Making Your First Game

At the start of 2014 I had made no game that I could ever consider sharing as ‘a game.’

By the end of 2014 I had made about six. Small videogame experiences, Twine experiences, for example, and at least two ‘adventure’ style games in Twine. A large part of this was just knuckling down and doing it. The first games resulted in the second games, which resulted in the third and fourth games – each small device taught me things I could use into other things.

Jumping ahead, last year at university, I did a unit where one of our assessments was making a game. The game we made was a group project – and I honestly don’t think I contributed anything good to a game that was, really, probably not very good. Still, here’s the good news: Nothing I learned in that university course was useful for making games.

The course I did was more about considering games. It was about talking about games. It was that thing that we do already, all the time, and that when the next subject rolled around, I sat down to make a major project in the form of a game. I could bring together elements from three major works, create a thing that was hypothetically commercially viable, and I had ideas.

Last night, Fox and I uploaded the Middleware art proofs. Four months from ‘no game exists’ to ‘commercial product being prepared for launch’ is, from what I can tell very fucking fast… and part of getting there has been the process of working, turning ideas into things.

Still, what was voted for was ‘making your first game’ not ‘more Middleware hype,’ so here we go. There are lessons, often in convenient list form, that many developers like to put out there, and I think this one is something I want to make as the experience is fresh in my mind. Take it or leave it.

  • You’re already making games. Everyone makes games in their head, they play little systems out, they watch for the even numbers in patterns of strings, they do things to entertain themselves. A game is a system to create play, and play is the process whereby you pretend to care about a thing for a while.
  • You can start by modding. Know what was super useful in making a card game? Making Magic: The Gathering cards. Just thinking in terms of how cards interact, how players look at cards, how to word them, and how Magic words things, and why it does things that way was useful. Make amateur pieces for things. Mod rules. Play existing games with odd variants. Hell, even just doing things like self-imposed restrictions to see how they feel. See what behaviours change as you comply to rules.
  • Services exist that let you release cheaply. The thing that got me started was finding MakePlayingCards and related services. Then I moved on from that – for prototyping – to look at DriveThruCards. These services are marketplaces which benefit greatly from a wide variety of products – they want a lot of transactions, rather than requiring you to make single huge orders. You will have to pay something – but rather than $500-$1,000 for production copies, you’ll have to spend $30-50 for your artists proofs. If you make videogames, book-style games or print-and-play games, you can go through services like itch.io to get hosted and some communal attention.
  • Make something small. The first thing I hear when people talk about game ideas is that they want to make enormous games. They think in terms of making MMOs, persistent worlds, or huge technological burdens, and it’s often in terms of ‘it’s like this other game I really like, but-.’ That’s great, that’s a good dream to have, but keep that at a distance while you work on learning the process. You’re not an expert yet, and those big projects need expertise. If you want to talk about a huge world, look at small games that give you insights into the same. If you want to focus on characters, try at first just making a little conversational exchange. Everything you try to do will become a skill you’re more familiar with.
  • Determine what you want to do the least of. I don’t like doing art – drawing cards personally. I’m just not that great at it – and it’s been made clear to me that my art is inadequate for the task. My games, therefore, have mostly been about text, about writing, and math. I like doing those things – playing with systems, looking at how memory systems take care of story elements. Do you like making maps? Do you like designing character outfits? Try and find the kind of games you can make by doing just the thing you like. Remember that with digital distribution, there’s a lot of room to make small, weird games that are built to just have a single experience in them.
  • There’s stuff that won’t work. Games are component systems, things that build on one another. You can make a component, test it out, and find it doesn’t work, or you don’t have the time or need for it. In Lily Blade, there’s a bluffing system of flipping cards that was originally envisioned for an early version of Middleware. In Middleware, a system clock mechanic was cut. In Stray, there’s a clock system that fits there really well, and it came from Middleware. What you don’t use doesn’t go away. It becomes part of your own personal library of solutions.
  • Play a lot of things. That library is part of how you get started making games. There are lots of games that are about ‘what if I take X and attach it to Y?’ or ‘What if we take X, and cut away all the Y?’ Games are often about interconnected, interdpendent systems. So play games, play lots of games. If you play enough, maybe you’ll design a game that-
    • what do you mean Middleware sounds like Netrunner
      • oh god damnit

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