“Okay guys! Check this idea out! I want to make a free-roaming FPS RPG where you can fully customize your arsenal with user generated weapons. You’ll be able to trade with allies and the entire economy will be player based. You can make your own guild or be a contract killer. There will be no load zones and the map will be roughly the size of Earth. Also, it’s going to be free to play and we will fund it by skimming money off of real money transactions.”
“That sounds like it would be hell to develop. How are you going to get all that stuff in one game?”
“Procedural generation dude! The whole thing’ll be like 15 megabytes!”
“Even if that was possible, you don’t know anything about coding or game design. Who’s going to do the actual development?”
“I’ll make a vision document and post an ad on Craigslist. Who wouldn’t want to be part of such an awesome project? I’ll just do the early stages of development while I wait for people to join the team.”
“But who’s going to pay your rent while you develop it?”
Maybe I’m exaggerating a bit, but from the perspective of most people who actually make video games this is what 99% of ideas sound like. Sure you might see yourself as a creative genius whose brilliance is just waiting for an outlet, but unless your idea can actually be made in a reasonable amount of time and is something more than your overactive imagination your revolutionary game will probably stay a pipe dream. You have to remember that your “friend who’s pretty good at coding” isn’t some kind of miracle worker. He’s not going to be happy doing all the work while you “supervise development” and think of new ideas. I’m not writing this to crush your dreams though. Indeed I think that given the robustness of the current indie gaming scene, there couldn’t be a better time to try out that new idea of yours. The road to making your first game may be full of disappointments (“You mean I actually have to have players to have a player based economy?”), and it will take more effort than faking your way through Adobe Photoshop, but in the end you’ll have the satisfaction of actually following through on something (and some valuable skills to put towards your next project). So, let’s get started!
What The Hell Can You Actually Do Anyways?
The 4th step of Alcoholics Anonymous is actually one of the very first in game design. Since you’ll be working with very limited human resources, you’re going to have to make an inventory of your own skills and what you can do to actually move a project along. At the Inaugural Baltimore Game Developers Beer Night I was told by many who had actually pursued their dream of game design that the most important thing to consider when trying to make a game outside the world of AAA titles and big publishers is what you yourself can bring to the table. Like any other venture, nobody wants to do the legwork for someone who refers to themselves as an “idea man”; or worse yet, a promoter. Imagine if I approached you with a great idea for a restaurant but I didn’t know the first thing about cooking, interior design, zoning laws, or finance. Would this seem like a worthwhile use of your time and money?
But what are the skills needed to create a game? Knowledge of a programming language or two is essential. If you don’t know the first thing about coding or have someone easily available who’s willing to participate, then you’d better have one hell of an idea. Coding isn’t something you’ll be able to learn on the fly either so this component really isn’t something you can ignore. You aren’t exactly up the river if you yourself can’t program though. If you’re good with 3d modeling or even better, animation, you’d definitely be an asset to any team. While not nearly as difficult as programming, modeling takes quite a bit of technique. If you’ve got a good sense of design and proportion, it might be something worth looking into. Writers have it comparatively easy in that they simply have to translate a skill they’ve already honed rather than learn a totally new one. While these are all elements essential to making a game, there’s one thing you truly need to consider:
Your Actual Idea
Most of the ideas that are put forth for new games tend to follow this formula: like ________ but with/without ________. You might think this is as kind of a derivative way of looking at new games but aside from the occasional flash of inspiration this is how most ideas are going to come across. It’s not a bad thing. Hell, major publishers have been doing it for years. Save for the occasional splash of inspiration, most games out there rely on mechanics that are fairly familiar to players. If you can’t seem to identify a game that your idea is at least somewhat similar to, there are two possibilities: you’re an utter genius who’s about to start fending off publishers or your idea is already out there and you just don’t know it. Boiling your idea down to some simple elements will usually make it easier to design for you but more importantly, anyone who you want to help you. Try to get to the point where you can sum up your idea without saying “uh.”
Another important consideration is what you and those working with you are capable of. As much as we’d like to think the lion’s share of Call of Duty’s budget was spent on advertising and voice actors, there are a lot of people who worked to make that game have the mass appeal it did. Cinematics don’t script themselves. It’s a similar case for MMOs and if you’re first attempt at game design is an MMO, good luck buddy. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but even MMOs from major studios are huge risks. Start with something that you and your team are familiar with and try to expand on it from there. Don’t look at it as compromise. It’s your first video game not your magnum opus. It’s an experiment.
To close I would like to give you a few links that might help you circumvent the need for an experienced coder. RPGMaker is a robust engine with a great deal of pregenerated content that serves as a template for your idea. While it might pigeonhole you into making some variation on a JRPG, that’s hardly the worst place to start. While not as intuitive as RPGMaker, GameSalad is a great jumping off point if you want to try your hand at creating a basic game. It might not teach you a programming language but you should get a good sense of what you can accomplish on your own.
I’m currently fishing around for interviews and I hope to continue this series on game design (you guys can send me the $158,922 by mail when you find the time). I’d love to get more in depth on this topic but I’m afraid I’m a bit of a learner myself. Much of the content for this article was culled from the developer meeting I attended last week as well as conversations I’ve held with friends in the business. If you have any suggestions for who to interview or you’re curious a particular aspect of game design, post in the comments and I’ll try my hardest to investigate.