Helping the World Make Games | vector poem

The concept of the digital divide reminds us that most of the people on this planet still have no access to the society-reshaping technologies that we take for granted. Many noble efforts have taken aim at this problem.

I couldn’t help but think about our slice of that much larger challenge. Specifically:

How do we significantly increase the percentage of earth’s population that makes games?

I’ll explain later why I think this issue is of critical importance to the future of games, but first here are some ideas.

Reduce the financial barriers to entry. For game creation to become an activity practised by all cultures, the hardware must be cheap and the software must be free [1]. Hardware is becoming cheaper, and more ubiquitous in developing countries, at a fairly reliable rate. Software is the tougher part.

The software needed to make games falls into two very general groups: the stuff you need to create content – 2D and 3D artwork, levels, sound and music – and the stuff you need to make the game’s raw functionality, via programming or something like it.

There are already some good free tools for the technical/programming side of game creation. See the end of this piece for a list of good existing resources.

However a lot of the software related to content creation, such as Photoshop and 3D Studio Max, is priced far out of reach for most people [2]. For the professionals that use this software, its cost is an easily justified business expense. However, this won’t work for the mass of amateurs and kids we are trying to empower.

Fortunately, there are free equivalents to many of these software packages in projects like GIMP and Blender. Unfortunately the area where many of these are least competitive is in usability. Often, they focus on providing comparable functionality over discoverability and ease of learning. Which brings us to…

Make the tools much easier to learn. Think of the path to learning to make games as a ramp. Right now we have a lot of solid options for people who are half or most of the way up that ramp. Sadly the low end of the ramp has a lot of snags and bumps on it. Many people try to get started making games and give up because the tools they found were impenetrable, or they failed to grasp some of the more fundamental concepts of game creation.

A well-designed UI can help smooth out those early experiences, increasing the chances that a budding creator will forge ahead and go on to do something great. A well-thought-out workflow can turn a series of arbitrary actions into a process that clicks in the user’s mind. In effect, good tools reduce the cognitive barriers to entry.

Likewise on the technical side, we need more really high quality systems for making simple games with little or no programming needed – tools like GameMaker. Those of us with programming experience may dismiss such tools as toys, but we all started somewhere [3]. The game creators of tomorrow will pick up such toys, and those with talent and drive will reach their limits and move on to something more powerful. We need development at both ends of the ramp – toys and power tools – to launch a new global generation of game designers.

What can one person do to help this trend along? Get involved with the development process for good projects. Submit UI improvements, file bugs, become active in their communities.

Improve game creation education. – A lot of the most useful knowledge about how to make games is locked up inside large studios, or buried in knowledge bases that are difficult to understand or even access. Most good game designers are still working in the industry, not teaching, and formal game education is pretty expensive and only available in a few places (in the United States, at least).

Good designers should be more willing to share the secrets of their craft – conferences like GDC are a good start – but we should also make sure to translate those insights into more languages, and strive to disseminate them more widely than the narrow circle of pro game developers.

We also need more good online resources. Good documentation is wonderful, and we arguably have an even greater need for good tutorials: “How-Tos” written for an entry level, explaining concepts and workflows in depth, not just “what this button does”. And of course, we should help translate these, as well as the tools themselves, into more languages.

Foster strong communities that speak your native language(s). A community of creators can be an amazing nexus of learning and idea exchange. Participating in these communities and helping them to grow is valuable.

It’s sad to consider the extent to which game dev scenes are fragmented by language – there’s very little spill-over between the Japanese indie scenes and those in the West, for example. This is unavoidable to an extent. What we can do is build better connections between the places we do know about. I suspect we will soon see innovations in the social web that advance this beyond the loose archipelago of forums, chat and social networks we have today.

Support technologies that do not limit creator freedom. Dan Cook’s fantastic GDC talk, The Game of Platform Power, makes a very strong case that platform holders cannot be trusted to act in the long-term interests of creators. They architect their platforms in ways that place developers under their control, in both obvious and non-obvious ways. With some smart marketing, huge numbers of creators can be drawn into relationships that ultimately turn them into a commodity.

The kids who will start making games in 2015 or 2025 deserve a future with no strings attached.

What can we do? Support technologies, platforms and companies that embrace creator autonomy in tangible ways that can’t be revoked. Punish bad behavior by taking your business elsewhere. Contribute to open source projects, sell on open marketplaces, and build on technologies based around truly open standards. While they can be chaotic and subject to the same human social dynamics as any organization, these systems are our best bet for a future not dominated by a few all-powerful companies.

Disseminate and promote the means to make games. All the fantastic software in the world is worthless if the game creators of tomorrow don’t know about it. When you booted up a Commodore 64, you were presented with a BASIC interpreter. You could start typing simple commands, make some games in BASIC, and gradually work your way up to writing games in assembly.

Today, you boot up Windows on a new PC and see mostly software related to content consumption. Most of the tech or media companies that control computing have little interest in promoting learning or the creation of culture. This is something we can gradually help some companies start to see the value in. Imagine the impact just one desktop shortcut that says “Learn to Make Games” would have on a generation of kids. My undying gratitude goes to the first company to do this!

Make more different kinds of games. I believe more strongly than ever that broadening the range of human experience we simulate in our games beyond shooting, stabbing and jumping, is the most direct route to establishing games as a cultural force and artistic medium.

Videogames tend to seep anywhere technology goes, but existing devs making a wider range of games will help those new potential game makers be exposed to games that are more likely to inspire them, and less likely to write off videogames as dumb stuff for boys / rich kids / nerds / etc.

Which begins to get to the heart of why all this is so important for the future of games.

The debates over videogames’ status as an artistic medium tend to be mazes of irreconcilable prejudices and slippery or contradictory definitions. Worse, they tend to be very short on actual things we, as creators and players, can do to improve the status of games.

