At this year’s Bafta video game awards, one of the most telling moments was when Dr Who producer Steven Moffat took to the stage and declared “[Games] are going to own the future. I am here chiefly to crawl to my new bosses.”
This is an industry that makes $60bn a year, it is an industry that’s bigger than Hollywood, that dwarves the music business – and although it often struggles to gain recognition, an increasing number of young people want to work in it. Which is why hundreds of universities throughout the world offer degree courses in computer games programming and design.
It is a good time to join. With the arrival of digital distribution, games now have a bigger audience than ever; they are beamed directly to our phones, PC, consoles and tablets. Five years ago, it took millions of dollars and a team of 200 to bring a new project to PlayStation or Xbox, and while those Triple A giants still exist, it’s also possible for a lone programmer or a small team to garner a worldwide audience. Just look at Flappy Bird.
We are also entering an era of diverse artistic and emotional expression. It’s no longer about dumb muscle-heads saving the princess (not that games were ever about just that), this is a creative medium bursting with interesting, weird and challenging ideas. In the70s , kids turned to guitars and the punk movement to express themselves, now they’re just as likely to write and distribute games that reach thousands.
But getting in to the industry is not easy – even if your plan is to make games in your bedroom. To get a few pointers, we spoke to a range of established indie coders and studio bosses about how fledgling developers should get started. Here’s what they had to say.
Paul Taylor – co-founder, Mode7 Games
Rhodri Broadbent – co-founder of Dakko Dakko, previously at Q-Games and Lionhead
Aj Grand-Scrutton – CEO, Dlala Studios
Adam Saltsman – indie developer, creator of Canabalt and Hundreds
Ste Pickford – co-founder Zee-3 digital publishing
Alistair Aitcheson – indie developer, creator of Greedy Bankers and Slamjet Stadium
Simon Barrett – founder, FourDoorLemon
Dan Marshall – indie developer, SizeFiveGames
Byron Atkinson-Jones – ex-Lionhead coder, now indie developer at Xiotex
Lisa Brown - programmer, Insomniac Games
Sarah Ford – indie developer
Adriel Wallick – Indie developer
Allison Salmon – game developer and software engineer, Learning Games Network, ex-Raven Software
Jennifer Schneidereit– co-founder Nyamyam, ex-Rare Design
Rami Ismail – co-founder, Vlambeer
What’s the best way to start making games?
Rhodri Broadbent: I’m a traditionalist and I don’t think you can go wrong by jumping straight in to C++, or Objective C if you’re iOS inclined. The most important thing is simply to start programming in something, so that you can learn the common principles, logic, and techniques. Everyone should learn how to program, because it’s really not difficult to get the basics, and if you want to take it further then there are countless directions you can go with it. Games is only one. The best one, sure. But only one.
Paul Taylor: I would say Game Maker and Unity are good starting points if someone really wants to jump in at the deep end. If it suits the game you want to do, Ren’py and RPG Maker are also quite fun tools but a bit arcane. If you’ve never programmed anything at all and you want to get a little flavour of it, I’d say make a basic Twine game as your very first project, using only the built-in stuff and maybe some “if” statements. You’ll soon see the benefits (and necessity) of coding.
C++ is still a great language to learn for game development. Also if you want to be super cool like Mode 7, you can have a look at the Torque Game Engine which is now open source and has a big knowledge base. There are also a couple of good starter books, like 3D Game Programming All-in One which is a bit old and cranky now but still makes a good first text.
AJ Grand-Scrutton: I think you can start in a number of ways. Whether it’s just drawing pictures when you are little, writing a story or learning to program, there’s no real one stop answer for this stuff. I think all the tools that are available now like GameMaker, Unity, RPGMaker, Cocos all of them are great for starting out. Something like RPG Maker allows you to take just pure creative route and brute force the ‘programming’ side. However, I’d suggest learning C# first to get your head around programming logic and game logic then moving on to C/C++ if you are interested in the real heavy duty stuff.
