There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of amateur programmers out there making their own video games using Java, Flash, and more sophisticated tools.
The Xbox Live Arcade (XBLA) has made some rather powerful programming tools available to programmers on a relatively cheap subscription basis, with the understanding that the more playable games will be made available to their more than 15 million subscribers, which translates to easy money for the developers.
According to one article at IGN.com, XBLA only keeps about 40 per cent of profits, while funneling 60 per cent back to developers. Considering how low development costs can be, that can be a huge windfall.
I’ve purchased a few games from XBLA, with an average price of around $8.50 (two games for $8, one game for $6 and one game for $12, with the programmers earning an average of $5.10 per game. If your game is good enough you can easily make hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars for each release with relatively little overhead and almost no marketing. Companies like Pop Cap Games (www.popcap.com), which got started selling simple games over the web, are quick to release both new and old titles on XBLA. As a result, in about two years XBLA has grown to offer more than 120 games, which translates to approximately one new game every week.
At the recent Game Developer Conference, Sony announced plans to make its own suite of developer tools to programmers, which can showcase their work through the Playstation Network Home service — picture Second Life with rooms you can enter to play and download games.
As well, Sony and Nintendo have a huge library of popular last generation titles to draw on, and port over to their new platforms. Microsoft doesn’t have many old titles, but has deals with various companies like Sega to bring classic games to the masses.
But while it’s fun to play old titles like Joust and Gauntlet without having to plunk quarter after quarter into an arcade machine, the real benefit of opening the door to indie programmers is the games themselves. People have incredible imaginations, and without the pressure to make millions of dollars for every release, can take some huge chances.
One example of an indie game done well is Portal, an intense puzzle game where you use a gun-like tool that creates teleport doors on walls and floors to get through a maze that gets increasingly complicated.
Portal itself was based on a 2005 title called Narbacular Drop that was created by a group of students at DigiPen Institute of Technology. After seeing the impact and popularity of that game, Valve — the creators of the Half-Life games — hired the developers right out of college and gave them free reign to develop Portal, the winner of several best game awards in 2007. Portal II is apparently on the way, and the developers are most certainly earning six, seven or maybe even eight-figure salaries for their work.
At one time Narbacular Drop was an entry in the fledgling Independent Games Festival, a once insignificant component of the Game Developers Conference. With the success of indie games on Xbox Live and elsewhere, interest in the festival has increased hugely in the past few years with the top companies scouting talent, and the talent looking to outdo one another to gain the scouts’ attention. At the very least game developers will have a chance to sell their games on the XBLA or Sony Home, and earn something for the hundreds of hours individuals and teams have spent hunched over their keyboards bringing life to their visions.
The top-three games from the festival, as determined by a panel of judges, were Synaesthete, created by four students at Digipen IT (http://typos.digipen.edu/index); Fez, created by a group of Montreal programmers (www.kokoromi.org); and the mind-blowing Crayon Physics Deluxe (www.kloonigames.com/crayon) developed solo by Petri Purho. Purho won $20,000 for his game, which will be available for PCs soon, and is reportedly being courted by several game design companies.
Crayon Physics Deluxe is essentially a puzzle game where players have to move a red ball around a piece of paper to collect stars. You do this by drawing ramps, boxes, levers and other objects in crayon, all of which work according to your designs. For example, you can balance a beam on a box, place the red ball on one end of the beam and drop a big box on the other end of the beam to launch the red ball into a star.
So how do you develop a game, anyway?
As usual there’s more to it than meets the eye. The first thing you need is a physics engine, which you can either design yourself or assemble by using codes from other gaming engines. Halo 3, to use an extreme example, is based on the Unreal Engine, which probably cost millions of dollars to purchase. Purho, a student, used the Box2D physics engine available for free at www.gphysics.com.
To get a feel for what’s involved, there are a few online game tutorials where you can learn about physics and create your own game. One popular tutorial is Storm The Castle (www.stormthecastle.com), and Game Discovery (www.gamediscovery.com/development/) has some good information and tools. Searching WikiHow (www.wikihow.com) will also turn up a few tutorials. For gaming ideas, check out www.experimentalgameplay.com.