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 like Unreal 3 (more for the new Unreal 4 Engine), but for most humans 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 barebones Pong-esque knockoff, an enthralling action game or RPG in the vain 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. Sure, we could walk you through the game-making process step-by-step, but our recommended software will hold your hand the entire way.
GameMaker (Windows/Mac OS X)
YoYo 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 that you can easily port the game to the iOS, Android, the Web (HTML 5), and desktop operating systems with no prior knowledge of coding or scripting language.
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 $200 a 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 his or her money. Now up to version 4.0, 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, if not 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 2012 titles created using Unity below. All in due time right?
* 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.
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