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A Diary of a Mad Casual Game Developer
Casual Game Development
That is mad as in Hatter not as in about to climb up on a rooftop and cause mayhem. At least, I think so. Where in most diaries there is a date and some event or non-event being entered, I thought I would go through the process I have been going through to create an Adventure Hidden Object Puzzle Game (AHOPG). It wouldn’t be right if I couldn’t have my own Acronym. I think it is my own. I’m sure someone will let me know.
If you want to be a game developer, if you are learning to be a game developer, if you have created a whole bunch of games and are resting upon your ill-gotten booty (curse you), you may find this interesting. I hope to take this from cradle to grave, although this section will mostly be about getting out of the cradle and learning to crawl, walk.
I have broken this down into sections that kind of show my own thought process as I have been developing my own game. A lot of this is just SOP for program development but oriented towards a specific type of program, the Casual Computer Game.
In the beginning, you must be a game player. If you don’t play casual computer games, if you do not have a favorite genre, then you are looking in the wrong place. To be a casual computer game developer, you must like casual computer games. Not all game types, but at least, more than one. If you are still with me on this, then your next step is easy and fun, play games. No money, find a reputable game site and join, it is free. Where to play? Here are some I have experience with Big Fish, Play First, and Jay’s Games. You are not even required to sign up, but if you are into casual games that might be worth your while.
At any rate, play games, at first just for fun, but then start analyzing them, and reviewing them. What works for you and what doesn’t? What do you like? Could you make it better?
Specifics About the Game in Review
Is the game easy to get into? Does it have a system for multiple players? Does it have audio, and can you control the audio? Does it identify the current player clearly, and is it easy to change players? Based on the type of game, is there an introduction screen or movie and can it be bypassed? It is amazing, you haven’t played a single level, and there are lots of elements of the game to evaluate.
This first bit is just to get a game started and if a game hasn't passed muster at this level, it probably won't later on. Something to keep in mind when developing your own game.
How is the quality of graphics? How would you make it better, or would you? What about the genre of the game? Is it consistent throughout the game?
Nothing makes a game seem either amateurish or improperly developed if the graphics are not consistent throughout the game.
As you play various levels, consider the graphics, sound, and presentation of each level of the game. Is gameplay appropriate at each level? Is the explanation of how to play appropriate and instructive for each level? Is the gameplay fun or frustrating?
Here is the major flaw in most games that don't quite make it. Developers either get wrapped up in their own cleverness or the forget to get others to do Q&A to make sure the “regular Joe” can play the game. A hidden object game is no fun if you always go to the hint because the hidden element is too clever. Remember, the player needs to succeed, and when they select the hint, as the developer, you want the reaction to be “Duh...” not “How would anyone find that?”, if the reaction is the latter, you need to go back to the design and fix it.
How would you improve the game? Here is where you get to play mini developer. You may never actually change the game, but put it into notes and ideas that you can later refer back to when you are developing a similar game.
When you can write a couple of paragraphs in reviewing games; then do so. Write a review blog, submit your review to a forum for the game, or if the game site you use has a review section, submit reviews. Do at least 10 or more. As you move into development, keep reviews, I do.
Learning About Game Development – Team?
You are ready to look into what you need in order to develop and publish a game. The first question is will you go it alone or will you be part of a team? If you decide to go it alone, then you will need to scale back the size of your first games, you will need to keep them simple, and initially you will need to put them out there for free, either on your own Web Site or one that caters to shareware games.
If you are going to be part of a team, then you need to take stock of your talents and honestly determine what you have to offer a team. Are you a programmer? Are you an artist? As an artist do you work in 2D or 3D? Are you a musician? Do you do audio, music, and sound effects? Are you a writer who can develop a back-story, script, and provide the detailed skeletal structure for a game?
By the way, if you choose to do it alone, can you be all of the above?
Whether you choose to go it alone or work with a team, you need support, you need to socialize, you need to network, you need to connect with others who share your interest, so join a group, contact others, become a part of the community, however, you can.
Here are some Web Sites and Groups that may be useful to you, and you may be useful to them.
Gamasutra– This is an all encompassing Casual Game Developers web-site. There are news, jobs, articles, and blogs all about game development.
Game Developers Conference – The GDC has conferences around the globe and although the site is concerned with itself, there is plenty of additional information.
Indie Games – An independent Game Developers Web site also containing news, articles, and blogs. These are only a few of the sites that will get you started, you can also Google “casual game development”, and get even more links to follow up on.
Learning About Game Development - Engines
There are more game development engines than you can shake a stick at, whatever that means. There are a lot of them. Some are expensive, some cheap. Some rely heavily on programming and others do not. I am listing about a half dozen here with a description of the level of programming needed, how expensive they are, what I consider their strengths, and of course, a link to the WEB Site you may find them. Each of these engines has an extensive support group, tutorials on how to use them, and a description of their strengths.
