“Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t or shouldn’t make a game. Of course you can and of course you should.” - Rob Fearon
To my mind, the democratisation of game development is the single most exciting thing happening in videogame culture today. A growing range of free-to-use game development tools are enabling amateur designers from all walks of life (provided they’re lucky enough to have access to a computer, and the internet, and can find a development tool that runs on their operating system and in a language they can comprehend) to express themselves using interactive systems. In terms of cultural importance these tools are still too exclusive and platform-dependant to be compared to the printing press or the Polaroid camera, but I’d say they’re closing in on the ciné camera at least.
I’m something of an amateur game development evangelist. I believe that every single person on Earth has the potential to make unique and interesting videogames, based on the fact that they are sentient human beings caught up in this chaotic, whirling ball-pool of a world. We all live our lives as minor agents in an incomprehensibly huge web of social interactions, each influenced by every person to have come before us, and influencing all who follow; if you can cope with that (and you can - you’re been doing it all your life) then you already have what it takes to design a game.
If you follow me on Twitter, or ever mention videogames to me in real life, I will probably have told you at least once to sign up at Glorious Trainwrecks and take part in Klik of the Month Klub. This is a monthly game jam in which participants have two hours in which to create a videogame from scratch. If that sounds like a very short time period in which to make a game, that’s because it is! You can take heart, however, in the fact that dozens of Klikwreckers get together and perform this astonishing feat on the third Saturday of every month; I myself managed to squeeze out Entomology PhD Simulator while simultaneously learning to use Klik & Play for the first time.
That said, I can appreciate that you might want some more specific guidance to help you get over your initial anxiety. To this end I have prepared the following step-by-step guide to game development for complete beginners:
1) Fall In Love
In order to create a meaningful game, you must find a way to connect with your players on an emotional level. For this connection to feel authentic it’s important to draw upon your own life experiences – after all, how could you hope to express an emotion you’ve never felt? My top tip for budding game designers is to go outside and meet new people, and keep on meeting new people until you find one who you can’t imagine living your life without. Love is a beautiful, powerful experience that cuts across all cultures, touching everyone at some time in their life. When it comes to connecting with an audience, love is the master key! But if you’re worried that you might not find someone who loves you back, I have good news: you don’t have to.
The hollow emptiness of unrequited love, the raw agony of rejection, the bitter venom of realising you’ve been taken advantage of... take it from me, failed relationships are an absolute goldmine for emotional experiences. Every good game I’ve devised in the last five years has emerged in the wake of a failed sexual venture, from Bug Swatter / Zombie Crusher to my unfinished dog game. No jokes: my career as a game designer could come to a clattering halt if I ever met a nice woman who didn’t just write me off as a wonderful friend.
The specific events you experience aren’t really important; what matters is that you remember how they made you feel. I’m not suggesting that you make a game about asking someone out, spending Christmas with your partner’s disapproving parents, or calling off a wedding (although if that’s what you want to do, that’s okay too!) You need to think about the emotional experience of these events, and how you can construct similar experiences out of other situations.
2) Install Klik & Play
Once you have the emotional depth required to design a videogame, you must tackle the almost-as-important problem of finding the right tools to develop it. You can really use any game creation software you like to take part in Klik of the Month Klub, but it’s traditional to use a particular development suite called Klik & Play. It’s about 20 years old and was designed for children, so you have no excuse for failing to make sense of it - by finding your way to this article, you have already proven yourself competent enough. To see it in action, here’s Violet Berlin giving you a walkthrough in 1993:
Here’s the catch: Klik & Play is a 16-bit Windows program and will not run on modern, 64-bit operating systems. Depending on the age of your computer, you may not have a problem! If you’re not sure whether you have a 32-bit or 64-bit operating system, ask a passing child to figure it out for you.
If you do have a 64-bit operating system - or if you don’t use Windows - then there is still hope. You can use virtual machine software like Virtualbox to create a virtual computer that runs within a window of your main operating system, and install Klik & Play there. The only problem left to overcome is that you need an appropriate operating system to install onto the virtual machine. In this situation, I have a responsibility to advise you against downloading an illegal copy of Windows XP SP3 32-bit from The Pirate Bay, and suggest buying a legal copy instead.
