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Adam Bishop, Blogger

August 9, 2012

11 Min Read

Evan Jones recently wrote a blog post here called You Should Make A Game in which he suggested that the world would be a better place if everyone started making games (even bad games).  In the comments below a couple of people chimed in to say that they wanted to make games and had tried to make some kind of foray into development but that they found it difficult to know where and how to start.  I thought it might be helpful to write up a bit of a guide for anyone in that scenario who thinks it would be great to make video games but isn't really sure how so I'm going to give run-downs of some of the software available to help you get into game development.

If you feel like you've got a tough road ahead because you don't have a background in programming, I know where you're coming from.  I have a Masters degree in history and I've never taken any programming courses aside from some very basic stuff like intro to Turing in high school over a decade ago.  At some point during my graduate studies I decided I was interested in making video games and I started seeking out the tools and the knowledge necessary to make that happen.  Since then I've published a game on Xbox Live Indie Games which I've made a small amount of money from, participated in the Experimental Gameplay Project, and worked on a number of other projects.  I was able to use this work as a springboard to my current job as a programmer in another industry.  So when I say that you can learn to make games without having a technical background, I know that it can be done because I've done it myself.

That being said, there are some caveats.  While you don't have to be an expert programmer to make games (and you don't really need to know any programming when you're just getting started) it is something you're going to have to learn a bit of.  Whether it's C#, Action Script, or something more specialised and simple like Torquescript, you are going to need to understand some of the programming basics like variables, if/else statements, and objects.  If you don't know what those are yet don't worry, they're really easy to pick up.

It's also important to keep in mind that you're not going to be able to build an MMO right out of the gate (you'd be surprised at how many people think they will).  You're also probably not going to be able to make your dream game right away.  It's going to help you out an awful lot in the long run if you focus on starting out small, making simple games that you can complete in a short amount of time (say a month or two).  You should definitely start out by learning to make games in 2D rather than 3D, and all the programs I'm going to describe below will be discussed with that in mind.

I'm not trying to discourage anyone, I just think it's important to be clear about the fact that it is going to take a bit of work.  But like I said, if a guy like me with a background in writing about international development can pick it up and use it as a launching pad into a new career path, so can you.  If you're willing to dedicate some time to it like you would with any other hobby (like learning to play an instrument, for example) you'll find that you're able to do a lot more than you might think you can in a pretty small amount of time.

With that in mind, I'm going to look at a number of tools that you could use to start out by giving an overview of what they can do, what they'll require of you, and where you can go to get started on using them to make games.  So let's get started!


Download XNA

Download Visual Studio (C#)

Visual Studio 2010

What is it?

XNA is a development framework put out by Microsoft built on C#.  It allows for game development across Xbox 360, PC, and Windows Phones.  Of all the tools I'm going to talk about this is the one I've spent the most time with.  It's also the most powerful, flexible and, depending on how far you want to take it, the most complex.  XNA games are written in C#, which has a lot of similarities to other languages like Java or Action Script - as such, learning to write in C# will give you highly transferable skills.  There aren't really many limits to what you can do with XNA (at least not at the level a beginner is working at) and it doesn't lend itself especially well to any particular kind or genre of game.  If you want to build games without many limits on functionality, this is the tool to start with.

How do I get started?

Microsoft has put out a really excellent tutorial to guide you step-by-step through the process of creating your first game, and you can find it here.  It's not just a tutorial to make one specific game, it's also a great primer on how to structure your game code and what various functions do.  It contains instructional video, code samples, sound, and graphic files.  It will probably take you a few sittings to get through everything here, but you'll be a lot more prepared to create your own games when you're finished.

What does it cost?

Nothing to download the tools and develop on PC.  If you want to develop for your console you'll need to pay a $99 per year registration fee, but the tools will still be free.  If think you might want to develop for console but aren't sure if the fee will be worth it, you can run your games as PC games with 360 controller support (assuming you have a 360 PC controller).

Torque 2D

Download Torque 2D (also download Torsion from that link)

Torque 2D screenshot

What is it?

Torque 2D is a 2D game development engine.  Unlike XNA in which games are made more or less entirely through code, a lot of the work that you'll do in Torque 2D is in a graphical user interface that's a lot more intuitive.  Much like XNA, Torque 2D is very flexible and you can create almost any kind of game you'd like in it.  See this page for some examples of commercial games made in this engine.  In my experience Torque 2D is one of the simplest and easiest platforms for a beginner developer to get into because so much of it is done through a very intuitive graphical user interface.  Once you get past the simple appearance though, there's still a lot of power underneath to write code and make whatever game you want to make.

