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How to become a game developer?

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.

Where’s everyone?

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.

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Can games be made too difficult?

Can a game be made too difficult?

Lately, I’ve had a few decisions to make in terms of the difficulty of the games I produced. I made this soccer game, which was apparently insanely difficult. I did spend a lot of time trying to win a match, and felt pretty satisfied when I did. When it came to releasing a test run of that game, it turns not only nobody was able to beat it, but nobody could even get a draw! (ok I think one person managed to win). Still, I struggled before reducing the difficulty, because I felt that players should really try to beat the challenge. On the other hand, one thing to keep in mind is that a level of difficulty that’s too high really drives popularity down, because let’s face it, it’s no fun when you can’t win ;-/ I decided to tone down the difficulty so that winning a match now is as difficult as it was to get a draw, and now it’s still very difficult to win by more than one. (I’ll try to add more levels in practice mode to draw people in.). Okay, I had to cave in. It’s concerning though, have gamers become softer, are easy going games now becoming the standard?

The case of Warcraft 3

Let’s take a closer look at one of my favorite games, Warcraft 3. I used to play Warcraft 3 like mad. I started coming up with the stupidest strategies (like playing only with catapults or just heroes), against actual players. I always loved being challenged, struggling to win, and be stressed about losing. Sometimes, the game almost felt like a chore. It drained all my energy. My co-workers would ask me to join a team game or a 1 on 1 challenge, and I know it’s a just game, I know it’s fun and all, but a part of me would feel like it was almost like work. Still, I loved the game, and never got enough of playing it. Then one day I discovered a variant of Warcraft 3, the notorious… TOWER DEFENSE! I’m not sure if most of you know, but tower defense started as custom Starcraft / Warcraft maps. It was kind of like a tweak on the game, that brought a whole new set of fun experience. Was it fun? Hell yeah! But this was a different type of fun. I didn’t feel tired playing tower defense. It was so relaxing, I sometimes played it before going to bed if I couldn’t sleep. It was Warcraft 3 without the pain. It wasn’t necessarily easier to win, but I felt it was just pure pleasure. One thing was missing though. I didn’t feel I was really challenging myself. I was getting better at something, but I didn’t consider that to really be skills. I don’t mean to bash tower defense, but to me it’s on par with watching television. I just sit back and watch monsters being blown by towers. 

Games with upgrades

Another type of games I’d like to talk about is the games with upgrades. Those are popular games and the concept is almost out of a cookie cutter machine. You have some challenge, you try, fail, but each trial provide money to upgrade something, making the challenge a bit easier. This seems like the answer to difficult game, right? At some point, I thought about adding an upgrade system to my soccer game, but later decided against that. I want to let game developers know, upgrade systems is NOT the answer to everything. If I added an upgrade system to the soccer game, it would change the game fundamentally. The issue with games with upgrade, is that they turn the gameplay into a game of patience. Eventually, if you keep trying you’ll probably get further until the end. There’s a sense of progression, not necessarily because you’re getting better at the game, but most likely because the game is getting easier. It’s not really a bad thing, but one thing to keep in mind is that adding an upgrade system will considerably alter the gameplay. Another example is a game I recently produced called Dragonworm. Originally, I was planning an old school shoot-em-up (like R-Type, Gradius, Xenon 2). The artist wanted to add the concept of upgrading, failing and retrying… We made the ship (a flying worm) upgradeable, with lots of weapons and fun goodies. You collect gold as you play, and get to upgrade the ship after you die. At the end, I was pleased with the result and found the upgrade system very compelling. I noticed something though. For me, the game is the most fun when I only had 2 upgrades. If I fully upgrade the ship, it actually becomes a stroll in the park. I also realized that this would be the experience most player would have: A difficult start, progressively becoming easier. I didn’t want players to totally miss out on what I considered the most fun aspect. That’s why I added special challenges, where you try to finish the game with limited upgrades. My philosophy about upgrade type games: by themselves they provide a great sense of fun, but the message conveyed is that you can just buy stuff and make things easier, rather than keep practicing to become skilled and eventually overcome a difficult tasks.

Tutorials

Nowadays, games increasingly have tutorials. A game without instruction is often criticized for confusing the player. Tutorials / in-game instructions make a game easier to approach. They ease the player into the game, making it more user friendly. So tutorials are a no brainer right? Absolutely not! While designing a tutorial seem like the nice polite thing to do, it could, in a lot of cases, ruin immersion. Sometimes, you want players to discover a game. You want them to approach it with a sense of candor, perhaps a bit scared and confused, not knowing whether they’re doing the right thing… Like a child discovering a toy! The second option would be like having some higher power (like a parent or teacher) holding the child’s hand, explaining how the toy is supposed to be played, then watch as the child repeats the action just taught. Kinda alters the experience, doesn’t it?

Personal philosophy

I realized that deciding the difficulty of a game really comes down to my personal philosophy about life. I think people can struggle through video game and overcome difficulties. I also want players to discover games like they’re exploring a virgin world and not feel like there’s some higher power watching over them. I know I don’t always succeed at following that philosophy, but my goal is to approach it progressively. While the difficulty of games and the lack of assistance might not be great for improving user reviews, I hope to help players adapt and eventually feel the same experience I had when I first discovered video games: struggling, confused, lost, yet marveled.

My Champion references

Now that i only have an iPad, I can no longer code! Until that changes, the only productive thing to do is to write stupid blog posts. Anyway, here are all the fun references used in my latest Ludum Dare game, My Champion!

#1: Shaolin Soccer
I’m a big fan of Stephen Chow, and the story of my champion is inspired by Shaolin Soccer, where Stephen Chow’s team get beaten up by the opponents. One of the gorilla is name is Stephen Chowfun, and the female kitten in coop mode is named Vicky, after Vicky Zhao.

#2: Olive et Tom
It’s a Japanese anime I used to watch in France. The main hero is named Oliver like in the cartoon. Also, the gorilla’s goalkeeper is dressed exactly like Tom, and it’s name is Thomas Prince! (Thomas Price) in the cartoon.

#3: Les Inconnus / Bernard Tapie
One of the sketches from Les Inconnus makes fun of Bernard Tapie, a coach who calls all his players Toshiba. In “My Champion”, coach Bernar Tapo has no idea about his players’ names. He first calls Oliver as Toshiba (in the French translation), and later only refers to him as towel boy.

#4: The Waterboy
In Adam Sandler’s “The Waterboy”, there’s a reference to a towel boy who didn’t fare the same fate as the Waterboy, and ran into a “laundry list of problems”. In My Champion, Oliver is the towel boy who only carries towels for the other player. The unfortunate situation forces him to play on the field, alone vs 11 players! Coincidently, Vicky, the female cat in My Champion, is also the character name of the Waterboy’s love interest.

#5: Famous soccer players
I named most gorillas after soccer players I knew, and other ones I discover by googling famous soccer players. Here’s a sneak peak: David Beckon, Michel Panini, Diego Maradonut, …