How to get Started With Video Gaming?

I have met someone today who really wanted to get into video games making, but didn't know where to begin. I decided this would be the substance of my first blog post.

I intend this post to be a comprehensive resource for people who have no, or little experience in video gaming, and I will try to touch on everything, from assets production to philosophy, akin to this post by Austin Hallock. While the advice below assumes you want to build games on your own, or with a little team, I consider it still valid for someone who wants to get hired in the industry. There is no better door kicker than experience, after all.

[Disclaimer: I have not put out a single game; This is a bunch of resources, mashed together and categorized; I am mainly relaying other's opinion, and dare to give mine only in the fields where I do have experience. Also, there are no affiliate links in the below. It's all stuff I genuinely deem relevant.]

The Industry

First of all, you should know what is happening in the industry. To that effect, whip up your favorite news reader (I use feedly, it is not perfect but does the trick), and subscribe to the following addresses:

  • Gamasutra: Cornerstone of the gaming industry. I actually avoided it for years, thinking it would be boring, and corrupt (I am very weary of successful websites, and advertisers that pay them). Turns out most of the articles are really well laid-out and entertaining, specially the blogs part. I have yet to sniff a paid for promotion article on there.
  • Edge Online: Edge is easily the only video games paper magazine that is worth shelling out a few bucks for, and their website is just as good. Once again, I don't smell the rot of false journalism there (am I becoming too soft?). They have the most incredible roster of columnists around: James Leach, Randy Smith, Clint Hocking, Brian Howe, and three of my own personal favourite authors: Tadhg KellySteven Poole, and Leigh Alexander (Subscribe to them too!).
  • WhatGamesAre: This is the blog of Tadhg Kelly, mentioned above. I have yet to see him put out an insignificant article. His are so good that I do not only recommend them to people who want to do video games, but people who intend to do digital anything. Here is a personal selection from his early articles that I deem mandatory:
  • HobbyGameDev, by Chris Deleon, is a very good resource for both thinking about video games and for beginners that don't know where to start.
  • Also check LostGarden, which has in-deep articles about game mechanics.
  • Lastly, know that the industry is much more present (and interesting) on Twitter than on other social networks

What Should I know?

First, that there is a *lot* of jobs in the gaming industry. People tend to think of 3d animators and coders, but there is a plethora of other openings: scenario writing, like Rihanna Pratchett, character designer like Yoshitaka Amano (non-official, english blog here), producer like Kellee Santiago, marketing manager, PR manager, project manager, music designer, sound designer, quality control, and much more.

That said, it is probable that if you really want to be hands-on on game design, you will want to be an artist, or a coder. And you would do good to know a bit of both, whatever your personal inclination is. That is not to say that artists who can't code have no future, or that programmers who can't animate are not valuable assets to a team (I do not intend to restart the old "designers should code" argument). However, I deeply believe that all newly acquired knowledge feeds into all previous knowledge to produce something that is greater than the sum of its individual parts. I also believe that, just as a painter should have an idea of how paint works, even if she does not grasp the discreet chemical reactions that makes it work, everyone should have an intimate knowledge with the medium they work in.

Design & Drawing

If you know nothing about drawing, here are a few tools you will need: a pen, a paper, perseverance. Begin drawing. Never stop. That's about it. There is no secret. There is no talent. There is no tricks. There is only practice. Refrain from expressing yourself or trying to find a style before you are on top of all the basics. Have a perfect knowledge of anatomy, perspective, shadowing, drapés, and volumes first, begin the narcissistic thinking after.

Here are a few resources to help you out:

  • A fairly complete resource (and a very nice website) is drawspace.com
  • You also have the video website Draw23, which covers some specifics tutorials
  • In books, I can't recommend enough everything and anything by Burne Hogarth, who's contribution to anatomy learning is just fantastic. If you are getting just one, get Dynamic Figure Drawing
  • Then, get Force, by Mike Mattesi, but only once you really groked what Burne Hogarth is about
  • Get all (I do mean all) the books by Andrew Loomis. If you don't know what to pick, begin with Figure Drawing (You can get the books in digital format, apparently for free here. I have no idea how legal that is).
  • Finally, always have a few good references at hand. Anatomy books, nature books, photos, google images…

Animation

Sadly, there are very few good resources online to learn how to animate. So I will not link any, and will point you to books. Yes, you will have to pay some money to acquire those, but in return, I promise they are beyond good. Prepare to have your mind shattered to pieces.

