Article Place & Self

Is it possible to make and release a video game in a month?

The answer is no, just to save you time scrolling to the end. Here’s what happened.

The first fatal flaw in my plan to make a video was in forgetting that February is a stupid, made up month that doesn’t have enough days. My ridiculous plan to make a game in around 28 days is cut down to 25 days.

The second fatal flaw is that I somehow thought this was going to be easy.

In the weeks leading up to 1 February, I decided to do very little planning. I had other articles to write, I had other articles to promote to the world, and I had various medical issues. Still, I thought I could knock something out. I decided to buy RPG Maker, because my initial idea was going to be set in a 16-bit, JRPG-esque world.

The game was going to be a bookmaking simulator. You’d have your own little shop, and have to travel to various other shops, with harsh time limits and lots of enemies to encounter along the way. You’d have turn-based battles with drunk customers, abusive customers, age checkers from the Gambling Commission, and the end boss was going to be an area manager. Instead of a life bar, you’d have a soul bar, and it would be constantly chipped away throughout the day, even if you weren’t doing anything.

It was, to me, pretty simple. So I got started in RPG Maker. After an hour of fiddling with it, I really didn’t know what I was doing. I’d read that it was fairly simple to use, but all I’d managed to make was a map. A small, brown map, an island, floating in an anonymous sea.

I gave up for the day.

Procrastination, which is a boss I will feature in a future game, then started hitting in waves. I’d do more planning, but put off actually doing any development, as the work involved was dauntingly complex. After a few days of inactivity, and friends bugging me for updates, I got back into the game. YouTube would be my saviour, and I started scouring the site for tutorials. Video after video, player after player, each one was dull, monotone and hard to listen to. I can’t learn or pay attention if something is boring, so I almost gave up, but finally found a decent one. Each video was 30 minutes long, so I watched a few.

It worked! I learned how to do stuff. Now I knew how to make a proper map, with trees, mountains, roads and other geographical features. I made a little town for the map, then I learned how to make it so that when my avatar — who we will call Stuart – walked into the town, he’d transition into the town itself. Sounds complex, but it was actually surprisingly easy. It wasn’t long that I was starting to build my town. It didn’t look great, in fact it looked pretty awful. There was a random fence around it, to guide the player to the buildings I wanted them to explore, and then I met my nemesis – the humble door.

I couldn’t work out how to draw a door. There didn’t seem to be any in my pack of graphics. The guy in the video seemed to know how to make a door, but when I tried, I just couldn’t do it. Nothing like the inability to draw a simple door to kill your enthusiasm for a project.

At this point, I’m feeling a bit stupid. Did I bite off more than I can chew? I skip door day, and try to work on actually making the game’s systems. It’s hopeless. To do anything particularly complex, you have to do at least a bit of coding, and this is where I hit a wall (a metaphorical wall, there’s no way I could draw a wall, that would be too difficult). RPG Maker uses a programming language called Ruby, which is apparently great for beginners. I bought an online course for Ruby, but again get a bit tired of how dry and dull it is. I sense a pattern here, don’t you?

Bedroom coders were a big thing when I was a kid. During the early 1980s, it was possible for someone in their bedroom to knock out a video game, whack it on a cassette, and get paid a decent amount of money for doing so. Some bedroom coders who later became successful in the industry include David Braben, who made Elite (with Ian Bell) when he was just 20. He later went to work on LostWinds for the Nintendo Wii, and is the co-founder of the Raspberry Pi Foundation. The Raspberry Pi is now one of the UK’s all-time best-selling computers, with one of the main purposes to inspire youngsters to learn programming, becoming bedroom coders themselves.

David Perry started making games on his own in 1982, aged 15, making and selling games for the Sinclair ZX81. He quickly went from bedroom coder to working on licensed games like The Terminator and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He eventually formed his own company, releasing Earthworm Jim, and is now working for Sony, after selling his company, Gaikai, for a cool $380 million.

It can be done, people. The only difference between me and those guys, aside from talent and effort, is a knack for programming. I’m rubbish at languages, either computer or spoken ones. I once spent a month in Japan and the only phrase I learned (and still remember to this day) was the one to ask for stamps.

Their early games were fairly primitive, with graphics that you’d politely call minimalist now. I was going for a 16-bit RPG aesthetic, mirroring the looks of games that came out in the early to mid 90s, games that had development teams of around 20-30 sometimes. As a newcomer, one who couldn’t program his way out of a paper bag, this was going to be almost impossible.

Mike, an amateur developer who helps programming newbies on Reddit, tells me what stops most video games from being made.

