Over the past few weeks I’ve been talking a lot about how to make a game this year. All over the indie scene and across the game industry writ large, people are getting more and more excited over the prospect of full-blown garage development--the idea that anyone can make a game without having to invest in a whole lot of equipment or software. Besides being, like, really cool, garage devs could also have a huge impact on the business and artform of videogames.
But c'mon, right? I can aready hear the cries from the proverbial rafters: "Get real, bro." Making a game can't be that easy. Right?
Turns out it isn’t. But making a game is also really, really fun. Sure, you're likely going to need to gain a certain amount of experience before you'll be able to create something coherent. And while the tools I outlined are approachable and fun to experiment with, it’s going to take some time before you can turn your vision into a working game. But don’t let that stop you--Rome wasn’t built in a day.
However, Amsterdam was built in a week. That’s the game I made with a group of people who have had little to no experience making games. You can play the prototype here. (Safe plug-in available for free here.)
Amsterdam takes place entirely in a bar full of washed up videogame characters
As you may already know, a game jam is a sort of flash conference, typically spanning only 48 hours, in which people come together to make a game. The game jam we participated in, CREATE, was 10 days long, and was hosted by Kill Screen and Ouya--a magazine and a fledgling console, respectively, that are both trying to bring some new ideas to the soon-to-be-released console. The game had to be done by the end of January 23; we didn’t begin to participate until January 1. And since there was no theme for the jam, we decided to develop a concept I had been toying with.
To be fair, we were all pretty familiar with videogames. Most of us had even made some in the past, from Red Dead Redemption to Forza 2. But it was just us, this time around. We weren’t working cogs in a grand machine. It was just our teeth and code and sound and vision making this a real live thing.
What happens to videogame characters after they slip out of the public eye? Do they have to deal with the weight of their actions? When they go home, how do they think of themselves? Are they two dimensional characters? Or is there more to them?
That’s something I wanted to play with in Amsterdam--to make a game that pushes the surprisingly-human elements of videogame characters. We take for granted any depth for characters like this, and it seems to be just under the surface. Amsterdam features a platforming, anthropomorphic coyote who can’t seem to give up his glory days; an aging damsel who’s still waiting to be rescued; a cast of dejects from the golden age of videogames, who are forced to deal with a world that has changed without them. They’re all here sitting at a bar, passing time, trying to forget, trying to remember.
Some concept art of the characters
WHAT WE WANTED TO BUILD
We wanted you to be able to enter into the headspaces of this cast of characters. So for our prototype we made a level based on what one of the character’s games might have looked like. In this case it's the coyote (seen standing center in the above concept drawing) who you must navigate through a 3D auto-runner of sorts. You must avoid grenades and pick up watermelons--a staple of platformers is having something to collect and something to avoid. (Note: we took out the platforms for time constraints. It's rough.)
But what do they do with all that? Does Mario not quest for love and riches? Does he keep the thousands of coins he collects on his chestnut and turtle murder rampage? Are these turtles just, you know, trying to make a better life for themselves? Is this somehow supposed to represent economic issues? Is Bowser actually Huey Long? Is Mario the fulfillment of the capitalist American Dream? What the hell is going on, here?
I don’t know. But I do know that that’s got to weigh on a human being. And if Mario can do it without batting an eyelash, that’s because we give him a suspension of disbelief in his fantasy world.
It's a nightmare. You can't be collecting all those watermelons all you're life and not expect something to snap
For Amsterdam, we wanted to remove that suspension to bring "accountability" to what is otherwise left unquestioned. What you get is a game where the goal of collecting watermelons slowly breaks down to negative affects. This is an intervention--in an absurdist twist, we hold our anthropomorphic hero accountable for his actions. The last watermelon you collect in the game crashes the game. It’s a nightmare. You can’t be collecting all those watermelons all your life and not expect something to snap.
But that proved to be a lofty goal for a game jam. What we were able to finish seems incoherent. It might not get that idea across. Into the cauldron we threw our different approaches to game design and our feelings about them. In what can only be attributed to our low-level skills and unfamiliarity with the Unity 3D engine came something that works in a weird way. It's not very traditional or polished but we're proud of where we got.
PROBLEMS WE RAN INTO
We spent three days trying to build a torus. I didn't even know what a torus was, but apparently it's either a base with a circle carved out of it, the inside of an inner tube, or a kind of velodrome relief. Initially, the idea was to have our character move around the torus like a track and collect his watermelons, but after experimenting with many types of bitmapping, 3D modelling, and terraforming, that just didn't seem feasible considering the time constraints.
When we finally got something that worked, we couldn't get the character to properly work with collision-detection in a way that made sense for what is essentially the inside of a halfpipe. At the end of the day we realized we had no idea how to make a torus, so we scraped the idea for a more linear path. However, the time we wasted trying to get this to work would come back to bite us.
Besides our inability to build basic geometry, we had a hard time adapting our skills to working with Unity, which I attribute to our inexperience with the engine. This was a great opportunity, thoughm, to learn the ins and outs of the program. At times this was stressful, especially for Heewa, our programmer, who is more comfortable with straight code than a visual interface like this. I am embarrassed by the way I animated the character. His movements are hilariously flat looking.
The fact that we were able to build something that worked well enough in just a week is something we're very proud of. For Heewa and Dylan to dive into a program they had very little experience with and come out with something that worked was a feat in and of itself. The trailer I put together felt like it brought our big picture concept back into the prototype we had created. We all put in a lot of time.
I think the best thing that came out of the jam was Max's music. Max has never made a videogame before, and hasn't played many games lately. His ability to rapidly hash out a score that so precisely conveyed the themes we were aiming for was truly amazing, all the more so in that he was working from his studio in Chicago. Over a few phone calls and text messages, Max was able to clairvoyantly hit the nail on the head with his compositions for both the deteriorating watermelon segments and the accordion-drenched bar tune.
Above, you can sample the music from the plucky cartoon world of the prototype as it descends into desolation. Max's ability to create atmosphere in the game was incredible to see and to hear. Max's addition into the videogame gene pool is just one example of what could happen if those of us on the outside of gaming start seeing videogames as a creative outlet. You can hear more of Max's music by listening to his new band, the Gold Web.
MAKING A GAME
I'd like to bring this series to a close by reminding you that there is so much crap out there that you can already do. You probably don't even realize it, but any inkling of experience or creative passion you might have is applicable here. I hope that you find videogames to be a perfect outlet for you. While you could use any of the tools I mentioned to build a game on your own, you can always participate in a game jam to get your feet wet, perhaps with people who will ease you into game design. Maybe you'll make something great on your first try. Maybe (probably) you won't.
But the important part is that you start something. Good luck, and let me know if you need any help.
If you like the game, you can vote for Amsterdam by liking or tweeting about it at this page, giving the developers a chance to flesh the project out further. Read the rest of How to Make a Game in 2013 series here.
Colin Snyder is a videogame person. You can follow him @scallopdelion.