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Now, I’ve played a lot of video games in my lifetime. In fact, some of my earliest memories are of playing a game called ‘Alligator Alphabet’ that my dad coded up on his old Texas Instruments TI-99 (which had a modest 256 bytes of ‘scratchpad’ RAM!)
As I got older, I enjoyed the Kings Quest series, Doom, Commander Keen, Wolfenstein3D, Command&Conquer and even the old 2D Duke Nukem side-scroller (before he went adult.) I’ve had an Xbox (also a 360 and now a One), a PlayStation (1 and 2) and even bought a ‘retro’ Sega Mega Drive in my 20’s so I could replay Streets Of Rage II, a game my friends and I used to play endlessly (Rav is a pro and can beat it on Hard!) In short, I love video games. I enjoy the immersion into a fictional reality that I control, as well as overcoming challenges be they mental, physical or temporal.
For me, playing games is like watching a movie that you’re in control of, that responds to your choices and keeps providing you with new stimuli and challenges – it’s the best thing ever for getting out of your own head for a while and just enjoying something for its own sake. I don’t have to think about deadlines, work, bills or responsibilities – I just become part of the game and float away with the character, or sink into puzzle-mode. Well… right up until I started hanging out with the HackLab’s tamed Game Developers; Mac and J-Dave.
These days, I can’t even watch someone else play a computer game without boggling at how much work it must’ve taken entire armies of people to create some of the games I play and have played in the past. I can’t help but notice the tiny animations baked into the game for such specific circumstances that they probably only happen once or twice during play (like Sonic’s ‘teetering on the edge of a precipice’ animation), or the incredibly varied and subtle hints/messages sent to you by some game’s NPC’s (like the way that some of the missions available to the player in Witcher III are only accessible by overhearing a background NPC conversation as you walk around the city and have no way-point to begin at), or the sheer size and detail depicted in some of the worlds created for me to explore (think Fallout4, Assassin’s Creed or Skyrim.)
Hanging out with Game Developers definitely shows you how the sausage is made; but while one part of me wishes I could just immerse myself in the game and ignore all the fingerprints left on the glass by the developers, another part of me appreciates how the magician does his tricks and generates a whole new level of respect for ‘game devs’ everywhere, who slog through thousands of lines of code, or spend straight days in front of modelling software to create the tiny (sometimes inane) details that make the gaming experience so much more rounded and full for the player. It also makes me more forgiving of bugs and glitches in games (though part of me still thinks that after several years of work by hundreds of hands, that someone should have caught that bug before shipping it out.)
We’ve just finished the fourth day at camp this week where we’re teaching a new crop of pre-pubescent devs how to build games in Unity: it’s been eye-opening for them when they realise that just to make a door open in their first level requires some pretty complex ideas and some detailed work on their part.
We were coding AI for a stealth game today in class: just to have the kids create the scripts needed so that they can have a companion follow them around the level took most of the day (try explaining how a state-machine works to someone who doesn’t yet know all their times tables!) but we got it finished in the end, with only minor hair-pulling and one (almost) rage-quit. It was obvious to see that the kids were staggered at how many lines of code it took and how many scripts had to interact with one another to make it work seamlessly, and I think that knowledge engenders more respect for the games they play on their tablets and consoles at home.
We live in an age of wonders – Arthur C. Clark said famously that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” He’s absolutely right. Until you’ve seen the workings of something, it’s a closed book to you - it works ‘like magic’. Seeing the insides of something is the first step to understanding how it works, and these kids have been looking behind the curtain all week. The coolest thing is, that instead of feeling overwhelmed by the amount of work it takes to make something awesome, most of these kids feel a huge sense of accomplishment and empowerment when they can make a thing for themselves that only a week ago seemed like an unattainable magic from their perspective. After the first few days, kids were bandying around new ideas for games they were going to make in their own time – we even saw the birth of a new game development studio formed by some of our fledgling crew: Illusion Games (of whom only one student is yet in their teens, but hope to release their first Indie title within the year!)
Giving kids the tools to make their own magic for others to enjoy is hugely satisfying, especially for someone who has loved games their whole life and is quite willing to talk game theory and design for hours on end. Watching them pour themselves into their artwork (for art it most certainly is) to make it individual and unique is not only interesting and endlessly varied by the differences of the student’s internal processes, but also eminently entertaining when you notice particular idioms, additions and easter-eggs placed into the games by the students, attempting to impress themselves on the interactions with (and influence upon) others through the new medium they are essentially making up as they go. We provide the bones, but they supply everything else from aesthetic choices, to gameplay options, to sound effects and even lighting.
There’s a reason that psychiatric hospitals recommend ‘art therapy’ for their patients: it’s quite a therapeutic exercise, making art – allowing your own self-expression to come through in the tone, mood and feel of something is what art really is after all - and making a video game combines practically every artform known to man: cinema, sculpture, narrative, design, painting, music, puzzles… all wrapped up in technology.
There are loads of free engines out there for you to try if you’re interested in making games - a list of links follows this article that you can take a look at and choose the engine that looks like it might be right for you. Don’t sit on the fence and wonder ‘what if’, have a go and see what you can create! You too, are a wizard Harry: all you need is a wand and the motivation to have a go. Not that every game will be Minecraft, but that infamous game was made by Markus ‘Notch’ Persson (who was 31 at the time – not one of these new ‘young turks’!) in his home and is now worth $2.5 billion. Not too shabby at all.
Some Game Engines To Try:
Unity3D - Download Unity3D
Cryengine (now on 'Pay-What-You-Want') - Download CryEngine 3 SDK
Unreal Engine - Download Unreal Engine 4
Source Engine (On Steam > Tools) - Download Source Engine SDK
Stencyl - Download Stencyl
Game Maker Studio - Download GMS
GameSalad Creator - Download GameSalad