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Cubes vs Space Marines: Making a Great Game in Your Basement

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Read Time: 18 min

A game can require significant time and commitment before it even begins to show its core design was ill conceived - doubly so if you're new to this game creation ordeal. In order to find the right path early, you may need to change the notion of what "success" means to you in your early projects - from making your dream game with flashy realistic graphics, to something more doable with more modest assets.

Before Getting Started

Have you ever seen Peter Jackson's first feature film, Bad Taste?

Though you may chuckle at the video, Peter Jackson's low budget movie shows hints of genius even in its raw form, though you may have to squint to see them. Being new to the industry, Jackson wore many hats in the movie's development: writer, director, even co-star.

The man did what he had to do to get a movie under his belt, but the fact that he was working on an inexperienced skeleton crew is obvious. When you're first starting out you can't just up and make the Lord of the Rings saga, you may have to make something that leaves a bad taste in your mouth.


Despite the mishaps that develop during movie making, it's possible to put your head down and bum rush to the end out of sheer determination. Scenes can be cut, bad writing subverted, bad weather incorporated into the script, and you can ultimately hope that the thing can be salvaged in the editing room.

The longer you hang around in the games industry, the more you'll realize we are in a collective quest to make gamedev a more "organic" endeavor, like creating a movie. It's hard, though: the more digital something is, the less room for error the creators have in its creation and the more limited it is in its execution. You can't simply dress a man up in a monkey suit and get him to appear in your video game as the big bad boss.

Getting a solid start on a project you want to take to completion takes more than just passion and hard work; it takes a well-educated guess as to what game development is all about, the restrictions it has. Unfortunately, nobody has  a definitive answer - each project faces its own unique issues that must be resolved. You'll likely never meet a game developer who's never wasted time creating functionality, or started a project doomed for failure because of its massive scope.

They say that people aren't driven to create for their favorite mediums because they're good at it - what draws them in is their ability to see what's good and bad, and a belief that they can define both in their own works once they become competent. Peter Jackson grew from Bad Taste not because he was born with innate movie making ability, but because he had the good taste to see him through later projects.

It's Easy to Want Amazing Graphics...

One of the most important aspects of getting your first game out of the polish phase, particularly for those who don't understand the ins and outs of creating tangible game assets, is coming to terms with the exponential manpower and production costs that come with modern industry quality video game artwork, like:

  • rigged and weighted 3D character models
  • 3D or 2D animations
  • eye popping particle effects
  • snazzy character portraits
  • ergonomic UI elements
  • unique character armor sets
  • multiple character classes
  • changing environments
  • weather effects
  • custom interiors
  • destructible terrain and buildings
  • unique items sets
  • high quality skill and inventory icons
  • indigenous creatures
  • snazzy talent tree backgrounds
  • hand painted matte horizons
  • day/night cycles
  • exciting load screens
  • ... and interchangeable hats.

This is a fairly short list of just some of the random things it's easy to effortlessly throw into a "to-do bucket" if you have no idea of the time and money that they cost.

Try to remember how amazing games that do everything are...
Try to remember how amazing games that do everything are...

But give a cursory glance over some of these features, and ask yourself how many of these bullet points are tied to core functionality of the game without really adding to the core value of play. These features require untold hours of implementation, in code as well as art. By freeing yourself of these features, not only do you lighten the load on graphics, but on the overarching back-end of the title as a whole.

Once you have a reasonable idea in mind for a game, go one further...

Envision a Gameplay Scenario That Shows the Essence of Your Game

Think of this like an elevator pitch, but with tangible play rather than a description. What distilled playable gameplay scenario would you show an outside observer to communicate what has you excited about your project?

Are you trying to prove that you can create something that works, that you can create something fun, or that you can create something that's polished and marketable? Think about this play state, break it down into core systems and art assets (if needed), and make this your key milestone.

You can also jot down some personal milestones based on this main goal by referencing things in other games that you want to draw inspiration from:

The UI in Game Y is awesome. I have as much fun in the shop rolling my mouse cursor over buttons and watching them react as I do actually playing other games.

These can later be broken down into bullet point features in milestone to-do lists.

