Oh, hi! It’s you again. The person reading this. Cool! That’s great. Really nice work. I’m really glad to see you again. How’s the wife and kids? Oh, you don’t have a wife and kids? That’s news.

Just kidding! I can’t actually hear you. I’m in the past.  

So, what’s this I hear you wanna make a game? A videogame or just a game? Oh, a videogame! Cool cool cool cool cool. No, yeah, I know a couple of things about it, definitely. In my previous life I was a Game Designer. Oh, I guess I should start with:

First of all, what is a Game Designer?

When you think of design, many people’s first thought is of visual or graphic work, like logos or webpages. However, many different things can be designed, and it covers much more ground than just the visual aspect. For example: A toy designer has to come up with not only the visual identity for a toy, but also how the child is expected to play with it, how it can be stored with other toys and which ages it’s meant for. A kitchen appliance designer will have to come up with how the tool is meant to be used, how many other ways it can be used and (again) how it’s meant to be stored!

Often, people come up to me and say “I’ve got this great idea for a game. It’s about a curse on a mansion and it’s been there for centuries and you need to find out what’s causing it.” First of all, I’ll say “That’s great!” because I genuinely believe it’s a great idea worth exploring and humans are wonderful creatures with never ending creativity and that, by itself, is worthy of admiration. But, quickly after I’ll add “But, how is it played?” Thus, a Game Designer comes up with how a game is played.

This is, of course, the basic thing every game must do well. A taco can be beautiful, but if it does not taste good, it is not a good taco. So, if you are creating a game, first think about how the game is played, because if it is boring, you’ve already failed. If we revisit our haunted mansion idea, we can start thinking about fun things we could do in a mansion. Maybe it’s an exploration game! Maybe the player must collect items throughout the mansion (keys to open doors, letters that slowly reveal the story, hidden gems.) Maybe there’s monsters and/or creepy ghosts! Let your imagination run wild.

A taco can be beautiful,
but if it does not taste good,
it is not a good taco
- Heberto Moreno, 2021

In this stage, it’s useful to think in terms of what actions the player can do in the game. Mario games (almost every one of them where he isn’t having a party, driving go-karts or playing sports) are based around the action of jumping. That is almost the only action the player can do in the game, and it is the basis for how the character interacts with the world around him. Jump under a block, a mushroom comes out. Jump on an enemy, you kill him. At the end of a level there’s a flag you have to forcefully jump to grab on to. Jump into a hole in the ground, you die.

Some game designers just go “The game is about shooting stuff” and call it a day (looking at you, every first-person game about shooting stuff ever made) but ask yourself this: Do you open doors in your game by shooting? NO? Then, that is wasteful game design and you should think about your life choices!

So, think about what the player does in your game. Does your player have to walk? (I hear you saying, “Every video game character walks, Heberto!” but hey: Tetris.) Do they shoot stuff? Maybe they climb (like in Zelda: Breath Of The Wild.) Maybe they ride horses (like in Red Dead Redemption.) Maybe they solve puzzles or throw axes or dance. If you start with this, it’ll be much easier to define how your player interacts with the world and other characters or players.

Once you know how your game is played, and you can almost picture the game happening inside your mind, you’re ready to start learning how to make it a reality.

So, what does your game look like?

Alright, so now that you can see the game in your mind, let’s answer a couple of questions about it.

  • Is it in 3D(Uncharted, Mario 64 and Call Of Duty) or 2D (Castlevania, Spelunky and Binding Of Isaac)?
  • Is it in First Person (Doom and/or every shooter ever, Gone Home, Firewatch) or Third Person (Fortnite, most of the Resident Evil games, Spyro, Mario etc.)
  • Is it meant to be played alone or with others?
  • Is it meant to be realistic? cartoonish? abstract.

Let’s go back to our haunted mansion example. It’s in 3D (because we want to be able to explore like it was a real house.) It’s in the first person (because we’ll only see what our player would see in the game world.) It’s meant to be played alone, and we’ll try to make it as realistic as we can so we can scare the player efficiently (Note here that it’s not necessary for a game to be realistic to be scary, but it helps.)

