It is a very exciting notion to become a game developer, to create your own game that people will play, just as the idea of making a living out of it.
However, if you have no previous experience in the industry, especially if you’re very young, the road of game development is not always as you would expect, and this can cause a lot of frustration as you learn how things in this industry work through trial and error.
And that’s what happened to me when I released my first game. My lack of experience showed many times during the development, and even after it. If you’re a solo dev, you’re not only making the game, but you’re also the one marketing it, selling it, taking care of the money, etc. To be a game dev, it is not enough to think like a gamer; you have to learn how to think like a developer. So, when you realize that for the first time, it may seem pretty overwhelming and generate you a lot of stress.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. If you are thinking about making your first game and don’t know how to start, I’m here to help you. In this article, I will try to lend my experience to you, talking about aspects of game development that I learned along the way. So let’s begin!
1 – Think about your abilities/team/expenses first
If you don’t have any previous knowledge about any of the aspects that make a game (like art and coding), it’s time to start learning; whether is through online courses or tutorials, just think about the kind of game you want to make and gather all the knowledge you can about it.
If you’re already an artist or a programmer, it’s a great start, but a game needs both to be completed. If you don’t want the development to take too long and got money to spend, hiring someone else to work on it with you is possibly the best option, or maybe calling a friend that’s good on one of those things to help you.
If you can’t do any of those, or if you just want to work on the project by yourself, do the best you can to learn the skill you’re currently lacking. Start with the basics and practice a lot until you get to the point where you think you’re ready to apply that skill to your game. If possible, contact people that are good at it, or that work with that particular skill and ask for their opinion. They can help you learn faster what works and what doesn’t.
2 – Start simple
Starting with an ambitious and complex idea, especially if you have a small team, it’s never a good idea. Whether you’re a solo dev or a small group of devs, choose a simple concept and an easy genre to develop for your first project (stay away from RPGs).
Unless you have an experienced 3D modeler on the team, or you intend to spend a lot of time learning how to model, give preference to 2D art. Don’t just buy some boring assets from the Unity store that have been used a hundred times already, especially if you intend to sell your game for a price.
3 – Define the focus of the gameplay
This tip and all the tips that you will read next should be followed even when you become an experienced dev: once you choose the genre of your game, pay attention to the mechanics which define that genre and stick to them. Don’t go adding a lot of other mechanics just because they are “cool”; stop and think if they are really necessary for the experience, or if they improve the gameplay in any way.
For example, in a game like Hitman, you have no need for a dialogue mechanic, since the other characters are just there so you can kill or incapacitate them to steal their clothes or to eliminate possible witnesses. When you need to talk to a character in Hitman to learn some information about your targets or the means to eliminate them, you can only do it with very specific characters, and through a cutscene. You just learn the information and continue with your hit.
Another example would be if you made your character leave the car in racing games like Need for Speed or Forza. What would be the need for it?
Keeping the gameplay focused on a number of specific mechanics improves the experience for the player and reduces the amount of unnecessary work you will have to do, especially if you’re a beginner.
4 – Define the target audience
It is essential to know from the beginning who are the players you want to reach with your game. You have to define your target audience, and I’m not just talking about the age, but also about their taste in games.
For example, if you want to target fans of retro gaming, the gameplay and the graphics of your product should resemble games released 20 or even 30 years ago; or you can maybe add your own twist to a classic title, like a Space Invaders-type game but set in the human body, for instance.
Having this in mind will help you not only during the development, but will also help you to advertise your game better and to reach more players.
5 – Make the game you would want to play
Enjoying the genre of your game will always give you more motivation to finish it, and you will be much more proud of the final product. Don’t make a certain type of game just because you think it will make you more money, or because it is a popular type of game. Remember that diversity in the industry is very important, and your idea may attract an audience you had not imagined.
6 – Prioritize the main gameplay elements and have a schedule
It doesn’t matter how many elements and mechanics you intend to implement in your game; when you start to develop it, begin with the most important ones first. If you’re making a racing game, you should first make your cars move and design your tracks, and then you implement less important things like the lighting, or the people cheering at the finish line, or even easter eggs.
And it is also crucial to establish a time to develop your game. Whether it’s one hour a day or two hours a week, you need to keep a schedule, so the development flows better, especially if this is not your full-time job. Keeping a steady pace ensures the development won’t take more time than necessary.
