Art You Can Play
A look inside the creation of the video games played by millions of people around the world.
Within the world of video games, the touch of a button can have you riding dragons, defending Earth from aliens, and discovering magical hidden treasures. And while making such games does require a touch of magic, any creative conjuring is matched by a heavy dose of hard work.
With vividly realistic characters, complex storylines and cinematic grandeur, video games have reached such levels of sophistication that dedicated game studios produce them over a span of months or years, often combining the talents of hundreds of artists, programmers and designers in the process. Despite the complexity of creating games, the goal is simple—to build something that is truly, irresistibly, fun.
“If we’re starting from scratch, the first thing we do is come up with a basic design of what makes the game a game,” says Chris Nemcosky, a technical producer for Big Huge Games in Baltimore, Maryland. Such proposals are often written documents only a page or two long, and can include details like the overall story or point of the game, whether it will function in two or three dimensions, and how the player will interact within the game’s imagined world.
Next comes the technical heart of the game, says Nemcosky. “The game engine is all programming code,” he describes. “It’s a set of specialized tools, a framework that allows assets to be represented in your game world.” Those assets include everything you see when you play a game—vehicles, textures, characters, models, and other art—all of which must be meticulously drawn by digital artists.
“A big milestone when you’re making a game is the ‘vertical slice,’ ” says Josh Rose, a veteran designer who has founded multiple game companies in California. “If your game has guns, magic spells and enemies, then the vertical slice is when you have one of each built and ready to test.”
While it’s the role of artists to create the eye-catching assets of a video game, it’s up to the game’s designers to make sure that the entire experience is “fun, balanced and entertaining,” says Nemcosky. On a more technical level, programmers glue together the art and functionality of a project; these code-writing masters make sure that the work created by designers and artists functions within the game’s framework. Next, a game is thoroughly tested, often by in-house employees, and programming code is finalized. Physical copies are created and sent for sale around the world—and a new video game is born.
Thanks to social media tools and smart phones, though, different models of game creation can also apply. “When it comes to making games for Facebook, Android, iPhones, and other emerging platforms, cleverness counts for a lot,” Rose describes. “On older games I worked on, we had 130 people making a single game, but on these sorts of games, you often don’t need a big team anymore. What you need most is a good idea.” When crafting games for Facebook or smart phones, producers often leapfrog some of the rigorous steps that more traditional games go through, getting their games online and tested by users as quickly as possible.
Regardless of the method, the underlying principles are the same. “What’s important is guiding all of the pieces of a game together into an enjoyable, cohesive experience,” says Rose. “Sometimes you can break all of the rules of what’s supposed to make a game fun, and it’ll still be great. That’s where the art in game creation lies.”
For those wanting to learn the art of
game-making, both Nemcosky and Rose recommend starting online. “If you want to start coding, look for free tutorials on how to make basic games,” says Nemcosky. “If you love doing art, read art blogs to see what programs and techniques people are using. Then get together with a couple of friends and try recreating a simple game, something like ping-pong. That’s exactly how many of us got started.”
He likens learning to make games with learning to play an instrument, and Rose agrees that skills don’t appear overnight. “The first things you make will probably be horrible,” he warns, laughing. “But do it anyway. You’ll learn a lot and who knows—you might strike gold.”
Michael Gallant is the founder and chief executive officer of Gallant Music. He lives in New York City.