If you are looking to be a 2D animator

  • Above all, there is the Animator's Survival Kit, by Richard Williams. I don't know what I would have done, had this book not existed. In fact, I don't know how a whole generation of self-taught animators would have done. You might also want to get your hands on Cartoon Animation by Preston Blair, and the Illusion of Life, by Ollie Johnston and Frank Thomas.
  • When you are done with your first ten readings of the Animator's Survival Kit, you might want to pursue by plunging into Drawn To Life Part 1 and Part 2, by Walt Stanchfield. They are a set of lectures that Walt would give to animators in the Disney studios, and provide a more advanced and nuanced view on the art as well as the industry.
  • For the more technical-minded, Elemental Magic volume 1 and volume 2, by Joseph Gilland, teach how to animate elements such as fire and water.

If you are looking to be a 3D animator

  • Do the exact same thing as a 2D animator, but also learn a 3D package
  • Or resolve to put out lifeless, cold animations like half the 3D animators out there that thought they did not need the classical teachings

Be ready for one hell of a ride. Animation is one of the most demanding and unrewarding jobs that you can do behind a desk.

Coding

First of all, know that being good at math is not required to learn how to code. If you are looking to do high-level coding, such as a physics engine, a 3D engine, or something of the sort, then of course, maths is helpful. For most coding tasks though, being able to have a logical mind is all that matters.

The choice of languages is infinite, but four easy (enough) and versatile languages come to mind: Python, Lua, Flash, and Javascript. For reasons that are beyond the realm of this post, I strongly promote the choice of JavaScript for the burgeoning developer, and the resources below aim to teach that.

  • First, make good use of the fantastic (and I don't speak lightly) work of the Khan Academy folks. The course they put together is grand, but unfortunately, it is very far from working in a real environment, so…
  • …Go to CodeAcademy and complete all the courses. Bam! You are a JavaScript developer. Congrats! You know enough to understand what programming is about.
  • Now if you feel like it, go on to build something, picking a simple tutorial such as this avoider game, this snake tutorial or this very simple platformer. You won't understand everything with the just the knowledge acquired until there, but you can begin tweaking things and seeing how they react.

Additionally (but not alternatively), you can go through the screencasts at AppendTo. Check out this Nettuts article too. People also say good things about LearnStreet, but I haven't tried it.

Note: JavaScript is extremely flexible, but it is mainly used to build webpages, so don't be surprised if your google search mainly returns results that have to do with web design.

Building

How to Approach the Idea

First, you need to see this presentation by Chris Deleon: Making Finished Video Games. He has a lot of insights to offer, but in my opinion, the one takeaway from this video is the idea that your video games should follow-up the chronological complexity of video games. Begin with something very simple, with automatically generated levels. This will allow you to focus on mechanics and controls, and not waste time producing assets. Then follow-up with something slightly more modern. Don't try to tackle COD from day one, and don't minimize the overhead of producing assets, levels, graphics, music, menus, and all the other things that make a video game.

Choose the Engine

I chose a few engines that allow you to create something without writing a line of code. The best way to learn is by doing, and by picking something that does not need code, you can begin building something immediately. I did not try the below, as I prefer less fancy engines that allow for more low-level control, but reviews are good, and it suffice to see the games produced to know that these are very capable.