Adriel Wallick: Personally, when I started seriously making games, I downloaded Unity and in my spare time, worked my way through a 3D version of tetris. From that point forward, I just kept making games on the side both with friends and alone until I ‘proved’ to my peers (and myself) that I could make games.
I think Unity is wonderful to experiment with because it’s a powerful tool with very detailed documentation and an extremely active online community. With Unity you can make games both with and without tons of programming knowledge and when you inevitably get stuck, there is always someone somewhere who can help you out.
Lisa Brown: There are so many free tools and resources out there, it is a very exciting time to start making games! (I keep a running list that I share with students when I go give talks). My favorite tool to use for prototyping and game jams is Construct 2. It has a lot of built-in behaviors and support for sprite-based games, so it’s very easy for a beginner to pick it up and make something and see results fast, which can be quite motivating. At the same time, if you have a programming background you can do some pretty in-depth stuff in there even though it doesn’t have direct scripting. Should people learn to code? I think so! Even if you aren’t planning on becoming a programmer, it really helps you get a feel and an appreciation for the medium you’re working in – and will help you talk to your programmer teammates in the future.
Allison Salmon: Find other people who want to make games and make a game together. Very few games are made by one person alone. Good places to meet other developers are at local meet-ups, game jams, on twitter and in other online communities. One Game a Month is a good community to find other game makers at and CG Cookie is a good site for tutorials and getting started learning about making games.
Lisa Brown: There are many passionate debates over what to learn “first.” C++ is an industry standard but it’s a cruel language to learn on. Interpreted languages are nice to learn on because it’s faster to see what you did wrong and fix it, and you can save the hurdle of “why didn’t my code compile” further down the line. I say this with a bias, as Python was the first language I ever learned.
Sarah Ford: I don’t really know if there’s a ‘best’ way, other than ‘START MAKING GAMES’. What you should absolutely do is take part in a game jam, it’s a pretty cool way to meet new people and experiment. As for packages, most people seem to gravitate towards Unity nowadays but even that can be pretty intimidating if you’re not that technical. I’m useless with code so most of my beginner games were made in conjunction with coders and designers, many of whom who found my art online and dug it enough to want to work with me. It helps if you think in assets, if you’re wanting to get into games art. It’s not just about creating a picture of a cool car in a neon cityscape, it’s about thinking about all the little parts that make up that scene, from the car to the buildings which create the skyline down to the surface of the road itself.
Byron Atkinson-Jones: The best way to start making games is, ironically, to just start making them. It doesn’t matter what you use to do it. Now’s never been a better time to try to make games with systems like Unity, GameMaker, Corona SDK, Stencyl and a few others out there that are designed to make the process of game making easy. I’d suggest picking one up and following the tutorials that come with it and then just start experimenting. The key though is to have fun with it, if it becomes a chore then mix it up a bit and try to get back to the fun.
How about if you want to get into the art side rather than coding? Are there any tools you’d recommend there?
PT: Photoshop is standard; though it certainly won’t hurt if you get good with GIMP, which is completely free. On the 3D side, Blender is free and can also get you started. 3DS Max is still kind of standard in a lot of places it seems...
AJGS: There is some fantastic software out there like Sketch Up which allows you to put together 3D art in a very simple way and progress to more advance techniques when you are ready. I’d also recommend Youtube as a tool for your arsenal as it contains a lot of good tutorials for techniques, brushes, etc.
SB: Photoshop and Illustrator CS2 are now free to download I believe, and combined with YouTube video lessons it should be easy to get going with exactly the tools used by professional 2D artists. For 3D art, options are a little more restricted but there are tools like Blender and educational versions of zBrush and 3DS Max which are used by the industry.
AA: The most important thing I’d recommend isn’t software, but hardware. Specifically, get yourself a graphics tablet. There’s lots of them available now, and they make the process of creating game graphics so much simpler. I’ve been using the same A5 Wacom Graphire4 tablet for about 8 years - it cost me £130 and has allowed me to do work I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.
