There is no magic in making games

Game Design

A game starts with an idea. You want to communicate something, you want to make a person an experience, you want a person to feel something, or maybe you just want to create something fun or interesting. Fill in the blanks, throw in some game mechanics and art, mix it all with months of work, and you have yourself a game. There is really no magic there. It’s just a lot of patience, a lot of trial and error, and a lot of passion.

Of course, the description I gave is an oversimplification, and the most interesting part lies in the details, in the specifics of each game, and in the characters of the people who are making the game. Personally, I’ve been making games since I was 13 years old. It started as an innocent hobby: drawing lines and circles in QBasic. You add some animation, some interactivity, and you’ve got yourself a game. Again, no magic. Since then I’ve been slowly improving my skills. I’ve made many games, all of them incomplete; all of them abandoned half-way. Anytime I felt like I learned enough, or I wanted to move on to something more fun, I would drop the current project and start anew.

It takes 10,000 hours to become really good at anything. If you only spend one hour a day on something, it will take you approximately 27 years to become really good at it. It’s a lot of repetition, and a lot of trying to achieve higher and more interesting goals. You keep starting over and over with a clean slate, hoping to nail it down perfectly this time around, but each time it’s like making an ice sculpture in a desert. Everything starts to melt, you lose details and focus, and eventually you decide to scrap it and start anew. There is really no getting around it, everyone has to go through it. But one day…

One day you wake up, and you say, “This is it! I’m going to make a good game, and I’m going to stick with it until I finish it. I’m not abandoning this one.” And you try your absolute best to finish it, and then you fail. You fail because your statue has completely melted, you are sweating, and meanwhile you keep thinking about this other awesome idea that you have, that would make a totally great game. So you move on. And on. And on. And every so often you try to commit, but you don’t. Until one day…

One day you do. And you finish your game, and by anyone’s judgment this could be called a finished game. A Real Game. And on that day you feel like a true game programmer, a true game designer, a true artist. You’ve seen a project from inception to finish. You’ve seen all the stages. You’ve verified that there is no magic.

Now, if you’ve started this process early, you have probably done most of these games yourself. Towards the end, where you meet other people who are close to your level (most likely in college), you start to cooperate with them. Yet, you look at the AAA games, and you think, “Why are our games nowhere as good? The graphics aren’t close, the art isn’t as good, the game isn’t as polished. Everything is just off. Surely the big companies have a secret that they guard well, that allows them to make the kind of games they do.” So you get an internship at such a company, and you look at what they do, and you notice…

You notice they are not doing anything differently! Nothing at all! They just have more experienced people: people who can anticipate problems, people who know how to correct certain problems, people who’ve done this kind of stuff for years. But, fundamentally, what they are doing is completely normal. No magic! So you learn from them, and you learn on your own, and you continue to do what you’ve always done: make games. Slowly you start making games that people like, that people think are polished, that people genuinely enjoy, and then one day…

One day you make it big. Everybody plays your game, and everyone learns your name. People think you just magically appeared out of nowhere with this magical talent. And most people will never see those other half-finished games you’ve made, which is probably for the best. Most people will assume you have some special talent that allows you to make games. They’ll ask, “How did you do it? What’s the secret?” And you…

You can look at them and smile.

Chronicles of an Indie Game Developer

cologames

From our, in their own words series John Newton from Cologames talks about his life as an indie game devekoper.

I’m a Flash developer releasing my games on my website ColoGames alongside a selection of other games. I make the best games ever and the worst, the hardest and the easiest. I’m a great developer and a bad one. My games are loved and hated. Life as an indie game developer can be brutal. Whenever I release a new game I watch with excitement as people rate and comment on my creation and I realise it’s impossible to please everyone. The comments can be nice and horrible, no one ever agrees. But the fact that I made the whole game myself, all art, design, and code makes the comments personal.

I’m not making a game as part of a big team. I can make whatever I want; it doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad. It’s the freedom to do what I want that makes being an indie developer special. Of course I don’t do this fulltime, otherwise I would have to rely on the income from the games, be forced to develop certain genres and be sure they were perfect before release.

I’ve always wanted to make video games but never thought I could. I didn’t know how to make them and I didn’t know anyone who could help me. This was long before the internet began. After high school I studied physics at university and learned to program in C/C++ at the same time the internet became accessible. I suddenly realised I had the math skills and programming knowledge to make games!

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I spent months learning more about game development and improving my programming knowledge before applying for a couple of jobs at local game developers. For my first interview I was told to download a GameBoy emulator, learn Z80 assembly language and produce a simple demo for the GameBoy in a weekend! I was so enthusiastic that I spent all weekend making the best demo I could. I got offered the job but amazingly I also had a job offer from the other company to work on a top selling PlayStation game, which I accepted immediately.

And so my career as a game developer began. I spent over 11 years working for several top game companies and have worked inCanada,Swedenand theUK. I estimate I’ve been credited on games selling about 30-40 million copies. So why do I now spend time making Flash games?

