I’ve been playing video games since I was five years old, and writing about them since I was 19. I’ve gone from playing Spongebob Squarepants: Revenge of the Flying Dutchman, to writing complex breakdowns of the games industry at large and how it relates to social, political and personal issues. However I have such a small understanding of how something so pivotal to who I am is created. I don’t understand the difference between creating art for video games, and illustrating a book. I wouldn’t know where to start when it comes to good level design. I have a lot of experience as a writer, and can understand the process for writing a game, but not how to make it meaningful. I literally have no idea how to code. Apparently there are various languages within coding. What does that even mean???
Therefore I am conducting this experiment. An experiment to see whether someone with no experience, education, or understanding of game development can learn the ropes. I’m going to take you through a step by step breakdown of everything I learn when creating my first video game, and I’m going to do it on a weekly basis over the next 3 months.
Yes, I may ask for advice from experienced game developers along the way when I get stuck, but the point of this is to make everything on my own. Wish me luck, because from what I’ve been told, this is not going to be easy.
Game Development Terms to Learn This Week
- Game Developer: An artist, programmer, writer or individual who contributes to making a game.
- Engine: A software used to make video games (kind of like Photoshop for making photos or Premiere Pro for making videos).
- Game Maker Studio 2/ Unity: Two different software you can use to make your video game.
- Programming Languages (e.g. GML, C#, UnityScript and BOO): You make a game by writing in a programming language, in the same way you write a book with a written language. Programming languages can be different, in the same way writing in the English language is different to writing in Japanese.
- Indie: A game made by one individual or small company without the backing of a big publisher like Ubisoft or Sony.
- Game Jam: A 48 hour competition where game developers try and prototype a project.
- Spiritual Successor: A game or idea that takes the core concepts of one game, and then recreates them with a new brand or I.P.
- I.P: An intellectual property is another way of referencing a game or brand, e.g. Assassin’s Creed is an I.P. owned by Ubisoft.
- Publisher: A publisher is a company that helps fund, market and release games (made by developers or studios) on various systems.
- Mechanic: Something you can do in a game, e.g. walk, interact with objects or teleport.
- 2D platformer: A game where you move within a two dimensional world, which has a focus on jumping from one platform to another to complete a level.
- HTML 5: Is a language used for producing content for the web. I’m assuming it is similar to the other programming languages I’ve mentioned, but at this point can’t say for sure.
About Me and my Experience
OK, so first things first; let’s break down who I am and what transferable skills I might have to aid me. My names Chris Bowring and I’m 21 years old. My name and age aren’t really skills, but it’s a good place to start.
Skills, Experience and Education:
- I’ve been a writer for several years, that’s really my strong suit. During my teenage years I wrote countless short stories, young adult horror novels, kids’ books and poems. I self-published, co wrote and illustrated my first children’s book when I was 17.
- I’ve worked in the games journalism/entertainment industry as a freelance writer for a few years. I’ve produced countless feature pieces, wikis, reviews, news pieces, opinion pieces, video features, graphic designs and podcasts over the years. If you consider this experience alongside the fact that I play and beat roughly 100 games a year, I know the industry pretty well.
- I launched a website in December of 2017 called Quiet Stories. Under this brand I’ve been compiling some of the best journalistic content I’ve created for other websites (check out a piece I did about the future of Star Wars games), and launched the podcast Fist Fight. Fist Fight is one half video game debate show, and one half indie developer interview. Each week I talk with an indie developer from around the world about their newest game and the development process. In the first episode I interview the team behind the indie game Beholder, which you can check out at, https://quietstoriesblog.com/. This in itself could be instrumental to me acquiring the knowledge I need to succeed in this experiment.
What is Actually Achievable?
When deciding what to make as your first game, the options are limitless. However with a little research you’ll soon find you NEED to limit your options rather substantially. I’m not going to make a competitor to Red Dead Redemption in 12 weeks. A total of 10 studios worked on Assassin’s Creed: Unity (2014). Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag (2013) only had 7-8 studios working on it, and it employed a team of nearly 1000 people. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag producer Martin Schelling and Mission Director Ashraf Ismail both stated that they began the project in the summer of 2011, so that means the game was in development for around two and a half years. I don’t have that kind of team size or development time, so let’s start with something smaller.