Game Maker – Game Maker was developed by Mark Overmars and is currently being provided and supported by YoYo Games. It is possible to build a complete casual game with Game Maker without writing a line of code. Game Maker does have its own programming (Script) language and is relatively easy to learn if you are a programmer. If you are a non-programmer there are lots of tutorials and support from an extensive developer community. The majority of the games created with Game Maker and made available are freeware. Game Maker is an excellent tool to learn game development on. There is an excellent book written in part by Mark Overmars called The GameMakers Apprentice. The book will walk the reader through the process of creating a half dozen casual games. You not only learn the mechanics of creating a game but the process of game development. The book and the YoYo Game site, and the Game Maker community are the strongest assets for this game engine. There is a free version of the game and at the time of the publishing of this hub, the price for the “professional” version of this engine was pretty modest also $25 USD.
Adventure Game Studio – AGS was the first game engine I ever worked with and I include it because it also is an excellent tool to learn how to develop casual games, although it could be used to create a game on the level of the old Sierra
Adventure Maker – Adventure Maker has a number of advantages, again you can develop games with no programming skills. There is a free edition, but it is more about using the engine to become familiar with it than actually building stand-alone games that are little more that demo units. Though the full version is $140 USD it is still considered reasonable than some other game engines are. This game engine not only creates games for Windows, but also creates games for the iPhone, PSP, and iPod, which increases the potential for developed games. There is a large support community and the game engine is geared towards multiple game types. There are a number of tutorials as well as plugins to help with game development.
Multimedia Fusion 2 – Click Team has a number of game engines at various prices for game development. MF2 is for $119 USD and fall in the realm of reasonably priced engines. There are some less expensive versions of the engine and they are not as expensive as the more expensive versions of the engine. You can create games without writing any code, though an understanding of decision tables would be very helpful in game development. There are large user and support communities and plenty of tutorials and documentation. The game engine also does more than create games and this could be a plus, minus or a non-issue in either direction depending upon your needs. This engine is also a good game development learning engine.
Playground SDK – This is a free game engine, it is very sophisticated, and it is primarily a programming development engine. C++ knowledge would be very useful. This SDK is tied to the Play First Web Site and though you are not compelled to put your games on the Internet through them, they are a major enough player, that it couldn't hurt. There is plenty of documentation, a good size user community, and you need to be a programmer to develop games. The price is right, the engine is sound, and this may be what you are looking for.
There are a number of programming languages out there you can develop games in, C++, Visual Basic, and others. Some languages require being purchased and may need runtime engines to work. There are a number of Web sites that you can find more game engines at, here are a few. If the ones I have provided do not quite hit the mark for your needs.
Game Engine List – This is the Wikipedia game engine list. It provides a list of engines and a quick guide for you to see what might work for you.
3D Animation – 3D Animation has a number of lists, here is their commercial list of game engines.
You may not yet be ready to choose a game engine until you decide what type of game you want to develop. So keep the lists at the ready until you are ready to decide. Nothing is more frustrating than to choose an engine and discover it is not up to par to create the kind of game you want to.
Learning About Game Development - Artwork
So you can get a game development engine that requires no programming skills. Actually, that is a lie, you do not have to know any programming languages, but you must have some ability to know how to start a game, what kind of a game you want, and how to win or finish the game. That is programming. See it is easy.
Now if you are not and artist, if you cannot draw a straight line with a ruler, if your color sense sucks, then what. You have two choices; one is you team up with someone who has those artistic skills that you lack. Your second option is you learn to create art that works. You are not required to be a Rembrandt or Da Vinci. And there is a third option, which is, find the art you are looking for and buy it or commission it.
Picking a team player who is an artist is personal. You need to have the same work ethic, so you can work easily together. You need to set goals and agree how you will meet them, and you need to do it. Of course, if money is no object, or you have a fair amount of start-up capital, then you can hire someone to give you what you want artistically.
The third option, which sort of follows off the first option is, find art and buy it. There is some art that is free and available, all you have to do is give credit. If you do find it free, and credit is due, make sure you give it. There is a lot of clip art out there and a lot of it is bad, but you may be able to buy something and alter it to meet your needs. That is a fairly inexpensive way to get what you need.
If you have more in the way of funds, there are some other options that may provide you with quality art and at a reasonable or semi-reasonable price. Get it from people who are doing it; Art Web Sites.
Renderosity – The digital art community is huge and there are a lot of people looking to break into something that will provide them income while they create art. You could look for personal websites, but digital art sites like Renderosity will help shortcut your search and most of the art is very reasonable.
Deviant Art – Much like Renderosity this is a huge digital community art site where artists are looking for someone to buy their wares.
ArtCenter – is like the previous two, perhaps a little more difficult to navigate but there is a tremendous amount of art to be found both inexpensive and free.
