How to make a video game (experience not required)

Creating a video game is a daunting task.

Big name developers like Bungie, Ubisoft, and Treyarch have budgets reaching into the millions, as well as a staff of designers and programmers working around the clock to bring the next blockbuster to your doorstep. It’s an incredibly bustling market, one that frequently brings in more revenue than movies, and propels video games into the mainstream consciousness without ever batting an eye. Of course, that’s just one face of the video game industry.

We’ve seen a virtual barrage of indie games for consoles and mobile platforms in recent years, as small studios — sometimes with just one or two people — create inventive, emotional projects that push the boundaries of what a “game” can be. Journey, the stunning adventure game for the PlayStation 3 from developer thatgamecompany, took home six out of 10 awards at the 2013 Game Developers Choice Awards in San Francisco. Other hit titles, like Bastion and Minecraft, continue to showcase just how powerful indie gaming has become in recent years.

However, this is article isn’t here to tout the success of others; it’s here to help you create a success of your own to tout. Making an innovative and groundbreaking game is just as difficult as creating a hit song, if not more. It requires a combination of hard work and innovation, a perhaps a dash of genius to boot. We are in no way suggesting that just anyone can sit down and make a game like Super Meat Boy or Limbo off the bat. However, making a playable game is not as insane as you might think; it just takes a little bit of time and patience. Here’s our quick guide on how to make a (very simple) video game. No experience necessary.

Note: I designed a little 8-bit game of my own, titled “The DT Express Quest,” on behalf of Digital Trends to go along with the article. I had no previous experience crafting video games, nor did I invest any money into making the project, but it’s a working video game I can write home about after a mere 10 hours of trial-and-error tinkering. Windows users can give it a whirl and help boost my self-esteem. There may be other ports down the line.

Give it try by clicking the download link below:

DT Express Quest

Conceptualize the video game

First things first, think about what you’re doing before you plow full-steam ahead with your game. It may not be a necessary step if you are just tinkering, but it’s one we highly recommend if you want your game to contain at least an ounce or so of substance. It’s easy to fall prey to the curse of second guessing your ideas and wanting to go back and continually replace what you’ve done. You can easily get stuck in this pattern forever. Visualize the kind of game you want to make, but make sure it is within your limitations as an amateur game designer. Making a completely immersive 3D world on par with the likes of Skyrim and Bioshock is out of the question, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take the time to flesh out your game’s beginnings. Below are a few suggestions of things to think about from the get-go. Remember you can always expand later and change things later, but having the basics locked down will help.

  • Know the type of game you want to make (i.e. a platformer, shooter, RPG).
  • Know the budget. There are both free and premium options ripe for the taking.
  • Know the length. Keep it short or attempt something on the sprawling side?
  • Know the basic plot. It doesn’t have to be elaborate, just have a general idea of the game’s goal.
  • Know your skill level. Start with something simple and build from there.

404* The DT Express Quest Conceptualized: I knew I wanted to create an 8-bit, side-scrolling game incorporating our 404 page. And since we’ve recently become completely obsessed with coffee here at DT (seriously, our new coffee machine is so sophisticated it may become sentient and try to take over the world), I thought it fitting to throw that in the mix as well. I chose to keep the game short for the sake of the article, offering only one level and few obstacles as part of my video game endeavor – but I also knew that I wanted to expand it down the line. The plot fluctuated from time to time, but it always revolved around our CEO Ian Bell reclaiming the captured espresso machine at the end of the level and garnering points through coffee mugs. The cliche spikes and flame-throwing baddies were a must, as was that over-the-top 8-bit rendition of the Requiem for Dream theme (credit of Joel Pöllänen).

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.

Game Maker


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.

Check out Hamstarök, an endless runner featuring an armored hamster, and 8-Bit Boy, a somewhat lackluster take on Super Mario, for noteworthy titles created using the software.

Construct Game Maker


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.

Check out Dangerous Dungeons, a puzzle platformer, and the Super Meat Boy-inspired SkullFace for a couple prime examples of what can be done with the software.

Stencyl Game Maker


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.

Check the aforementioned endless, apocalyptic runner Canabalt and Blasting Agent, a Contra-like side shooter, for two popular games utilizing the open-source engine.