Games Created by one Individual
Let’s take a look at what is achievable as a solo developer. What scope is realistic when the entire games development rests on your shoulders?
- Axiom Verge seems to be a fan made spiritual successor to the 2D Metroid games. It was created by Thomas Happ, who was an engineer on games like NFL Street and Tiger Woods PGA Tour. He made the game in his spare time, over 5 years. It’s found a reasonable amount of success, so recreating my own version of a much beloved series could be the way to go.
- Eric Barone worked on Stardew Valley for nearly 5 years as well. He was looking to add to his game design portfolio after graduation and ended up creating an indie hit. Stardew Valley is fairly extensive in scope and game length, but works with admittedly simplistic visuals.
- Lucas Pope, an American living in Japan, used his own personal experiences to create Papers, Please. Papers, Please was lauded for its uniqueness and so perhaps I should consider making a game with a topic I’m familiar with or feel passionately about.
Games Created in a Short Period of Time
Time is also a crucial factor. I have a short window to produce a final product, so I can’t afford to get hung up on the little details. Game Jams have become rather common. Developers of all backgrounds and experience levels team up, and put out the best game they can within a 48 hour window. I have a bit longer than 48 hours, but I’ll also be learning as I go, so these could be some good references for what I could actually create. These were some of the best projects from the Game Makers Tool Kit Game Jam, which had over 700 applicants.
- Power core is a tower defense game with simplistic but stunning visuals. You play as a cube with a multitude of functions, from stunning enemies to capturing power nodes. Each mechanic in the game serves a variety of purposes, so creating a single mechanic with a multitude of functions seems to be a good way of speeding up the development process.
- Lock step also uses a cube as the main character. Its visuals are simple but it plays with a unique co-op function. As the two players come closer together the camera pans inwards, making proximity to other players an actual mechanic to be aware of.
- Resize is a puzzle platformer where you’ll actually need to use your mouse to resize and reshape the window the game is being played in, allowing you to traverse the environment and manoeuvre past obstacles.
What are my Inspirations?
So from the examples above we can learn a few things about what to consider when making a game on your own, in a short period of time.
- It seems 2D animation over 3D is the way to go. You can create simplistic designs, without having the overall game lose its visual quality.
- The key to making a game in a short period of time is taking simple mechanics and either, utilizing them in a multitude of ways, or twisting them into something creative we haven’t seen before.
- Having a game that is somewhat inspired by a famous retro or smaller game helps; focus the project, provide a guide for the overall design, and draw in players of the franchise that inspired your game.
- Basing your game around a core theme that you are familiar with or passionate about may help you stand out.
After completing this research I considered some games that meet this criteria and that I’d like to create something similar to. My personal inspirations for this project include; Super Mario Bros., Super Meat Boy, Super Time Force and Super Hot. I’m going with all the supers, except Super Man 64.
I’ve been fairly triggered/engaged in the ongoing conversations around video games in the United States. President Trump has gathered various individuals from the video game industry to discuss the impact of games on American youth. These conversations are topical and something I’m very passionate about.
Therefore for this project I will designing a 2D platformer focused on video game violence.
What Software/ Engine should I use to Make My Game?
This is a big one. When you put together a video, you use Premiere Pro and After Effects. When you edit a photo or create an illustration, you use Photoshop and Illustrator. So what is the best software to use when making a game, specifically your first game? From extensive research it ended up coming down to two finalists, Unity and Game Maker Studio 2. RealTutsGML provides a video with a pretty reasonable breakdown of the two options.
Unity is a cross platform game engine that allows you to produce games for desktops, consoles and mobile devices.
Pros for Unity:
- Unity has been used to design some of the best indie games of the last few years. In 2016 alone, Unity was used to produce; Firewatch, Furi, Inside, Oxenfree and Super Hot. Three of those games were on my game of the year list in 2016, Super Hot is one of the inspirations for the game I’m making during this project, and Inside was a game of the year contender at major sites like IGN.
- Can be used to make 2D and 3D games, but is better at creating 3D games.
