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how to make a video game for free
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Whether you’re an aspiring game developer or a gamer who wants to take her passion to the next level, making your own video game is more accessible than you might have thought. Tools and resources online have democratized the game development process so that anyone with a computer, discretionary time, and an Internet connection can create their own game.

In Part 1 of this two-part series we’ll cover how to make a video game for free: when you’re ready to develop your own game, learning the basics of game development, creating a story for your game, creating a game development timeline, and planning for a game development team.

Why develop your own game

Feeling intimidated about making your own video game? Don’t worry – you’re probably more ready to jump in than you give yourself credit. Do you spend time thinking about how a video game could be better? Do you enjoy watching YouTube videos about how to design levels? Do you enjoy writing stories and developing characters? Perhaps it’s time to jump in and give your own game a try.

Making a video game for fun can land you a game development job

Why wait for a game developer job when you can build your own video game today? In fact, you’re more likely to land a game developer job if you’ve already designed and developed a video game: game design careers have a projected growth rate of 6% through 2022, yet there are more candidates applying for jobs than there are game developer jobs available.

Lego woman programmer
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And while a bachelor’s degrees in computer programming can go a long way to getting your foot in the door for an interview, hiring managers don’t have time to teach new employees game development power tools to get them up to speed. “I don’t have the bandwidth teach someone who has made only GameMaker or Flash games how to be a more sophisticated programmer working with a game engine like Unity or Unreal,” says video game designer David Mullich. It’s best to cut your teeth on these tools before you land the job, whether or not your college education provides you with the opportunity.

Okay, so your personal game project isn’t going to be brilliant and you might even be nervous showing it to a game development company. But everyone has to start somewhere, and if you have a playable prototype, that could score some points with a hiring manager.

Making a video game can teach you new skills

Some benefits to making your own video game include learning new skills, having a portfolio piece to break into the highly competitive game development industry, networking that may open doors to new opportunities, and feeling great about a personal accomplishment. You may even learn that perhaps creating a video game isn’t everything you expected: sure, you enjoy playing games, but building them is an entirely different activity. It’s better to learn now if game development is for you before committing to a career path.

Lego man programmer
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Express yourself by making a video game

Or perhaps you’re interested in developing a game simply for fun and self-expression. “I make games because it’s one of my favorite things to do as a form of self-expression,” says game producer Shayna Moon. “Also, I enjoy the technical process of putting a game together.” Much like an accountant might enjoy drawing comics in her free time to escape the daily grind, developing video games for fun in your own time could be an enjoyable challenge. Some of those skills can even be used in your day job: project management, team communication, design tools, and more.

Still game? Let’s dive into the process of making a video game from scratch.

1. Concepting: think of the video game you want to create

Before you jump in, understand what makes a game a great game. Perhaps you have a good idea based on your own gaming experience. Here’s an exercise to try: list all of your favorite games. Under each game try to think of three reasons it’s great. Is the story gripping? Do you identify with the characters? Are the puzzles addictive, and how are they addictive? Is the soundtrack catchy? Are the graphics stunning? This exercise will give you an idea of what you’ll want to incorporate into your own game.

Video game concepting
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Look to others for inspiration

If you plan on developing the game alone, look to other solo-developed games for inspiration. For example, Papers, Please is a critically acclaimed puzzle simulation game created and developed by Lucas Pope. He created the game based on his personal experiences as an immigrant, the result being an intensely emotional simulation of being the gatekeeper at the border of a war-torn country. The scope of the game increased after he dug into development, pushing the timeline from six months to nine months.

Another one-person developed game that received positive attention is Five Nights at Freddy’s by Scott Cawthon. A seemingly simple premise, Five Nights features survival-horror jumpscares as you try to protect yourself from evil animatronics at a children’s entertainment restaurant. Reviewers praised it for its masterful use of the buildup before the attack, which ends the game for the player. Developer Scott Cawthon was inspired to create the game when his previous family-friendly game Chipper & Sons Lumber Co. was criticized for having unintentionally terrifying characters. He essentially ported the design concept to his new game to ensure maximum creepiness.

Five Nights at Freddy's screenshot
Image by Friendly-Fazbear via DeviantArt
> Take a peek at more games built by a solo developer.

Remember: these games were designed and developed by experienced professionals. Be sure to give yourself flexibility to experiment with your game and know it will be a safe opportunity for trial and error.

Create a story for your video game

All games hinge on a story. Even the classic Pong is a training game based on the concept of table tennis. Mapping out your story and characters now will direct the course of your development—no matter how simple or complex the game will be.

The article How To Write A Good Game Story is a great primer on what to think about when creating your story, world, and characters that inhabit both.

Need a starting place? There’s a theory that all stories stem from seven basic plots: “Overcoming the Monster”, “Rags to Riches”, “The Quest”, “Voyage and Return”, “Comedy”, “Tragedy”, and “Rebirth”. Does your story or character idea fit into one of these plots? They will help you create an arc for your video game.

video game story writing
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Not in the mood to create a story from scratch? More excited for the nuts and bolts of game development? Look to this Plot Generator to write the story for you. Simply follow the form provided, select from dropdown menus, plug in some adjectives, and like Mad Libs, out will pop a story. It might not be Emmy-worthy but at least it will get you rolling.

