Turns out, I became a game developer at thirteen years old. It was so long ago, so the only way to remember how old I was is by remembering which games I played at that time, and find out what year they were released.
All you need is game
The thing is, the only thing you need to become a game developer is to create a game, however simple it is. Whether you become pro at it, do it as a hobby, or just wanna scratch one line off the list of things you want to do before you die, you really need to make one game to become a game developer. That’s why I can really claim to become a game developer at thirteen. I can’t remember exactly my first game, I think it was a clone of bomberman, or that shoot’em up where your spaceship is actually a sperm. I usually consider my first game to be World of Turtle because it was the only complete game I made at that time. Also, a couple decades later, World of Turtle turned into this.
Is it all about programming?
Ok, so depending on who you ask, the answer to “How to become a game developer?” might differ. For some, they will tell you that you need to network with people in the game industry. Others will tell you that you need to learn a programming language. That’s mostly true but there are tools out there, like GameMaker Studio, Stencyl, Twine, Construct, that let you make games with little coding. Heck even with Flash pro, you can make a game with almost no coding. One of the most popular games on Newgrounds is Steal the Diamond, and it had a lot less coding (written in AS2) than most of the games out there, because the work was mostly concentrated on animation.
What’s important for a game developer?
I wanted to give my own answer to the question. I already said that to become a game developer, you just need to make one game. That’s like saying to become president you have to be elected president. That’s not really my answer. I would say that the important thing about become a game developer is to find an audience and feed on it.
I was developing quite a few games at 13, and my friends now still remember my World of Turtle. At that time, I was sharing my games with my classmates every chance I got. That was my audience, and I was motivated because of that. Then came a long period of drought. For a while, I wasn’t making games so much. I still had friends to share my games with, but I didn’t feel they were really into it. My friends were into games alright, but the kind of game you purchase in stores. Basically, any games I made couldn’t be impressive compared to the ones sold in store. It took me a while to find my niche again. The internet came out, and I found the indie game developer community. This time, it is a different scene. People are interested in games not because they are impressed by it, but because they can relate to your work. They might use different tools, but they know how to make games. It’s like artists sharing ideas and work.
Don’t just play with yourself
I realized that this is the most important element of making games. It’s not the software, it’s not the skill, it’s the people you share it with. Without an audience, you can’t make a game. It’s practically impossible. I think most game developers will agree with me, when you make a game, it’s not to play with it! The only time when you play with your own game is when you need to test it. I pretty much never had as much fun creating my own game as I had playing it myself. Of course, in some way it makes sense because for a puzzle game, you already know all the solutions. Also, you’ve already watched the ending. But my point is, you don’t really have fun playing your own game. You have fun sharing it and watching somebody play. I really enjoyed when a friend was constantly cursing when trying to beat one of the most difficult level of World of Turtle.
So how do you get your audience? Ok you might have a couple friends around who really love what you’re doing (and sometimes even a couple friends is enough). But really you should get the game dev community as your audience. Some people in that community don’t actually make games, they play indie games and even make videos out of it, like Jupiter Hadley (I can’t confirm for sure that she doesn’t make games). She rarely makes bad comments about a game, so if she doesn’t mention something she likes when playing your game, you know your game is crap.
So where do you get your audience? Your best choice for joining the community is to make a game for a Game Jam.
Game jam? Sounds delicious.
What’s a game jam? So it’s an event, that usually last a weekend or a week, during which you have to create a game (and you thought making a game takes years!). Actually, those are usually not complex games. It’s the kind of games you play one time and forget about it. (think of it as a piece of art, a short film, or a song). It doesn’t mean that it’s not fun, but usually, because of the simplicity of the game, I rarely come back to it after a week. Most of the time, you will finish the game after playing one time. I really think of them as a short films. So for one weekend or a week, you work on a game, release it, and share it. The game becomes part of a collection, and… that’s about it. Kind makes you feel like you’re part of something big. But actually, you will get quite a few people who play your game. If it’s really bad, people will say it’s bad. But let’s say you made a game with very awful Gameplay, but the story is interesting. People can be touched by it. I’m thinking of one of my game produced in 48h called The World is in your hand. People either really hated the game mechanics, or were really touched by it. Maybe both. If I didn’t create it, I’m sure I would have fell in the first category. So anyway, don’t be shy, be ready to receive some harsh criticism though, but don’t worry. There are a lot of awful games thrown out in those jams, so you’ll feel right at home.
Where do I go?