- You can merge 2D and 3D elements with ease. For example you could make a 2D platformer with 3D objects in the background.
- It is easier to optimise your games for multiple platforms, compared to Game Maker.
- All versions of Unity are royalty free, provide access to development for any platform and include all core engine features.
- The base version of Unity is free.
- Unity Plus is $35 a month, and includes game developer courses, 20% off the asset store, analytics and some other stuff that I don’t really understand.
- Unity Pro is $125 a month, and includes all the features of Plus, Pro level services and premium support and source code access (also not sure what that means).
Game Maker Studio 2 claims to be the most intuitive software for developing 2D games. You can produce games for desktop, mobile, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.
“Making games development accessible to everyone means taking away the barriers to getting started. Using our intuitive ‘Drag and Drop’ development environment you can have your game up and running in a matter of minutes without ever having to write any code! GameMaker’s built-in language (GML) helps you learn to program as you go and not jump in at the deep end of coding.”
Game Maker Studio
That all sounds pretty good to me.
Pros for using Game Maker Studio 2:
- Game Maker Studio was used to create games like; Downwell, Hyper Light Drifter, Undertale and DEADBOLT.
- Can be used to make 2D and 3D games, but is better at creating 2D games.
- Game Maker Studio 2 offers a drag and drop (DND) option, which allows you to create entire games with no programming knowledge or coding. It’s also a good way to learn Game Maker’s coding language GML. (Unity doesn’t really have this option)
- It is quicker and easier to prototype game ideas than in Unity.
- Game Maker has extensive development tutorials on their website, and an active YouTube, and forum community, who seem to be extremely willing to provide help and advice.
- Game Maker announced, in just the last 48 hours, that games can now be developed for Nintendo Switch using their software.
- Game Maker Studio 2 offers a free trial, which includes the majority of the software’s features, but doesn’t allow you to publish final products.
- The Game Maker Studio’s Creator package gives you all the software’s tools, allows you to publish on either Windows or Mac computers and is $39 a year.
- The Game Maker Studio’s Developer package gives you all the software’s tools, allows you to publish on either Desktop (Windows and Mac), the Web (HTML 5) or Mobile (Apple and Android), for a one time price that ranges from $99 to $399.
- The Game Maker Studio’s Console package gives you all the software’s tools, allows you to publish on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, and costs between $799 and $1500 a year.
From this breakdown I believe Game Maker Studio 2 is the best option for this project. Both Unity and Game Maker are capable of creating great 2D games. Both software provide extensive tutorials and support. Both software are capable of publishing on multiple platforms and offer a free trial. Yes, Unity offers the choice of three different coding languages compared to Game Maker which forces you to use GML, but Game Maker’s drag and drop feature will be invaluable to someone like myself, who has no programming experience and is trying to put together a prototype quickly.
Conclusions for This Week
So we’ve highlighted what we aim to accomplish with this project, broken down my skill set, researched what kind of project is achievable, narrowed down the project to a 2D platformer with a core theme, and decided which software we’re going to make this game with.
It’s now time to download the free version of Game Maker Studio 2 and see what we can achieve in our first week of development on Video Games Made Me Violent.
PAX South 2020 Hands On: ‘The Artful Escape,’ ‘Foregone,’ and ‘Tunic’
This past weekend, PAX South 2020 brought a huge variety of promising indie games to the show floor in San Antonio. Here are just a few of the most remarkable games I got to try, including a hardcore action game, a classic adventure, and an experience that can only be described as dreamlike.
Simply put, Tunic is a Zelda game, but foxier. Tunic takes significant inspiration from the classic Zelda formula, complete with an overworld to explore, puzzles to solve, enemies to fight, and a protagonist clad in green. My demo even began by leaving me weaponless and forcing me to venture into a nearby cave in order to discover my first weapon.
Yet there’s nothing wrong with following such a traditional formula. At a time when Nintendo has largely stopped creating new games in the style of its classic Zeldas, it’s left up to other developers to rediscover the magic of the original gameplay style. Based on my time with the game, Tunic achieves exactly that, reimagining the charm of A Link to the Past for the current generation with gorgeous visuals and modern design sensibilities. The biggest difference from its predecessors is its green-clad hero is a fox, and not a Kokiri.
