Got Game?

Gaming KeyboardHave a great game idea but don’t own a multimillion-dollar game studio? Drew Turney tries the DIY route.

It’s passé to say the net has changed the media model. In the past, there used to be a large, professional class that produced content and a mass market (the rest of us) that consumed it. If you’ve ever uploaded a camcorder video to YouTube, composed a song in GarageBand or posted to a blog, you’re part of the new paradigm where we’re all consumers and producers.

You can read millions of pixels or column inches about how many citizen journalists, DIY filmmakers, mega-selling bands launched on the back of MySpace and influential bloggers there are outselling the old media, but one area we hear little about when it comes to the hordes of amateurs is game development. In a field where the global revenues are said to be fast catching up to that of Hollywood movies (or have overtaken it depending on who you ask), you’d think there’d be as lively a movement for garden-shed coders to be developing the next Halo, Myst or Gears of War.

Could it be because making a movie consists of much more accessible skills (writing a script, pointing a camera), whereas writing and coding a game needs talents over the head of even technology-aware designers (such as C++, Octave, ASCENT, MIPS, CLIST, Delphi, JOVIAL, Nemerle, Visual Basic and TorqueScript to name a few).

Types of game development

Of course, it depends on your idea of developing a game. You can overlay metadata on a pre-existing game framework in a handful of clicks so your own face appears on the hero of a first person shooter. You can develop applets for distribution on the web – the explosion in social networking has meant games are going viral to degrees not seen since the Web was first introduced.

A good example is a website like Pictogame, where the value in a game isn’t so much the code but the ‘shareability’. The gameplay itself has already been programmed and developed. You simply take a digital photo of yourself, a friend or hated enemy and upload it to the site. It produces the game with your data applied and then gives you the capability to send it out among the social channels of communication that make up the Internet. Many tools such as Gigya are all about commercialising the spread of your games or applets throughout the web, using serious tracking and reporting capabilities to do so.

At the other end of the scale, you can invest thousands of man-hours in hardcore development in one of the deep-level programming languages and create a game that involves so much sound, video, mini programs, applets, add ons and extras you might find it for sale for XBox 360 next Christmas for $120 a pop.

And no, that’s not as silly as it sounds. There’s nothing stopping you from licensing the game engines and platform rights to create your own world-beating game, except perhaps the cost of anything up to around a million dollars (US) in legal and licensing fees.

Game development at the big end of town works something like this. There are platforms just like there are in the desktop computer world such as Windows Vista, Mac OSX and Linux. The platforms in video gaming are the brands you know such as XBox, Playstation, PSP, Gameboy and Wii as well as the PC operating systems themselves. Just like Adobe has to code versions of Photoshop or Apple versions of iTunes to work in the Mac and Windows environments, a game studio must code versions of its game for every platform it’ll appear on. Different studios have expertise of different platforms, so you often see a publisher award contracts to different studios for the same game on different platforms.

Politics, marketing and big business often weigh in, and a publisher will have an exclusive agreement with a specific platform that’s throwing its considerable weight behind a game (the reason Halo 3 is only available for XBox). Similarly, we can presume it’s much easier for game versions of Columbia movies to appear on Playstation as both companies are owned by Sony Electronics.

Few games are built absolutely from scratch but are built on existing game engines. They range from freeware or open source to commercial engines that cost phenomenal amounts of money and time to license.

A game engine will be a software framework upon which a game is built. If you design outlandish characters and a brilliant storyline, you won’t have to write the code for every single action like making sure a monster stops when it walks into a wall – a game engine will already have a parameter for it.

In the early days of the PC game revolution you might have noticed games within a certain genre that all behaved similarly. For example, Doom, Quake and Duke Nukem – all of which popularised the first person shooter (FPS) – used the same or very similar game engines but employed very different graphical standards, characters, sound effects and storylines. In those days game engines were pretty rudimentary, but today they’re as varied as the games themselves and there are hundreds of them, so it’s up to you to decide which framework will most suit the gameplay you want.

Once you have a console of platform owner contract it’s down to you or your studio to make the next hit. Your artists will conceptualise the scenery, environment, characters and weapons or other tools. Writers will devise a narrative or ‘point’, whether it’s a traditional rise through levels to defeat ever-menacing bosses or knocking opponents out of online versions. And programmers will sit there and take all the digital markers for stories and environments and stitch them to a game engine until they’re cross-eyed in either a GUI interface or one line at a time in a command line environment, often both.

Games are complicated beasts. In a movie, with only one course of action conceived, designed and shot, that’s the only course of action possible. In a game, every possibility has to be considered, actions put into action by algorithms calculated on the fly and redrawn according to the frame rate – usually 30 per second. Even environmental events or the movements of an enemy are calculated and executed while you’re not doing anything. And the more dimensions your game has (the 2D of Frogger versus the 3D or a first person shooter), the more realistic and graphics and the more going on, the more you have to program for.

The more creative and action packed the game, the duller the development process probably is. Go to the most complicated web page you can find, look at the source code and imagine having to hack or repurpose it a thousand times over and on documents a hundred times longer. The result of all that typing is Assassin’s Creed, Grand Theft Auto or The Legend of Zelda.