A place to find game jams is http://compohub.net. You’ll find out that there’s a game jam almost every months. Now it’s like an infection, and it’s impossible to do them all. If you’re flexible, you can try to submit a game for two or three jams at the time. Then you get double/triple kudos, and your game looks like a weird mix of random ideas. Compohub is your one-shop-stop for learning about game jams, but you also want to spend your time on jams that really matter. Gamejolt and itch.io usually hosts some of those jams, so you can be sure a lot of people will participate. Newgrounds also has some jams once in a while. I do find though that Newgrounds is heavily focused on art and animation, so people will get very critical of that. I also find out that unlike other portals, Newgrounds users are … at best very honest, at worst real jerks. Be ready for your worst criticisms, especially if you’re making a game. (somehow crappy animations get a free pass on Newgrounds, I really don’t know why). My advice though, if you’re making a Flash/HTML/Unity game, do include Newgrounds in your release. You get an almost automatic thousand views, and as a game developer, your goal is really to share your work.
Ludum Dare? Is that latin?
One of the most popular game jam is Ludum Dare. To give some perspective, most game jams have a couple hundred entries. The least popular ones have about 10-20, last Ludum Dare had nearly 2500. The great thing about Ludum Dare, is that you get a huge number of people playing your game, and they’re not all jerks like on Newgrounds (j/k, I hope Tom doesn’t read my blog. Hey, still pissed at you guys for removing Flappy Mario from the site even after I busted my ass redoing all the graphics…). Be aware that on Ludum Dare, you do get rated, unlike a lot of jams out there. You will get a score and a ranking. It can be disheartening when you realize people rated one star on some artwork that you spent several hours on. Ludum Dare is a limited time competition. There are two simultaneous contest, one is 48h with strict rules, the other one is 72h and easy going. Whether you strictly abide to the rules is your own choice. There’s no prize to win except popularity, so you should really just do it for fun. To give you an example of the quality of games developed during Ludum Dare, here are the entries I’ve produced for three jams: The World is in your hand, My Champion Oliver and Princess Fart. I know, those are only my own game, and I’m kinda in the middle in ranking. There are a lot of games worst than mine.
Global Game Jam
Alright this is for the pros…. ok not really. If you’re looking to join a game jam, Global Game Jam is definitely the place to be. Literally. This is not an online game jam. You have to move your butt out of the house, go to a location where you will meet people in person, shake their hands if you’re not homophobic, and team up with them to produce a game. If you’re not a programmer, this is the place to be because you will be put into a team that has programmers. Global Game Jam is not short of programmers, I guarantee. Where is Global Game Jam? Well it’s in California so book your plane ticket… ok it’s also all over the world. Really, if you go to the Global Game Jam website, you will find locations all over the world. Your location may have 10 people, or 100 people. If you’re lucky, a tech company will host the game jam and give you free food. My last game jam was at Facebook, and they provided us a shuttle to get there. What do they get out of it? Well I’m sure if I helped produce a godly awesome game, or maybe if I didn’t look so weird (I’m a real hamster you know), they would’ve tried to hire me. Global Game Jam is only once a year in January. No matter how your game turns out, it’s a fun experience. One advise during Global Game Jam is to balance the team with artist and devs to 50-50. During my last jam, we had 3 devs and 2 artists at first, so I chose to become an artist/composer for the team to balance things out.
One game… a month?
Turns out, if it becomes a habit, you can pretty much produce one game a month or less. You can put out a game out of your ass pretty much every day if you wanted to. But for me, I found that one game a month is about right if I don’t want to just produce some crap that will get responses like “You’ve wasted one minute of my life” or something like that. There is actually a website called http://www.onegameamonth, created by McFunkypants (that’s his real name), which gives you a score if you do your homework and manage to produce a game every month. You get bonus points for having twitter accounts, selling a copy of your game, fixing someone’s bug… There a bunch of side quests that give you points. There are also random theme words, and if you include them in your game you get extra points. One time, they released three words for bonus points, and we got a plethora of Secret Frozen Kitten games (I don’t like when people go for the obvious)! So far, I haven’t really figured out how exactly OneGameAMonth has helped me. I don’t really pay attention to my score, but somehow I’m compelled to fill out all the side quests whenever I make a game. I don’t visit the site very often (once a month, of course), but being part of it kinda motivates me to create one game every month. I’m actually doing better than that though, so I’m not sure if that site is really helping me, but I’m sure it is useful for a lot of game developers who need a little push to be motivated to work on games regularly.
