Questions from an Elementary School Class

Feb 10, 2011

A friend recently put me in touch with an elementary school class to answer questions students had about videogame development. I’m sharing my reply here, in hopes that the material may be of use to other curious gamers or young developers. Links are included throughout to supplementary information written for a more general audience.

How do you use your imagination to make video games?

To make videogames, I use my imagination to think of things that don’t yet exist, or to think about how things that do exist could be different – combined, simplified, or built upon to be done better.

That’s a “top-down” approach, meaning that I start with the idea and then figure out how to make the idea work.

Other times I instead use a “bottom-up” approach, meaning that I first create things that are enjoyable to play with, and then I use my imagination to figure out how that enjoyable interaction or moment could be expanded into a presentable game.

(More about top-down and bottom-up game design)

How do you make people talk and sound effects?

For voices, we typically record people speaking, then play back those recordings by loading and playing the sound file during the game. Many sound effects are also simply recordings that are played back when the right conditions are met. Some sounds are made by starting with multiple recorded samples then modifying and mixing those sounds together to produce a desired effect.

Although there are professional sound designers that go to great lengths to record and prepare high quality speech and sounds, anyone can get involved with creating voice recordings and sound effects using free audio software and standard PC microphones to record dialog, materials colliding, and sounds we can make with our voices.

(Free software for audio and other content creation.)

Relevant trivia that I did not include in the original reply: I still use edited recordings of mouth sounds in my projects. The popping sounds made by colliding blocks in Topple were made with my lips, and the crackling whoosh flame sound effect in burnit was a mixture of crumpling paper and blowing into the microphone.

What is the process to making video games?

  1. First I figure out what it is that I want to do. Do I intend to make a space shooter? A platformer? Is my emphasis on expressive play, on story telling, or on action?
  2. Then I determine what I have access to in order to create it, and how long I’ll give myself for the project. Do I know someone who makes great animal animations, or realistic sounds, that would be willing to collaborate with me on the project? Will I schedule the game to be created in a few weeks, a few months, or longer? (In rare cases, as a stunt, I have made games in a few hours, although it shows in the quality and simplicity of what I produced during that time.)
  3. I draw a picture of what the screen might look like when the game is being played. This leads to coming up with tentative answers to important questions, such as how large the player’s avatar is on screen, what types of enemies or objects are in the level, and what information is displayed in the interface (health bars? magic meter? lives counter?).
  4. Next I type a computer program that brings the elements of my picture to life. This is often very basic at first, for example getting arrow keys or the mouse cursor to move the (not yet animated) player character, and having enemies wander randomly.
  5. Over many drafts – just like writing a paper for school – I refine the idea by making changes to how it works. If the player feels too slow, I’ll adjust numbers in the program to boost the player’s movement; if the enemies seem too unaware, I’ll give attention to making them seem more intelligent (accounting for additional information, such as how to navigate between rooms without getting stuck). During this period of the game’s development, I’ll try adding many features, only a few of which will likely be kept for the final version.
  6. Once I have established a clearer idea for how the gameplay will work, based on many exploratory attempts in the previous step, I plan out what art, sound, music, writing, level design, and other information is needed that can realistically be created with the time remaining in the game’s production schedule.
  7. Much of the development time, at this point, goes into making and refining those art, sound, music, writing, level design, and other elements identified.
  8. During and after making those pieces, the game needs to be tested thoroughly to ensure that it doesn’t have bugs (program code causing the game to crash or behave in unintended ways) or significant design flaws (trivial ways to bypass playing the game as intended, such as one type of attack being overpowered). Fixes and changes are made according to the feedback from testing.
  9. Lastly, I prepare the final information needed to share the game with the world: adding instructions, improving the title screen, taking screenshots, writing a concise description, and posting the game to the web for others to play.

How many people does it take to make a video game?

I’ve made many videogames working alone. One person can be enough for small games.

Most teams that I have worked with, creating small to medium-sized smartphone games or downloadable freeware PC games, involved 3-15 people. Companies that develop packaged retail games are more often at least a few dozen, sometimes even hundreds of people working together.

How is the setting created?

Setting comes from collaboration between many different types of considerations. Art, writing, gameplay, and technology need to be accounted for. (Those roles are not necessarily one per person; a small team might have one or two people dividing up all of those interests, whereas a large team might have teams of people accounting for each perspective.)

The team members then create the pictures, 3D models, and/or programming to make that space functional within a computer.

Someone with sound editing experience will get involved as the setting takes shape, creating ambient sounds like crickets, rain, faraway explosions, or other audio that helps establish the setting.

For games with a complex environment, a tool is often made especially for creating levels in the game. Just like Paint or Photoshop can be used to draw and save pictures, the level creation tool is developed to “draw” and save a level by placing wall segments, enemies, and so on. Here is a 2D example, a game editor I created as a demonstration:
Everyone’s Platformer
(click “Edit” or “editor” links there to try it for yourself)

Note, however, that not all videogames have setting (or characters!). Tetris and Bejeweled are two very well known games that do not have settings or characters. Videogames that resemble movies, or real spaces, by representing story within a navigable area through humanoid characters are only one type of videogame.

Are the settings and characters based off of real life?

There’s no right answer here – this depends upon the project and the developers involved.

Some games focus on accurate depiction of real life as their appeal, trying to recreate the appearance and relative performance of various professional sports players or military figures in settings that are based closely on real life environments. On the other hand, games like Mario Brothers are pure fantasy, taking place with cartoony characters in silly settings.

There are also games that fall somewhere in-between, which try to establish a sense of authenticity by creating realistic, life-like environments and settings, even though the actual characters and places involved are imagined. This mixed approach is common with war games; the war may have really happened, and the soldiers may be believable characters, but the actual locations and people depicted are made up in a way that fits what we know about related events in history.

(More about realism and gameplay)

Additional link provided, not in response to any particular question:

(More information about getting started with videogame development)



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