Ask Me Stuff: Game Developer Edition

Here's a different angle on your regular dose of Ask Me Stuff, which the impregnable Mark Serrels does a mighty fine job of tackling from the journo side of the equation. But what about the poor developers he and Tracey harass on a daily basis?

Over three years in professional games development, the majority spent as a game designer, and now indie games dude, I've seen and done some things. Or at least I like to think.

Anyway, if there's anything you're curious about, be it games development local or abroad, in a proper studio or enveloped and partially comatose in the vivid stench of a basement, ask it here in the comments section and I'll do my best to answer.


    How do you develop a story in a game? Do you start out with a very basic idea and build on it as you go through the development, or do you write the whole thing and try and stick the rest of the game onto it without changing it too much?

      This is an interesting question, because you're assuming a game needs a narrative, which is not necessarily true. :)

      But, to answer your question: It depends on the game. For a license title, such as a film IP, the story can be left until the very end, because it will inevitably be heavily based on the script, which might not even be final until you're months into development. It can be precarious going out on your own and developing a story for a game based on a film IP. I've seen an entire game's story and its characters dropped midway into the development cycle because the publisher changed their mind.

      For original IP -- I'd say the core story would stay fairly constant, but the details would change constantly. No game design document, unless it's for a very short or simple game, stays the same through development. As a designer, you have two things you have to deal with -- the "knowns" and "unknowns" of a design. Knowns are usually based on the mechanics of other games, which are tested and can be shown to be fun and functional. Unknowns are where you're creating new mechanics or concepts, and these need to be iterated on long enough to tell whether they're good or bad ideas.

    What's the process for getting a game on PSN/Xbox Live? Do you have to get approval from day one from Sony/MS or upon completion?

      Also control differences aside, how much extra work does it take to make a game compatible on an iPad if developed for consoles? (I was thinking along the lines of Costume Quest, that would work great as a touch game if Double Fine wanted to go that way.)

      Unfortunately, I can't get into the specifics of this sort of thing, but I can say it's not an easy process getting games onto Xbox Live Arcade. Microsoft make it... difficult... and I believe it's beginning to hurt their reputation in the development community.

      XBLA has been good to a lot of developers, such as Jonathan Blow, but for the hoops you have to jump through, you're better off looking at iOS, Android or PC development.

      As for you question on portability -- it depends on how the game was developed. On middleware like Unity, it can potentially be quite easy. I myself had a prototype built for Windows that I was able to publish to iPhone with little effort.

      As long as you keep in mind that you're going to port a game down the track, you can prepare for it code and asset wise regardless of language or tech. That said, it's harder to bring a game coded in C# and XNA to iOS than it is C/C++, but it's definitely possible.

    There's been a lot of debate lately on homosexual characters in games, with calls for developers to "take a chance" on a distinctly gay protagonist to break up the straight white male that seems to be prevalent. There are obvious notable exceptions such as Tomb Raider and Bayonetta, not to mention other minor Japanese franchises with gay or transgendered characters, but they are an exception and apart from Tomb Raider (which in my opinion largely marketed itself using Lara Croft's sex appeal to sell the game to male gamers) do not carry a lot of mass-market appeal. There are certainly games where you can choose to puesue a same-sex relationship but when pressed I do not imagine these encounters would be considered 'canonical'.

    Do you think the straight white male is a deliberate choice when a game developer designs their new hero as the path of least resistance to mass market appeal, or do you think that the race/gander/orientation of the protagonist isn't really all that important? Is it perhaps just an accident that this is the ur-example image when we think "hero protagonist" or are there actually unspoken fears that prevent writers and character deisgners from stepping out of this comfort zone?

    I think that romantic relationships are so infrequently explored in action games that for the most part they're irrelevant - for instance, you could play Half Life choosing to believe Gordon Freeman is gay and it wouldn't affect the story one bit from choosing to assume he's not - we won't know for sure unless Valve decides Gordon and Alyx hook up at the end of HL2E3 (assuming it ever gets finished).
    When it comes to gender abnd race on the other hand, I feel that these are the areas where writers 'play it safe' - I think that the white male is so inherently generic that they can get away with anything, wheras is you write for, say, a black woman, you run the risk of anything you do being picked up as stereotyping. Say there's a scene where she waggles her finger and says "oh no you di'int!" - is that reasonable or racist? Games (moreso than movies) are so much more vulnerable to trial and judgement in Internet Court that anything that deviates from "the norm" can potentially harm a developer's reputation in our community (e.g.: the accusations of racism in Resident Evil 5, not just because you shoot black infected instead of white infected, but because one of Sheva's alternate costumes was that of an African tribal).