“A lot of people have this great idea, and they think it’s going to be an amazing game. Ignoring that someone has probably already made this game of their’s, and that it’s probably going to be crappy, they don’t realise how much time and effort goes into it.”

Mike is describing me, except obviously, my game was going to be a hit.

“You can make a game on your own, and I think in fact, we’re at the best point, technologically, we’ve ever been. Imagine being some kid in his basement 30 years ago, he had no documentation to look at, he couldn’t get help with compiler errors, he couldn’t get a guy to work on some sprites, or provide some chiptunes, he was stuck. Now, it’s all there waiting for you.”

I ask Mike if he thinks someone like me could make the game I’m trying to make.

“Absolutely, but if you’re on a deadline like yours, you’re going to need a lot of help. The help is there, too, but people won’t do it for you, you’ve got to show that you’re busting your ass trying to make something, to create something. The game won’t be made for you, but any problems you get to are going to be problems that someone else has run into, so someone will have the solution.”

I’m at about 10 days now. That’s 10 days to make and release a video game, and also write an article chronicling its development. I decide, with Mike’s advice, to shelf the idea. It’s just not going to work. I ask if he has anything that would be simpler to work with.

“You’re a writer, just do a text adventure.”

Mike is a genius. Text adventures were massive at a time when graphics were abstract lines and colours. They were popular because you didn’t need polygons and pixels, textures and physics, because the greatest graphics were the ones you imagined while playing. Nowadays they go by the slightly wanky term of Interactive Fiction, the same sort of embarrassed renaming that hit comic books in the 1980s when they were graphic novels, darling.

A text adventure, though, that seemed viable. When I get this advice, I’ve hit rock bottom. I’m depressed, moping in the pub, trying to scribble down ideas. Ben, the barman, tries to cheer me up, but I know I am fucked. I down a couple of pints of Pig on the Wall (£2.20 before 4pm in The Midland, come join me some time) and come up with an idea for a text adventure. You’re going to be playing someone a bit like me. Someone who is tasked with writing an article.

You start in a pub, where you have to choose an idea for an article. Each idea is terrible, but eventually you pick one. Then you slack off. This is going to be called the Procrastination Simulator. Every choice you make in the game is going to lead you away from your goal of writing an article. I think the idea is brilliant. It’s going to be a treatise about depression and procrastination. Then it slowly dawns on me. Without realising it, I’ve waded into the world of the indie art game, a game with a “message”.

As much as I appreciate the efforts of the artists involved, there’s nothing I find as dull as games masquerading as art pieces. The argument about whether games are art or not (I believe they are, but don’t care enough to debate it) is often boiled down to emotion, specifically crying. When will a game make us cry? When will there be a Citizen Kane of video games? Well, I’ve cried at Football Manager and Metal Gear Solid 3, and gaming tends to have a Citizen Kane of video games every few years. Indeed, I’d like to know when film will have a Surgeon Simulator 2013, when sculpture will have a Final Fantasy IX, when oil paintings will have a Parappa the Rapper.

In my haste and panic to make a video game, any video game, I’ve ended up becoming something I hate. I’ve half-designed and started work on a self-pitying, miserable video game that I would never play in a million years. There’s a chance the game could be an insight into the mind of a procrastinating author. A look at how much time we waste, how little we appreciate our time on this earth, our lack of care or wonder at how we won the lottery of birth.

Nah. This game is shit. I can’t make the game I want to make, and the game I’m making is pish.

I’ve got to admit, I’ve developed an appreciation for terrible games. I’ve played some of the worst games in the world. I’ve flown through Lex Luther’s endless rings in Superman 64, I’ve watched trees being chopped down awkwardly in Woodcutter Simulator 2013, and I’ve played Sonic 06. Despite all these games being incredibly flawed, with mistakes so obvious and glaring you can’t understand how they weren’t spotted and rectified, they’re still games. They do mostly work, they have graphics, music, and complex systems. It took a team of people time, money and real effort to code, compile, draw, compose, debug (for about an hour) and create these virtual worlds. Sure, they’re absolutely abysmal, they should never have been released, and they’re infamously poor, but it got done, it got shipped.

With time quickly running out, I decide to just make something silly. It’s a text adventure, how hard can it be? I load up Quest, a text adventure program, and my eyes glaze over at commands like scripts, attributes and something about cruelty levels. I quickly design a pub, leaving the player trapped inside there forever, eternally trying to come up with a idea. Stuck with a notepad and not even a pint.

It’s quite good, 8/10, would play again.

Mostly written in The Midland, Bearwood, and in bed, also Bearwood.

Soundtrack - Sunset Mission and Piano Nights, by Bohren & Der Club of Gore.

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