So you want to make games Eh?

I get asked this question a lot, so I decided to write a post and link it if someone asked again. It’s generally one of these variations:

“How do I join the video game industry?”

“I love playing games and want to make them! How do I start?”

“How can I get a job in a video game company?”


With my class at Backstage Pass

The game industry is made up of several kinds of ‘Outfits’. There are large companies with studios in different countries that employ thousands, medium-sized ones that have 20-100 employees as well as Indies that consist of a few people working together to make games.

Some of these outfits work on client projects; that is, they make games for other people; also known as outsourcing. This is a reliable source of revenue and pays the bills, so to speak. Some outfits only make their own games; that is, they conceive, create and release games and live on the revenue thus generated. This is comparatively risky, as there is no assurance of when a new game will be completed satisfactorily or how much money it will make.

Others such as my own outfit Roach Interactive, do a mix of the two. We work on client projects as well as make and release our own games in the mobile space. It’s a simple strategy that helps us to pay the bills while making the kind of games that we can be happy about.

The important thing to understand here is:

“The only way to learn how to make games is ACTUALLY MAKE THEM”.

This means that theory and textbooks and lessons have a rather limited scope in teaching game creation. It is very practical and “Just Do It” based learning, so any path that you choose to learn how to make games must involve actually making them.

That said, it definitely helps to have a strong base in the theory of game design, art and programming. A good mentor and/or experienced instructor (with actual industry experience) can make a big difference in the time it takes to figure things out.

I’d say that there are generally two paths to being a professional game maker-a formalized education followed by work experience, or jumping straight in and starting to make games. A lot depends on your circumstances and background; if you already know some art and/or programming through school or your work, that will make things easier. However, remember that you will need to make at least one buggy, unpolished game that you may be embarrassed to show after a few years.

A formalized game development training course can be anywhere from six months to four years, and the fees can vary from a couple of thousand to a hundred thousand dollars. A good training course involves theory as well as project training, where students form teams and create their own games in consultation with mentors and/or instructors. At the end, students graduate with at least one game title to their name.

If you can afford the time and money, I would definitely recommend some form of formalized education, as it helps to build a strong skill base and establishes an invaluable network of peers and mentors. It takes away a considerable chunk of trial-and-error from your first few projects. I studied game design at VFS, and I now realize that one year of education and training taught me what I would have taken three to five years to learn otherwise. It was a heavy financial burden though, and one that I still bear.


Talking about Level Design to a student at BSP

If your circumstances do not allow you to join a course of study, then by all means jump right in. This is a great time for making video games, as the technical and financial barrier to creating games has recently become very, very low. This is good as well as bad news. It means that almost everyone can (and is) making a video game, so the world of video games is getting very crowded. However, most of these games are of a rather low quality that betrays the unprofessional game development process behind them.

Even if you do plan to set up your own game making outfit or become a solo developer, a basic education in making games will help a lot.

Game making is collaborative in nature and whether you wish to be a designer, programmer or artist, it really helps to understand the nature of the work of the remainder of the team. Try to be as versatile as possible; a programmer that can use image editing software like Photoshop, dabble in 3D modelling software like Blender as well as be part of a strong design feedback loop is worth a lot to any development team.

The best place to develop this kind of versatility is a small, highly motivated team, such as an Indie outfit. Typically, everyone helps out with design and nobody is excluded from any part of the game development process. The whole team needs to pull hard together to build a high quality game with limited resources, and the skills acquired in this kind of creative environment are very valuable. Moreover, it is a high-risk creative environment and ideas/concepts are edgier and more radical. Unfortunately, it also means that your paycheck (if there is one at all) is not going to be very secure. It’s a great ride, creatively speaking, but It may not be a dependable way to pay your bills.

Larger companies are comparatively low-risk creative environments. Large teams mean that you will probably be a small part of a large process. There is scope there to learn structured game development processes (and politics!) as well as gather experience in newer areas of the game making process such as Analytics and Marketing as well as really understand the QA (Quality Assurance) process. All of these are valuable skills too.

A good way to start (like I did) is as an Intern. I worked for quite a while in Piranha Games, Vancouver as a QA Intern. I would (without pay) work Monday to Friday from 10 to 5, testing games. I actually helped to set up a QA system where none existed, and learned how a studio functions. I made some good friends there and my work there helped me to get my first job as game designer at Gameloft. It may sound like exploitation now, but I was actually quite happy doing the work.


An early conceptualization sketch for Bird of Light

Some outfits welcome interns, and even pay a decent stipend. Others can be persuaded to take on a new team member who is wiling to work for little or no money.

The last option is to start your own outfit without any kind of education or work experience. This could work too, but you will need the heart of a Lion (or Lioness). To make good games you’re going to need a team, and getting one together could take years, like it did for me. This particular journey needs a post all of its own, that I aim to write sometime soon.