SF: If you’re a 2D artist then Photoshop and Illustrator/Flash are essential, as are the basic fundamentals of art, line, tone, colour etc. I would also make a very strong case for 2D artists to get to grips with the basics of graphic design as the essentials of shape language, page layout and a grasp of typography come in handy way more than you’d think. Actually, working with a game designer who knows their layout, colours and shape basics would be a treat beyond words, so you guys should totally take a look at that stuff too.
If someone is looking to set up a small studio themselves - what advice would you give them? How do you know who to work with, and what skills does everyone need?
RB: My heartfelt advice would be to try an established studio first if you can. Meet people, learn how you work and how games work, learn the dynamics, and then set up when you get a good feel for what sort of studio you want to make. This may seem somewhat conservative but I advise it not just because of how difficult setting up and publishing is, but because of how much fun learning on the job can be.
Adam S: I’d actually say don’t set one up! Studios are a by-product not an end in and of themselves. The three things everyone you work with should be able to do: communicate and/or express themselves, finish their work, think.
PT: You absolutely need someone who is a good programmer, and it helps if that person is also the lead designer. That way they’re driving the whole project and they can keep things moving even if other people flake out. I don’t think you can really get anywhere in a younger, more informal team if you’re not driving the code side yourself. If you do decide to go down the “group of mates” route –which Mode 7 did initially – have some kind of contract which shows who is responsible for what, and what they will get out of it at the end. Make sure everyone agrees to it in advance and make sure it’s clear.
In terms of who to work with, I would say look for evidence of finishing. Finishing any kind of creative work is a skill that takes time to develop: if someone doesn’t demonstrate that ability there is no chance of them finishing anything for you and your game will be stuck in limbo while you switch artists etc. Everyone’s enthusiastic at the start so ignore that: just look at how those people behave when they’re under pressure and bored.
AJGS: Apply the same mentality you would to choosing people for a band. These need to be people you would be happy to be locked in a van with for 30 days straight. You need people you can trust, who will be just as passionate about your baby as you would. Chose people you’ve worked with previously if you can, people you know can deliver and won’t slack. In terms of skill sets the more generalists the better but make sure you have: one strong creative who can be your vision holder; a programmer who is happy to get his head down, work and learn; and an artist who can do a bit of everything, including 2D, 3D and animation.
Ste Pickford: I’d say keep the team size as small as possible. Coder-artist, or code and artist, should be enough to get started to make a game. Even though we’ve always tried – and mostly failed – to secure game design roles for ourselves where we’re not also developers, I’d say a dedicated game designer is a luxury you can’t afford as a start up. Not that a game designer isn’t valuable, but that a game designer in a small team who isn’t prepared to code or make art or even audio, is probably not a very good game designer.
RI: Get as few people aboard as possible – it’s cheaper. Make a few games before heading for the ‘real one’ and develop your skills in a ‘T‘-shape. Know a bit about as much as possible – the horizontal line – and have deep knowledge of one thing – the vertical line.
BAJ: The hardest thing about setting up your own studio is not the making of the game, that’s actually the easiest part. Managing things like business finances, making sure you can all eat regularly, marketing, PR, legal stuff, QA and selling the game once it’s done are the hardest. If you can, set up with somebody who is passionate about those aspects of the business as they will make your life a lot easier. Having said that, there’s nothing to stop you just making a game and selling it on your website. In fact - do it!
Are there any key skills that people should have or things they should know that aren’t obvious or aren’t taught on design/coding courses? Anything you’ve learned through experience?
RI: Communication and vulnerability are the key skills a development team needs. The ability to talk honestly and the ability to be vulnerable are crucial to making a game and to dealing with feedback properly.
Adam S: Writing! Learn to write, write, write, write. Write. You need to be able to express ideas in writing. it’s not ideal, but everything is email now, and email is horrible, and you need the skills to cope with that. Writing is that skill.
Kerry Turner: Don’t be discouraged if you don’t get a job in games straight away. I started out making educational software by day and working on short experimental games in the evenings. These personal projects became my portfolio, which eventually landed me a job making games.