It's important to take these notes early in a project, because your relationship will hopefully go on much longer than the honeymoon phase. You may start asking yourself, "What did I ever see in this project? When we first started everything was fresh and new, but now any time I try to make things better, they just get worse." This is why documentation and writing early about what you're passionate for the project is so important. They are  there to see you through the polish phase, to remind you why your game is fun.

Don't Gloss Over the "Little" Things

To touch on UI again, don't underestimate its importance. If you're new to game design your first game should be nothing more than a glorified UI with the scope near that of a puzzle game, not just because it's a scaled down platform that you can finish, but because there is incredible prototyping potential to create rapid changes. This will help you pick up the back end decision making and self realizations that come with creating video games.

Your first goal as a game creator is to no longer see games as being populated by assassins, space marines, and treasure hunters, but rather geometry and scripts that tell each other whether things are touching, what they should be doing after in a given circumstance, and pass through various animations to communicate their current state to the player. You need to learn to love creating spheres that shoot cubes as much as you enjoy creating the illusion that they're not just spheres, because deep down, that's all games are.

The best thing that can happen to us as a game designers is to fail early and fail often, heartbreaking as each failure may be. The trick is learning from these mistakes while brainstorming the thought and work practices of designers who found success in their endeavors. Keep in mind the disparity of time and resources between you and larger teams and adjust your plan accordingly.

"If You Have to Ask What It Costs, You Can't Afford It": Modern Game Art

If you can afford sweet graphics and a state-of-the-art engine, why not just retire and never work a day in your life again?If you can afford sweet graphics and a state-of-the-art engine, why not just retire and never work a day in your life again?If you can afford sweet graphics and a state-of-the-art engine, why not just retire and never work a day in your life again?
If you can afford sweet graphics and a state-of-the-art engine, why not retire and work on projects that are more fulfilling?

There was a time when games looked terrible and there was nothing to be done about it other than harness the most mind blowing game playing experiences the world had ever seen. (Okay, the gameplay was pretty bad, too.)

It wasn't until an overworked Sega employee plugged a 32x into a Super Nintendo and unwittingly created the first Blast Processor, significantly increasing the rate at which video games could be ingested by our brains, that the digital arms race began, leaving in its wake the hopes and dreams of designers everywhere who wanted to create innovative games, and not tech pieces to sell hardware. Some would say this is the true cost of modern game art.

I kid - the arms race for faster processors and better graphics has always existed, and in fact for the first time in gaming's long life span it's finally slowing down. However, the console era marked the divide that now stands between small "indie" teams, and large "triple A" studios: when you're a big AAA publisher that has a tested, fleshed out art team with resumes flying in from all over the world asking to work on your games who are better, cheaper, and less burned out than your existing art team, it's reasonable to plan for out of this world production early on.

As an indie developer who's just starting out, you don't really have this luxury. And by luxury I meant the soul crushing feature creep that exists in the modern game developer because of this graphical arms race.


If you have some capital to spend on a project, it's highly suggested that you do not spend any of that trying to make your dream come true. In this industry you cannot buy your dream. Creating a game that will return a profit or garner a huge user base is not something you should bank on unless you have prior success and a solid, tested team to work with. With investment should come a much more stringent adherence to a working game formula. "Placeholder graphics" are your freedom to work on anything you want to work on with no outside pressures.

Artists who possess the skills to produce amazing digital artwork and get said artwork into a game engine don't generally go around looking for side projects with unproven game developers, and they certainly don't work for as cheap as you'd like. (Nor should they; decent game art is not easy to make.)

Focusing on what you can't do as a developer can be harsh, but it's better to come to realistic expectations early and start finishing games than it is to constantly run into walls.

The Current, but Ever-Changing Gaming Landscape

Prior to Modern Shooter Y: 2nd Edition, there was just Modern Shooter Y. Before that, there was Quake, and before that there was Doom. Wolfenstein 3D came just before all of these games, and was preceded further by a couple other similar FPS titles. Things start getting obscure from here on back.