A very important factor is the development of a work portfolio. Start a blog, post links to your projects, sketches, renders. Write a game review without worrying about how it’s going to sound. Go to game jams, make something. Post it on Facebook developer groups and ignore the trolls. Look for genuine feedback for your work without being greedy for praise. Strive to be honest, sincere and earnest. You’ll go far.




Shame and game making

This is a sensitive issue, and one that requires a degree of introspection and empathy to get to the bottom of.

To really engage with the art / science / profession / hobby of making games, it is important to understand one’s relationship with the medium.

Dedicated game makers, for the most part, are players first and creators second. We make games because we are devoted to the medium as players and want to create what we miss. I understand that subconsciously, I want to fill the gaps and perhaps take the medium where I want it to go. This is a consuming process, one that demands all.

A game maker experiences a variety of emotions in this process. There’s the Euphoria of conceptualization, the Pain of scoping, the Exhausting yet strangely Fulfilling grind of development, and the Fear of failure. There’s another that we don’t talk much about-Shame.

It comes from several sources.

1. I don’t have a Real Job

We live outside the mainstream, particularly in environments where game development isn’t as accepted as a ‘Real’ profession. There’s the obvious question-

“Making video games! That’s cool, but is it really something that you can build a life around?”

We also ask ourselves this question pretty often, particularly Indies. The video game industry has been in existence for 30-40 years in the West, particularly North America, but it’s barely been five years or so since the first Game development jobs started popping up on job portals in my home country, India. Game development isn’t a sought after profession because salaries are low compared to say, a job as a software developer with a big-name MNC like Microsoft. There isn’t much awareness of the fact that you can actually earn a living making games.


Moreover, Games are Play! You can’t really call creating Fun a job, right? 

This means that we live in the shadows of our contemporaries in the software industry. Parents and friends understand that we’re following our dreams and all that, but sigh inwardly hoping that one day we’ll snap out of it and find Real Work.

This causes shame. It’s (mostly) subconscious, but it exists. Shame creates self-doubt, hesitation and checks ambition. We are social creatures, and the approval of our family and peers matters to us whether we choose to admit it or not.

This is where being part of a community helps. The rise of social media has enabled developers from all over the world get together, talk, empathize and discuss their art.

This is a great group that I’m part of on Facebook: Indie Game Developers

Apart from online communities, local meetups of Indie (or not) developers are great to hang out with others like us and understand that we’re not alone in facing the problems that we do.

2. I’m not making ‘Real Games’.

I see this a lot. Most kids who get into game development are hardcore PC/Console gamers who want to be a part of making the kinds of games they play. It’s natural to want to do so, but more often than not they find that there are few jobs available in the PC/Console development space for beginners, particularly in an emerging game development environment. This is mostly due to the fact that outside of Indies, very few companies actually make from-scratch games for PC or Console in India.

It is a common perception among players of Hardcore games that the games they play are the ‘Real’ games, and not mobile games. Mobile game development has a low barrier to entry, technically and financially, but good mobile games are by no means easy to make. Mobile is arguably the most innovative space in game development today.

I would argue that mobile is a great place to start making games, as one needs to create a much leaner, cleaner core gameplay experience without the use of high-end graphics or audio. They are a great way of reaching a worldwide audience, honing one’s skill and gaining experience.

To make good games for mobile, one needs to think mobile and play games on mobile.

Playing and analyzing a variety of games is crucial to understand your platform of choice. As a designer , you need to accept and internalize the fact that you’re making a game for mobile, and do away with any peer-induced guilt or shame that gets in the way of making a great game.


It took me a while to wrap my head around this reality. The first Indie project I started working on was a PC game, and was so hopelessly ambitious that I chuckle thinking about it now. After deciding to switch to mobile, the first project I started to work on collapsed, partly due to a lack of understanding of the mobile platform it was meant for (read my analysis here) and after some serious heartburn and introspection, I made StarTrail, a first tenuous step into mobile game development. Now, after a year and a half of analysis and design, we are close to completing our second (rather ambitious) game-SuperVeg Girl.

3. I’m not making the games I should be

Soon after completing my game design diploma, I spent a year in a Game designer’s position at a major mobile game studio. There was some design work to be done in the first few months, but after some churn in the company’s priorities that (design work) went away and I was assigned a Producer’s role.

I wasn’t happy, to put it mildly. I resigned after three months to set up my own company and teach. My resignation was triggered by an incident where I met an Indie developer who showed me the game he was working on. He was a bit bedraggled and looked like he hadn’t eaten in a while, but I envied him his creative freedom and was more than a little ashamed at the kind of work that I had been doing for the last year.