So it would be very productive if we could shift focus away from “art”, which we will never satisfactorily define by consensus, to “lasting cultural relevance and respect”, which we can perhaps check up on in 10-20 years time and see how we did.

Which is to say,

If games aren’t art (yet), maybe it’s because the group of people making them are still relatively tiny and homogeneous and geographically concentrated.

No doubt we should continue to increase the diversity of the existing game industry – year by year we employ more women and minorities, and this is incrementally a Good Thing.

More important though: we should get more people making games. Hence, this post.

Every culture produces music, and we have an almost indescribable diversity of it. It’s difficult to imagine a future for humanity without music.

A film is more work to make than an album, but if you look at the global output of films, a very healthy diversity of films still gets made every year. My local theater can give me windows into rural Thailand, revolutionary France, or the mind of a blind person.

If we can bring about this kind of diversity for games, the cultural relevance of those media will be within our grasp.

One could argue that videogames are already ubiquitous – a PC can cost as little as $100, a PlayStation 2 costs $100, and games for these systems are available in developing countries. This isn’t the same thing as the means to creating videogames being ubiquitous.

I want to play a game made by a middle class girl in India. I want to play a game that helps me understand what it’s like to grow up in poverty. I want to play a game that shows me what the world looks like to someone who practices a religious faith I know almost nothing about.

There is so much I don’t know about what life would be like for such people. Experiencing that would make me a better person, and probably a better creator too. More importantly, humankind is richer for such works existing.

Games are really good at transporting us to other times and places and frames of reference, but it’s amazing how narrow a range of human experience they currently offer us despite that vast potential. We can change that by building a bridge from our small little island to the rest of the world.

It’s worth noting that this worldwide explosion of game creation would undoubtedly result in huge numbers of games that you, personally, would probably not like! That’s the whole point – to broaden the medium beyond a single taste, a single demographic – a single destiny. This is not fragmentation so much as the flowering of culture, as it has happened for millenia. Our tiny tribe can hold back this change, or help it along.

I’m coming to believe this challenge is just as important as the creation of enduring, beautiful games. I hope I’ve provided a tiny starting point for further thinking about this.


Here are some links to good game making software I know of. If I missed something, tell me in the comments!

Art tools

Inkscape – A vector graphics tool comparable to (and fairly competitive with) Adobe Illustrator. Clever game creators have figured out how to use it as a level creation tool.

Blender – The most advanced open source 3D modeling, animation and rendering program. While their UI still needs some work, they recently released a solid new version with some significant improvements.

GIMP – Photoshop equivalent. If you’re a long-time Photoshop user, this page can help you get you a more familiar key bind setup. Development has slowed lately because there are only a few people working on it. See if you can help out!

Paint.NET. – Windows-only and free-as-in-beer, provides a very usable subset of Photoshop’s features.

Audio tools

Audacity – Good basic sound recording and editing software.

sfxr – Simple sound effects generation. Great for quickly whipping up some retro-style game sounds.

Ardour – Full-featured open source audio workstation suite, comparable to the high-end ProTools software.

2D game creation systems / engines

PyGame – A simple 2D game library that lets you use all the power of the Python language to get games on screen quickly. I’ve made several prototypes with this and it’s a joy to use. If your graphical needs are modest and you’re relatively new to programming, start here.

Monocle Engine – A very exciting up-and-coming open source 2D engine, started by the programmer from Aquaria. Barely a month old, it already supports multiple platforms, has a sweet level editor and a community is beginning to gather round it.

Flixel and FlashPunk – Two different open source libraries built atop Flash that make it much easier to program games in ActionScript without needing to mess with Adobe’s Flash software much. If you’ve played more than 2 or 3 retro-pixely games online, you’ve probably played a game built with one of these.

LOVE – Similar to PyGame, but uses LUA instead. Easy to pick up, great community.

GameMaker – Not free, but cheap, has a very active community and thousands of games have been made with it already.

Scirra Construct – An open source competitor to GameMaker. Windows-only for the moment.

Inform7 – An amazing system for creating interactive fiction whose code actually reads like English!

Processing – Designed more for the general domain of “creative coding” than games, you can do lots of interesting audiovisual experiments with this, and its interactive capabilities aren’t bad. There’s now a version that runs directly in a web browser using javascript and the new HTML5 technologies.

3D engines

Unity – A powerful 3D suite that’s great for prototyping. The interface is a mash-up of a level editor and an IDE. You can do a lot with the GUI but dig into script code when you need to. Proprietary, but has a free version with some features removed and a splash screen.

Sauerbraten – Very interesting FPS engine built around the concept of runtime level editing.

ioquake3 – Open source version of the venerable but quite solid Quake 3 engine. I used this engine for my IGF 2008 game Purity.


[1] “Free” can mean free as in “free beer” or free as in “free speech”. While tools in either sense of the word will held spread game creation, the Free Software Foundation’s explanation of the differences make it clear why the latter sense is important in the longer term.

[2] Though piracy is very common in some parts of the world, we can’t in good conscience suggest that an entire generation of game creators get their start by downloading software illegally.

[3] The interesting thing about GameMaker in particular being that some amazingly good games have been made with it by experienced developers just looking to make something fast – don’t underestimate simple tools!

This entry was posted on Saturday, April 30th, 2011 at 10:57 pm and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

3 Responses to “Helping the World Make Games”

  1. ethicszen Says:

    Don’t forget bxfr.

  2. mxttie Says:

    and ogre3D as a 3d engine too? 🙂

  3. Image of the New Game Programmers « wittyloss Says:

    […] The specific post I was looking at was this one, regarding getting people into game development: Helping the World Make Games […]