How to make a video game
Hi everyone. It’s Joakim Achrén here. I’m writing this guide for you who wants to make a video game. I’ve been doing video games for twenty years. First as a programmer, then an entrepreneur with my own games company, where I got to do all the things that go into making games. After my first company, I went to work for Supercell and I saw the development and launch of Hay Day and Clash of Clans. After being at Supercell, I started my second games company, Next Games, where we developed games like Walking Dead: No Man’s Land.
I learned a ton from working on over a dozen games in my career and want to share the real step-by-step guide for you on how you can build the game of your dreams.
Step 1. Game idea
If you don’t have an idea yet, this is how you come up with an idea. Let’s start looking at gaming sites. There are several sources for ideas, and the secret is to play and look at other games. And not just a few, but like hundreds of them. You might be watching Youtube game videos on a daily basis, but how often do you approach watching these videos with the idea of picking ideas for a game? Let’s change that.
Let’s get one thing straight: there is nothing like a fully unique game. All the games out in the world have been inspired by games that came before them. Believe me, I’ve been in the industry for 20 years and seen how developers work. No one, and I mean no one, goes to make games by just innovating everything.
The art here is to steal like a pro. You achieve this by copying and improving. The games that work, are based and inspired on older games that have worked. Don’t just copy, but copy and improve.
A great example is Hills of Steel, which took elements from Hill Climb Racing. They took the hills that you climb with a vehicle, which you control by going back and forth on the track, but they added Scorched Earth gameplay, where you’d shoot other tanks with ballistic weapons. How cool is that! The company became profitable once the game was launched and they are still gaining hundreds of thousands of downloads every week.
Sources for ideas that can yield novel ideas:
- Game Jam videos on YouTube. My ultimate favorite for novel game ideas is to go on YouTube and look up Game Jam videos. These will give you lots of unique inspiration that you might have never seen before.
- Indie charts of Steam. Look up the latest indie titles on Steam and you’ll see what people are figuring out as the latest new things in-game. You’ll see things that can be polished into a certain direction and will yield novel ideas.
Flash gaming sites. This is a source of ideas that have been used for over a decade now. Angry Birds was based on a Flash game, as well as several other mobile titles.
- Playing games. Play all the games from the charts on both Google Play and Apple App Store, and try to understand why these games are gaining so much installs. They might have a brilliant marketing team, but many of these games won’t last long on the charts if the game itself isn’t a winner.
When you have a game idea in your mind, you need to put the idea to the test.
Step 2. Understand the market
It can be hard to keep yourself from not starting to make your game, immediately after you’ve got that great idea. I’ve been there as well. Once you strike lightning in the bottle, it’s hard to control yourself. But after seeing game-making for 20 years, some proper research and analysis on the game idea have always been proven super valuable.
You need to ask: “Are there competitors and what do their games look like?” Is your idea something that is very popular and there are lots of similar games coming out right now? When we were making Compass Point: West, the build n’ battle games were the hottest thing on the App Store. An aspect of the games industry we came very familiar with then was to understand where the bar was? In other words, what was the expected set of features that players in the genre were expecting in a game?
It could also be defined as the minimum feature set. When we’d reach that bar, we’d be two years into the development of the game, and then we’d realize that the competition had already expanded past earlier minimum feature set.
The first bar from the left, A, shows all the features and how long it will take to have everything done. Each colored section is a feature, i.e. character collecting and upgrading. A shows the feature set that you believe will be enough for a great game. You believe it could be pulled off in six months. B shows the competitor’s game which just launched and all the features they have. You can notice that there are features that you feel are insignificant and you can do without. C shows a competitor’s game in six months as they have been adding new features to the game that the players are pleased about. A bar starts to look scary.
A similar situation is happening in 2019, as many developers are rushing to make the next Archero game. A similar race to keep up to the feature and quality bar will happen there as well.
But has this ever been anything else? Yes and in many situations. When the App Store and In-App Purchases became available on mobile, lots of developers looked to move over from Facebook games to build free-to-play games on mobile. Supercell was one of the “lucky” ones, as it had the right ideas and the right team to build these games quickly before the competition took away the opportunity.
