Choose the proper software
If you have a few spare hundred thousand dollars and a background in professional programming, you can always license a true game engine, but for most civilians that just isn’t realistic. Assuming you don’t want to start completely from scratch, you need to choose the proper game-making software that suits your level in order to get the job done. There are plenty of both free and premium options to choose from, and each features its own set of merits and tools for creating a video game of your own design. Below are some of the best options available at your fingertips, whether you’re looking to construct a bare-bones Pong-esque knockoff, an enthralling action game or RPG in the vein of The Legend of Zelda or EarthBound, or something much more ambitious. Each comes coupled with tutorials, engaging forums, and inclusive how-to guides for making games so you’re never truly on your own.
RPG Maker VX Ace, IG Maker, and GG Maker (Windows)
As you might have gathered from the name, RPG Maker VX is a program for creating 2D, sprite-based role playing games in the vein 90s Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest games.
While you won’t be able to deviate too much from the assets included in the program (custom graphic assets can be imported or made within the program’s art editor, but that may be beyond the skills of many first-time makers), RPG Maker VX could be a great way to familiarize yourself with the concepts of level and combat design, as well as storytelling and how to balance all of these aspects in your game. RPGs are beloved by fans for their deep gameplay, but behind the scenes when creating role playing games, the most difficult part is programming the game’s systems. RPG Maker VX does the heavy lifting for you, allowing you to focus on the systems themselves rather than building and coding the engine so it all works.
RPG Maker VX Ace is available directly from their website, as well as on Steam, for $69.99, but a trial version is available as well. There is also a free version, RPG Maker VX Ace Lite, but the features are heavily restricted compared to the paid version. Still, even if you pick up the free version, you’ll have a solid set of tools for making what would otherwise be a complicated video game. And you can upgrade at any time should you decide that you want to go all-in and access the full features of the paid version.
IG Maker is another program from Kadokawa and Dedica, and takes RPG Maker’s template format and simple user interface and applies them to different genres — specifically 2D platformers and action RPGs. IG maker allows for more flexibility than RPG Maker when it comes to visuals and gameplay, but is still rather limited in terms of just how much you can do with your games. That’s not to say IG Maker isn’t a good option for making games; in fact, the limitations imposed on the user actually makes it more difficult to “break” a game.
You’ll have to learn some simple coding here and there in order to get the most out of your game, but the lion’s share of the programming work is handled by IG Maker itself. For the most part, you’ll be dealing with drop down menus and editing numbers here and there.
GameMaker (Windows/Mac OS X)
GameMaker is a comprehensive tool that allows users to create lush, 2D games without any prior programming knowledge. Like anything else, the program has a bit of a learning curve, but the active community and wealth of online tutorials help guide users through the process of creating everything from platformers to side-scrolling shooters with relative ease. The light version of the software is freely available, but the more robust features and exporting options require premium versions of the software that can run an upwards of $500. The program’s interface is also not the most visually enticing — think Microsoft Word circa 2000 — but the software remains an excellent tool given the general ease with which games can be made. You can easily build and port games to the iOS, Android, the Web (HTML 5), desktop operating systems, and more with no prior knowledge of coding or scripting language.
GameMaker was used by games-journalist-turned-indie-developer (an inspiration to many of us), Tom Francis, to make Gunpoint, a fantastic stealth action game that was Nominated for multiple BAFTA awards. This is just one example of popular games made with GameMaker, including Hotline Miami, Stealth Bastard, Risk of Rain, and the upcoming Hyper Light Drifter.
Construct 2 (Windows)
Like GameMaker, Scirra’s Construct 2 is another premium software program that comes coupled with an active, informative user community, and an admirable trial version that should more than suffice for those new to the field. The HMTL5-based game engine, an alternative to other web animation tools like Java and Adobe Flash, is specifically designed to create a wealth of 2D games, from platformers to hack-and-slash arcade classics. The games can be instantly previewed and ported to PC, Mac, Linux, the Chrome Web Store, the Firefox Marketplace, and both iOS and Android app stores for ultimate compatibility and ease of use across devices. The interface and game-development simplicity leaves GameMaker in the dust, but that does mean the innate tools and utilities are sub par. The built-in event system allows users to quickly program movement and other actions sans coding while the flexible structure opens the door for greater control and vivid visuals. The premium version will only run you about $120 and unlocks the software’s full potential, but the commercial package will cost you nearly $400.
