One Way of Making a Game

I thought I could write at least one post on the process of making a game. A lot of this I’m doing for my own reference later on, I must admit – but perhaps it’ll be of interest to or even useful to someone else. Can safely say I’ve no idea whether the way I’ve been approaching making games is entirely average or an aberration or something in between.

Alright. So first of all I have an idea. It’s usually in the form of some kind of one-liner, either like a joke or an elevator pitch to myself. “A game about how God’s job of judging humanity is a drag.” “A game about following the safety instructions on a plane.” “A game version of a performance artwork.” And so on. I generally try to write these ideas down somewhere because otherwise I forget them. I have a relatively large backlog and try not to worry if I don’t have any brand new ideas for a while (though I worried about it a bit the other day).

Then I decide to work on idea X. That means working out a tiny bit more what the implications of the “joke” are. What do you need to have in order to follow safety instructions? What would happen in the performance art game? I suppose this amounts to determining a basic “mechanic” for the game, the underlying interaction (and there’s usually just the one in my games so far!) that the player will be engaged in, and how that mechanic/interaction connects with the idea itself. Clicking dialog boxes captures both judgement and drudgery. Waiting in a queue is a form of performance itself. Typing sentences can capture some of the panic of a plane crash.

Because my games and ideas are usually so very simple, at this point the game is almost totally done in a weird way. It’s not like I tend to have massive technically challenges (other than some music synching for ZORBA, I guess). Instead, the pain of it is that I’m not the strongest programmer, so writing the simple code needed to implement the idea takes me a bit of time. And then in parallel of course there’s the content production, particularly the arduous process of drawing and animating sprites, making music and sound effects, and putting all that together in the game. Safety Instructions led me to swear off sprite animation, then I did it again. Immediately. Because it’s actually pretty satisfying, if endless.

Somewhere in there, though, there are all sorts of decisions that I don’t make consciously or systematically. The systematic bit is just: have ideas, choose an idea, work out the mechanic/interaction and scenario, work out how to code it, work out the assets, do the code and assets roughly in parallel, put it together, done. During that period though, there’s things like selecting a particular aesthetic style for a game – even within pixelly looks there are different approaches (compare Safety Instructions with Let’s Play: Ancient Greek Punishment, for instance). I don’t choose those things, so much as I doodle in my notebook and in Pixen and eventually just forge ahead with something that roughly works. Likewise there are sound effects – I choose the ones that sound good enough to me pretty quickly (and I think the sound design often suffers for that). And there are actually a lot of texts to write, now that I think about it. Instructions, narrative bits, title screens, etc. And I do actually agonise over that stuff. I find myself writing and rewriting anything textual – I guess because I always wanted to be a writer (okay, fine, I am a writer).

Out of that very systematic process and those very internal, subconscious decisions comes a game. I suspect that the simplicity of the basic “game programming” and “conceptualisation” is advantageous in the sense that it leaves a lot of free thinking time for aesthetics and particular tweaks of that might influence the player’s experience. If I were more caught up in systems programming or doing clever things with code, I imagine I’d simply not have the energy to rewrite the title of the game for the umpteenth time, for instance. And then Let’s Play: Ancient Greek Punishment would have been called The Greek Futility Games. And that’s not as good, is it?

Alright. That’s enough of that. Not clear to me what I just accomplished, but it’ll have to do.

10 January 2012
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