RB: Being a nice person, open to criticism and diplomatic and funny, are very important characteristics. You have to work with your team very tightly, often for long periods of time and sharing work and tasks, so you need to be able to get along. Far and away ahead of confidence and genius, the ability to contribute to the team and the culture, to show up on time and produce solid work, to be reliable and nice to have around, are the most valuable things to a potential employer. There’s no need to exaggerate things on a CV if you’re passionate and reliable and can show it.
PT: You really need to have self-confidence in a particular way to be good at making games – both coding and designing. You have to believe that what you want to achieve is possible: it sounds trite – and it probably is – but I have seen a lot of programmers who see a complex problem they’ve never tackled before and then kind of give up. Intelligence most often isn’t a barrier, but confidence is.
AA: Game art isn’t about looking pretty. Game art is about communicating function to players. Players need to know “what is it? How do I use it? Where is it in the physical space? Will it hurt me?” If it’s hard to tell these things at a glance then no matter how lovely your line-work is they’re not going to enjoy it because there’s a barrier between them and the great gameplay.
On a similar note, as a designer the most frequent problem you’ll be solving is “I don’t get it”. Most of game design is about communication - making sure the player knows all they need to know immediately, and can get straight into that unique thing that makes your game special. You’ll need to spend a lot of time watching players play. Don’t help them, just pay attention to the looks on their faces, and try to work out which bits aren’t making sense. Then it’s up to you to find ways around that.
SP: Everyone needs to learn to code. Everyone. Not necessarily to a professional standard, but to be able to understand what is going on under the hood of the project. Artists, designers, level builders, audio and even QA guys really need to understand how coding works generally, and how specific aspects of the game are working – streaming data, collision detection, memory allocation, etc – in order to do their job properly.
Personally, I also want to encourage people to be able to see the difference between game mechanics/gameplay and setting/story. The first is the most important. If you’ve got a game idea that starts with describing a character or a location, you’re approaching it wrong.
Think about what actions the player performs, what the interactions are within the game, and what feedback the player gets. Analyse a game as if it were just square blocks instead of detailed graphics, and think about how the elements in the game react to the player’s input, and what feedback the player receieves. That’s where the reality of a video game is: player input, interaction and feedback.
LB: If you love making games, it is consuming. I grew up playing games, but I got into the industry because I discovered that the problem set of making games was almost addictive for me. So I have to accept that I look at games in a completely different lens now and that there’s a weird sort of difference from the person I used to be who just loved to experience games. Every now and then I get wistful for when I was just a consumer of games because I can never have that back, but fortunately the love of the work is strong enough that I’m okay with that, and I’ve played so many life-changing games because I’m seeking them through the lens of a developer. I probably would not have encountered those games on my own before. Anyway, just be advised that a transformation takes place there that you should expect.
AW: The one thing that continuously surprises me is the fact that no one knows what they’re doing. I used to think that other game developers, once they became more experienced, knew everything there was to know about games. In reality, this medium is so new and so ever-changing, that everyone seems to be flailing around (some less than others) trying to figure out what to do next. If you have an idea, just start working on it - don’t wait for someone’s approval, and don’t wait for someone else to tell you that they think it’s a good idea. Just try it out and see what happens. This is an industry where risks and innovation are celebrated, so just start making things.
How about if someone wants to get into the mainstream industry, as a coder, artist or designer, what should they be doing for their CV?
AJGS: Now this is going to sound obvious but you’d be surprised how often people don’t do this. You need to have practical evidence of your skill. A lot of uni students are guilty of not doing this, they will focus all their time on their coursework and don’t work on a portfolio. The reality is, a degree is effectively gravy compared to an actual portfolio. If I’m hiring you for a job I’m not interested in whether you did three years at University and were judged good enough to get a certificate by someone else, I’m interested in you being able to show me practical application of your skill. What amazes me is the number of students who tell me they don’t have the time to work on a portfolio then in the next breath talk about the next game they are playing. If you have time to game you have time to work on a portfolio.
The other thing that amazes me is people who don’t reach out to each other. At university, on forums, etc, there are a load of people in the same position with multiple disciplines: put together a little team and you can work on one project between you that sits on all of your CVs. The best way to show people you can make games is to make games.
