In addition to eating one’s vegetables, not running with scissors, and otherwise playing nice with others, there is a ton of useful advice that I wish I had known earlier on. Game development is one of the most fun and rewarding hobbies I can think of, but it can be tough to get started. If you’ve just begun your foray into creating your own digital worlds, here are some pointers that might help to make the road ahead a little smoother.
- Make your first games simple ones.
It’s a well-documented fact that beginning game developers have inflated expectations in terms of what their first projects should look like . While optimism is always encouraged, a sprinkle of realism is often beneficial and might result in actual success, not to mention an incredible feeling of accomplishment.
A bad judge of a project’s difficulty will base their decision solely upon technical issues. “Is this game technically and programmatically feasible for me?” is not the kind of question you want to ask yourself. Instead, try asking: “Can I complete this in a reasonable amount of time?” For a first simple game, aim for a completion time of around a few weeks. (Of course, this will vary greatly on a person’s prior level of programming experience, but 1-3 weeks is a near-enough goal that it won’t seem too overwhelming, while still allowing you to accomplish enough to feel like a rock star afterwards.) Remember, it will probably take longer than you think it will, so scale back your goals if necessary. Having a single completed game feels way better than any number of unfinished ones that you’ve quit working on.
- Write small demos.
Once upon a time, whenever a fancy particle system or terrain-rendering engine came to mind, I immediately wanted to write a game in which to use it. Naturally, such projects were never completed. I’ve since come to learn that what I really wanted was not to build a game for these systems, but to simply showcase them somehow. Graphical demos are short programs built solely for the purpose of demonstrating some new technique, and are perfect in this regard. These small projects are a great creative outlet for any of your new ideas without having to create an entire game to support them.
- Don’t care about art.
So, you’ve implemented your combat mechanics and your menu screens. Your wizards can cast spells with beautiful particle effects, and you’ve optimized your ragdoll physics system to death. All that’s missing are actual humanoid models, since your avatar and everyone around you are currently being rendered as grey boxes.
You might be lucky enough to already have digital art skills, but many of us can’t draw a straight line on a computer if our lives depended on it. Not having the assets necessary to make a game can be a setback, but don’t let this stop you. The Internet is full of websites dedicated to free 2D and 3D art, as well as sound effects and music. If you’re planning on distributing your game, though, make sure you’re aware of any copyright or licensing restrictions.
- Play lots of games and read lots of books.
If you’d like to learn how to write good games, then you should play them. You should play some bad ones, too. Play a lot of games and figure out why they’re fun to play (or conversely, not fun to play). This perspective will be invaluable as you set out to design games that you want others to enjoy. You should also be reading game design and game dev books. Buy every one you’re interested in that you can get your hands on: they’re far better than anything you’ll ever read on the web (including this blog).
- Get some air occasionally.
Sunlight is popular and free year-round. We’ve already established the importance of taking breaks, and it certainly bears mentioning that some of my best ideas have come when I wasn’t thinking about game dev. You’ll never know when inspiration will strike — it often hits you when you’re busy enjoying something else. So, don’t be afraid to step away and do something else…your project won’t go anywhere while you’re away, and neither will your motivation.
 Saltzman, M. (2002). Programming Theory. In Game Design: Secrets of the Sages (4th ed., p. 283). Indianapolis: Pearson Education.