Well… I’ve been at this whole game design thing for over a year now. Its still definitely a work-in-progress, but I’ve been trying!
Having been at it for awhile and watching other game designers, I decided I wanted to share some of what I’ve learned and seen over the last year or two. Presented below are my “20 Steps” for the beginning game developer. This isn’t any hard-and-fast formula for making a game, but some pointers and how to respond to some of the different “stages” of the development lifecycle. Trust me when I say I’m not perfect either; as I said, trying to apply what I’ve learned takes work! But hopefully this can help you if you aren’t sure how to get going on your first project.
- Actually start making a game. A lot of people have “ideas”. Now be different and actually try to execute one of them.
- Once you start doing #1, get over your pride when you realize how extremely unlikely it is that your first game will be a masterpiece that will shake the very foundations of the gaming community. In short, your first game probably won’t be that revolutionary and may actually be kind of bad… but that’s OK! You have to start somewhere as a beginner, and being a beginner does not mean you’re a loser. Game design is hard, especially if you are handling every aspect of the game yourself: coding, graphics, audio… all that good stuff. Even then, handling just one can be hard. And besides being hard, it can also be time-consuming. Why do you think major game studios with big teams can work for a year or two on a single game?
- Once you come to grips with #2, take a deep breath and set realistic goals. Start small. A game that is simple to play is not necessarily simple or fast to build. You may already be realizing just how much work goes into handling physics, managing health, and all that good stuff that seems so natural in most games. And don’t get discouraged; this stuff takes time… lots of time. But that’s part of why you want to start small; you don’t want to take on a huge project for six months then realize you are way over your head. Despite the greatest amounts of determination you wish to have, don’t shoot yourself in the foot. Keep things in perspective, learn, and start SMALL.
- Once you have your goals from #3 you may realize even these seem tough, so find some good help and get involved with a game dev community. Vets and other game designers can be good to bounce your ideas off of and can potentially help you solve annoying bugs and other dilemmas.
- Realize the vets from #4 may have their own game projects (and lives) just like you. In other words, they aren’t necessarily there to wait hand and foot on you. Don’t get angry when no one replies to your pleas for help within the hour of you posting it. Its even possible you may not get an answer; no one may know the answer! Perhaps the answer is a project in and of itself, in which case the initiative may lie on your shoulders to figure it out. When this happens, head back to the drawing board, do some problem-solving and creative thinking, and if push comes to shove change direction if you really have to. But don’t blow a fuse; don’t expect many people (on either side of things) to win when that happens on the internet. Trust me.
- For best results and to avoid frustration from #5, pay attention to and actually read your community’s rules. If you want to get taken seriously and actually solicit good help and feedback, then follow the guidelines set out by your community. Chances are they aren’t there to make your life miserable and if you think “no one really cares about proper grammar or etiquette on the internet”, think again. On the other hand, if you actually want to at least pretend you know what you are doing, then follow the rules. Seriously. Act professionally.
- Part of the professionalism from #6 comes from “being a game designer first”. Now I’m not saying change who you are or act out of character. What I mean is this: don’t try to be a funny guy or know-it-all when you first step foot onto the forums. You can have some fun, but let people know that you are serious about game design first. If you flood the forums with funny pics and random posts in your first few days (or weeks), that makes you look more like a ham than a guy who wants to make games, don’t you think? Establish a good reputation first, then people will know you actually aren’t a total clown when and if you decide to act like a clown for a few brief posts. Make a good first impression.
- Don’t forget to make your game by spending too much time with #4-7. The internet can be a great tool but also a massive time sink. If you find yourself spending more time on the community forums than on your game, take a step back and evaluate. Remember that the point is to make a game, right?
- If you’re struggling to stay motivated and focused on #8, code and design anyway. Most people can and will hit the wall sometime in the design process. Yes, the wall… that mighty blockade that can knock you over just when you thought you were unstoppable and were going to get the game out months ahead of schedule. But its hard work. You probably will have those days where things just aren’t clicking. But do your best to maintain some momentum; stopping for a week or two can be shattering to your overall determination and make things ten times worse when you try to pick it back up. Keep the ball rolling.
- If you’re still struggling with #9, enter some short-term game jams. Ludum Dare is one good example. Even the game developer vets take advantage of these jams; they are excellent motivators, foster experimentation, and can force you to keep your scope small. After all, you can only do so much in 48-72 hours (Ludum Dare timeframes). You don’t have to abandon your old project; but you can take a break and preserve momentum another way by working a smaller less ambitious project. Plus, you can ride the momentum of other designers who are working on their games and sharing their progress and energy. TAKE ADVANTAGE OF GAME JAMS!!!
- One great allure of #10 is the audience. You have a great opportunity to solicit feedback from people. The same can be true in a regular game dev community. Get your game out in the open, be it in prototype-form or beta, and see what people think.
- STOP; before you tell me about getting ignored on #11, remember #5. If you are serious about getting feedback, then give feedback yourself. Give and receive. Go after people. Make sure your game is visible and that you are “marketing” it, even if only to a small group of people in a particular community. Sure, you may be busy too, but if you show that you care about someone else’s project, they might be more motivated to take time out of their schedule for you as well.
- Once you’ve handled #12 and the feedback starts flowing, STOP AGAIN; now remember #2. When people start telling you all the things wrong with your game, don’t lash back. Remember our big name studios? Even their masterpieces can catch avid criticism. Yes, it can feel like you are under attack, but do NOT take feedback specifically on your game personally. We are trying to improve your game and game design skills, remember? Even if someone does go on a bit of a rant, look for what truth is there and shake off the rest. Don’t let it shoot you down.
- When you start incorporating the feedback from #13, keep an open mind. Be willing to look at your game through different sets of eyes. As designers we don’t necessarily see things the same way as the players, and furthermore we can be prone to “falling in love” with our precious project. Carefully consider feedback and try to see how your players think. Be willing to make changes… even major, time-consuming changes if such is necessary.
- Persevere, especially near the end. Sometimes the last 10% of your game is what can take the most time. All the polish and little details that you may have put aside temporarily still should get your attention. It may be grunt work, but someone has to do it, right?
- Persevere more. You’ve put a lot of hard work into your game up to this point. Stay strong and make it count!
- Persevere even more. Even if your interest is waning and you feel the project isn’t going to win any “game of the year” rewards, getting your first games out there into the open can be huge. Eye-opening, even. Remember, don’t be afraid of criticism! Absorb it and grow!
- Persevere yet more. This is important! Why else would I mention crazy muffin-launching robots?
- You have no idea that I said something about crazy muffin-launching robots in #18, do you? Why’d you skip that one? Because it said persevere and you thought you knew what I was going to say? Listen, as you near the end, don’t get hasty and start forgetting things and skimming over critical parts. After coming all this way, do you really want one little control bug to ruin half your game? Take some time to do things right, and get more (beta) feedback if necessary. Keep doing things right.
- FINISH THE GAME. RELEASE. CELEBRATE.