    But I'm not asking this question (only) to tell you what I think. What are your thoughts?

      Some people believe that having a homosexual protagonist is going to alienate at least some portion of the potential player base. From a business perspective they have a point, you essentially don't want to do anything that is going to harm your chances of reeling anyone in to play the game.

      On the other hand, I'd like to think for that every religious nut/homophobe you lose by having a gay main character, you gain (hopefully) at least one other person who is interested in the game either because they're gay and like to be represented or are straight and just find the different approach interesting.

      Having said that, in an ideal world, a character being gay would just casually be one of many traits they have that nobody bats an eyelid at... somewhere inbetween what town they group up in and what colour their hair is. Ideally its the gameplay & story that should get the attention.

      Quite a question! I'll do my best to answer.

      I will state upfront that developers don't go out of their way to offend, or leave out a particular group of people. At least, this has been the case with the developers I've worked and interacted with. I think as games become bigger and more realistic, there's an expectation that they'll also grow to encompass the multi-faceted nature of society.

      Unfortunately, I think that expectation is misplaced, at least right now. A big issue is that when we have atypical game characters, be it race, gender or sexual orientation, they're treated as a special case by the media and developers. Ideally, it shouldn't be special, or highlighted as a feature -- it should just be part of the normal experience of the game.

      Game developers are starting to realise they have a cultural and social burden to carry, one that grows with every game released, be it a Mass Effect or Angry Birds. It's not something we've had to deal with seriously, but the situation is improving.

      There's also a business argument. Every character model requires a 3D artist to make it, a texture artist to "paint" it, a programmer to give it life, a designer to write dialogue and a sound engineer to give it a voice. When you're making a game to a budget, you have to weigh the man-hour cost of an asset with its percentage use in the game. If that percentage is small, and the asset does not play a critical role in the game, chances are your producer will cut it from the game.

      As for stereotypes -- that's just lazy writing, there's no excuse for it in modern games development. If you're going to go to the effort of creating the aforementioned assets, you should be able to spend some cash on a decent writer.

      Games development is a risk business, so developers do what they can to minimise failure. That often means playing it safe, much the same way we do with game mechanics, level design, every aspect basically.

        Thoughtful answer. :)

        With telemetry as it is currently, developers can get a really accurate picture of what percentage of players do certain things in-game. I remember David Gaider from Bioware pointing out that their own data showed that many more people than they expected 'took up the option' of a same-sex relationship in Dragon Age Origins.

        I think it's unfortunate that the case isn't made more often for the business advantages of more diversity; it tends to fall back on arguments of fairness, which might be entirely correct but aren't going to convince any executives.

        As you say, game development is a cautious industry, especially with huge AAA budgets, and being risk-averse is almost the default. But I'd hope that the business case can made, if nothing else, and I think we're already seeing some changes.

          On a related note, I can tell you that, if you're a developer, you should have telemetry in your game if you can get it in there. Nothing will provide you with more information on how to improve your game post-release.

      I think the problem is twofold though.

      on one hand people probably aren't going to avoid your game because it doesn't have a gay character in it.

      Whether you want diversity or not shoehorning a character into a game to meet the demand is not a good way to go about it. Especially because with thing's like gay character's people have a tendency to do thing's they shouldn't which in the long run can be more offensive than if the character simply hadn't been there.

      But on the same hand your going to have the people that are violently against homosexual's and the like that will probably avoid your game or divebomb it on meta-critic.(though with the younger generation being more accepting of these thing's it shouldn't be an issue we hold for long).

      The fact is that as logan says there is all this hoo-hah when one of these variation on the standard character stereotypes we get. If there's a gay character there is no need to advertise it, it should be oh well that's neat and move on.

      But then you have developer's like Techland who seem to just either have no sense of judgement or just want to stir the pot with the terrible character profiles that are contained in dead island or the entirity of the game known as call of juarez the cartel

    How does an indie game get financed? Who puts up the money? and what kind of budget is involved?

    Will the PSVita be compatible with any PS1 games?

    What languages, tools and/or technologies are you using to develop games?

      A huge assortment these days. Traditionally, a lot of games development is done in C/C++, primarily because of the power it offers, as well as its portability between platforms. This is what a programmer gets their hands dirty with.

      On top of this, a lot of games use a high-level or scripting language to control game behaviour which needs to be constantly tweaked or changed by game designers. A lot of studios will use Lua, or something they've come up with themselves, depending on how complex the behaviours are.

