By TECgirls contributor Melissa Wilson Craw
Do you like to play games on your phone or on a console? Chances are, you do. And the games you play are probably all so different. You can take care of pets, match magic crystals, learn about any subject under the sun, or go on amazing adventures with characters that begin to feel like friends.
But do you know how games are made? At a basic level all games, from the simplest match-three to the most visually stunning role-playing games, are made using the same approach, skills and technology.
Deciding what kind of game to make
Like with any kind of project, designing a game starts with planning. A group of people called the core team gather together and plan out everything: what the game looks like, what the story will be, and how long everything will (or should) take.
They will also break down each stage of game development into the individual tasks they will need to complete. This helps make sure every person who works on the game knows what they need to do and when. Although this is incredibly important to game development, the core team might use something as low-tech as notecards on a cork board to keep track of everything!
Designing the game: characters
Generally, we like to play games that have characters. Even if the game itself doesn’t have a playable character, we like there to be someone we can relate to, or feel like we’re helping. So game developers spend a lot of time creating characters that we enjoy playing with.
To do this, they start by sketching the characters on paper and developing a storyboard. This is like a comic book that shows how the game should be played, how the story progresses, and what the game will look like.
Once they’re happy with the storyboards, graphic artists scan the drawings into their computers and use those to help design the computer images the game will need.
If the characters move in the game, like in Minecraft or Overwatch, character designers will wrap those computer images around a digital ‘skeleton’, made up of lines that can move any way the designer wants. They then spend a lot of time playing around with the characters, experimenting with how they move. After all, a big, muscly ogre and a ballerina mouse shouldn’t move the same way!
Designing the game: background
While the characters and gameplay are being built, other graphic artists and developers work on the background.
If you look carefully at your game the next time you play, you’ll see the background has to do a lot. It frames the game you’re playing. If it’s in a game where a character is running around a room or a world, the background has to be a 3D map, and it has to move with the character. If the game stays still, the background will usually have just enough movement to keep you interested without taking your attention away from the main action. In a way, it’s the biggest, yet least noticeable, character of the game.
To make a background that does all that, designers start with the storyboard and the initial computer images. They create a map (if there is one) and lay the images over the map. They smooth out the graphics and add shadows and texture to make the background look more realistic. Finally, they test the background to make sure it moves the way they want it to when the game is being played.
Designing the game: gameplay
Once the characters and the backgrounds have been designed, it’s time to put it all together. This is where the software developers come in.
Basically, computer games are just computer programs that are designed to be fun. So they use thousands and thousands of lines of code to give the computer the instructions it needs to make the game appear and work on the screen.
Here’s a good video explaining how that works. It even talks about designing a game in Scratch, which you can use on your own tablet.
So the code, characters and backgrounds come together to form most of the game. But there are still a few more things game developers add to make the game a little more exciting.
Designing the game: adding the extras
Most games these days are more than just the actual gameplay. They also include cut scenes and soundtracks to move the game forward.
Cut scenes, also called cinematics, are actually very similar to animated movies. Animators draw the characters from scratch, because the cinematics use high-resolution images, while the game itself uses low-resolution images so the game can load and move faster.
Games also have soundtracks. The soundtrack includes the music and the voice acting that plays during the cut scenes and the game. Again, this is similar to animated movies. Musicians and voice actors go into recording studios and record their parts. Sound engineers edit the recordings to make sure they sound good and line up with the animation and gameplay.
Once everything is put together, it’s time to take the game for a test drive. Professional game testers (yes, it’s a real job!) play brand new games and look carefully for as many bugs as they can find.
Do the characters move as they’re meant to? Does the background flow seamlessly, or is it jumpy? Do the controls make the characters do what they’re supposed to? Is the gameplay smooth? The testers write up their experiences and give their notes back to the developers, who fix what they can.
Finally, the game is ready to be released. But often, this isn’t the end of the road for the game’s developers. Because now, thousands (if not millions) of people are testing the game themselves. They will discover bugs and mistakes that the handful of testers missed, and they will give the developers their notes through social media, email and other forms of direct communication.
While some of the notes will just be subjective – that they just personally didn’t like this thing or the other – many will be important things to fix. So the developers will build updates with patches and other fixes to make the game even better.
And that is how your favourite games are made. Every step of the way, game developers combine creativity, storytelling and technology to create the interactive computer programs we love to play.
If you could design a game, what would it be like?
To learn more about making games, check out these awesome resources:
Build Your Own Computer Game, by CodingKids.com.au
The Wikihow step by step guide to building a computer game
DK Computer Coding, DK Books’ YouTube playlist
A BBC parents’ guide to helping your kid become a games developer
The CodeMom roundup of coding apps for kids
About the writer
Melissa Wilson Craw spends her days creating articles, videos and websites for businesses and for fun.