Just know that the same guys, id software, were more or less the creators of the FPS genre and saw it through several radical transformations at their own hands. A similar lineage can be seen for most genres in gaming: a core talented team defined a genre, it went on to be interpreted by several other studios, and gaming as a whole benefited.

Most AAA game studios are now reactionary, following only in other developer's footsteps, picking up ideas only after they sell - and only after they've been packaged with development tools so a studio can be plugged in one end and a profit can be pumped out the other. This has created some room for smaller dev teams and solo developers to fill the gap where gamers desire new unique experiences that they haven't been exposed to.

Modern game dev is a blessing and a curse: Never before has it been so easy to get your game into the hands of players. Never before has a current generation of hardware been so underutilized in potential new gameplay possibilities. And never before has the bar been set so high in the graphics and polish department to capture the interest of a new player.

Seeing Your Modest Graphics Goal as a Strength

Let's imagine it's been your dream to make a real time RPG, but maybe you or your collaborator only does 2D artwork. Why not create a groundbreaking real time strategy card game? It wont look as stunning as a full on 3D game, but instead of harping on this, think about how much you gain in rapid prototype time, and in simplified, distilled game mechanics. Think of all the room you have for a slick, new revolutionary UI to do something that's never been done!

Case in point: Blizzard's Hearthstone. Even the big guys are once again embracing smaller scale development for the positive design environments only scaled down projects can provide.

It is possible to create a fun, compelling game that finds a niche audience without pushing graphical boundaries. As long as you build a fun game that oozes polish, you have as good a shot as anyone at making something worth playing. Good graphics look great in screenshots, but polish is what makes things killer to actually play. When buttons feel alive, health bars bob and bubble like liquid, skills and classes are balanced, this is what's going to keep players playing and add true production value. You do not need good graphics to have good polish.

If a game plays well, no matter how great the setup looks, your enjoyment will likely come down to how good the engagement was, and whether or not you managed to eke out a win:

It's still chess.It's still chess.It's still chess.
It's still chess.

Pixel Art Is Overdone...

...for a reason. Not only does it bleed classic style and nostalgia, but pixel art is a great equalizer for anyone looking to get their own visuals done without prior experience. You can glean far more from looking at pixel art stills and trying to emulate them than most other types of game art.


Pixel art is doable, it's fun to look at, and it allows for the creation of spectacularly fun games. These should be the criteria for picking any visual medium for your game.

Using a reference and following it closely isn't frowned upon as much in pixel art. For one thing, it represents the birthplace of gaming as a whole; also, the potential for art to be made at this scale is finite by its very nature. But have respect for other artists, don't just copy something pixel for pixel, and try to make the art your own one way or  another or the game likely wont stand on its own regardless of play.

The fundamental rules of 2D animation are also fairly uniform and easy to find reference for, making pixel art a great stepping stone for early attempts at making a game, and heck even latter ones. There's always room for a good 2D game.

Worms wasn't able to escape its delightful 2D heritageWorms wasn't able to escape its delightful 2D heritageWorms wasn't able to escape its delightful 2D heritage
Worms wasn't able to escape its delightful 2D heritage

Play It Again, Sam: Romanticizing Minecraft for the Umpteenth Time.

Building a game empire is sorta like building castles in the sand. Picture some guys building enormous, elaborate sand structures, when suddenly a kid runs up, kicks one of the corners and skips off laughing as a chunk glides into the ocean. "Why did you do that!?" one yells, knowing the answer: because destructible terrain is fun.

No game in recent memory has exploded onto the scene and created such a stir about the very notion of what a game is, how it's developed, and how it's played as Minecraft.

Trends in gaming have taken influence from other monetized industries in the hopes of delivering the best product to the consumer, resulting in more profit. The train of thought here is, "How do we manage more talented people to create more things better, which ultimately leaves us with the best product and profit?" This is at the heart of the graphical arms race we touched on earlier.

...he had a box full of tinier boxes?...he had a box full of tinier boxes?...he had a box full of tinier boxes?
...he had a box full of tinier boxes?