Stencyl (Windows/Mac OS X/Linux)
More than 120,000 registered developers have used Stencyl, publishing more than 10,000 games across a variety of major platforms including Windows, Mac, iOS, and Android. Although the simple software doesn’t require any code knowledge of any kind, more tech-savvy types can write software code to tap into the more advanced features and environmental behaviors that are otherwise stripped down to a skeletal frame. The drag-and-drop game designer sports a clean interface and a vigorous feature that utilities custom-made “actors,” either of your own creation or from the Stencyl Forge, a built-in online marketplace that opens up a world of collaboration and sharing amongst diehard Stencyl users. Unlike other software on our roundup, the program is offered as a subscription service, with a $200 per year fee for the most expansive package, but various discounts are available for students and other users. The software is commercially driven — meaning the creators continually tout it as a lucrative way to make a quick buck opposed to merely a fun experience — but you are by no means obligated to submit your game for sponsorship or as one of the company’s heartwarming success stories.
Flixel (Open source)
Flixel, an open-source game maker that is entirely free for both personal and commercial use, birthed the likes of Canabalt and other Flash-based hits that frequently end up on our best-of game lists. It’s built from the ground up with Actionscript 3, the third version of the of the object-oriented programming language designed for controlling 2D vector animation, but is compatible with a wide selection of free development tools that render the software one of the most customizable to date. Flixel shines when creating film-strip style animations and 2D side-scrollers that feature a relatively fixed perspective, but is not capable of tackling the intricate world of 3D modeling and level design. Still, using tilemaps to create levels is intuitive and fulfilling, as are the plethora of camera functions, the pathfinding design, and the ability to save games. The open-source aspect of the software does increase the learning curve (C-styling programming knowledge helps), but that shouldn’t be a major deterrent since the program is free and resourceful. Flixel hasn’t been substantially updated in some time, but users haven’t given up hope on the potential release of version 3.0.
Unity (Windows/Mac OS X/Linux)
Rest assured we didn’t forget about the overly ambitious, first-time game makers on our list. Unity is a fully-fledged development suite designed for building impressive 3D games on a budget. The free version of the software can be used for personal and commercial use, but you will have to shell out some cash ($1,500) for the pro version if you aspire to make commercial games as more than a hobby. The free version is generous enough though, and chock-full of features and complex design elements that will even give a veteran game maker a run for their money. Now up to version 5.0, the powerful software touts ports for 10 different platforms — including desktop and mobile versions — and is capable of delivering high-fidelity audio and video that rivals modern household-name games. Despite being one of the best 3D game-making software for the money, it’s not for the faint of heart and is best avoided until you have a little more experience under your belt. Check out some of the noteworthy titles created using Unity 5 below. All in due time, right?
Unreal Engine 4 (Windows/Mac OS X/Lunx)
Game developer Epic’s widely used Unreal Engine has long been a powerful standard of AAA game development. Previous versions of the engine powered games like Gears of War, the Batman: Arkham series, and hundreds of others. The latest version of the engine, Unreal Engine 4, is being used to create Kingdom Hearts III, Unreal Tournament, and Dragon Quest XI — some of the highly anticipated games of the current console generation. Like Unity 5, it might be outside the realm of what most first-time game makers are comfortable with. That said, it is by far the best option if you’re looking to create professional-level 3D games. Recently, Epic made Unreal Engine 4 free to download and use for everyone, making the barrier to entry a bit less daunting. There is a bit of a catch when it comes to making money off of the games you make (Epic will take a five-percent royalty cut), but given how wide-spread the use of the engine is, and the plethora of resources and tutorials available for creators of all levels, Unreal Engine 4 is an attractive option.
* The DT Express Quest software. I chose to use free, trial version of GameMaker to create our video game. It seemed the best bet, aside for Construct 2, given the program’s simplicity and various publishing options. The watermark in the upper left-hand corner is a drawback, but there’s something to be said for a program you use fairly easily after one or two tutorials.