Step 3. Can you finish your game in less than three months?
Making games can easily become a big endeavor when you want to create something unique. Are you going at it alone, or can you and a friend, or friends of yours create the design, the code and the art for the game?
Let’s take a few examples and how big the game will be.
Aquapark (by Voodoo)
This game is a first-person water slide action game, where your character is a water slider. The goal is to reach the bottom of the slide in the quickest time possible, to reach prestige and fame on the high score charts.
The breakdown of what needs to be created:
- The 3D environment
- The player’s character, moving on the slide, with the camera following them
- Opponent characters need to be coded in, with collision detection with the player’s character
- There are special abilities, like jumping from the slide, flying through the air and then landing back onto the slide at a lower level
- The loading screens and the start menu
- A high score list and the logic of saving the high score
For a programmer and an artist, who knows what they are doing, this kind of game could be developed in less than a month.
Archero (by HABBY)
This game is much more complex and will require a meta-game design. What that means is that you start with a character that fires arrows at opponents. Gradually, level by level, you collect better weapons and armor, but also the levels become more difficult, with stronger enemies to kill. The game needs to balance the difficulty in a way that the player can accumulate power (better weapons) and skill (learning to beat harder enemies).
To visualize the better weapons, harder enemies, you will need to create a lot of graphics. This also needs more code. And the levels need to be designed as well. But since the game is a single-player game, where you move from one level to another and the character movement is quite straight forward, a game like this can be built by experienced people in less than three months.
Heartstone (by Blizzard)
This game is huge and the undertaking for any developer would be daunting. Consider the amount of graphics. It would take years for a graphics artist to draw all of this. The game is complex, with hundreds of features that work together to create a coherent experience.
My advice for a person who wants to make games, by themselves or with a small group of people, is to first start with something along the lines of Aquapark or Archero, in the scope of how much is needed to be built.
If your game idea has a competitor, and you are confident that the scope of the game is something that you can build in three months, here’s a list of steps you should take to understand the competitive landscape, meaning what the competitors are doing:
- Download, install and play the competitor’s games across PC, console, and mobile
- Look at what the player is doing in the game, regarding the first time they start, how do the controls feel, what are the reasons to come back to the game, how do you spend real money in the game. Look at everything that you notice and catalog these findings in Google Sheets or Post It notes.
- Here’s an example on Clash Royale, the breakdown in Excel.
- You use the list to gain knowledge on how your competitor’s games work. This will become crucial when you start laying out the design for your game.
Step 4. How to make your game addicting
Let’s face it. You want your game to be the next Civilization, or Minecraft, or Clash of Clans. A game that people won’t want to put down once they get into it. We’ll now cover the most important factors for creating addiction, player goals, and skill growth. When you have these elements in your video game, you can start creating addiction that doesn’t go away.
Imagine the player being a mountain climber who is climbing towards the peak of a mountain. They feel that they’re progressing and they have finally reached the peak of the mountain. But then they noticed another peak further beyond the horizon. It’s another mountain that they need to climb, but it’s going to be a much taller mountain, and the work will be harder. At that moment, the player will feel that they have achieved a goal, but they now have another goal on the horizon.
Think about the player’s goals in Civilization. Sid Meier tells the story of how the “one more turn” aspect where you can’t stop playing even though it’s 3 AM in the morning, is that the game provides so many interesting player goals that you just can’t quit.
“The game (Civilization) was giving you short-term, medium-term and long-term goals that were all kind of in your mind at one time and you might complete a short-term goal but “bang!”, another short-term goal popped up and you’re still working on this medium-term goal and there was never a time in the game where you were kind of completed with everything that you wanted to do. You’re always looking forward to when you get that new technology you can do this, then you can explore that new continent, etc. So there’s always these things that you’re looking forward to. The game is actually playing out in your mind, anticipating what’s happening. You’re almost not playing at the moment, but you’re playing into the future and then that future is just one more turn ahead.”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XwUM33VJRbY
The easiest example of skill growth comes from the game of Chess. If you think about a world-class chessplayer, they have been playing the game for decades, and they have come to understand all the underlying strategies that the game contains. If you look at all the games that the world-class chessplayer has played, tens of thousands of them, they will have constantly been in the zone of starting a game, seeing what happens, how it plays out and then repeating the game to learn the game. This is skill growth.
