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How to make video games (Part-1)

There is no science to making video games but over the years people have discovered some common patterns that can be reused across teams when making games.
Raman McLeod image
Raman McLeod

Video games are a spectrum - they can range from a simple computer implementation of tic-tac-toe to extremely complex, realistic looking and open world role-playing games (RPG) with branching narratives like Skyrim. When making a game, therefore, you first need to answer what kind of game you want to make.

The answer to this question is, often, the primary gameplay experience you are giving the player. You want players to shoot opponents with a gun? You want to make a shooter. Do you have a narrative or a storyline that evolves with the player's character and choices? You want to build an RPG. You want the player to move around left to right on the screen with, perhaps, jumping in order to complete certain tasks? You want to make a side-scroller. Many modern games combine different gameplay experiences and layer them together.

Once you have an answer for the kind of game you want to make. You need to figure out the skill required and the effort involved to make the game. A simple game like tic-tac-toe can be developed by an individual in an evening given some computer programming knowledge whereas larger games require teams of people having specialised skill sets spanning art, sound, VFX and programming to name a few. Though there have been instances of individuals making entire games with lots of content. The popular farming simulation game Stardew Valley was created single handedly by Eric Barone over the course of five years.

Stardew Valley: Game screenshot

Stardew Valley: Night market scene. The entirety of the game was made by a single developer.

If you are convinced that you (and your team, if any) can contribute with the skills that are required to make the game, you can switch over to pre (or paper) production. Here you refine and flesh out your game idea on paper. This will help the team develop clarity on the game that is being built and the tasks that need to be done in order to build this. 

The actual production of a video game is a time consuming and costly affair and pre-production phase helps you reduce the number of iterations needed during the production ensuring the team does not overshoot it’s timeline or budget. The pre-production phase helps to flesh out some of the most important aspects of your game.

Mechanics

While the primary gameplay defines the kind of the game you are making. The mechanics define the constraints within which the player operates in the game and the rules that are imposed upon them.

In a shooter, for example, the mechanics can restrict the distance the bullet can travel when shot from the gun, the damage to health when the bullet strikes or the consequences if you, accidentally, shoot an ally. In a game of chess, the mechanics define the rules of movement of each piece on the board. 

Defining the mechanics is a creative process and game designers over the years have experimented with it a lot. Toying not just with the rules of the game but also modifying physics of the environment they are playing in. 

The Playstation (PS) exclusive game, Gravity Rush, allowed the player to control the gravity of the environment in order to maneuver. In the well received indie game, Superhot, time moves only when the player moves. Innovative and experimental mechanics often originate from small indie studios and Game Jams.

This is a critical aspect of the game which will, for many, decide if the game is fun or not and define the uniqueness of your game which differentiates it from other games with similar gameplay mechanics. The mechanics of your game will not stop with pre-production but evolve continuously as you implement and play-test them. Some of them may not turn out to be fun or feel tedious during playtesting and you might end up discarding or overhauling them.

Mechanics will also define the controls that the player will use to interact with the game. This is not just the specific buttons they need to press to trigger certain actions but also their sensitivity and responsiveness. Poorly designed and implemented controls can often lead to a broken experience in an otherwise great game. Controls will usually be iterated upon multiple times during the implementation phase and tweaked incessantly until the play-testing experience is satisfactory.

Gravity Rush: Game screenshot

Gravity Rush: The mechanics grant the main character powers to control the effect of gravity on herself.

Superhot: Game screenshot

Superhot: The time in this first person shooter only moves when you move.

Art & Aesthetics

You need to define how the game looks and feels visually. This usually starts with conceptualization of the art and character styles. You could opt for realistic or stylized.

In realistic art, the lighting, shading and proportions of all living and non-living objects in the game mimic that of the real world. The margin for error is limited and effort required is significantly more. In stylized art, you have a lot of creative liberty to define the lighting, shading and proportions of the objects and the environment in your game. You can also tune the style to suit the budget and skill constraints you are operating with.

The concepts could be derived from the storyline of your game, for example, if the game is based in medieval Italy, you can research and draw inspiration from the architecture, environment and culture aspects like dressing, interiors, food etc. Alternatively, you can improvise to attain a specific style. For example, the indie action game Broforce utilizes a pixelated style.

During this stage, the art team works in close collaboration with the writers to answer questions pertaining to worldbuilding aspects of the game like what do people wear? What are means of transportation available in this world? How does signage (font, graphics) look like in this world? What are the kitchen utensils in this world etc.?

The output of this stage can be used directly in production for 2D games or needs to be passed along to 3D/VFX artists to model them using tools like Blender, Maya etc. and assemble in the game engine.

In part two of this series, we will cover audio & music, production tooling and programming.