developing games, for non-game developers

July 25th, 2013

If you are reading this, it is probably because either you want to make a game and cannot do it yourself, or a game developer directed you here. Whether you want to develop a small browser-based game or an ambitious online multiplayer console game, actually making a game is a lot of work. And, although every game and every developer is different, there are a number of approaches that hold true to every game development process.

This article is a collection of answers I've been giving in response to weekly emails from people with great ideas but no insight into game development.

-- on ideas for games --

If you are approaching a game developer with an idea, be aware that the developer is most likely approached with dozens of ideas every month, in addition to coming up with their own ideas on a daily basis.

Although a game always starts with an idea, ideas are unplayable. You will need to create a prototype to test your idea. A prototype is a playable version of your idea; a proof-of-concept. A designer creates a prototype to test the way people interact with the game and to determine whether the idea will lead to a fun game. A common pototyping mistake is to focus too heavily on the game's plot or story, which tells us nothing about how a player interacts with the game. A prototype should focus on the 'core mechanics' behind the idea.

A prototype can be built in a variety of different ways and will sometimes include a draft of the visuals and audio. Prototypes are heavily play-tested and iterated upon until they're fun enough to go into production. Even if you have little knowledge of how to make a game, you can still create a working version of your idea and play it with other people. You can do this digitally or non-digitally, by drawing on paper, programming something simple, or making an interactive storyboard where you pretend to be the game code or game master - the important part is to have something that people can actually play. Listen carefully to ALL feedback and fine-tune your prototype before approaching a game developer.

-- on producing a game --

The main skills required for creating a game are as follows (in no particular order): making art, writing code, coming up with the design, and composing the audio. (Please note that there are other skills required to sell a game, but more on that later.) There are not many game developers that can do all of these things themselves, so a developer generally requires a team of people to complete a game. This is in contrast to creating a prototype, as prototypes can often be created single-handedly.

If you are going to approach a game developer, you must deterimine where the developers skills and specialties come into play. Understand that every game requires specific skills within the general categories explained above. As an example, (and it works like this for every category), if your game is 3D, you'll probably need a 3D artist. However, not every 3D artist can make your characters move. This is where an animator comes in. In addition, you might be surprised to find that to give 3D models a skin and color, so you'll also need a 2D artist.

-- on how long making a game generally takes --

It may be the case that you imagined your game to...

You may be surprised to discover that each of these features (and MANY others) are A TON of work and take months to design, develop, implement, test, and iterate on.

Even though reusing big chucks of a developer's existing games may speed up the process a bit, the truth is that the majority of any game will consist of game-specific code, art, music, and sounds. Each of these aspects of a game have to be designed, created, implemented, tested, and iterated on. Every small detail in a game has its own purpose in the context of that specific game. If you want to make a different game, thus changing the context, the purpose of each element may change and every piece of code, art, music, or sound has to be reconsidered, redesigned, remade, reimplemented, and tested. Consider making a film: you cannot simply reuse the final scenes to make a completely different movie; you might be able to reuse a scene here and there, but you'll need to shoot more new footage.

Unfortunately, there are no guidelines when it comes to figuring out how much time it will take to make your game. Factors that alter this estimate involve the experience of the developer(s), game-specific features, how many people work on the project, how well they communicate, for what platform your game is made, what target audience your game tries to reach, the financial part, ...etc.

Even experienced game developers don't often know how long it will take to finish a game. A rough estimate can easily be (and often is) 50% off target. This once again highlights the importance of creating a playable prototype before reaching out to a developer and taking the game in production, as a prototype allows for insight into the scope and skills required for any game.

-- on the financial aspects --

How much money it costs to make a game is vastly underestimated by almost every person that isn't a game developer. Consider what I said earlier about the skills required to make a game, and how many developers simply cannot do it on their own. Now consider that every extra person working on the game is an extra person on the payroll. Multiply this by how many hours everyone will be needed, you will see just how expensive it will be to make your game.

Even the simplest game you can imagine requires months of work. Let's assume a simple word game that two players play over the internet. A designer would take a while to come up with interesting gameplay, but would likely spend months refining and polishing those ideas.

Even though this is a word game, you'd still need a tremendous amount of art to support the gameplay, but also for the menus, the interface and the backgrounds. Everything needs careful polish and that can potentially cost months of work.

A programmer will not only have the program the game, but spend a long time trying to come up with solutions to absolutely miniscule problems, like what to do when the connection is unstable. Sometimes, problems like these cost weeks.

And this is not even considering the work that goes into music, sounds, testing and getting these people to work together. If one person falls behind, the others might have to wait for him or her. All together, even a small project like this can take three to six months - and we're talking about a word game without animations or highly detailed stories or worlds.

Let's do the calculations. A designer, artist, programmer and music composer work full time for a minimum wage (lets say $1500 a month) for 6 months. Making the simplest game you can think of already costs $36,000.-.

My advice is to make some calculations based on what I explained to you in this article and talk them through with the game developer, who is after all the expert on how many and for how long people would have to work on the project.

-- on making your game successful --

I mentioned earlier that there are many other skills required to actually sell a game. Consider how many games you know and look through a list of games on any distribution platform like the Apple App Store or Steam. You will find that the games you know are probably featured on the front page, yet there are many more games available. The games that are featured are only a small portion, but they take away 90% of the attention from the non-featured games. This shows how immensely important business and marketing are when it comes to making your game a success. Simply having the game out there will never be enough.

Living in the Netherlands, I get many emails from people who 'know many influential Dutch press which will help making the game successful.' If you are planning to distribute your game on an international distribution channel, then simply knowing press in a country as small as the Netherlands isn't going to give your game enough exposure on its own. If you are distributing your game on an international platform, being in touch with international press is not an addition; it is a necessity.

A common marketing mistake is to rely the success of your game on "viral marketing". Viral marketing has never been a viable strategy, as it cannot be controlled. Social media plays an important role in your marketing strategy, but you will need a plan beyond this.

Business with the platform, social media, and international press relations are just three of many facets of selling your game. Selling your game takes time and effort and will cost you money. When approaching a game developer with your prototype, plan, and financial calculations, make sure to also include either a business/marketing person on the team or write a solid marketing plan yourself.

-- what now? --

This article should not demotivate you to pursue your plans and ideas. Be realistic, consider what you've read, and continue to look for a way to make your game work.

Some of the advices outlined here will not apply to your own game, and some of what works for you won't work for other people. Game development is often intensely personal and your game will be a reflection of your values and the amount of effort you put in.

Start building your prototype, start figuring out which technologies and features the game will need, start making a rough estimate of how much time and money it will cost, and start writing a realistic marketing plan.

A big thanks goes to Owen Goss, Adriel Calder, Rami Ismail, Davey Wreden, Derk de Geus, Mauro Palumbo, Gerard Meijer, and Marc de Vreede, for their contribution to this article.


Comments? Tweet at @AdriaandeJongh.


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