Where does skill-based gameplay come from in a video game? It is the gameplay where the player needs to time their attacks, spells and special abilities to counter and block the opponent’s moves. The player will know how to use their characters to behave in the game, what are constraints and weaknesses of their characters, including the opponents’ ones. Once there is a skill-based system in place the game developer can focus on adding more player goals and adding relatively inexpensive combat abilities and modifiers that create new challenges for players.
Step 5. You make money from engagement
If you want to make money with your game, there are much more options nowadays for making a profit with your game. Gone are the days where the only option was to put a $29.99 price tag and hope that people buy it. The free-to-play business model is coming over to all the gaming platforms and there are many opportunities for even single-person developers who embrace free-to-play.
The premium model used to be at the prevailing business model for gaming. What changed was that people were happier to try out free games and then, later on, decide to spend money on the games that they appreciated the most.
There is still a market for premium games, but the competition is high as the audience who prefer to purchase games before they get to play them is not growing, and marketing expenses are even higher as the group of developers, think triple-A developers like Ubisoft, EA, Bandai Namco, are spending more and more on marketing to this audience.
And as a final nail to the coffin, the developer who is making premium games is capping their possibility of getting, even more, spend from the players who could spend more into the game than $29,99.
Video ads have become a predominant monetization vehicle for mobile games in the last five years. The players enter the game, play a few levels and between the levels they are shown a 30-second video advertisement. When people watch the ads and often times proceed to download an application or a game which was advertised, the dame developer will receive a portion of the advertisement revenue.
In mobile, when you have thousands of players playing your game on a daily basis, the revenue starts to add up significantly and suddenly you might be making a profit. And you can use this profit to build another game.
Economy based games
The key rule for making money with your game is to focus on engagement. The fun for the player comes from engagement. The game needs to be fun. Players can play the game for weeks without feeling that they faced a “wall” and they couldn’t really continue playing.
But the fact is that they could progress much faster if they were spending. First off, that is not the point for making the game feel fun. To actually succeed in what you want to do is make the player feel feeling that they are progressing towards the previously mentioned player goals and towards the skill growth in the game.
When the player feels that they’re working towards their goals and their skill growth, they will not hesitate to spend money into the game, to achieve a more quicker pace towards their goals and to experience quicker progression.
I often talk about the dependencies between the core gameplay and the metagame. The core gameplay is the part of the game where players achieve skill growth, where they do some sort of action, which takes them forward in the game. The metagame is the part of the game where the economy of the game lies. The player will progress in the game, build up things inside the game, and the metagame design will point the player to what they are going to be experiencing in the game.
If you haven’t already checked the example provided earlier, please do so now. The example on Clash Royale breaks down the game based on its core gameplay and metagame elements. Get the breakdown from here in Excel.
When you have a strong foundation for core gameplay and metagame, you can build up a game economy that serves as a basis for monetization through microtransactions and in-app purchases. Think about loot boxes, where players gain random characters, potions, or items like weapons for the characters.
Step 6. The production plan
Do you need a plan? Yes, because the plan will help you to see how much work you are facing to make the game.
Start by visualizing the game you want to build. To do this, start by creating a drawn mockup of all the screens that are in the game. By seeing all the different screens that the game contains, you can break down the work from there.
- A. The main menu, where you see the waterslide in the background
- B. The actual core gameplay view, where you are riding the waterslide
- C. The victory screen after you complete a level, which includes a high score list
- D. The world map, where you can see a linear progressing from one aquapark to another, giving the player some long term goals to achieve
- E. A “Pokedex” where you collect all the characters. This also gives the player a sense of long term goals to achieve
- F. Fail screen. If you fail in the core gameplay, you need to show this kind of a menu where the player can return to the main menu to try again
What tools to use? Check out BuildBox if you are still learning to code. If you are fluent at coding, a great tool to for is Unity. More on tools in a separate article coming soon!
To learn more about game design, you should check out the book called The Art of Game Design by Jesse Schell.