Looking back, I realized that even though I hadn’t liked what I was doing at the moment, I had learned a lot. I had understood how a studio functions, how risk-averse large game companies are and how the creative buck gets passed around endlessly. It was an important lesson , primarily in What Not to Do.

I built up a solid list of friends, acquaintances and contacts in the game industry during that time. This has helped me immensely.

In conclusion, It’s not always possible to do away completely shame and embarrassment. You can’t just make feelings go away; all you can do is try to observe them something approaching detachment and understand how they arise and be aware of how they affect you.

The best approach is to create long-term professional goals, be it establishing your own Indie studio or working up to a lead role at a AAA outfit. Treat every job or assignment that comes your way as a specific learning opportunity, master it and move on to the next one. Take the opportunity to create a network of friends and acquaintances in the industry; it will be your greatest professional asset one day.

Try to not pay too much attention to what peers or family think. Making good games is hard, and the process of getting better at it takes time, effort and a sharp awareness. Few outside the industry can understand this, but we know that our process, our love and dedication to what we do, is it’s own reward.

The Difficulty of creating difficulty

This is a tough one, pun unintended. I have struggled with difficulty levels from day one. If you want more proof of this, here’s a dropbox link to my first ever game, made using Flash while at VFS. If you can complete it without restarting from the beginning, I will buy you Dinner. You play as a Vampire Walrus AND a Pirate Octopus….’nuff said.

Count Pengula’s Castle

So if you have read my postmortem of StarTrail, you might have understood my pain of creating and tuning the difficulty level of a game. Ultimately, as a game maker, I need to understand the behavior of my prospective player.

What I do understand is this: There are different kinds of players out there. Some like me, don’t really mind difficulty as long as the game doesn’t make me feel like a fool. On that point, some, like Flappy Bird, DO make me feel like a fool; but the fact that it’s making everyone feel like a fool makes it tolerable.

If you look up Wikipedia for ‘Game difficulty’, the page is quite informative. Here’s a line from that page:

An alternative approach to difficulty levels is catering to players of all abilities at the same time, a technique that has been called “subjective difficulty”. This requires a game to provide multiple solutions or routes, each offering challenges appropriate to players of different skill levels (Super Mario Galaxy, Sonic Generations).

I guess that means that I am adopting the Subjective Difficulty approach while designing SuperVeg Girl. To that end, here are the categories that I’m classifying players into:

a) Super casual: The kind that like a pick-up-and-play experience above all, one with low skill level. They are not really invested in the gameplay and have no Gamer Ego to speak of. They will abandon a game at the slightest sign of difficulty.

I don’t have much hope of retaining these players beyond the third level (that’s where the difficulty level has a spike).

b) HardCurious casual: These are casual players that have a secret, dormant Gamer Ego. Like my Dad. He never plays games, but he really got into Angry Birds when it first came out. Lure them in with something that they like, like graphics or sound, and before they know it, they’re swearing at their smartphone in the cockpit while cruising at 30, 000 feet.

I like this kind of player. I’d like to think that a sizable percentage would stay and play. To help keep this kind of player, we have a comic strip in the game that reveals the story, as it were, while the game progresses.

c) Faux-Hardcore: These are the ones that think they’re hardcore, but they’re really not. They revel in progress in a game for it’s own sake, without exploring the game or it’s mechanics in any depth. The end of a level, or the game, holds more attraction than the process of getting there.

I hope to keep these players engaged for a decent amount of time; it’s the reason I have a SpeedRun badge in each level. Here’s how it works: There are three levels of achievement in each level, signified by the following badges:

The SpeedRunner

Medal speedrun

The SpeedRun badge is awarded for picking up all the Eggs in a level. In the screenshot below, you can see the level with the positions of all the eggs and key marked clearly. You can also see the player start position and direction (red arrowhead) and the castle that the player needs to go to. There are three bridge tiles available to be placed.


In the GIF below, you can see the path of the SpeedRun as a white dotted line. The player needs to find and pick up the key and head straight to the castle. The bridge tiles need to be placed in a way to get to the castle ASAP. To get the SpeedRun badge, the player does not need to pick up any of the eggs in the level.


d) SemiHardcore: These players enjoy a challenge. They like to test all the mechanics of a game and explore the levels. To keep them playing, the game needs to constantly throw out new, creative and (sometimes progressively harder) challenges. They like to show off their progress, but that’s not the point of playing. I’m kind of like this, depending on the game I’m playing.

For this kind of player, we created

The Explorer


The explorer badge is awarded to a player who, finds and collects all the eggs in a level. There’s no time limit; she/he just has to get all of them. Picking up each egg in a level presents a challenge unique to that egg; I’ve tried really to keep the collection of each egg in the game at least slightly different from the others. It’s been a big creative challenge for me, and I hope I have managed to some extent.

e) Hardcore casual: This is the kind of player that loves challenging games but only plays mobile games, due to a lack of time- someone exactly like me. If he/she finds a game they like, they explore everything and complete every single objective. For this kind of player, there’s

The BossRunner


To get the BossRun badge, the player needs to pick up all the eggs in the quickest possible time. This means that the bridge tiles need to be placed to find the shortest path to the castle via picking up the key, and there is no time for mistakes. If the player mistimes a jump to pick up an egg, mistimes it and turns around to try it again, it’s probably too late.