All, that is to say, is that if you’ve ever played a 2D Zelda, then you’ll know exactly what to expect from Tunic. It starts by dropping the foxy little player character into a vibrant, sunny overworld, and true to form, your inventory is completely empty and the environment is full of roadblocks to progress. Simple enemies abound, and although its greatest Zelda inspirations lie with those from the 2D era, it also includes an element from the 3D games due to its inclusion of a targeting system in order to lock onto specific opponents. What followed next was a linear, straightforward dungeon that focused on teaching the basics of exploration and item usage. It was extremely simple but hinted at plenty of potential for the full game later.
Tunic’s gameplay may hearken back to the games of old, but its visual presentation is cutting edge. It features gorgeous polygonal 3D visuals, loaded with striking graphical and lighting effects, making its quaint isometric world truly pop to life. My demo didn’t last very long, but the little bit I played left me excited for Tunic’s eventual release on Xbox One and PC. It could be the brand-new classic Zelda experience that fans like myself have long waited for.
These days, nearly every other indie game is either a roguelike or a Metroivdvania. Just by looking at Foregone, I immediately assumed that it must be one of the two based on appearances alone. Yet when I shared those assumptions with the developers, Big Blue Bubble, the response in both cases was a resounding, “No.”
Foregone may look like it could be procedurally generated or feature a sprawling interconnected world, but that simply isn’t the case. The developers insisted that every aspect of the game world was intentionally crafted by hand, and it will remain that way in each playthrough. Likewise, although there is some optional backtracking at certain points in the game, Foregone is a largely linear experience, all about going from one point to another and adapting your strategy along the way. In a generation where nonlinearity reigns supreme, such straightforward design is refreshing to see.
If there’s any game that seems like an accurate comparison to Foregone, it would have to be Dark Souls. From the very start of the demo, the world of Foregone is inhabited with fearsome enemies that don’t hold back. If you don’t watch what you’re doing, it can be easy to get overwhelmed and fall under the pressure. Thankfully, there’s a broad assortment of abilities at your disposal, such as a wide area of effect move that can stun enemies within a wide radius, and a powerful shield that can block many attacks. I fell many times during my time with the game, but it never felt unfair. Rather, it merely felt like I wasn’t being smart enough with my own ability usage, and I was encouraged to keep jumping back into the world for just one more run, this time armed with better knowledge of my own abilities and potential strategies.
And it’s a beautiful game too. Rather than featuring the typical pixelated aesthetics often associated with platformers, the world is actually built-in 3D with a pixelated filter applied on top of it. This allows for a uniquely detailed environment and distinctly fluid animations. Foregone looks to be a worthwhile action game that should be worth checking out when it hits early access via the Epic Games Store in February, with a full release on console and PC to follow later this year.
The Artful Escape
Bursting with visual and auditory splendor, The Artful Escape is easily the most surreal game I played at PAX South. The demo may have only lasted about ten minutes, yet those ten minutes were dreamlike, transportation from the crowded convention to a world of color, music, and spirit.
As its name would suggest, The Artful Escape is an otherworldly escape from reality. Its luscious 3D environments are populated with 2D paper cutout characters, its dialogue leans heavily into the mystical (the player character describes his surroundings with phrases like “a Tchaikovsky cannonade” and “a rapid glittering of the eyes”), and its music often neglects strong melodies in favor of broad, ambient background themes. This all combines to create a mystical, almost meditative atmosphere.
It only helps that the platforming gameplay itself is understated, not requiring very much of you but to run forward, leap over a few chasms, or occasionally play your guitar to complete basic rhythm games. This gameplay style may not be the most involved or exciting, but it allows you to focus primarily on the overwhelming aesthetic majesty, marching forward through the world while shredding on your guitar all the while.
This Zenlike feel to the game is punctuated with occasional spectacular moments. At one point, a gargantuan, crystalline krill called the Wonderkrill burst onto the screen and regaled me with mystic dialogue, while at another point, I silently wandered into a herd of strange oxen-like creatures grazing in a barren field as the music began to swell. The demo was filled with such memorable moments, constantly leaving my jaw dropped.