How do I get started?

There's fairly extensive documentation for Torque 2D, although unfortunately a lot of it is very dry.  There's a great series of tutorials available to help you learn the ropes.  Unlike XNA, which has one big tutorial, Torque 2D is divided into a number of small tutorials that explain increasingly advanced concepts.  You'll start out by making a really simple game where fish have to collect some food and then move on to more advanced ideas like a platform game starring a ninja.

What does it cost?

Torque 2D and its script editing software Torsion are both free to demo for 30 days, which should be plenty of time for you to decide if it's worth purchasing.  Torque 2D is $128 to purchase.  Torsion is $40 and while it's helpful it's certainly not necessary as Torquescript can be written in a simple text editor if you'd prefer.  There are also starter kits available containing resources like art and sound for a number of genres as well as various art packs should you decide that you'd like to go that route.  Those are purely optional.

RPG Maker VX Ace

Download RPG Maker

RPG Maker VX Ace screenshot

What is it?

Now I'm going to move on to talk about a couple of genre-specific creation tools that you can get started with if you're interested in making a game that fits into one of these well defined genres.  RPG Maker VX Ace is the latest version of the RPG Maker software and it's got a number of improvements that make it easier to use than previous versions of the software.  The most important one for a beginning developer is that it no long requires any scripting ability to create games; you can create an RPG in RPG Maker VX Ace using only the graphical interface (though scripting is still available if you'd like to expand your game's functionality).  The tools provided here are pretty intuitive and there's a lot of built-in functionality for many standard RPG elements like treasure chests and stores.  The whole thing runs in a pretty straight-forward database that allows for the creation of characters, enemies, skills, items, dungeons, and a whole lot more.  There's a fair amount of graphics and sound built in, but it's worth noting that they are of the fairly standard high fantasy style.  And Even though the program is called RPG Maker, with a little ingenuity you could easily make something in another genre; an old-school adventure game would be very easy to do, for example.

How do I get started?

There's a sequence of tutorials available as PDF downloads that will walk you through the process of creating an RPG.  The tutorials are reasonably good, though in my experience they seem to be a bit outdated in terms of where some things are located in the program and how they work.  The documentation in general is not nearly as strong as it is for XNA or Torque, both of which are much larger commercial products.  Thankfully the interface is pretty self-explanatory for the most part.

What does it cost?

There's a free demo that will let you try out the full program for 30 days, just as there is with Torque 2D.  After that you're looking at $90 to unlock the program permanently.

Adventure Game Studio

Download AGS

Adventure Game Studio screenshot

What is it?

Adventure Game Studio is exactly what it sounds like, an engine for creating old-school adventure games.  AGS isn't nearly as flexible as the previous programs I've mentioned, but it is very good at the narrow purpose for which it was designed.  I have to say that it's not the easiest to use or navigate from a UI perspective, but thankfully there are lots learning materials out there for AGS which has been around for a while and has been used to create quite a few games.  AGS has built in tools for handling sprites, animations, dialogue, inventory, and the areas that your game will take place in, which is to say that it's got everything you need to build an adventure game.  Like RPG Maker it comes with a built-in and highly specific scripting language.  Scripting in AGS is pretty simple, and if you're worried about needing to write code this is definitely one of the easiest places to start because the scripting has been designed to accomodate all sorts of standard adventure game actions.

How do I get started?

You've got the option of either text or video tutorials for AGS, although they don't go together.  If you want the text tutorials they can be found here and they'll walk you through all the major functionality.  If you'd find videos to be easier to follow, there's a really expansive series uploaded to Youtube.  There are hours and hours of videos available there to help you out with all kinds of aspects of creating an adventure game, but you don't need to watch nearly all of them just to get a handle on how the program works.

What does it cost?

Nothing!  What could be simpler than that?


My goal here has been to provide a look at some of the tools available to beginning game designers, but this isn't remotely expansive.  I haven't even touched on Flash, and there are tools out there like Flixel that you could look at if you're interested in going that route.  There are also a number of PC games with useful modding tools, and that might be a great place to start too although I decided that I'd stick with programs designed for creating new games in this post.  There are other options out there, and if you've got one that you think would be easy for non-programmers to get into it would be great if you could throw a description and a link into the comments.

I'll end on that note, but if there's anything that I haven't made clear or if you're looking to get into game creation but are unsure about something just add a comment below and hopefully we can get a good discussion going to help as many people as possible start creating the games that they want to make.

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