I still work for a major game company as a game programmer and often work 50-70 hours a week but I have little say over game design and I could never make any game art. I decided to make Flash games whenever I have spare time because they can be quick to make and release. I’ve also made two iPhone games but I had to spend much longer making them of a higher quality and it’s not fun submitting a game through Apple and then trying to promote the game so people see it. It’s much easier for people to see a Flash game and because my spare time is so limited it’s really my only option. It’s fun designing games and making the artwork without having the pressure to make it perfect. Most of the games I’ve released have been made in a short time. I have a few unreleased games that require weeks or months of work to finish so I haven’t released them.

bow battle

My latest game ‘Bow Battle’ is probably my best attempt at game art and it’s given me the confidence to try a bigger game with more art. Programming the games is never a problem, as long as I have the time to do it, but I like to spend time improving my art skills and hope to do some 3D modelling and animation at some point.

I’m about to start a new project which will probably take a while to make. But it’ll be nice to actually make a high quality Flash game that has some depth and is popular. No matter how good or popular my game is there will be negative comments but it’ll be my creation, a whole game created by me and hopefully loved by many.

ColoGames

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Ten Questions: Vince Twelve of xii games

x_games

Vince Twelve, the evil mastermind behind xii games, the creators of such innovative, excellent, very freeware and quite indy adventure games as Anna, What Linus Bruckman Sees When His Eyes Are Closed and Spooks, gets interviewed. Right here. By a gnome. Read on, read on…

1. So, is it Vince Twelve or Vince xii? Oh, and do please add a bit of further personal info to spice things up… The tabloids will love you.

I am not Vince the Twelfth. I do not come from a long line of Vinces. I am Vince Twelve. However, if you want to save a few keystrokes, roman numerals will do.

Quick personal run-down: I’m 24, married, have a one-year-old daughter, and I live in Japan where I teach English in a Junior High School. And for the benefit of the tabloids: I’m dating Jennifer Aniston, have an eating disorder, a drug problem, an illegitimate love-child, and I’m gay. How’s that for spicy?

2. Are you more of a game designer, a programmer or even (don’t deny it) an evolving visual artist?

I’d like to someday be able to say, “Hi, I’m Vince Twelve. I’m a game designer.” But I don’t know if I’m allowed to do that yet. I have a piece of paper in the form of a college degree that proves that I can program. There’s very little subjectivity there. But proving that you can design is a very different thing.

As long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to design games. The only way I can prove to myself that I’m capable in that regard, however, is to release games and get feedback from the players. That’s why I’m always starving for any kind of feedback I can get.

As far as being an artist… while I’m quite pleased with the final looks of both Anna and Linus, I don’t have the artistic skill that I need to realize some of the games that I’d like to make. Plus I take way too long to draw anything. I’m learning as I go, but it’s a slow process.

3. Xii games. Quite a few people have been credited in your three (brilliant) games. Is it indeed a group or are people just coming and going?

Well, Anna was completely a solo outing, but I made the game entirely in a week, so I wasn’t lonely for long.

Spooks was definitely an amazing team effort, but it was still Erin’s baby. She designed, wrote, and drew everything. I joined the project after her previous programmer vanished and took all the game’s code along with him. Erin and I were in constant communication for the next few months as she finished up art and animation and I put the whole thing together. Chris Moorson was also there the whole time working on music and sound.

For Linus, I was back in the designer’s chair. After I worked up a working prototype of the game, I got Nikolas Sideris on board to do the music. But he ended up being much more than just a musician. I sent him updates throughout the development for suggestions and motivation. He was really awesome. The third major member of the Linus team was my wife, who wrote all the Japanese translations as well as providing a lot of support (and if you finished the game and saw the super-secret ending: that was her playing the sexy nurse!). It was really great to be able to share my love for making games with my wife. I definitely plan on involving her in more of my projects.

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4.From Anna to What Linus Bruckman Sees When His Eyes Are Closed… What’s next? A paragraph long name?

What’s in a name? As the bard wrote: “A game by any other name would still not emit any odor, because it’s really just a collection of ones and zeros and not a tangible object.” Or something like that…

Yeah, I was totally pleased with the long name. I thought it up really early in development and it just seemed appropriately strange… and it makes more sense if you see the super-secret ending!

5.Right. Names aside, what’s more impressive is your tendency to constantly innovate. Anna is quite possibly the only 3D, keyboard controlled AGS adventure, and Linus really did something never attempted before. So, how important is innovation? Do you believe gamers are actually interested in it?

I do think that innovation is important, but I don’t think it’s necessary in every game. A lot of people are making games with more consideration for nostalgia than innovation, and that’s perfectly fine. Afterall, refining and perfecting old ideas can be just as important as coming up with new ones. If you’re making a game, especially a freeware game, you only have to answer to yourself, so you can make the kind of game that you want to make.

That being said, freeware game makers are in a unique position to innovate. Since they don’t have significant money invested in the game, it isn’t such a big deal if their clever, innovative idea doesn’t work so well in a game as it did in their head. Compared to a big developer with millions of dollars invested in a title’s success, or even a small developer who scraped together every last penny they could find to fund their game, this is a big opportunity to take some risks and try something new.

