I am an indie game dev and I am here to talk about making game creation easier
I’ve been making games for about 5 years now, ranging from small ‘arcade’ style projects to short exploratory story types. Currently I’m working on a larger scale project called ‘Arty Swirly Colourful’ with my studio. All have had budgets ranging from ‘I have zero dollars and a button’ to ‘let us pool together what we have and make the most of it’. And along the way I have discovered many, many resources that made things a lot more achievable.
I’m going to keep this as short as possible, and start with making some assumptions:
You want to make video games, but something is stopping you. That something might be:
- Not knowing where or how to start.
- Programming ability (relatable).
- Artistic ability.
- 3D modelling ability.
- No money (also relatable)
- Animation ability.
Hopefully I can convince you that these don’t need to stop you. There are all sorts of tools and resources that can make things easier. I’ll also provide some tips and advice to help make the game-building process easier by addressing some of the most common issues I have experienced. By the end of this article, I hope you feel more confident to get into this really cool, fun medium!
Where to start?
I know it sounds obvious but start with an idea. My advice for now would be that this idea is small in scale, plays to your strengths, and is something you’re interested in. Once you have that idea, figure out what the game is, what genre it fits into, how it plays, and what kind of experience you want to create. It helps to have a strong understanding of what you want to make.
After that, you’ll want to make a plan. Generally, my plan starts like this:
- The story and/or experience.
- Level and/or environment design.
- What assets are needed?
- What does the game need to do (do you pick up objects, walk through a maze, run away
- from enemies?)
And then I break it down further. This is especially helpful when you’re working with other people. The more information you can give them, the easier it is for people to see what you’re thinking. Even if you’re not working with other people I would advise having a detailed plan anyway as it helps keep you on track. And sticking to the path is the best way to end up with something finished. It’s very tempting to want to try every single idea that pops into your head while you’re making your game, but it’s best to make a note of those ideas and save them for later.
Working with others?
Communication communication communication! I cannot stress how important this is. Everyone needs to be communicating. Create a spreadsheet where assets or tasks are listed and assigned to people, and have people tick them off as they start working on it and when they finish. Check in with people, have meetings and group chats. I can guarantee that communication can make or break a game. I’ve had projects with 20 people, all great designers and artists, that completely fell apart when no one knew what anyone was doing. And I’ve finished, fun, beautiful projects with 2-3 people who are all doing their best.
So, you have a design and you have a plan, now you just need to make it. This tends to be the concerning part - there’s so much that goes into a game, and if you don’t know how to do one part of it, then it’s game over, right?
I’m going to throw some tools at you, with a brief description of what they do.
- Fungus – specifically a plugin for Unity, it works very well for visual novel, RPG, and point and click games. It lets you build and string together the narrative and events in your game. It has limitations, but it has a lot of tutorials and examples so it’s easy to learn.
- GameMaker – it breaks down programming into an easy drag and drop system, so you can create a game without having to write any code. It does allow you to actually view the code, so you can see how it all works. It has a free trial, but to gain unlimited access to all their resources you have to purchase the Creator studio. For $39 however it’s a pretty worthwhile buy, especially if you want to do more.
- Playmaker – this one does cost $65, but it works with Unity to display programming in an easy to understand manner, so that you can create a game without having to code. You can do a lot with it, and it makes understanding the logic of code way easier to understand. It’s been used in Hearthstone, INSIDE, and Dreamfall Chapters.
- Templates – now this isn’t really a tool, more like pointing out resources. If you look through the Unity Asset Store you can find game templates for all sorts of genres at a variety of price points. These are meant to be used and I highly recommend them! With a template you can focus on the design and art aspect of your game, essentially re-skinning it, but you can venture into the code to adjust settings and even add new ones. For me, this has been one of the best ways to learn how programming works. They’re usually well-documented with lots of comments and notes, so you know what line is doing what. It can be a little scary, but you’d be surprised by how small changes can really make a game your own.
Art isn’t your strong point?
A lot of AAA games get heaps of hype for the graphics and detail. But that’s an artistic choice, and it doesn’t make or break a game. I have a bunch of tips to help you work around the art.