RB: Make stuff, make stuff, make stuff. It’s invaluable experience as well as demonstrating initiative, passion, and intent to learn. The most important thing to do is to try. Knock up demos and concepts, get things moving on screen. There’s very little more motivating than simply making stuff work and interacting with something you’re making. Here’s the biggie: Don’t give up on projects. Too many people throw away good things because they get a bit stuck, it doesn’t work as expected, or something else shiny and exciting comes along. But there is great value in finishing things and getting used to how difficult that final 10 percent of the game development process is. If you don’t finish things, you won’t learn how worthwhile all that extra effort is – or be able to plan for it the next time
You can’t possibly know how to make games without doing it, and no potential employer will expect you to be able to do it all. The fact that you have tried it though, shown love and skill for it, and want to do it more will be far more useful than a good academic record – although that should also not be undervalued. There are many areas of the industry that still love a solid redbrick university degree.
SP: The hardest part of game development is finishing, so finishing a small project is way more valuable than plans and work-in-progress for a big, ambitious project, or tech demos or even portfolio work. Not that there shouldn’t be portfolio work, but no finished game to show is a big weakness. I think finished, polished projects, regardless of platform or format – even something like a little Tetris or Space Invaders clone – trump everything else.
Is a degree in computer games programming or design a necessity?
Allison S: Passion and experience still carry a lot of weight in the game industry. Everyone should have a portfolio to show in interviews. But if you are leaning towards being a software engineer I do highly recommend getting a bachelors in computer science. Increasingly, AAA game development is going the way of other software industries where one of their base requirements for software engineering is a CS degree or equivalent experience. A great portfolio might overrule this requirement but it is a great fall back. A degree in computer science opens up a lot of career options should you decide that the video game industry isn’t for you or if you need a day job while you are getting your indie game company off the ground.
JS: For newcomers a degree is definitely helpful, especially if you are looking to go into mainstream games. A lot of companies are looking for candidates with a solid educational background and passion. People that already have 3-5 years experience in the industry can probably get by without a degree, as long as they have worked on notable titles. In the independent world there are a lot of people who are self-taught, learning by doing. This works great for people who are driven and good at self teaching. What unites all game developers is a passion for making games, and this is pretty much the number one requirement.
KT: I’m somewhat biased on this one because my degree is in English Literature, but no - I don’t think it’s at all important. All the skills and knowledge that you’d get from a games or tech related degree can be picked up if you’re willing to put the hours in. Books, tutorials, lots of practice. When I hire developers, experience, attitude and portfolio are far more important than what - or if - you chose to study as a teenager.
LB: I think that being able to show what you can do is the most important, and experience and passion are a way of getting there, and school is just one way of getting that experience. There are a lot of things to consider when making that choice. Depending on the quality of the program schools can be good ways of getting access to resources, like-minded aspiring developers, and an industry network, but it isn’t the only way of getting those things. It’s just, like, is that the best method for you personally? Is the trade-off for tuition worth it? The answer will be different for everyone.
Considering that the games industry is currently heavily dominated by men, do you have any extra advice for young women looking to get into making games, either in the indie or mainstream sectors?
JS: Don’t be afraid of the boys. Treat everyone equally and with respect. If you see that people are not giving you the same courtesy, look for other opportunities until you find a place that is right for you. Most importantly though remember that we are making games for people and not gender stereotypes.
SF: Never give up, and never doubt yourself because of your gender. When I first started in the industry I was so scared that my designs wouldn’t be ‘cool’ because I was never a teenage boy, and ‘cool’ seemed to mean ‘teenage boy cool’, which actually isn’t the epitome of cool. I tore myself up about it before I realised it’s just another art style. Gender is mostly a cultural thing.
Allison S: My experience with working in AAA development was that my co-workers were far more welcoming than the gaming community at large. I experienced far more discrimination and harassment during my time in college then I did while working in AAA. So I guess some of my advice would be don’t let the unfriendliness of certain gamer cultures scare you away from the video game industry.
My other advice would be try to find and create a network of support from both other women and men. Reach out to other women who make games and are interested in making games. Some places to start might be some of the groups organised around women in games – for example IGDA Women in Games special interest group, Dames making Games or Women in games International.