3) Throw Stuff Up On The Screen
Here's where things get a little technical – you're actually going to have to learn how to use Klik & Play. Fortunately there are a number of beginners guides out there that are much more competent than anything I could write, including one provided by the Glorious Trainwrecks community itself. If you have any further questions, this just means you have the perfect excuse to talk to people in the #glorioustrainwrecks chat room on irc.freenode.net. Don't be shy!
To give you a basic overview, you need to create a 'room', place some objects into the room, assign some behaviours or player controls to the objects, and then press Go. It's no more complicated than using everyday office software or playing The Incredible Machine. This is true of game design at all levels really; any additional complexity is derived from design flaws in the interface of the tools you are using, and the degree of polish you want to add. All my Klik of the Month games include title screens, background music, and some Game Over screens allow you to loop back to the start, but while these add a lot to the user experience, they're not essential – you might even argue that they are unnecessary, egotistical flourishes.
One interesting phenomenon surrounding Klik & Play is the way that certain objects appear in far more games than others. Browsing through the libraries of clipart-style objects, your attention will be probably be drawn toward certain items, such as the burger. The burger is a good example of Umberto Eco's description of a semiotic sign – players recognise it as an object within the game like any other, but its particular beefy icon signifies particular concepts such as 'instant', 'beneficial' and 'consumable', as much because of the real-life experience of fast food as because of historical instances of food items in games. Dropping a burger into your game suggests certain functional features to the player, even if its specific function within the game is to recharge a weapon or unlock a door.
Understanding how players will interpret your assembled pile of gubbins is an important skill in game design, particular as your games become smaller and shorter. As a general rule, your own gut reaction to an object will probably be similar to your players – pay attention to your immediate feelings when you look at things, and try not to think too hard about the underlying rules.
4) Polish And Test
Ha ha, just kidding!
5) What Next?
Firstly: PUBLISH YOUR GAME! Upload it somewhere and post a link on Twitter and Facebook! Email a copy to your mother! Post about it on your favourite forum! It's really up to you what you do, but I think having the guts to put your work out there and listening to players' feedback is an integral part of the game creation experience.
Now, thinking in the longer term, let’s imagine you’ve downloaded Klik & Play. You’ve placed a couple of objects, you’ve added some keyboard controls, you’ve put in some triggered reactions and sound effects when the objects collide with each other, you’ve got some smooth midi jazz looping in the background… you’re there, you’ve done it, you’ve made a game. What do you do with your new-found skills?
The answer is "ANYTHING YOU WANT". Keep on making games, learning the ins and outs of your chosen tools, and you’ll probably find yourself exploring new directions and developing your own authorial ‘voice’. Personally I’d recommend downloading Game Maker and playing around with the example games available on their website, although I’ve heard mixed reviews of the newer versions. Whatever software you’re using, please make games about your life, culture and experiences and post them on the internet – you might think this is a stupid exercise, but there are a lot of people out there who would be interested in playing your games and sharing their experiences.
The less exciting news is that you’ve just officially become a videogame designer. If you keep working on games, and make things that really matter to you instead of just recreating old arcade games, you will probably be surprised at how far your skills with entry-level software like Game Maker can take you! You may be interested in working in the games industry; you may be interested in making some kind of artistic statement, or expressing your heritage in an interactive format; you may want to make some weird presents for your relatives, or start a business on Etsy selling folksy, bespoke software. All of these paths are now open to you, but it’s up to you to decide make something out of them.
For a more immediate answer, I would suggest getting involved in some kind of online community and making games alongside other people. Whether you’re actively collaborating, or just playing each other’s games and discussing your work, you’ll gain a great deal of insight into how other people have solved the same problems you face, how players perceive your games, and so on. Take part in events like Klik of the Month Klub, Ludum Dare, and the Global Game Jam. Enter the IGF! From the moment you publish your first game, the world is your burger!