Flixel Game Maker


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.

Build the characters and environments

It’s time to get down to the nitty gritty and start building that game of yours. Video games are built around a cast of characters and interactive environments, whether it’s the moveable Pong paddle, Mario, or the Master Chief. Each one is designed a specific way for a specific purpose, giving each of them an easily distinguishable look and feel that makes them all standout hallmarks of their respective games.

There are multiple ways to go about creating a memorable cast, but we recommend sketching out your concepts in rudimentary form before fleshing them out in a more comprehensive fashion.

Most of the software we detailed in the previous section use 2D graphics, and for beginners this is probably best as there is an abundance of both royalty-free assets to use, and a plethora of programs for creating your own. However, if you’re going down the 3D route, we’ve got you covered there as well.

GIMP is a free open-source alternative to Photoshop.
GIMP is a free open-source alternative to Photoshop.

It might seem obvious, but regardless of if you’re working in two dimensions or three, Adobe’s entire suite of editing programs — but specifically Photoshop — will be a major boon for your game. However, these programs can be quite expensive, so if you’re trying to spend as little money as possible, there is a free alternative in GIMP, which is free on Windows, Mac OS, and Linux. With GIMP, you’ll be able to perform essentially all the same operations that you would with Photoshop — though you’ll need to learn the program’s idiosyncrasies. Whether you go with GIMP or Photoshop, a powerful image editing tool will let you create the art assets for you game, be that characters, backgrounds, menus, etc.

If you’re going the sprite-based look, but don’t want to use Photoshop or GIMP, there are several options for creating pixel art. GraphicsGale is a program that is used to create and animate 2D sprites. The program is relatively cheap (about $20), and has an easy to learn user interface. It will take time to master, but the advantage to using GraphicsGale for your sprite work is that the program is specifically tailored for that art style.

For those of you looking to make a game that uses 3D models, you’re in luck: the two most popular pieces of 3D modeling software, Maya and Blender, are available for free on Windows and Mac. These programs can be difficult to learn, but they are industry standard for game development (especially Maya), so learning how render 3D graphics will be a massive boon if you’re looking to get into game development professionally. Like the other more advanced, 3D model-based programs, these take some time to learn and master, but due to their wide-spread use and robust online communities, tutorials and guides are easy to find.

Maya 2015
Maya 2015

* Building the DT Express Quest characters and environment.  Again, I wanted to create a game loosely based on our DT 404 page. Thus I altered Digital Trends’ CTO Dan Gaul and CEO Ian Bell in Photoshop CS3, giving Dan wings and changing their feet positions to mimic movement, before adding them to GameMaker as PNG sprites. I ripped the grayish background directly from the 404 page and tiled it to appropriately encapsulate the size of the level. The spikes, coffee mugs, solid blocks and other objects were created the same way. I’m no artist, but 8-bit graphics aren’t the toughest things to work with. Below are what the character sprites looked like in Photoshop.

Dan and Ian


Tinker with and publish the game

We can’t emphasize enough how much of your video game relies on the trial-and-error process. There’s going to be a great deal of simple things you want to do, but can’t wrap your head around how to accomplish them. Don’t fret, your game isn’t going anywhere. Take the time to peruse the software forums — they’ll provide you with anything and everything you need to know — and don’t get discouraged when things don’t click right away. You’re probably not on a deadline.

dt-game-625x1000 (1)

That’s it! Once you feel you’re game is ready for the market, however big or little, publish it. Each game-making program offers different publishing options based on the software version you’re running and whether you opted for the premium or light edition. You can always publish your game to another platform later, so don’t worry if you can only port it to one device, or only offer it only as an .EXE file. Share your creation with others and continue to build upon your success (or failure).

* Publishing the DT Express Quest. We chose not to purchase any software, so our publishing options were limited. We also chose to distribute as .EXE file, though the more robust versions of GameMaker allow ports for the desktop, mobile devices and even consoles.

What did you think of our guide on how to make a video game? Better yet, how did you like our little video game? Let us know in the comments below and be sure to share with us some of your own creative endeavors.

Editors' Recommendations

Gaming