Want to make a game? Here’s how.

I get a lot of e-mail from people who want to get started in games but don’t know where to start. My usual response has been to make a mod. The problem with making mods these days though is that engine technology has gotten so good that it takes a lot more work and a lot more expertise to make something on a current engine. Making a mod for Doom took a lot less technical and artistic work than it does for Half-life II, and the next-gen will start to force mod authors to make programming-only mods. So what’s a great way to get started on your first game, so that it doesn’t take years and a team of 10+ to accomplish anything?

I think one great answer right now is the Popcap Games model. They’ve made some very fun “casual” games with a very tiny amount of technology. I’ve never gotten excited about casual games but the games Popcap are reaching a very wide audience and are genuinely fun. What gets me even more excited is that they’ve released their technology. For free. Just go to http://developer.popcap.com and you can download their framework and along with Visual Studio Express, you’ll be up in running in minutes with no money down. I’ve done a lot of game development over the past 10 years or so but I haven’t gotten this excited in a long time. You can open up Photoshop, scrawl an image, and 10 seconds later have it drawing on screen. Playing music and sound effects are a snap. Loading bars, options screens, animated sprites, it’s all as easy as possible and it will work on every damned computer out there with no extra downloads. This is game development at its simplest and purest and you will be spending almost all your time on actual creative work, that is, your gameplay, your aesthetic, your art, etc. Suddenly, making a complete game could take you days or weeks, not months or years. It’s a great way and fun way to learn, just make sure not to download Zuma or you’ll get nothing done…

Another great option is the Torque engine. The Torque engine is big step up from the Popcap development framework technology-wise (most notably adding cross-platform support and full-featured 3D and networking technology), but that means more work as a developer before you can get your first product done. It also costs $100 to download. One great aspect of the Torque engine is that much of your game can be written in their scripting language, which reduces the barrier to entry and makes it easier to debug and port your game for release.

One vital feature that both of these engines are missing is some sort of digital rights management (DRM) and/or e-commerce system. If you are making your game for the Windows platform only, the best DRM right now seems to be ActiveMark, though getting them to give you their tools can be quite a feat. There is also RegSoft and Paypal, though integration with your game is a little more difficult.

If you want to make your first game, I would recommend making some sort of puzzle or 2D action game using the Popcap technology. If you’ve done some game development before and want to make a more sophisticated 2D or 3D game, the Torque engine will not do you wrong.

So if you’ve been wanting to make a game, you have no more excuses. Get started today, you won’t regret it!

Hollywood game development part #2

I previously wrote about a new model for game development that a few people have thought of independently and are starting to experiment with. The basic idea is to formalize the game development process and make all high-change/high-dependency changes early in the process, when the cost is the lowest. The game’s core design is done by a tight experienced team from one location and they create a blueprint that describes how the rest of the game is to be implemented. This seems to share a lot with the model that Hollywood uses to make large-budget pictures while reducing risk.

There is so much more to learn from Hollywood though! This past month at the San Francisco IGDA, Industrial Light and Magic and LucasArts came in to discuss their new cross-disciplinary focus. They are bringing their film and game efforts together under one roof, in the old WWII army district of San Francisco, the Presidio. It’s wonderful to see the city provide tax incentives to bring exciting business and job prospects to a beautiful (but unused) part of the city.

They hope LucasArts learns how to build and work with film quality art, and they hope that ILM learns how to use real-time game techniques to speed and improve film production. The concept may seem abstract, but I think they are going to see some huge benefits. Some techniques and benefits they could see include:

1. Creating artwork and shared assets once, and using them for both their films and their corresponding games. If they acheive this scalability and versatility, they should be able to target multiple game platforms more easily as well.

2. Motion-capturing cameras during filming to use within games. This could be use to re-enact or reference key scenes in the film. As motion-capture technology gets better, this may even allow actors to be motion-captured at all times, and for this data to be used by characters in the game.

3. I don’t know enough about how the “dailies” are created or used, but it seems to me that “instant dailies” could be created with this real-time data and technology. Instead of waiting for the end of the day to see how shots turned out, a rudimentary version of it could be seen instantly. Conceivably, the film crew could have level designers on set to quickly change backgrounds, architecture and lighting to see if the footage will be good enough before finishing at a location.

4. Allowing directors to pre-visualize scenes by using placeholder artwork and real-time game technology. This would be an intermediate step between storyboards and set design, and could provide more insight into a scene before committing resources (set-building, location scouting, etc.) to it.

5. Non-realtime lighting technologies and techniques could be brought to games. Some level of Avid-type technology could definitely be brought to a real-time game platform, for the game director to use for cutscenes and even in interactive scenes. This is illustrated to amazing effect in Lord of the Rings, with palette manipulation, image highlighting and glowing. This is one of the techniques we want to use for Natural Selection II and it seems very doable.

The list goes on and on. I don’t know that much about how films are made, but I know that film production methodologies could remove a lot of risk from game development and improve our work dramatically. As games are compared more and more to film, game developers will increasingly need to look toward that industry to manage budgets, mitigate risk, define creative responsibilities and create sophisticated visuals and sets so we can create works as important and well-received as the best films.