This can be seen in the screenshot below showing the same level as in the SpeedRun, where the placement of the bridge tiles is different.


Lessons from StarTrail

It has now been one year and four months since StarTrail went live on the App Store. In this post, I will deconstruct my process of releasing a game and trying to make some money from it.

1. Marketing a game (with no marketing budget) is Ridiculous Hard.

m-man_with_empty_pockets I had absolutely no idea where to start marketing my game. One good move I made was to make a trailer– this took me weeks. I used Adobe Premiere, which I had last used four years ago in VFS and had all but forgotten- I needed to reconstructed it about a dozen times until I was happy with the result. I created a Facebook page, which has 103 likes after almost a year and a half- most of the likes are from my friends and family. I launched the game at $0.99, with no clue as to how it would go. My original choice was freemium with IAPs, but there was nobody on the team who could code that. My marketing budget was $0.00, so I had to write a gazillion emails, ALL of which went unheeded, to dozens of review sites. I posted in every form I could find on the internet, but the best one turned out to be Touch Arcade. I got 7,000 to 8,000 views on that one side alone. My advice to anyone wanting to market a game without money would be- post on forums! It’s free and you get some good feedback on the game. I got into a bit of trouble because I bumped my thread a fair amount-your thread drops into nothingness unless people keep commenting! A month after launch, StarTrail got it’s first and only review on 148 Apps.  I was pleasantly surprised at the 3.5/5 rating and some kind words that came my way. The review called out the game on its weakness, namely lack of depth, but I was still pretty happy.

 2. Feedback and updates are super important

I was happy whenever anyone gave me feedback on the game, positive or negative. The most illuminating one was on the Touch Arcade Forum, where the principal weakness of the game was exposed- but more on that later. On the basis of this and a lot of other feedback, I started to work on updating the game. New art assets were paid for and created, and StarTrail 1.2 was 50% ready when the programmer informed me that he would no longer be available to work on the game as he had other new projects. It was fair enough, but it put paid to any plans of making the game better. I was bitter at myself, more than anything, for my lack of programming abilities.

3. Once your Free, there’s no going back

To boost sales a week or ten days after release, I decided to make the game free for the Thanksgiving weekend. Downloads saw a huge spike that day, but then once I made the game paid again…Zero. Non. Nada. I had no choice but to make it free again- a well-learned lesson on the economics of the App Store. sales

4. The same design mistakes again

I always make games too hard. It was the case with Count Pengula’s Castle, where the first level was harder than it should have been, and it was the same here. The comment on the Touch Arcade Forum was: “I like the game, the concept (matching game disguised as an endless runner) works well and the controls are responsive. But it’s so frustratingly difficult, I keep losing over and over, often before even getting enough points for a single credit. Please consider making the start easier or adding difficulty levels.” During early Beta testing, I could tell that the game had a very sharp learning curve. One wrong pickup and the spaceship exploded quite spectacularly and loudly in the player’s face, and this could happen five seconds into the game. You had to be something of a Masochist to continue, but the fact that more than a hundred people (as seen on the leaderboard) actually continued told me that the gameplay was solid.

My instinct as a designer told me that this was the case early on, but changing things was going to be expensive time-wise and I thought that I couldn’t afford it. It was a fatal mistake for this particular platform and audience.

Another factor that may have worked against the game was the theme. Space is not a very bright and colorful place, and the visuals of the game were perhaps too dark to attract a younger audience.

5. Number of updates: Zero

The game needed to be updated, fast. I decided to add a difficulty mode where you could choose the level of difficulty. In the easier mode, the objects would be spawned at longer intervals and the boost could be activated much faster, with lesser number of energy spheres.

As the game was now free, I also needed to integrate ads into it so I could at least make some money from it.

I even paid the artist to complete the artwork for the new feature, and at the last moment: The Programmer Left.

So nothing. No updates, No ad integration.


It has been two years and StarTrail has close to 2000 downloads. I successfully released a quality game on the App Store and engaged with the universe of video games. People played, some(most) Rage Quit but a few stayed and enjoyed it. I began to understand how mobile games are marketed, I gained lots of self-confidence and some degree of recognition and respect from my peers.

Largely on the basis of this project, I engaged with schools and managed to obtain contracts to conduct short courses on game development. That in turn led me to start a Creative Software club in other schools.

So, even though I earned $12.84 on the App Store, I gained a lot more.