      This combination is still common practice in the bigger studios, but for small companies and indies, it's cheaper and easier to use something like Unity or Torque to skip past the R&D and technology development stage. Unity allows you to use C#, Boo (a Python derivative) or Javascript. These languages (except for maybe Javascript) are easier to pick up and more approachable than C/C++, as they handle stuff you probably don't want to have to fiddle around with when you want to make games (like memory allocation and garbage collection). A solution like Unity also makes it easy to publish cross-platform, and is one of the main reasons it's so popular.

      This is just the meat of making games. There are a lot of other things in the background which need to be sorted -- like version control, regular backups and a tracking system for issues and bugs. Popular solutions are PerForce, SVN, Mecurial and git for version control and Atlassian's Jira for bug tracking (at least in professional developer -- free options like Trac are better for smaller teams).

        Thank you for that, very insightful!

    Why is the plastic on a new game so hard to get open?
    Why does a shit game cost so much, and why is a great game so cheap?

      1) Because distributors hate us.
      2) One man's bad game is another's magnum opus. :)

        I actually like the fact the plastic is so hard to get off, I get all paranoid that I've been sold a used game when there's no plastic. :D

    How long before the Disc itself becomes a Special-Edition?
    How long before the "Social" game bubble bursts?
    How long before developers are allowed to make actual games again, and do we have to wait for the industry to crash before that happens?

      1) I'd say it's up to the publisher to decide. It's not a decision a developer would usually make.

      2) By "social", do you mean Facebook? I think there will always be a desire for interaction with real people in games, so I never see that going away. As for games on platforms such as Facebook -- it's hard to say if there's a bubble, but if there is one, I don't see it bursting for a while yet. Just look out for when Zynga packs its bags.

      3) Again, what's an "actual" game? I get the feeling you're talking about the publisher/developer relationship, and that publishers are these vicious taskmasters that demand their internal studios do their bidding. Yes, there's definitely a degree of delegation, but internal studios are being given more autonomy than ever. Games like BF3 and MW3 will continue to be made, not only because they make money but because people enjoy them. Lots of people. It you go purely off metrics (not scores, but units purchased) these are very successful franchises. You'd have to be insane to stop making them based on a perceived sense of creative injustice.

    How hard is C# to learn for someone that learnt C, I want to learn the basic logic of it in maybe 2 weeks so I can begin programming and learn on the way. Reason is that, I have been programming with Javascript on unity and I should be using C# instead, but I could dive into cocos2D which uses objective-c which at the time i fought was C# but isn't so what about that language.

      If you know one programming language, that's a huge benefit. Just knowing the underlying concepts makes it easier to move around.

      C# is a lot like Javascript in terms of syntax and the "look" of the language, but it is much easier to understand and a lot more consistent. One of the big differences is that C# is managed (unless you use "unsafe" blocks, which is a rare occurrence), so garbage collection is handled for you, as long as you remember to call the "Dispose" method of objects that use unmanaged resources.

      You can access the .NET APIs with the "using" keyword. If you need access to file operations, then "using System.IO;" is what you need. If it's Windows Forms, that's "using System.Windows.Forms;". XML, it's "using System.Xml;". These are all declared at the top of a class. MSDN is a good resource for scouting out the APIs you need for a particular task.

      I'd suggest checking out this article for more info:

    Hello, I currently study at the AIE (Academy of Interactive Entertainment) where we are near the end of completing our major games projects. The AIE is starting a new program next year called 'The Incubator' which will be encouraging people to form their own companies/studios/freelance business'. What are you thoughts on this? Has the 'fall' of Team Bondi hurt the Australian development of games, or are the upcoming tax-breaks going to pave the way for Indie games companies to flourish?

      I can't comment on AIE or its courses specifically, but anything that gets you thinking about the business is a good thing. It's often neglected, along with PR and marketing, which is understandable when you just want to make a game you can actually market first!

      Games development is like any other business. It's dangerous to start work on a game professionally without a plan in place, an understanding of where the money will be going and a timeline of "deliverables". What do you want to achieve? How long will it take? Now add 50 per cent to that time. It's probably still not long enough.

      You could work on a game forever. But that's not what making games is about. You have to be able to make the decision on when it's "good enough". Good enough doesn't mean "average". It means knowing when the amount of extra work to get the additional one per cent of polish outweighs the cost -- be it cash or sanity.