For those who think that games should be entertaining above all else, The Artful Escape might not be so enthralling. Its platforming is extremely basic and its rhythm minigames are shallow at best. For players who think that games can be more than fun, however, The Artful Escape is set to provide an emotional, unforgettable experience, an escape that I can’t wait to endeavor.
PAX South Hands On: ‘Boyfriend Dungeon’ Wields Weapons of Love
A weapon is an adventurer’s best friend, and Boyfriend Dungeon is focused on deepening that relationship.
In most games, weapons are straightforward objects. Sometimes they can be upgraded or personalized, but at the end of the day, they function as little more than tools for a single purpose: to cut down enemies and make progress in the game. Boyfriend Dungeon, however, proposes a different relationship with your weapons. They’re more than just objects. Instead, they’re eligible bachelors and bachelorettes that are ready to mingle.
Boyfriend Dungeon is a dungeon crawler and dating sim hybrid all about forging an intimate bond with your weapons and, after demoing it at PAX South, this unique mix seems to be paying off.
There are two main activities in Boyfriend Dungeon: exploring the loot-filled dungeons (referred to as “The Dunj”) and romancing the human forms of your weapons. There’s been plenty of great dungeon crawlers in recent years, but Boyfriend Dungeon sets itself apart by humanizing its weaponry. This concept may sound strange on paper, but Kitfox games director and lead designer Tanya X. Short is confident that players have long been ready for a game just like this.
“A weapon is an adventurer’s best friend,” and Boyfriend Dungeon is focused on deepening that relationship.
“I think the fans of Boyfriend Dungeon have been out there for years, waiting. I remember when I was in university ages ago, I was sure someone would have made a game like this already… but I guess I needed to make it myself!” She adds that “A weapon is an adventurer’s best friend,” and Boyfriend Dungeon is focused on deepening that relationship.
My demo with Boyfriend Dungeon began simply enough. After a brief character creation phase where I chose my appearance and my pronouns (he/him, she/her, or they/them), I was dropped into the stylish, top-down hub world of Verona Beach. Here I could explore the town and choose where to date my chosen weapon. I decided to head to the public park to meet Valeria, a swift and slender dagger.
“Today I’m writing dates with a scythe, and that’s beautiful.”
Upon reaching the park, I discovered Valeria in her dagger form. When I picked up the weapon, a beautiful anime-style animation commenced in which she transformed into her human form. What followed was a visual novel-style date sequence complete with detailed character art and plenty of dialogue options to help romance your date.
The dialogue is full of witty, self-aware humor and charm – there were more than a few jokes about axe murderers along with other weapon-related puns, for example. Short herself put plenty of love into the writing. “Writing dates with weapons is a joy I never knew could be part of my job, but here we are. Today I’m writing dates with a scythe, and that’s beautiful.”
I loved my date with Valeria, but she’s not the only potential mate in Boyfriend Dungeon. Rather, there’s a cast of five potential partners in the game, each of them hailing from distinct backgrounds and identities. “When I was coming up with the cast for Boyfriend Dungeon, I tried to imagine as many kinds of people and personalities that I could be attracted to as possible.”
Short drew from her own personal experiences in creating the cast. “I was very lucky to meet my partner many years ago, so I haven’t actually dated many people in my life, but I become fascinated with people I meet very easily, and they can provide inspiration. Whether they’re upbeat and reckless, or brooding and poetic, or gentle and refined…there’re so many kinds of intriguing people out there. And in Boyfriend Dungeon, I hope.”
After building up this bond during dialogue, it was time to put it to the test by exploring the Dunj. Of course, this isn’t the typically dreary dungeon found in most other dungeon crawlers. Instead, it’s an abandoned shopping mall overrun with monsters to slay and loot to discover with your partner weapon.
Combat is easy to grasp, focusing on alternating between light and heavy attacks and creating simple combos out of them. Just like how the dating content aims to be inclusive for people of different backgrounds, Short hopes for the combat to be accessible for players of different levels of experience as well. “Hopefully the dungeon combat can be approachable enough for less experienced action RPG players, but still have enough challenge for the people that want to find it.”
