciding how you design your game, you might find yourself extremely limited in how you can portray your story.
Think of it like this: your game is about how your player is going to interact with it. Ask yourself: what will happen when a player presses a button? What sort of experience do you want them to have when they press said button? What will happen as a result of them pressing a button? How often will they need to do it? Figuring these questions out early on will shape the tone of the project. And generally, if the tone of the gameplay ends up contrasting with the tone of the story, that’ll give the player confused signals as to what they should be feeling from the game.
That’s not to say story is a bad thing! There are several big name titles that put an emphasis on story first over the gameplay. Heck, the VN genre alone is built on storytelling. But even the best VNs remember that they are still interactive experiences and might have some interactive hook. Maybe you want the story to change based on choices the player makes. Maybe your story isn’t so much a visual hook, like Digital: A Love Story was mainly based around the illusion it was an email service. These are all elements that can better serve the direction you want to take your game in.
If you’re working by yourself or with close friends who understand your mannerisms and means of communicating, you may not end up writing anything like design documents for the game. However, it’s a good practice to get into, especially around the beginning. A design document is where you lay out your central concepts for how the game will play. An entire sheet will cover every single gameplay mechanic and how they interact with one another, so entirely detailing a game like that so early is not something you’re going to want to do. However, it is good to at least write out how your central mechanics and concepts are going to work, if only for your own sake to help you better flesh out your ideas or to really get it down. Plus, it’s good to do this if you’re working with a team so there’s an easy reference point for everyone to see how they can best implement the ideas in mind.
You might think that you’ll want to define an art style and character designs right from the get-go. However, don’t get too hasty: there’s a reason why conceptual art exists. It’s there to envision what your game might look like, set the tone you might want to go for, but you don’t want to lock down an exact look right there. In fact, there are several companies and designers out there who don’t even bother with art creation until they get the go ahead for development. In fact, major indie developer Jonathon Blow famously completed most of the content and level design for Braid before he even hired an artist! Without going too far into technical details, this is because of the nature of how engines work: you can have a defined object in a game that simply loads an art asset onto. You could easily just have a piece of placeholder art load while you’re developing and finalize the art later on. It’s never bad to secure an artist early on because it’s a time consuming process and you don’t want to have a completed game and then wait another year to fill in all the art later, but honestly, art and music are the aspects you can probably put off until the development stages.
2. Choosing an Engine
Of course, once you have a more solid idea of what you want to make, you’ll need to look into some engines. The truly ambitious with tons of coding experience and knowhow can always try and build one specifically tailored for their game… but let’s be real, very few studios and developers do this anymore. Not when there’s a whole host of different, easy to use engines readily available. You’ll need to choose something quickly, as you’ll need to at least experiment to see if you can even get your concept working. It’s important to select the proper engine as well, as engines are what provide everyone with the tools and limitations they’ll be working with. In order to see your vision through to the end, you’ll need to make sure you either have all the tools you need, or the ability to work with the tools you have in order to complete the project.
But what does one choose? You might be tempted to look into Unreal Engine 4, the current AAA go to that can be run on pretty much any gaming device barring the 3DS. However, keep in mind this is the engine that the pros are going to use. It’s a very powerful engine, and costly to boot. It’s something to consider and absolutely worth using if you can manage it, but chances are, starting out, you’re probably not going to jump right onto using it.
But never fear. If UE4 is the AAA standard, then Unity would be the indie standard. It’s a pretty diverse engine that lends itself well to development of pretty much any kind of title. This is what most small studios are going to use if they’re building any kind of game with action-type platformers. It’s a versatile engine that caught on due to how much you can alter its core engine to fit the needs of a game. It was originally designed specifically with 3D gameplay in mind, but current iterations of Unity have been much more accommodating to 2D gameplay as well. It’s a great catch-all engine for whatever you’d like to make.
But maybe Unity is a bit too intimidating. Or maybe the professional version is a bit out of your price range and you have just a simple, 2D game idea you’d like to work on. No worries, Game Maker has got you covered. This was an engine that was designed with a flat perspective in mind, so while it can run and load 3D graphics, this is really an engine made with a smaller scale in mind. It is a very versatile engine, however, that was designed for people with minimal computer knowledge, and can be used in interesting ways. For example, the indie hit Undertale was built using Game Maker, and many of its famous meta moments were created using Game Maker in bizarre in strange ways.
Then finally, for the truly tiny operations with a very specific game genre in mind, there are a couple different options. If all you want to do is tell a story with different story options and have settled on a VN, Ren’Py is pretty much the standard. It’s a freeware engine that provides text boxes, areas to load character art onto, etc. Some hit games like Digital: A Love Story were built using Ren’Py. But if you decided you wanted your story to have a bit more game behind it, there’s always RPG Maker. You may remember this from back in the PS1 and PS2 eras of gaming, but they’ve evolved so that it’s totally usable as its own engine! Just keep in mind this engine was designed for a simple turn based JRPG battle system. It does have the ability to add mods and new scripts to the engine that many in the fan community will provide freely, but it’s something to keep in mind.
