From Technical Skills to Game Making Skills

Jun 27, 2009

5 ways to turn domain and tool competence into videogame creation

1. Doing is half the battle

People have said “knowing is half the battle” for so long that lots of tech savvy people, somehow, forgot about the other half.

“I can do that” is critically different than, “I’m doing that”.

In the time that it takes for “I’m doing that” to turn into “I did that” or even “I’ve been doing that for years”, the former stays “I can do that” until it sadly becomes, “I never did that” or even “I wish I had done that”.

Time must be put into it. Regularly. It must become a priority over something else that currently holds priority over it. If the thinking is, “I’m not good enough yet at doing this to make it a priority” – that approach will plainly prevent someone from ever becoming good enough at something to make a priority out of it.

2. Plan with a mock-up screenshot and a 1-page or less ordered to-do list

Not every game benefits from having a design doc. With small projects, a concise to-do list is often the right way to think through project needs without getting lost in writing prose.

An equally important part of project planning that can serve much the same purpose as the list is the single faked ‘screenshot’ showing roughly how the finished game might look while in action. There is no need to attempt drawing every level or situation from the game. Having that one image is a very quick and easy way to force answers to some important design questions: how large are the characters on-screen, how much of the level can be seen at once, and how will gameplay values (health, lives, score, map) be indicated? As a freebie, parts of the planning image can be easily cut out and used as functional placeholder art during the game’s early development.

3. Don’t do it for the money (yet)

Does anyone start playing their first instrument, sign up for dance lessons, or learn how to play basketball, under the pretense that the activity is being learned as part of a career strategy?

It’s enriching. It’s empowering. It’s challenging, creative, stimulating, and poses infinite room to grow over an entire lifetime in technical, creative, and human understanding. You’ll always have more to learn and try, I’ll always have more to learn and try, Shigeru Miyamoto and Will Wright will always have more to learn and try. Do it for those reasons.

4. Back up your work

Hard drives fail unpredictably, fires start, files get corrupted.

It only takes a few minutes at most each day to back up your work. It’s best to back it up someplace off-site (on a server through a webhost, over source control like svn if possible, or gmail yourself attachments), second best to have a physical copy someplace (USB flash etc.), and third best (but still infinitely better than not backing up) to just keep zip files of your project’s folder in a backup directory on your computer.

There’s never a good excuse for data loss to waste more than a day’s work.

The biggest threat to be guarded against isn’t having to do the work again though; when a substantial amount of creative work and/or detailed programming is lost, the effect can be devestating to morale, depth charging a project’s schedule and a developer’s motivation to continue in videogame development. Protect yourself (and if applicable, your team members) from this nightmarish, easily avoidable disaster.

I visualize myself frustrated, thinking, “I wish I had more recent backup!” Not wanting to feel that way has kept the experience strictly in my imagination since 2001. That’s when I lost a few weeks of original, experimental work on the procedurally-generated destroyable terrain, colored dynamic lighting, and artificial intelligence for Burn 2 (Windows/PC game), pieces I then had to rewrite a second time from scratch.

If you have a side, hobby, or (especially) professional project now that you haven’t backed up in awhile, please do so now. This newsletter will be here when you get back.

5. Do a “cover” of someone else’s existing game for guidance and momentum

“Cover” here isn’t referring to a box or manual cover – it’s referring to “a recording of a song by a singer, instrumentalist, or group other than the original performer or composer”.

Feeling a lack of inspiration, or not sure where to start? Remake a small part of an old game you like. No need to build out the entire thing – though that has been done, it takes a very long time, and as you hit diminishing returns in learning it quickly becomes a senseless way of destroying time. However in copying the core engine behavior, level format, inventory system or puzzle mechanics, and thinking about level creation, powerups, score values, timing, or enemy movements with a developer’s level of detail, you can learn a great deal more than is picked up by merely playing games.

When someone is first learning to play a guitar or piano, they’ll often learn how to play someone else’s popular or classic song before trying to compose their own music, right?


I harp on clones as a waste of development energy and consumer mindshare, and readily downplay their artistic significance. Am I really advocating, then, spending time on partly rebuilding an old game verbatim? Absolutely. I believe that doing so as a beginner builds important skills and understanding that can help tremendously when trying to innovate successfully.

It’s partly from developers lacking conceptual understanding relevant to successful innovation that causes either (a.) the developer to play it safe by sticking to knockoff work (or b.) driving publishers or other funding sources away from innovation because the few bets they ever placed to it burnt through their money.

It would be like you paying someone to compose a new song, but that someone has never learned to play any other songs first. I don’t care how well they can pluck the strings or strike the keys. I wouldn’t put my money on it.

(Originally posted Vol. 3 Sec. 2)

Este artículo está disponible en español. Traducción por cortesía de Andrés de Pedro.

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