Based off the demo, Boyfriend Dungeon seems to achieve this goal. I loved learning simpler moves and discovering new combos with them. Movement is fast, fluid, and intuitive, making it a pleasure to explore the Dunj. Succeeding in dungeons will also result in a stronger relationship with your weapons, so it’s in your best interest to perform well during combat. Of course, your weapons don’t simply level up – instead, their love power increases.
“Our approach has been that the point isn’t the destination — it’s the journey you take, and who you choose to take it with.”
Fighting and dating may seem like two disparate concepts, but in practice, they manage to mesh surprisingly well. “The game is mostly about switching from one [gameplay style] to the other,” Short says, “and it’s nice for pacing, since you often want a breather from the action or get restless if there’s too much reading.”
The overarching story and general experience remain relatively firm throughout the whole game regardless of your decisions, but Short encourages players to enjoy the ride they take with the weapon they choose. “Our approach has been that the point isn’t the destination — it’s the journey you take, and who you choose to take it with.”
In Boyfriend Dungeon, your weapons can wage more than just war. Rather, they can spread love and lead to deeply fulfilling relationships. Boyfriend Dungeon is one of the most refreshing games I played at PAX thanks to its engaging dungeon exploration and combat and its surprisingly positive view of weaponry. That’s the mission of peace that Short had in mind with the game: “It feels like a difficult time in the world right now, but that’s when we most need to find love and compassion. Let’s try our hardest to be kind.”
‘Sayonara Wild Hearts’ is the Rhythm Game of a Lifetime
Few Rhythm games can boast the sheer strength and variety of gameplay and stellar soundtrack that Sayonara Wild Hearts offers the player.
Rhythm games can sometimes be a dicy prospect. As well populated as the genre is, the possible variety in musical style, required skill set and game length can make it hard to parse whether a rhythm game will be a good fit for an individual player. With that in mind, few rhythm games nail all of these attributes as perfectly as Sayonara Wild Hearts does.
A neon-drenched fever dream of a game, Sayonara Wild Hearts tasks the player with driving, flying and sailing through an increasingly elaborate world of giant robots, sword battles and laser fights. In this ethereal plain you battle other wild hearts as you seek solace from a broken heart and navigate around the obstacles of each course.
Though this may already sound very gnarly, or even radical, if you will, what really makes Sayonara Wild Hearts work so well is the diversity of of its levels. Some stages will see you weaving in and out of traffic while dodging oncoming street cars and the like, while others will see you navigating a ship across storm drenched waters or working your way through a retro inspired shooter. There’s even a first person level that calls to mind old school PC classics like Descent.
It’s really something to see so much variety packed into a game that it nearly defies classification as a result. Few games can offer the depth and breadth of gameplay that Sayonara Wild Hearts does, and that’s part of its enduring charm.
Of course, a rhythm game is only as good as its soundtrack. Luckily Sayonara Wild Hearts soars in this regard as well. The soundtrack contains pulse-pounding beats by Daniel Olsén and Jonathan Eng, with dreamy pop vocals by Linnea Olsson. Inspired by the likes of Sia and Chvrches, the killer soundscape of the game will keep you powering through time and again in hopes of attaining the ever elusive perfect run. A rank system and collectibles keep things interesting as well.
The unique look of the game is another feather in its cap. Pulsing neon lights pump to the beat while pinks, purples and blues color the world around you in a unique 1980’s dance club aesthetic. All of the elements coalesce together to make a game that looks and feels like nothing else you’ve ever played.
As mentioned at the top, sometimes rhythm games live or die based on their difficulty and accessibility. Fortunately Sayonara Wild Hearts manages to nail this aspect of gaming too. All you need to do to pass a level is get a Bronze ranking, which is attainable even for those of low skill sets. My 5 and 6 year old daughters were able to beat several of the levels, even some of the harder ones. Better still, less skilled players can skip the more challenging areas of the later levels with a prompt that comes up automatically when a player fails three times in a row.
With a stellar attention to all of the aspects that make for a successful rhythm game, Sayonara Wild Hearts is the rhythm game of a lifetime. Destined to be listed among the best games of 2019, and in the company of the best rhythm games of all time, Sayonara Wild Hearts is revolutionary entry into the genre and one of the best indies to come along in years.
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