As for the gamers’ interest in innovation, I suppose that depends on how successful the innovation turns out to be. Afterall, “innovation” implies “new” not necessarily “fun”. I do think that most gamers are always on the lookout for something unique and exciting, and when that new idea turns out to be genuinely fun, you have a real gem of a game. I think Linus was moderately successful in this regard.

anna

6.Linus, well WLBSWHEAC, lets the player simultaneously play two games and experience two stories and two totally different visual styles with only one mouse. You’ve already mentioned the DS (and your shower) was an inspiration. Care to elaborate?

I remember reading a book about game design several years ago that had a lot of advice from big names in the industry. One of the designers, I can’t remember who, said that a good game designer is always thinking about games and should be able to come up with ten game ideas before breakfast. That quote just stuck with me, and since then, I’ve always been challenging myself to come up with different types of game design ideas.

When the Nintendo DS was first announced, I began thinking of the new types of games that could be made for the system. I figured that if I thought of myself as a game designer, I should easily be able to think up some unique new types of gameplay for such an innovative system. One of the ideas that I really liked was having two completely different worlds, one in each screen, and playing them simultaneously. I carried that idea around in the back of my head for a while until I decided to start fleshing it out for a PC game. The idea eventually grew into Linus.

One very rewarding thing is seeing professional designers coming up with ideas very similar to yours and turning them into real commercial games. I was almost finished with Linus when I heard about a DS game called Contact which displays two different worlds on the two screens using two completely different art styles for each. Even though the gameplay is very different – it’s an RPG in which you control only one of the characters – I had to immediately buy the game because of the similarities. Also, Square Enix just announced a new DS game in which you control two characters simultaneously, one on the top screen, one on the bottom. But rather than your commands being mirrored in both screens like in Linus, you control the characters separately – one with the d-pad and one with the stylus.

It’s very interesting to me to see how professional designers play with these similar ideas. It’s also quite gratifying. It makes me feel like I was on the right track with my design.

spooks2

7.Why is it such a hard and complex game?

Here’s another tidbit for my bio: I also have a degree in mathematics and love brain-bending logic puzzles. Linus, from the start, was going to be a fairly complex puzzle game with a shiny adventure exterior. I know that everyone doesn’t adore a good brain-twister like I do, so I thought I was toning down the difficulty here, I really did!

At the time of me writing this, out of the thousands of downloads from my site and from the other places that it’s been picked up and hosted, only fourteen are listed in the online Hall of Completion. (Though I’m guessing it’s just that most people don’t care enough to go online and type in their completion code…)

That being said, I knew from the get go that this kind of game wouldn’t appeal to everyone. I’m sure that a lot of people download the game because of the promise of something unique and then start to play it only to find out that the gameplay and logic puzzles don’t really appeal to them. But that’s the benefit of making a freeware game. My only real customer is myself! Sorry if anyone found it too hard.

8.What should we expect next of xii games? More innovative thinking? A sequel to the almost traditional but excellent Spooks? An action game? Erotic interactive fiction?

Right now, I’m programming a small game for someone else that I’m not sure I’m allowed to talk about. It’s just a small project that should only take a couple of weeks. After it’s done, I’ll start preliminary work on my next game.

I’ve got several ideas which I’ve trimmed down to two to decide between. I want to do something longer than Anna or Linus and tell a full story. One of the two ideas relies on me finding an artist or two who are willing to help me realize the game, so we’ll see about that. (Any artists out there want to help me out?) But you can be sure that there will be some innovative thinking included in the design. I wouldn’t make a game that didn’t have something unique to offer.

As for the sequel to Spooks, Erin is still working on the story, design, and art. It’s coming but it’s a ways off. And whether or not I’ll be coding it or xii games releasing it is still up in the air.

And I think I’ll leave the erotic fiction up to the fans. I don’t know if you’ve read the recently released “Linus Bruckman Tosses Mortia a Bone,” but it’s quite tittilating.

skyward

9.Any thoughts of releasing a commercial game?

Definitely. I would love to release something commercially. Again, however, I would need to find some artists to work with because I don’t feel that my art is of commercial quality. If I could assemble an adequate team right now, my next release would be commercial.

10.Now for the final/double-feature question. Enjoyed any of the recently released adventure games? How’s your Wii doing?

Commercially, I really enjoyed the Blackwell Legacy. Other than that, I haven’t really played many commercial adventure games lately. In 2006, my favorite game was easily Phoenix Wright for the DS. I picked up the sequel here in Japan recently. I don’t think it’s out in the West yet. I haven’t had a chance to start it yet, but I’m really looking forward to cracking it open.

Totally loving my Wii. WarioWare: Smooth Moves has to be the most fun I’ve had (and the dumbest I’ve looked) in quite a while. The one downside of the Wii is that my wife consistently beats me in tennis, and so of course that’s the only game she ever wants to play!

Cheers!

Thanks for taking the time to interview me!

Thanks for taking the time to answer, thanks for the games and good luck!