  • GameSalad can publish for Windows, Mac, IOS, and the web. The free version is free (duh), but you will have to shell out 300$ if you want to publish on windows 8, Android, or monetize your app.
  • Stencyl is very interesting because it allows for complex behaviours with a sort of visual code editor. I don't really understand the benefit (it seems more complex to me that to simply write the code), but I guess if you know nothing about coding, it can be soothing to do things with your mouse. It publishes as a web page, but a yearly 80$ subscription allows to export for Flash, Windows, and Mac, and a 200$ subscription allows to publish for IOS. They are working on exporting for Android too.
  • Construct2 is the most interesting imho, as it is both the cheapest of the pack and the industry's most talked about one. Their free version is limited in assets (number of layers, number of effects), and can export only to web formats, but they have easy integration with Chrome Web Store, Windows 8 Web Store, and Facebook. The personal edition costs 80$, but allows to export to IOS, Android, Windows, Mac, and Linux.

You have plenty more engines. See some of them at BuildNewGames, HTML5GameEngine, or get a hand-picked and very well maintained comparison at PixelProspector's MakeGames! page.

If you are looking to get started very fast, do know that you can find sets of tiles and animated sprites on the internet, for free (and legally). Checkout this list of free downloadable game assets, for example.

 The Software

In the below, I will try to recommend free software when I can. This is not because I think paid for software is inaccessible to empty pockets (torrents anyone?), but because I believe that using paid for software, even if you pirate it, condones their abusive prices (if you pirate and learn illustrator, you, or your employer, are eventually going to buy it some day), and second, because the free alternative is often just as good, or in some cases, widely superior.

  • To write code, basically, all you need is a text editor; this said, an IDE can really help by providing colors to the different parts of your code, and optionally auto-complete as you write. I recommend Sublime Text, that works on any platform. It is not a free software, but you can use it as long as you want, if you put up with a nagging screen from time to time.
  • For sketching, if you have a tablet, I can't recommend enough MyPaint, who crushes all the competitors, despite a horrid name. Nothing comes close in terms of feeling.
  • For vectorial drawings, I highly recommend InkScape. It is only at version 0.48 (at the time of writing), but is already very usable. It lacks some of Illustrator's features, but compensates with some that do not exist in Illy, so it sort of evens out. For my own purposes, InkScape leaves Illustrator way behind in terms of ease of use and productivity, to the point that I can't use Illustrator without cringing. It is also, despite not being at version 1 yet, much more stable.
  • For raster drawing, I fear I cannot really recommend anything free. There is Gimp, which technically is on par with Photoshop, but its interface is appallingly bad. I've made the choice to use free software only, and so Gimp is my everyday tool, but I still curse every time I need to open it (I do thank the team for putting out the software for free, and I know how hard it is to work benevolently, but it doesn't change the fact that Gimp is just very badly designed). So if you really want to be productive, do use Photoshop, Painter, or similar. If you have ethical issues like I do, put up with Gimp.
  • For 3D modelling an animating, Blender is simply great. It has all the features of major 3D packages such as 3D Studio Max, Maya, and the likes, but comes completely free. It's only major problem is that it is not an industry standard, so training for Blender arguably does not provide you with a great head start to get into studios. The same could be said about other free software, the main difference being that while most drawing applications are fairly similar, 3D packages vary greatly.

When Can I Be Ready?

If you are wondering how long it will take before you are good enough, well, I all I can say is: much more than you can imagine. From a complete novice, being an OK coder would require a few months, an OK artist a year, and an OK animator, at least three. That's assuming you are working your ass off, every day.

Feeling discouraged already?

Don't. There is a learning curve, but be patient, and you will get there. You also do not need to be proficient in all of those fields to be a good game designer, and you do not need to be on professional level to begin making games. For a simple platformer, knowing a bit of each might be enough. You will learn to work with your own limitations, just as you learn to work with the limitations of the machines you are dealing with. What about a platformer made with Stencil that features only squares? You can begin doing this right now! Oh wait, someone already did.

Do not take the above as a straight path that goes from A to Z. Do click on the links, flutter from one resource to the other, learn to animate as you build your first game prototype. and keep yourself informed. Be aware that the competition is huge, but let it not matter to you. Mostly think of having fun, and appreciate the learning process for itself, without thinking more than the next day. Persistence here, as in all things, is key.

Good luck!

2013/09/06/resources/ , , , .

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