7 – Show the development since the beginning
A very common question by beginner devs is “when should I start letting people know about my game?” And the answer is: right now! The sooner you start sharing your idea with the world, the easier it will be for you to gather interest in your game. And this is a mistake I made: I waited to tell people about my game only when I released a demo. Don’t make the same mistake!
Keep dev logs talking about the progress you made in the game’s development. You don’t need to make video essays for your dev logs, either; just a written post in a blog or a Twitter thread is more than enough.
8 – Be careful with sound
Music in a game is always a tricky subject since it’s a much more complex skill than coding or drawing, so if you don’t have a musician on your team, you’ll have to hire one or take free royalty music from online websites that offer it (this last option is the ideal for your first project). And if you’re going to sell your game for a price, you need to be very sure that you have the authorization to use the music you chose. Otherwise, you might end up in serious trouble with the copyright owner. A good place to find some music is www.free-stock-music.com
Sound effects are much easier to find for download, and most indie devs use sound effects from free royalty databases. However, make sure to disclose the websites that provided you the music and the sound effects in the credits of your game.
9 – Choose the right beta testers
Once you have the first version of your game, with everything you want to implement, you’ll need beta testers. They are necessary to spot mistakes you might have overlooked, like bugs or some balancing problem, so you can solve those issues before releasing the game.
And that’s why it’s also important to choose testers that enjoy and play games like yours often, so they can also tell you if your game is enjoyable for fans of that genre.
10 – Choose the right platform
Of course, most devs want to have their game available on Steam due to its popularity. And although Steam is an amazing platform, it might not be ideal for your first project, especially if you have no cash to pay the publishing fee.
Platforms like Itch.io, Game Jolt and IndieDB make it much easier for a beginner dev to put their work out there and even monetize it. Those platforms are designed with indie devs in mind, and the players that visit them are looking for indie games specifically. So, with the right advertising, your game has a higher chance of succeeding there.
11 – Be reasonable with the price
I talked about this in my article about designing a text adventure game, but it still applies to whatever genre of game you want to make. When deciding how much to charge for your game (if you’re going to charge anything at all), the aspects you have to take into consideration are:
- Production value: Is the art original and well made? Does the game have cutscenes? Complex animations and effects? Does it have an extensive original soundtrack? The more professional your game looks, the more you can charge for it.
- Length: That being said, even though your game looks beautiful and the gameplay is amazing, if it takes less than an hour for the player to finish it, you shouldn’t charge money for it. Nobody wants to pay 10 dollars in a game and finish it in half an hour. The longer it takes to get to the end of the game, the more you can charge for it.
- Replayability: Ways in which your game encourages the player to play it again – things like multiple endings, multiple characters to play as, collectibles, co-op elements, etc. In general, the more content your game has, the more you can charge for it.
- Notoriety: Sometimes, being a known developer is enough to make people pay more money for your games (although it shouldn’t be this way, in my opinion), even if you’re still considered an indie dev. However, if you’re a new kid on the block, keep in mind that your game is not the only one available; there are many options for the player, and the chances of them choosing a cheaper or a more famous title over yours are high. So having the most accessible price possible is the smartest choice, especially for your first project.
You can have an idea of the average pricing of indie games by looking at platforms like Itch.io or Game Jolt. But, if you’re still in doubt, I’d say that for a first, simple project, a good range of price is from 0 to 5 dollars.
12 – Respect the players
Once your game is finished, tested, and available for download (paid or not), it may take a while, but people will start playing it, and the feedback will arrive. And it doesn’t matter if it’s your first or your tenth game: not everybody is going to like it. The positive feedback is always satisfying and encouraging, but criticism is essential for you to grow as a developer.
Don’t go out offending and arguing with players that didn’t find your product enjoyable, especially if they paid for it. Listen to their reasons and use the constructive criticism they give you to learn and improve your next games. If you think someone is just bashing your game for no particular reason, ignoring is always the best option.
13 – It is a hobby, until it isn’t
Don’t release your game thinking it will be an instant hit and that it will get you a lot of money. The beginning is always hard, and for a while, the only compensation you’ll have is the joy of seeing people play it; that is why you need to really love making games, and you need to be proud of your project.
To make a living solely by developing games is something most game devs can only dream about, so if you want to avoid most of the pain and the frustration, your love for games must be your main motivation.
I hope those tips helped you in any way, and if they did… Go start developing!