One of the most enthralling aspects of Minecraft is that it lacks a story, a narrative, even a "to do" for the player. There was no content creation team, that "job" falls to the player, and who better to decide what it is they want to do? Minecraft is an open box of game design that asks us, "What do you think would be fun to do with all of this?" As a game designer, one could rapidly prototype new game ideas just by opening Minecraft and writing out the little game goals you wish were there to make the experience more fun for your own tastes.

The player, the world, and the enemies are nothing but boxes stitched with care; a couple triangular slices create each square. Whereas most games try their best to disguise their true geometric nature, Minecraft celebrates it.

There's a great quote from Bill Gates that resonates with the development practice of Minecraft:


So often we take things for granted: that we need X levels, that we need Y suits of armor, that we need Z quests. Then we create all the UI and standard systems that go with those things, and all these standard notions of what a game is supposed to be has largely been defined by large teams working in mass production environments. This doesn't best fit the needs of a small scale development team.

The art is the gameplay.

Where a giant studio may throw 30 people to create the terrain by hand, Minecraft has a terrain algorithm that pumps out unlimited content and is augmented by depositing progressively rare and deep mineral nodes that tie directly to play. The art is the gameplay.

In every aspect of its design, Minecraft takes a "less is more" approach. The combat is tremendously simple, crafting lacks the massive back end UI and component list that most RPGs confuse the player with, there are no long-winded collection quests or artificial grinds created by a massive content creation team, there aren't hundreds of custom items to equip to your character.

Yet in every aspect of play that Minecraft does so little of, there's a certain hand crafted, organic charm to it. The game feels not only fresh in its simplicity, but natural. The little mini game of memorizing grid based crafting that represents the real life anatomy of objects is a joy. Learning what tools are necessary to reach certain areas and fashion new items through crafting has a logical element to it. Exploring an area knowing your experience is unique to your play session is a sensation lost to most modern mass produced games.

The great irony here, because Minecraft is so simple, so distilled, is that despite its rudimentary nature, the world can feel far more real than games that try so hard and sacrifice so much to look photo realistic. The fact you can punch trees down with your hand as they hover in mid air is offset by a deeply polished, living breathing world that, rather than faking reality, creates its own.

Most games are a mishmash of multiple disciplines; functionality crushed by high end art, wrapped  in marketing  and plagued by conflicting design goals. When we find a class that's overpowered, a trite line of dialogue, a save area that's out of place, we see within a game's design human error that breaks the fourth wall. Minecraft has few of these moments, the fourth wall stands, it's solid as a block.

Fus Roh Dada: Putting a Spin on an Old Classic and in Da Vinci's Grave...

I thought it might be fun if we tried to apply some of the points of this article into an actual, ill-fated game concept.

We talked about card games being a great initial choice - let's use some existing art to save some time and create a game card portrait for "The Mona Lancer" to do battle in our digital card game, Mastercraft Bloodbath: Throwdown at the Louvre.


A few simple google searches, some warps and distortions, masking, and bam, we're done in no time. Throw on our card overlay, add some stats, and that's one in the bank. Take that, overdrawn dev cycle!

Now, I'm not condoning the perversion of great works, just trying to get a point across. Anything is possible as far as what your game uses for content (and how hard it is to generate that content). If you have a small team, what you leave out is often more important as as what you put in. The mentality that "more work means better product" is better left to studios who have lots of money and manpower to throw at this content.

A Game With "The Best Art in History"

Re-using classical art in modern video games isn't a unique idea that I just came up with:


Avant-Garde is an art time piece flash game composed entirely by the art it represents in its play. It's an interesting disposition between what may be considered artful in a purely visual medium, and what constitutes clever game design and omission. One could think of a game as brilliant in its use of "negative space"; how it supplements its narrow content pipeline.

Though it may be dry to some in its play or subject matter, Avant-Garde's subversion of the need for original in-game art assets by using various time pieces from the Creative Commons is clever. Note that the game is still very well polished, with a slick UI.

The most gripping ideas haven't been done yet - that's what makes them so compelling - but don't lose sight of what works. Start there, and see what it evolves into by putting both your creative and analytical mind to the grindstone. Think both of the incredible new ideas you can bring to your project, while at the same time being practical and setting restrictions on scope. The sky may be the limit, but great games are grounded.

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