Make sure you understand the rights under which you are using someone else's artwork and make sure you obey those conditions.
Suppose you have enough skill to create artwork or alter artwork, then you probably don't need this next section, because you already have the tools you need to accomplish what you want to do. Unless, of course, you don't.
Here are some computer tools that may help you with your artwork.
Paint Shop Pro – Originally provided Jasc and now owned by Corel Paint Shop Pro has been one of the remarkable 2D graphic tools for the computer. It rivals Photoshop but at a significantly lower price. The version I use is 8.10 the last produced by Jasc, and although I have not tried the latest version, I would hope that Corel would maintain the quality and the feature set.
The three key features of PSP that I have found extremely useful are the ability to handle layers on an image, vector and raster graphics, and the ability to create pretty much any graphics file type there is.
I am not an artist but I can create some pretty impressive graphics and my Web Site is a testament to that fact. I created over 95% of the graphics used in the content of Renaissance Player, and all of the graphics content spent some time in PSP.
In version 8.1 there is also an animation tool that creates and edits animated Gif files.
iClone – Some time ago Reallusion introduced iClone, a 3D character and scene developer tool that has grown to be able to create 3D movies. I have used it mostly to create avatars for games and some game backgrounds which have then visited PSP. The iClone facial editor has allowed me to create a variety of characters from monsters to Booh and Babbot. With other program elements, I can get 3D created elements from 3D packages and import them into iClone which has increased the artwork available to me substantially.
Button Studio – Every game needs 3D buttons and Button Studio lets you create a variety of buttons that are very professional looking and it is very quick.
Xara 3D – Xara has a number of graphics products that may be applicable to game development. I have used "Webstyle" for banners and buttons and I have used Xara 3D for 3D banners.
Learning About Game Development - Audio
If you know a musician who can record and/or create music and get it into a digital format for your game, and they are willing to, then you are ahead of the game. You can go online and search for prepackaged music for games, and you can contact local high schools, community colleges, and music schools for sources for music. Here are some sites that have music available, be aware of usage rights.
Next is sound effects, and that is even easier. If you have a microphone and a computer, make your own. If you don't want to spend the time, there are a myriad of sites with free and pay sound effects available for you. Remember to read and follow the requirements to use the sound.
Game Maker Forum – If you are looking for any of the above, this is a good place to start. Here you will find beginners, intermediate, and professional music providers who have portfolios in place that you can use, and some who will develop custom music and sound effects for your specific needs.
Learning About Game Development - Animation
In its simplest form, it could be an animated gif file that you use to set the mood, a flaming torch, candles, fish in a tank, or a banging door. From there it could be the movement of an avatar, a game paddle, or items disappearing from a page when selected.
Animation can be as complicated as an introduction cut scene using Flash or as simple as a button changing when clicked upon. How much animation and whether your game engine supplies the functionality or not is critical to the development of your game.
The more sophisticated you get the greater the need for someone who is dedicated to the animation process. There are no shortcuts here, you need to check out what your game engine supplies, what it will import, and how much animation you want. For your initial games used whatever your game engine supplies, and what you can get that is “canned”. If you have an animator, then the world is your stage.
Learning About Game Development - Genres
What kind of a game do you want to create? Remember we are talking about casual games. These are games that can play out in four to six hours. The game must be re-playable, and if there can be variation in it so much the better. In fact, there should be some variation in it regardless of the type of game, even an adventure game. You can give the player a choice that provides a different ending, or have mini puzzles with a randomizing feature that provides a slightly different solution.
The genres are plentiful and the gamers devout. Know your genre. When you build a breakout game, have something new to play, do not just repeat a bouncing ball hitting blocks. Have a theme, music, funny sounds, and something new.
Don't have a favorite genre, here are some game genres to check out.:
HOG – Hidden Object Games
Adventure Games – Sierra, Lucas, and HER Interactive just to name a few of the old timers.
Match 3 Games – Jewel Quest, Bejeweled, Zuma.
Arcade Games – Pin Ball, Bowling, and Pool.
Shooting Games – Zuma, Luxor, and Camelia's Locket.
Strategy Games – Become a tycoon of something, or a king, or a god.
Game Development - Summary
There is and will be more, but this should get you started. Every game has a beginning, a middle and an end. When developing a game remember to give the player a reason to play your game, have a hook. Make it easy to get into and make sure it is easy to understand how to play. As the player proceeds through the game have goals that they need to meet. Have a relaxed mode of play and a timed mode of play. Provide supportive feedback, do not tell a player they are terrible, have minimum achievements that you can praise while letting them know they can do better. Provide hints and Easter eggs that can surprise and delight. And in the end, have a climax worthy of the achievement for completing the game.
Remember the player at all times, make sure you run your game through a good Q&A to make sure it is playable, bug-free and fun to play.
Happy game developing.