So, you’ve had a stellar idea for a video game, but you don’t know the process? About once a week I get an email asking me, what are the steps to building a video game. Mostly the enquirer knows that they need art and programming, but the process is a mystery.
We have a workflow that we have refined since the early days at Stickmen Studios where we developed “Dragon Master Spell Caster”, “Kung Fu Funk” and “Doc Clock: The Toasted Sandwich of Time”. While its not the process you would necessarily use if you were a single developer pushing out the next iPhone “Floppy Turkey” game it is useful to see what the bigger process looks like.
You need to be able to communicate your idea to others, so the first step is to write a Game Concept Document (GCD). I usually start with a three page description of the game.In that short document I would describe the following items briefly if they make sense in your game:
- Game Genre -Is this a role playing game, a puzzle game, a sim game like FarmVille, a shooter? You can find a good list of Game Genres here.
- Story– Describe what the plot is. The plot expounds why we’re playing. Some games don’t have a plot but even some of the simplest arcade games, like PacMan, do.
- Characters -This is the player avatar and all the characters and character types. It includes the playable characters (eg Coach, Ellis, Nick, and Rochelle in Left 4 Dead 2) and the enemies (Uncommon Infected, Spitter, Hunter and the bosses (Tank and Witch). Characters can even be things like spacesphips in Space Invaders.
- Environment – This is the world in which the action happens. It could be anything from a chess board, to 16 square kilometres of mountains, rivers, lakes and forests.
- Level design – Describe what a level looks like, or plays like. What is fundamental to a level in your game, and what makes it a level.
- Gameplay – This is the heart of your game, the five seconds of fun. In the early stages of game development, even when your characters are cubes and sticks, you will test and tune this over an over until you have something that is fun. In a shooter for example this will be aim and fire. In an adventure game it might be a way to search and discover.
- Art – Describe the art style is in one sentence eg. grey scale shoujo manga in silhouette. You just need enough for a concept artist to understand and produce some examples.
- Sound and Music -Describe these simply. Use known examples where possible. For example you might say “The music is buzzy, bouncy using kazoo and strings, like the Banjo Kazooie summer music.
- Game Mechanics – List the important game mechanics that will make your game stand out. For example “Loud weapons attract enemies so each time you fire a loud weapon more zombies show up”.
This simple document will be used to communicate your idea to your team, in particular to anyone working on early concept. More often than not games start with a concept artist adding pictures to your concept document.
I tend not to favour descriptions in the form called “High Concept” that they use in film development. This is where you describe your game(or film) as a cross between two other games (or films) for example, “Its a cross between Bambi and Godzilla”. This has always seemed to me as a way to instantly convey the wrong impression. Would this film be a pointless struggle between a newborn deer and a 50 storey high monster; or is it the tearjerker story of a poor little monster who loses its mother to jet fighters in down town Tokyo. We’re not so word poor that we can’t write at least take a paragraph to explain our game.
The concept document will be expanded into a document called a Game Design Document (GDD). You will expand on all the items above, making each a section in your GDD. You will also add some sections such as:
- User Interface,
- Game Controls,
- Target Market, and
You will get concept artists to create your characters and environment. They will fill in the details about the look and feel, and you will have some examples showing parts of levels.
The GDD is your game at this point. It will help you get interest in your project; raise money; get greenlit for release; and get a title code for consoles. By the way, if you want to develop for consoles you will need to become registered. Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo have processes to do this. When you have a GDD you should submit that to the console providers BEFORE you start developing in earnest. As part of their review process they will make suggestions that can solve a lot of problems early.
In a big game you may find you end up extending sections out into their own document. An Art Design Document (ADD) is common as it helps to coordinate a number of artists to produce the same look and feel. Check out an explanation here.
For our team the next stage is a vertical slice, one playable bit of your game. This will initially be done with rough characters and artwork and will demonstrate the fun, the game play. As I said, you will iterate over this until you have something you will enjoy playing, even with primitive or non-existent artwork.
Once the game has been funded the heavy work begins. The studio ramps up to the required capacity. Concept artists create orthographic views of characters and items in the environment. Modellors turn these into 3D models. Artists create textures for the models that are consistent with the art style identified in the GDD.
Animators take these art assets and rig them for action. That means creating a skeleton or armature so that the item can be deformed at run time. Then specific animations are created. Characters are given an idle animation for when they’re standing about; a walk cycle; a run cycle; combat animations.
Level Designers design each of the playable levels, laying out start positions, traps, puzzles, props and enemy spawn points.
By this stage a game engine has been chosen and the work of creating the game world begins Programmers begin laying out the framework for the game. Over time they will program every interaction the player can have with the game. They will also create a lot of test code to determine how things are working and how they could be improved.
As the game nears completion you’ll start marketing and deploying internal testers. When you have a stable alpha you will submit your game to a beta test server and invite members of your game audience to undertake beta testing. This is the most stressful time, when the game is nearly due for its market release, but bugs are being reported in droves. Developers are sleeping under their desks, the producer is losing his/her hair and the marketing team are peering nervously into the development area.
When you clear that, on most platforms you must meet some level of technical requirements for the platform you are deploying on. This testing is done by the platform provider (eg Apple, Sony, Nintendo). If you’ve managed your quality well its a nail biting wait until an all clear. If not, there are more fixes, more testing, and another submission.
Finally, the game is released, and then you read reviews, cringe whenever a reviewer mentions a problem that really should have been obvious and hopefully collect some income.
That’s game development in a nutshell. If you’re creating a big title there will be voice-over artists, motion capture and a heap of other things that I haven’t mentioned here.
You’ll also find many of these steps missing or reduced if we’re are making a simple phone game for a small budget.
If you’re one or two people starting out then your workflow will look like this :
- Choose and engine (Unity and Unreal are both good and both have free versions). These are awesome engines for 3D games.
- Learn to generate your own art (Blender is a free 3D modelling tool, or get familiar with Photoshop and a sprite generator for 2D).
- Do lots of YouTube tutorials.
- Build something small and iterate it till its fun (this is still the most important job).
- Get your friends to test it.
- Submit it to Google Play and iTunes Store.
I wish you well. If you have any questions, ask away.