Learn Videogame Development Like Woodworking

Mar 2, 2010

How Woodshop is Taught

  1. The instructor first has everyone read a bit of text about shop safety (how to not lose an eye, how to not lose a finger…) and basic concepts (grain, sanding, estimating board foot requirements for rough sawn lumber).
  2. A brief tour of the shop is given to introduce the various hand tools, power tools, and relevant shop features (light switches, ventilation fans, first aid kits).
  3. Everyone does a series of simple projects, each of which involves 1 or 2 different kinds of tools. These are pretty much the same for everyone, possibly with 1 minor substitution. Common examples: a judge’s gavel is made to learn the lathe and wood finish, and a simple picture frame is made to learn the router and joinery. For a younger or less comfortable audience, a birdhouse is a recognizable result that involves learning proper sawing and simple use of fasteners.
  4. Once that series of beginning projects is out of the way – generally involving a semester and several finished pieces – a student is then able to bring in plans and suggest adaptations.

How Woodshop is Not Taught

  • Start drawing up blueprints for new ideas. To whatever extent drawing and the imagination are unrestrained by what wood and tools do, those activities are not woodworking – but to get a sense of that distinction first requires at least a little variety in hands-on work. Coming up with complicated, unrealistic plans is not woodworking.
  • Build a complex, detailed piece of a larger project (such as an ornate leg for a chair). Being 100% done with 10% of something doesn’t feel or look like being done, it feels and looks like being 10% done. The person on the project would not get a sense of completion, and it would not be in a state that it could be shown off or given away. Making 10% of things then moving on is not woodworking.
  • Subtle variation on the above: team up with 15 other people that have never manipulated wood or wood tools before in an attempt to coordinate building an advanced project (say, a small ship). 1/15 of that inexperienced team working on a 1/15 as ambitious project is significantly more likely to be finished, because it removes management complexity. Team management is not woodworking.
  • Spend semesters making and discussing origami, under the guise that since both are construction from tree materials, there are similar principles at work. These are two completely different things. People skilled or interested in one may not be skilled or interested in the other. Papercraft is not woodworking.
  • Teaching and testing the history of woodworking, in terms of ancient tools and techniques. The modern woodshop is very different from an ancient one, from the tools used to the ease of material acquisition. Even if a project that we make today is much like something that was or could have been created long ago that does not mean that we need to go out of our way to use outdated methods when making it. History is not woodworking.
  • Discussing how to market and sell a wood project. Marketing is not woodworking.
  • Buying, using, and discussing the latest commercial products that are made of wood. If it’s made by professionals, and/or reflects the cutting edge of industry, either way it is not an appropriate starting point or reference point for beginners. Becoming a collector or connoisseur is not woodworking.

How This Relates

Modern books on videogame design, many classes/workshops on game design, and other learning outlets focus on a number of the above bullet points.

Students often want to plan and innovate immediately, take on a big team project, or at least craft a complex piece of a never-to-be-finished videogame (standalone inventory system, dialog trees, etc.). Teachers in many cases want to go into great length about board/card/dice games, or the history of games or play in general. Workshops and websites will typically go straight into discussion of ways to make money from a videogame. Meanwhile student clubs tend to devolve into a gamer culture group that plays and discusses design of commercial projects that are far, far beyond the design, engineering, art, and management abilities of the club members.

The passion is an entirely good thing. Everything listed above is a legitimate field in its own right, bearing its own complexities and unique utility in the big picture, whether it’s marketing, history, team management, etc. Likewise, just as origami is a fascinating and involved field with cultural roots and a tradition of great craft, but it isn’t woodworking, board/dice/card games are a worthwhile and important subject with interesting history and established conventions all their own, their relation to the design or development of real-time videogames is tenuous or genre-specific at best.

The woodworker knows the process end to end, from sawing, to shaping, to joining and finishing. Projects are identified that are appropriate for one person to make, working alone, in a modest period of time (generally no longer than half a year per project, until very advanced). The woodworker is not interested in the subject for the pure sake of knowing things about it, nor is the woodworker interested in the subject purely as a springboard into a career doing such work. Just as any woodworker can transfer knowledge of the jack plane to fix doors around the house that don’t perfectly fit the frame, or otherwise apply tool comfort and familiarity to minor projects around the house, the hobbyist/solo/indie game developer along the way picks up a myriad of skills and tools that can find application to meet the needs of future tasks (just as much for non-videogame related companies and non-videogame personal side projects).

A project or two that focuses purely on input, setting screen resolution and drawing rectangles, and doing collision detection (Pong) makes for a good intro project. Likewise, anything involving a small, simple tile-based world (either for bricks in breakout or a tiny dungeon world) can help with learning that method of level construction and collision detection. Building up from there, a similar mentality can be used to pick and adapt beginning projects to cover the skillsets and tools that one might be interested in applying later for a bigger project (loading and displaying images, playing music and sounds, programming menus, different types of AI, etc.), without needing to jump directly into using the table saw on day one.

Update from ~5 years after I wrote this article: I’ve created a self-paced video course and an included digital textbook of detailed, step-by-step exercises following this exact approach: How to Program Games. It covers a sequence of classic game types, with each project designed to practice a specific set of foundational concepts in game development.



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4 Comments

  1. […] Start small. Make a program that works, even if it’s just putting a line of text onto the screen. Programming makes it easy to build off your past work, and so rather than trying to put together something impressive immediately, a safer and more reasonable approach is to put together a variety of small task-oriented programs, then expand on that accumulated code and experience. […]

  2. […] argument that videogame development had so much in common with shop class that we really ought to Learn it Like Woodworking – and my microtalk at IndieCade that year was to the same […]

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