      You also need to identify your strengths. You won't be making the next Call of Duty (probably). If you're a coder, realise you're art skills a likely garbage. Create a game that plays to your skills, otherwise you'll just get frustrated by the things you can't do or find difficult.

      Regarding Team Bondi -- personally, I don't think its fall hurt the local industry as much as people think it has. The loss of Krome, Pandemic and Blue Tongue were more ominous and unfortunate. Team Bondi worked on LA Noire for many, many years, and its issues, from all reports, appear managerial, not economical. It's a sad story, especially for those that worked their guts out for little credit or compensation, but I don't know if massive AAA studios are the future of the local industry.

      As a side note -- I applied for a junior game designer role at Team Bondi while I lived in Sydney. Guess I got lucky they didn't want me. :P

      I'm also not a believer in tax breaks. I was, once, but I feel that an industry has to show it can succeed and be profitable before the government steps in (if at all). Yes, it's done great things for countries overseas, but I'd prefer a healthy industry that's grown organically on talent and quality, not tax offsets.

        Thank you for the insight, Logan.

        I'm excited to see Incubator program succeed and hopefully it will become a good stepping stone for those wanting to enter into the Indie market.

        And over the course of our major game project in the past 15 weeks at the AIE, I have really come to appreciate the importance of polish in a game. ^_^

    I read your earlier post about which order things are decided during the game-making process on a commercial level i.e. story-line/script not necessarily being determined beforehand. However I was hoping you could provide advice for a small-scale/indie game.

    As a bit of background, I have what I believe is a fair level of programming knowledge but have no professional background in game design or game-making with my limited experience mostly involving replicating classics for personal amusement (as opposed to publishing). While I believe I have the programming knowledge/capability to make a decent publish-worthy indie game, I have a lot of trouble with the creative process.

    I often have no problem coming up with little mechanics or stories which I believe are unique or could have strong potential in a game and will jot them down, however I can never really come up with a way to link the two (i.e. I will have an idea for a certain cool mechanic but don't know what to do with it).

    Would you be able to provide any tips as to what the creative process should involve. What basics should I have in place in order to begin development on a game? Should I start with programming the mechanic first and then determining how it could actually be used in a game and expand from there or will that just result in a sloppy game without a plan?

    I will be taking a course that is mostly Media based but it does have a minor in Game Design.

    How hard is it for someone who doesn't know how to code or program to get into the game development scene?

    Generally speaking what roles to software engineering graduates get in the industry?

    How does a game developer know how in-depth (quality graphics and performance) to make there games on the next generation consoles ? For e.g apparently game developers have started on playstation 4 games , how do they know how much they can take there game to the next evolution without knowing specs?

      It is a lot easier to downgrade graphics than to upgrade graphics when creating games. The developers would guess what the specs are and then they can easily downgrade the graphics if they overestimated.

      I think.

    Myself and some friends have taken it upon ourselves to design a game, a rather large one if I do say so myself. None of us have any game development experience but all come from Computer Science backgrounds. While I don't think we fully understand what we've gotten ourselves into here, we're rather determined to see it through to the end. Any advice for novice developers such as ourselves?

      Define a tight scope and keep it that way. The biggest killer I've found for ALL devs is feature creep. Also, much like Logan said in another post, play to your strengths. If you all come from a comp science background then you will want to have an art style to suit. Best of luck champ!

    why can't more games have coop open world free roam like Red Dead Redemption?

    Is it ALOT more difficult to make?

    and could you add more ai and interactive elements if you restricted it to 4 players max?

    I thought RDR was probably the most well rounded game i've seen. A good single player campaign that introduced the IP and world. OW elements that let you interact and explore it. Multi player coop that let your play with others.

    I am a 15 year old boy living in Sydney. I have no knowledge in programming and am not really artistic. However I would love to break into the gaming industry. How did you go about it? Would you have any advice in what to do? Perhaps even video game journalism if you have any advice.

      Hi Marineboy,

      If you want to get into game journalism, the best thing to do is to get your own website, install Wordpress, and start writing about stuff to do with games. Try and have something different about your website that distinguishes it from the thousands of others out there. Once it gains some traction, you can check to see if Allure have any openings or something.

      Something like that.

      With getting into the gaming industry, it would be best to start with a simpler game program. Java maybe would be a good start. Alternativly, you could enrol at one of those game design schools, but I don't know if there is one in Sydney...

      There's some advice from someone who doesn't actually know what he's talking about :D

    How do u rate UDK as a game development tool? Is it an appropriate tool for a beginner? I am not new to programming (10yrs xp in Java Development) but new to games programming.

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