LB: So, I didn’t know I wanted to work in the games industry until just before I started working in the games industry, so a lot of the issues didn’t start becoming apparent to me until after I was already in here. I have been extremely fortunate to work at an amazing studio and have never faced any horror stories personally, but that stuff is out there and very real. The more common frustration is wading through the inertia of what the “default” is. I guess my advice would be: speak up, don’t let anything slide for being “the way it is” if you feel like there’s something wrong, call people on their BS, and know that there is support out there for you and you should never hesitate to ask for it if you are facing something and need it.
AW: This is a hard one, because there’s no one right answer. I’ve been struggling with how to answer this a lot lately as I would love to see more diversity in the industry - but I have no idea what to say to them to prepare them for the amount of subtle and unintentional sexism they will experience – not to mention the intentional stuff.
If you’re up for it (honestly, not everyone is - and that’s okay), try to fight the subtle sexism where you can. Don’t fear standing up for yourself if you’re trying to improve the industry at large. It’s something that I’ve actively been trying to get better at, and it’s scary and intimidating. One statement that I have not quite figured out how to respond to yet is, “Wow! A girl/woman/chick programmer? You never see those!”. I know that most times people are exclaiming that because they are generally excited to see that women are in technology and love that an example of diversity is right in front of them - but in reality it makes me feel like an exotic zoo animal. I generally try to launch into a soft answer about how we’re becoming more and more prevalent and that I’ve always liked programming, but it’s a weird hit to my self-esteem.
This is a wonderful industry full of wonderful people, but be prepared to feel uncomfortable with yourself and with others. It’s something that will get better over time as you become more accepting of the fact that you’re just who you are - but it takes work.
Are there any books, talks or YouTube videos you’d recommend to fledgling game developers?
BAJ: Programming Game AI By Example – Mat Buckland
Artificial Intelligence for Games – Ian Millington
Physics for Game Developers – David M Bourg
Real-Time Collision Detection – Christer Ericson
There’s also a good YouTube series, Math for Game Developers.
RI: Game Feel – Steve Swink
Homo Ludens – Johan Huizinga
Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals – Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman
Understanding Comics – Scott McCloud
As for videos: Juice It or Lose It, Say How You play, and anything on Game Talks.
AA: Juice It or Lose It is one of the best talks ever, showing how adding all kinds of audio-visual responses to your game can make it come alive. Every user input or important action needs to have an audio-visual response to feel immersive – it’s the difference between a floaty game that feels unfinished, and a game where the player feels empowered and the world feels alive.
JS: The GDC vault has a really good selection of sessions from all areas of game development and a good portion of these are free. It is also worth looking outside of video games, how do industrial designers work? What kind of methods exist for being ‘creative’? And so on.
Allison S: The #1ReasonToBe panel from GDC 2012 is a really good. Also, from WGDS13, Keith Fuller’s talk, Why You Shouldn’t Go Into Game Development, But If You Do...
AJGS: In terms of books for game design my all time favourite is Jesse Schell’s The Art Of Game Design: A Book Of Lenses. I would also recommend picking up the accompanying deck of cards, A Deck of Lenses. It’s the only game design book I’ve read and actually fully related to and loved. In terms of starting a studio or running a team you should read The Lean Startup by Eric Ries.
PT: I have to toot my own horn and plug my own YouTube vid about making your first game. I’d read Tom Francis’ blog about making Gunpoint from start to finish and watched his talk from Minecon last year – he has some really interesting insights into the process.
Adam S: You should read Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud and A Theory of Fun by Raph Koster. If you’re feeling particularly daring, you should also read The Timeless Way of Building by Christopher Alexander.
RI: I recommend people to play games they’d normally be uncomfortable with and then to stop playing games for inspiration and start doing other things. Read books, watch documentaries, go skydive. Do things. Live life. Creativity depends on your breadth of knowledge and experiences. The more you have, the better you’ll be.
Finally, are there any games you’d recommend that all new developers should play?