Or simply let a name guide you. This at-times hilarious Video Game Name Generator might spark some wacky ideas.

Ready to dive in deeper? The book Video Game Storytelling takes a closer look at building a narrative throughout the entire game development process.

Finally, creating a storyboard isn’t mandatory but can help you visualize how your story might play out in your game.

Deciding on your video game genre

Start exploring the type of video game that you want to bring to life. Would you like to try your hand at a point-and-click adventure? How about a platformer? Perhaps you prefer to tell your story with a text-based RPG.

Game genre planning
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Don’t forget to take into account your story, your game development skill level, your experience with each genre, and the game development tools at your disposal when selecting the type of game. For example, an “Overcoming the Monster” story arc might fare better in a 2D side scroller than a trivia game.

2. Video game pre-production: figure out how to make your game

Know what goes into making a game from start to finish

Before you get in too deep, get a better idea about what it takes to develop a basic game. An openness to learning new skills and stepping outside of your comfort zone is essential. But the more information you have before you start, the better you can plan and prepare.

Perhaps you’re already studying game design and development in a game design degree program. If not, there are plenty of online resources to help you get acquainted with the basics of game design.

> Massively Open Online Courses are free online classes offered as self-paced learning or in an online classroom environment. Here’s an additional list of game design and development courses online.

> Online guides such as A Beginner’s Guide to Making Your First Video Game by Zoe Quinn.

> Online commentary from professionals who build their own games, such as Game Dev Gone Rogue.

Game development
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> Books on video game design – Scott Rogers’s Level Up! The Guide to Great Video Game Design is to aspiring game designers as what Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics is to aspiring comic book artists.

> Find an online group or mentor who can help you with the process of creating your own game. The Facebook group Indie Game Developers is a good place to start.

There are countless other resources out there to give you an idea of what goes into making a game. Additional resources specific to the steps of creating a game are listed later in this guide.

Plan your game design

Whether you’re planning an ambitious game or a small one, a game design document lays out the vision, mechanics, goals, story, characters, and other aspects of the game. Usually this document helps “sell” the game idea to third parties while unifying the team who is working on the game. In this instance, since you’re most likely the only person working on the game, this can help you focus and plan your concept.

Here’s a sample outline for a game design document. Your document might not need to be so thorough—it’s okay if you can’t answer all the questions, either, as this may be your first experience creating a game. Allow room for trial, error, and learning.

Scope your game

Scoping your game is essential to getting it done. This is the point in the planning process where you lay out your timeline for development and list where your resources come in, whether they’re tools or people.

building blocks for scoping your game
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It’s important to scope your game, even if it’s an independent solo project, so that you can have clear goals and not feel like the project is dragging out longer than you want. Finished is better than perfect, and a scoped timeline will help keep you on track.

A critical piece of advice from a number of experienced developers: START SMALL. According to Ansimuz Games, projects with smaller scopes are easier to polish and complete. “Over scoping a game is the number-one killer of projects. Making sure that you know exactly what you’re making, down to what can seem like really minute details is important,” advises game producer Shayna Moon. “It has taken me a few months to create a game from start to finish. On one particular project, we originally thought we’d take two months and it ended up taking eight months.”

> How to Scope Your Game is a great introduction to scoping an independent game.

> Here’s a detailed account of determining how long it takes to make an indie game. (Hint: it’s longer than you expect.)

Build a game development team

Most reading this guide probably won’t create their first indie game with a team of two or more. In fact, it’s recommended you don’t start with a team as this can throw more variables and complication into the production process. However, working with a team could add more enjoyment to the process as you may be collaborating with people who are as passionate about game development as you are.

“I’ve worked with programmers, other artists, audio people, music composers, etc. I like working with other people on stuff that’s “for fun,” as much as professional. The people who want to do that are people who are doing game development for the love of it. It’s a unique experience,” Moon says.

First, decide if a game production team is right for you. If you are up for learning game mechanics and design on your own while using open-licensed music for a soundtrack, perhaps a team of one will work just fine.

Lego team
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If there are additional skills needed to complete your game, then consider adding more team members. However, more on the project can slow down the development process, so choose wisely. Identify your strong suits and supplement the other skills with additional team members. You may need a coder, graphic designer, animator, or composer depending on how ambitious your project is.

Look to your network as well as online indie game developer communities for others who may be interested in joining your project. Your local university may have students who would be interested in putting their skills to the test, or browse forums such as Reddit’s /gamedev board to locate potential teammates.

Setting a communication protocol early on is essential to smooth teamwork. “When you’re working with multiple people, you have to establish trust and a set method of how you’re going to communicate. Knowing some communication methodology in advance would definitely be useful,” says Moon.

Free tools such as Slack and Trello can help your team communicate in real time, store planning documents in one space, and keep the project on track.

Ready to take the next step in your video game-building relationship? Read Part 2 where we discuss how to develop and promote your game.

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