Time to choose a game engine

The game engine is a piece of software (or tool) that has already been designed to make it easier for you to make a game. Normally, programming the kinds of systems that a great game requires could take years: The lighting, the movement of the player, the behavior of enemies and environments, different characters and how they are controlled, all take a lot of time to develop. The great big games you and your friends have played were the result of a massive effort exerted by a group of people working towards a common goal. Some of those people decided that others could take advantage of the tools they developed, and that’s usually how you get a game engine.

I want to take a minute here to note that all of the tools here will require you to do at least a little bit of coding. It’s usually unavoidable in the game-making world. However, I’ve got some good news: It’s relatively painless to learn and, once you know how to do it, it’ll help you achieve your vision accurately and efficiently. So get it out of the way now, and impress your friends and family by learning to code. Code a digital birthday card for your grandma or something.

That said, here’s a list of my favorite game engines and what they could be used for:

  • Unity

The king of game engines recently, Unity is great for making quick 3D prototypes. It has a great community and an asset store containing everything you need to make a game from character models and animations to sounds and entire levels. Many of the questions you could have while learning how to use it have been answered either in their own forums or somewhere on the internet. It’s great for 3D modelers, designers and even physicists that want to transition into game development.  A simple youtube search will return millions of tutorials to make anything you want. Its physics system is really fun to use. It’s also free to download and use as long as you’re by yourself, and not making that much money (which, if you’re reading this, I’m assuming you are.)

Downsides: Its interface and workflow can be confusing at first, and that some things that are really easy to do in other engines (like Unreal Engine) are a pain in the ass on Unity. I can’t tell you which things, because I don’t remember. Sue me.

Games made with Unity: Cuphead, Ori and the Blind Forest, Pokemon Go.

  • GameMaker

My personal favorite! GameMaker is great for 2D games and for giving your first steps into game development. Prototyping is very quick and easy once you get the hang of the tool. Many great games have been made with it. (Note: Many great games have been made with any of these engines, but GameMaker has a special place in my heart.)

Like Unity, it’s a fairly liked and popular engine and it includes helpful tutorials to quickly get you on your game-making way.

Downside: It costs money! What am I, Scrooge McDuck?! Swimming around in CASH??? Of course not!!! Anyway sorry, it’s totally worth the 40 dollar price of admission but the farther you go (for example if you wanna make your game playable on PS5 or Nintendo Switch) the more money you’ll have to pay.

Games made with GameMaker: Hotline Miami, Downwell, Hyper Light Drifter

  • Unreal Engine

The Queen of Engines! If you’ve played video games, you’ve probably played a game made on Unreal Engine. This is the game engine for adults, packing everything from complicated sound systems to gorgeous lighting and efficiency in one big, hard to learn and master package. Your games will definitely take longer to make (especially by yourself) but this is the tool for professionals. Also: It’s tremendously free, unless you start raking in that sweet sweet cash. In that case, Epic Games gets 5% of said cash. Very smart people, these Epic Games peeps.

Games made with Unreal Engine: (Too many to name!) Batman: Arkham Asylum, Gears of War, Borderlands, the FF7 remake

  • Twine

Honorable mention to Twine! Twine is a tiny text-based game engine; useful for making interesting little games about choices. Think of it like a choose-your-own-adventure book maker. It was used to write the outline for Black Mirror: Bandersnatch and it’s very fun to use if you’re a story-first person. Also it’s super freeeeeeeee.

Games made with Twine: Black Mirror Bandersnatch

Once you familiarize yourself with your game engine of choice, it’s time to start learning and developing your game. We will explore the different stages of game development in Part 2 of this blog post, since this one is already turning out to be too long for our humble little blog. There are many things to take into account, like physics, shaders (which control how things look in your game), AI and much more. This post should get you started anyway! Think about what kind of game you want to make, and research the different tools to get there! Easy!

Meanwhile, if you have any questions, feel free to hit me up at my twitter @NikolasMurdock or my instagram (same handle) or by email or whatever. Hit me up, is what I’m saying. Let’s chat.