AJGS: You need to play everything you can. This includes games you don’t think you will like and platforms you will never touch. If you are building yourself up to be the next great storyteller it’s very easy to avoid F2P and mobile. This is bad: you need to embrace games you don’t like and be able to put down on paper why it is you don’t like them. You may hate games like Candy Crush Saga but you will learn both good and bad lessons from playing them.
I’d recommend playing Half Life and then reading the design paper from 1997 that the Valve guys did on GamaSutra. My favourite game is LucasArt’s Day Of The Tentacle, play it for the great storytelling and dialogue and how to keep a game fresh throughout multiple play sessions. Play Mario 64 if for nothing else than the control system – that game in my opinion is the perfect feel for controlling a character.
JS: I think it is important to play games that fall out of your comfort zone. Play and analyse games that don’t appeal to you as a player. It is easy to get caught up into that little bubble of games that match your tastes and opinions. To grow as a game creator it is important to be able to appreciate, respect and understand games of all types and genres.
LB: If you’re into 2D platforming, play and dissect the original Yoshi’s Island on SNES. Actually, I’d say play three games in a row, Super Mario Bros 3, Super Mario World, and then Yoshi’s Island so you can see how the genre evolves and how elegantly Yoshi’s Island does creative twists on the platforming legacy it grew out of. It’s wonderful. That’s a more general observation, actually, I could give a list of games I think were important, but I’m not sure that you’d get the same insights out of them unless you also studied what they came out of. Like, would Majora’s Mask still seem amazing if you had never played any of the previous Zelda games? I do not know the answer to this!
RB: I always recommend a few classic console games for study:
Wario Ware Inc (GBA) – This game shows like no other the power of simply interacting in games. It exemplifies the power of the A button, when combined with creative minds and feedback-obsessed programmers. The simplest things are made into hilarious and rewarding challenges, and the art style embraces and accentuates the tech’s limitations to create a visually striking and timeless game. Oh how I wish I’d made Wario Ware.
Pac-Man Champion Edition (XBOX 360) – It’s good for study because of how tightly wound together all of its elements are. It captures the core joy of pac-man – ‘collect things whilst avoiding other things’ – and ties it to a performance-based score multiplier. It also syncs a fixed timer to the game speed and the presentation, and then adds the incredibly elegant way in which ‘stages’ are re-imagined to never, never stop the action as it builds in speed and audio/visual madness. They achieve this by redefining stage layouts to be half-a-screen sections and hot-swappable rather than a full screen map, and then triggering a refresh of one side when the player collects a fruit from the other. It all melds together to make one of the finest examples of tight design, and of understanding by the designers of their game’s core. Geometry Wars 2 would be a good substitute in the same category for similar reasons.
Yoshi’s Island (SNES) – A shining example of sprawling yet welcoming level design, of how complex doesn’t have to mean difficult with regard to controls, and perhaps best-in-class usage of a platform game’s core mechanics in stage design gimmicks and tricks. It adds many elements to the more traditional Mario formula, such as hovering, shooting, targeting, and of course, targeting-and-shooting-whilst-hovering, but all in such a well presented and balanced way as to make it seem no more complicated than the games it builds on. Also it’s a visual and aural masterpiece. And has some amazing boss battles.
PT: If you’re interested in design, try to play the games that influenced the ones you like now, including older stuff. If you are trying to analyse a game, don’t stop at, “if I just added sniper rifles to this, it would be cool” – think about all the ways that adding sniper rifles could really hurt the game; try to understand design as a precarious balance, not just a shopping list of awesome shit.
I think it’s good to get into a hardcore multiplayer game to some extent at some point in your life, be it something like EVE, CS, Starcraft, Dota... something with a high skill ceiling and a big user-base. Just understanding how the communities work around that sort of game is very interesting. That’s far from essential but doing this as an adult really opened my eyes to why gamers behave as they do and I kind of wish I’d had it earlier in my life.
But really, truly, what you should be doing is seriously playing the games you love. The feelings you get doing that now will be the things you try and recapture later on when you’re designing yourself. You never get as completely thrilled by games as you do when you’re young and enthusiastic, so make the most of it.
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