The smaller scale

Of course, a studio with dozens of design and development staff is beyond the means of most of us, which is where the more user-friendly game development tools come in. The two you’ve probably heard of are Java and Flash.

Java is a proprietary language developed by Sun Microsystems and first released in 1995. As of May 2007, most of the Java technologies are now free under the same GNU free public license that covers programs like GNOME Office and The Gimp.

Wikipedia describes Java as follows; ‘The language derives much of its syntax from C and C++ but has a simpler object model and fewer low-level facilities. Java applications are typically compiled to bytecode which can run on any Java virtual machine (JVM) regardless of computer architecture.’

No, it doesn’t make much sense to us either, but suffice it to say Java is a language much like others listed earlier, only with several advantages. Created one key at a time, usually through a shell like Terminal (Mac OSX) or the command line (Windows), Java applications are platform independent and can be set in motion from a remote source, both of which makes them ideal to distribute over the web.

Java is a comparatively simpler system of cause and effect, of parent commands and the resulting reaction in several instances to make it more efficient. Java applets are pieces of Java code that are ’embeddable’ in other programs – again, most commonly web pages.

Flash, by comparison, is an animation standard. It can be wrangled to produce a much more visually arresting result, but most of the Flash games you’ll see on the web are pretty basic and repetitive. Unlike Java, which works by downloading code to a browser, most games that use Flash or its sister technology – Shockwave – need a plug-in to be installed on the client-side PC. Owned by Adobe (previously Macromedia), both formats are widely available and if your browser doesn’t come preinstalled with the right player, it’ll usually prompt you to download and install it.

Where Java games are done in the extreme geek style of keying in the programming one step at a time, Flash games are much more attractive to many creative types as they’re assembled visually in the Flash application. Devising a Flash game for the web is essentially the same as putting any other animation on a web page, just that the visitors to that page can control the actions in the animation.

There’s considerable debate on which tool’s better, and if you’re clever enough to try both, the answer might have to come down to your own experience. But a few things to keep in mind are the following;

• Usability – Java applets don’t need a pre-installed plug-in to run
• Speed – Flash files are typically smaller to download than similarly-performing Java applets.
• Graphics – Flash supports raster and pixel graphics, multiple formats and functionality Java lacks.
• Accessibility – Java is scalable across multiple platforms, whereas a Flash files needs to be repurposed for each one.
• Design – Flash looks like Flash. Java gives you more control over the visual look.

Too much choice?

Given the choice between CC+ and Flash, command line tweaking and click and drag game construction and the other choices out there, it’s just like any other creative project. You have to consider your audience and decide on the delivery platform and methodology based on that.

Game development technologies are blank slates. They’re tools, and choosing one that seems easy won’t make you a game developer any more than Adobe InDesign will make you a magazine publisher or a fantastic hammer will make you a great carpenter.

But some very influential parties are taking notice. Game developers and players feel vindicated enough about the extent to which gaming is changing everything from Wall St to 21st century culture, but initiatives to encourage home-grown gamers are everywhere.

Young Victorian Sherele Moody won Project Joystick, a competition run by Bigpond and the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, for her game Dung, about a dung beetle named Dudley and his adventures on his growing ball of crap. Along with a swag of prizes, Bigpond will invest $1m to develop Dung into a commercial project.

Think you can beat that?

Game engines

If you want to develop your own games using traditional engines, here’s a list of one to familiarise yourself with

Low cost/hobbyist;

• Torque Game Engine
• TV3D SDK 6.5
• 3D Game Studio
• C4 Engine
• Unity
• NeoAxis Engine

Open source;

• Crystal Space
• Ogre3D
• Irrlicht
• Open Dynamics Engine
• jMonkeyEngine

Games that changed the world

Get designing or programming, and you might join this list one day.

Pac Man (1980)
Like Tetris a decade later, proof that the simplest gameplay is the most addictive. Pac Man became the video game industry’s first global superstar.

Street Fighter 2 (1991)
Changed the then-niche fighting genre into a videogame staple.

Doom (1993)
The first ever first person shooter (FPS), countless imitations and homages still owe their gameplay design to it.

Tetris (1989)
Proof of the beautiful simplicity of the idea. Enduring, addictive, and has tertiary students the world over breaking into skyscrapers to rewire the lights and play it for real.

Sim City (1989)
For the first time ever, a game wasn’t about conquest, violence or destruction but just living everyday life, and punters loved it. Does it partly explain the obsession with reality TV?

Dance Dance Revolution (1998)
From the land of the kitsch craze, this Japanese-born update on karaoke became a pop culture icon.

Halo 2 (2004)
XBox Live chose this FPS to drive its online gaming service, and the ease of use became a template for gamers scattered far and wide participating in the same world.

GTA 3 (2001)
Media had contained adult content for decades, but the first time a videogame did so, the conservative hand wringers went ballistic.

Guitar Hero (2005)
Bought air guitar into the 21st century and opened the field for gaming beyond the joystick.