- You don’t need great art – you really don’t! In fact, you don’t even necessarily need any visuals. Text adventures or simple sprites have been executed very well. Dwarf Fortress, Fallen London, and Nobody Has To Die are some of my favourite examples. Whatever you do, consistency helps the overall feel. Don’t be afraid to lean into your abilities.
- The Unity Asset Store – like game templates, there are thousands of fantastic art assets in the Unity Asset Store. There’s normally a huge variety of styles from cute low-poly stuff to highly-detailed realistic models. And they’re available in a range of prices.
- Sketchfab – like the Unity Asset Store you can find loads of 3D models of differing styles with diverse specifications, for a variety of prices. Feel free to shop around! There are often assets up for free.
- Sprites – it’s easy to Google around to find sprites that people have created specifically for other people to use. You have to check their terms and conditions, but some will let you use their sprites as a template, recolour their sprites, or just use the sprites as they are in your projects.
- Fuse – if you want unique 3D characters but you don’t know how to model (or you do but you don’t have the time), then Fuse is for you! You can create characters about as easily as a character creator screen in a video game, but with a lot more power. You can get it for free, but I’d advise getting it through Mixamo rather than Steam. Once you create your character you can export them into Mixamo, get them rigged automatically, and grab a whole bunch of free animations that you can then import into your project.
Other points I may have missed.
- Music and sound - these two can really bring a game together, but you don’t have to break the bank. If you like to dabble in composing music or sound design this can be really fun. Otherwise, shop around for royalty-free music you can use. You can find loads of great music and sound effects, some of which are loopable, for a variety of prices. My advice here however is to take a little extra time to find the right sounds. It can make a game feel finished and complete.
- Voice acting – you don’t need voices in your game! Subtitles work just as well, and it can be a very good opportunity for environmental storytelling. If you are set on voices but don’t have access to decent recording equipment, there are folks over on Fivver who do fantastic voice acting jobs for various budgets.
- Fonts – your choice in font can help a game feel more polished, add to the experience, and affect that first impression. You’ll want to make sure it’s readable for starters, but like music it’s worth shopping around to find the right font.
Keeping motivated and maintaining your health.
Making video games is a combination of all sorts of skills, mediums, and problems. And it can be frustrating at times. I have some tips that can help you finish your project without sacrificing your health.
- Sticking to the plan – I mentioned this at the start and I’ll repeat it here: stick to your plan! Make a note of all the cool ideas you get as you go along, but stick to the plan. Once you have your game finished then you can start adding those ideas to push your game to the next level.
- Set goals and deadlines – I always break down my plan even further, listing everything that needs to be done and creating a timeline, with various deadlines. You’ll want to break down each task into something manageable and easy to accomplish. It is also helpful to spread out milestones (such as making a playable grey box, or finishing animations, or creating a level that you can move around) so that you get a firm success each week (or month). Having something playable as soon as possible helps a lot, because then you start to see the game. And it’s fun to gradually add art and other mechanics and to be able to play your game.
- Know your limits – there’s always something that’s going to give you trouble, and at some point you’re going to have to drop it and step away for a bit. Give yourself constant breaks, make sure your ergonomics are all set, feed and water yourself, and stretch before you start working. These prevent injury and it prevents you from getting burnt out and becoming frustrated.
- Burn out – this happens a lot, and it happens to everyone. Sometimes you hit a brick wall with a task and no matter what you can’t fix it. Take a break. And then focus on something else for a while,perhaps another task in your game project, or maybe something else entirely. And don’t be afraid to ask for help. The Unity forums are quite good, you can share your problem, explain what you want to do, and people will help. Believe me, everyone there has seen every single question for every single problem, you will not be judged.
- This game is a disaster!!! – this happens to everyone. Either from overachieving, or just everything going wrong, sometimes it just seems like garbage. But that’s okay! It’s a learning process, and the time you spent on it was valuable. You’ve learnt new tricks and techniques and gained experience. Make some notes; I like to put together a little document where I list where things went wrong, and then move on to the next project. Often there’s some trick, asset, or mechanic that I can recycle later down the track.
- But the most important thing is to have fun! Making video games has its own set of challenges, but at the end of the day you want to create an experience. It might be a goofy clicker game, it might be a dating rock simulator for geologists, it might be a spooky maze game. It’s one of the coolest things to watch your friend play something you made, and it can be incredibly rewarding.
Good luck and have fun!