After an engine has been chosen, you’ll need to build a prototype before getting started. This is just to test out if your game idea is actually worth pursuing or to get a good feel for what it will be like. This is around the point where most will need to start thinking “How long would I want to be doing this?” or “Is this mechanic worth building an entire game around?” Don’t worry about mechanics that might be incorporated into your game: it’s important to get the central mechanic down first just so that you can see if this something you really want to pursue.
3. Content Creation
This is the fun part. Content creation is where the real creative process of game creation begins. This is pretty much when everything starts coming together. You’ll start building levels, writing story, polishing up the game, getting the art made and inserted into the game, start incorporating other mechanics into the design, etc. Your game will start being born around this time.
It’s around this time that you’ll start understanding the strengths and weaknesses of your game. You’ll start seeing how the different mechanics that you’ve come up with will interact with one another. It’s like a puzzle that you’re actively creating the pieces for. Need to incentivize players to perform an action? Create a grading system to push your player. Section of the game getting too easy? Create a new obstacle or think of a new way to implement your old ones. This is the most satisfying portion of the design process. Just remember that it’s perfectly okay to change portions of your game if they’re not working. That will happen often. Don’t stress about it, changing or scrapping ideas is not a failure of the design. It’s a natural step of the process to cut the fat, and sometimes you’ll come up with other ideas that can be used in a different project.
This is also around the time you’ll start playtesting the game. Keep in mind this is very different from Quality Assurance (or QA). You’re not testing for bugs or parts that aren’t working. This is when you start bringing in other people to start playing very rough versions of your game. It’s so you can get a fresh set of eyes on the project. You may understand exactly what you meant when you placed a box somewhere, but someone who has never seen your game before will most likely not catch on. Your goal here isn’t to guide or tell people what to do; it’s just to observe. It’s best if you just keep your mouth shut and hear out their comments and pay attention to both what they’re saying and how they’re playing. You’ll get new insight on how to proceed further.
Also, the people you playtest with will most likely be determined by the type of player you’re either targeting with the game, or someone completely unrelated to that. Common sense might dictate you bring in someone familiar with gaming, but a lot of times this isn’t the case if you’re hoping to appeal to a wider market. Getting players who are either casual or have never played at all will let you see exactly how your game is seen by one entirely unfamiliar with anything you’re doing. You’ll see how they hold the controller, what’s most comfortable for them, how they might play, etc. This is much better data for general players. That being said, hardcore gamers are still great to bring in for seeing how the game can be approached at high level play and what you can do to drive people to get better at it.
4. Quality Assurance and Release
Now the most tedious portion of the process: quality assurance, or as it’s more commonly referred to as: QA. This is when you start testing your game for bugs to make sure it works properly before release. You’ll write out a list of what needs to be tested, every possible combination of actions you can think of that you didn’t catch during the development process, and what have you. Think of it like this: computers will do exactly what you instruct them to do, right down to the tee. For example, if you want the game to pause when you hit the start button, you’d assign that action to that button. But if the player is in the middle of a jump, what will happen? Will they complete the jump during the pause? Will it cut the jump short? These are things you need to specify when designing the pause. The same goes for if they’re attacking, blocking, etc. Creative programmers can get around that by defining that actions in general be stopped during a pause, but then what’s classified as an “action” in the game, and what would you consider an action but the game is not programmed to? These sorts of questions and more are what are determined during QA.
This will take much, much longer than you could ever think possible, especially if you’re just getting started as an independent. Bigger publishers will often have internal teams entirely devoted to QA testing, but smaller studios will generally have to find other companies to outsource to just for testing. The people just getting started and working at home will most likely just have to do this themselves. Keep in mind this can take even longer than the content creation portion of game design itself.
In fact, sometimes it’ll take so long that you start prioritizing bugs. Often times, when we complain about bugs in games that QA didn’t catch, chances are QA did catch it but the studio was on a schedule and felt it wasn’t productive to spend time trying to fix it when there were more glaring issues at hand. You’ll determine around this time which bugs are top priority, and which ones you think won’t be more than a minor inconvenience in the long run. There’s no such thing as a bug-free game, but some are better at hiding them than others. There are studios that have gotten around the QA process by branding them as Early Access, but this might hurt some good will towards your company, as many players aren’t exactly thrilled to pay to have to do your work for you.
From there on, it’s about releasing your game! You’ll need to figure out what platforms you’re releasing your game on. This is actually generally done during the development process, but we thought to mention it here as this can be part of QA too, and sometimes that comes down to optimization for the platform. No console uses the exact same parts, so they may read your game differently than a separate console would. You need to tune up your game so it’s ready for release on all consoles, not just the one you used the dev tools for.
One final tip: remember that distribution is part of the process as well! You’ll need to prepare marketing materials like screenshots and trailers to get people amped for your game, and have to wait for companies to approve of your game for release on their platform. You may wait a while sometimes, so it’s good to get this out of the way while you’re still tuning everything up.
This may seem like a lot, but this is only a brief summary of what one needs to figure out when developing a game. If you’d like to try but are unsure about how to work a game engine, you can always find handy video tutorials put together by either the enthusiast crowd or from the developers themselves! There are even cheap classes through Udemy that you can sign up for if you need to! Please, if you have any tips you’d like to share, comment below!