To tweet or not to tweet
What a cliche title, great job Jack! (If you know me, you know I hate cliches). Anyway, to tweet of course. When you make a game, tweet about it. I try not to abuse tweets by sending more than one tweet per game, but I really shouldn’t care. I’ve seen people have ten tweets about their games. Hey, if it makes you happy, just do it. That’s why Twitter invented the mute button anyway (j/k). So onegameamonth does give you one hashtag to tweet #1GAM. Usually, McFunkyPants re-tweets my tweets when I post there. I haven’t tried yet to post a very awful boring game to see if he’ll re-tweet that, and I’m not sure if I have the courage to do that. If you’re making a game for Ludum Dare, you got #LD48. You can also hashtag #LD72, #LD<the jam’s number>, #LudumDare, but it seems like #LD48 is the most consistent one. Aside from that, there’s #gamedev, #indiedev,… if you post on portals you can also include them (#gamejolt, #newgrounds, #kongregate,…). One good trick is to follow other game developers. Whenever they post a tweet, I just pay attention to the hashtag they use and I know where to tweet my games. That’s really the only reason I’m friends with them (j/k, don’t click that unfollow button! dah!!!).
Meet the big players at a game conference
So you’ve made one game, you’re one of the crowd, and to show you’re in the crowd, you decide to go to a game conference. Let’s say you decide to go to E3, or the Game Developer Conference… to promote your Flappy Bird clone you produced in one day… for Ludum Dare… using a tool that only makes Flappy Bird clones…… doesn’t matter ;-P. I’m only gonna talk about GDC because I haven’t been to E3, and quite frankly, I find myself more interested in GDC than E3 as an indie game developer. Basically, if you’re a game developer, eventually you’d want to go to GDC. However, GDC is reserved for professionals. You work for Ubisoft, Blizzard, and they churned out a couple thousand dollars for you to attend GDC? Well you’re pretty lucky, but for the rest of us, we need another way. Alright let’s say you’re really loaded, like you inherited a fortune from your uncle, you just won the lottery, or you made Flappy Bird and pulled out the game early enough not to get sued… then yeah you can afford the ticket to GDC. That’s still leaves the rest of us… Well turns out if you put a little work into it, you can get a free pass to GDC. During the last conference, an association called IGDA, provided limited passes in exchanges for hours of volunteering. I’d say this is the best bet for most of us, and the volunteer experience itself is definitely worth it… because they give you a free t-shirt at the end… (j/k… I really wish I didn’t have to put j/k all the time because it’s cliche, but I really got infected with that awful “politically correct” bug since I live in USA. J/K!).
Is GDC really worth it? Well I can tell you one single thing that made my experience at GDC worth it. I met… wait let me look on the internet… Dave Grossman! Yes, who can forget that name. Very gentle dude. I didn’t ask for his autograph but I got a picture with him, tweeted the picture, and crop myself out the tweet cause I didn’t like how Dave looked too handsome compared to me. You might think… well what’s the big deal… and who is Dave Grossman? Well, he’s one of the three creators of Monkey Island. What is Monkey Island? Personally, it’s what I consider my favorite game of all time. I’ve played it less than Warcraft 3 and Civilization, but it is the game that I think most fondly about. The humor, the jokes, the characters… Actually it’s not Monkey Island but Monkey Island 2 that I loved, and for me, meeting its creator would be like meeting Abraham Lincoln, Einstein or Santa Claus. I have yet to meet Ron Gilbert and Tim Schafer. I’m a bit worried that Tim Schafer might eat me.
Oh but when…. WHEN will I ever get the chance to work on… the next Super Mario!
I can’t comment on something like that because so far, I haven’t touched the big names in the industry. The closest I’ve got so far is working on Wasteland for Crowdstar, or perhaps it was one of those silly Facebook games I produced for this startup that is no longer active. Either way, those are good… I mean it’s nice to work on games that once affected millions of people. But as it turns out, affecting a thousand people with one game and get personal feedback about it is pretty much as rewarding. I will say, you don’t need a million fans to be satisfied when making a game. In fact…
You only need X fans
… you only need one. I’m not counting yourself. Really, you only need one person. It’s not the quantity but the quality that matters. Having one real person that follows what you’re doing is worth more than having a million people play your game without knowing who created it. You get bonus points if that person is someone you regularly meet in real life. I think some of the greatest works of art are produced by one person trying to impress one and only one other person. The sheer passion that you will put into your work itself will automatically make your work worthy of thousands… millions people liking it. At the end, having at least one person laugh (or cry) when playing your game is really what makes it worth it. A lot of you have kids, so use them! Use your partner. She or he knows how to be honest without hurting your feeling. Use family, show the game to grandma just to show her how weird her grand son has become. Use your friends, that’s what friends are for. Believe me, it was a pleasant feeling when I realized that despite the time, my friends from preschool still remember a game I created twenty years ago.