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10 things I learnt while making a videogame (by a games journalist)

I woke up on New Year's Day with one thought: "I'm going to make an iPhone game". It's something I've wanted to do for a while, but the New Year seemed the perfect place to start. The game is called Squeak's Dreams and is a 2D platformer about a mouse who eats too much cheese before he goes to bed, which gives him cheese dreams. It's out today and it's been a long journey. But it's opened my eyes...

Until now, I'd been like the music lover who couldn't play music – loving games and critiquing them, without understanding the process of making them. Well, having now gone through it myself, I have a better appreciation of the process. So here's what this games journalist learnt while making a videogame.

1) You don't need coding knowledge

Turns out one person CAN make an iPhone game, even without knowing a single line of code. Yes, you need a Mac and yes, you need an iPhone Developer account (which isn't free but you can get one at developer.apple.com), but there are tools out there to help you realise your vision. I used the amazing GameSalad which has both a free and Pro license. The Pro license lets you implement Game Center (iPhone's version of Xbox Live achievements) as well as publish for Android, but after dropping a grand on an iMac, I can't stretch to the Pro membership just now.

Above: Just the camera on my phone and digital image editing knowledge makes this possible

GameSalad is superb and there are so many helpful people in the forums. There are also templates to get you started. Squeak's Dreams started from the basic platformer template. Virtually everything except the 'grounded' rule (which lets the game know Squeak is standing on the ground) was tweaked and remade in my game, but if you take it a step at a time, it starts to make sense. I won't get into the rules it uses, but suffice to say it's based on logic and 'if this touches this, do this' rules, which are easy to understand. But you DO need a Mac to publish to the App Store - that can't be fudged.

2) Bugs are a pain in the ass

For example, let's take the most basic functionality. When the player presses 'right' and then decides they actually want to go 'left', it makes sense that they'd slide their finger from the 'right' button to 'left', agreed? It took me EIGHT HOURS to make that happen. I had working buttons, sure, but they only worked one at a time – you couldn't slide between them. Then when the slide did work, if you jumped, Squeak would stop running. It works fine now, but it's just the most basic functionality – yet by no means a cakewalk. And if I had issues with 2D leaf rustles and ducks flying around the screen, imagine what the bug list in Skyrim must've been like!

Above: Bouncing on a duck that quacks (with my voice, oddly) is cute. Less so if the duck glitches out and takes off. Thankfully, Squacker here is now bug-free. MAAAK!

3) Gamers play the same game differently

It doesn't matter if you lay out complex and measured breadcrumb trails of collectible in-game items – someone is going to just hold right and press jump, whatever you do. You have to cater for them somehow. So next time you wonder why level 1 is so easy in a game, it's so that even these gamers get some sense of progression. Of course, they'll need to learn how to play properly to get past this bit…

Above: Bounce across the berries and avoid the brambles. Real mice have to do this EVERY DAY

4) Difficulty level is hard to get right

Like any developer, I want people to see everything in my game. But I also want them to get some longevity out of their money. As a result, there are a couple of levels that are quite hard. I'd like to think reaching the top of the tree in the Garden is one of those 'woohoo!' moments, especially when it's the last thing you do before the sweet parallax loveliness of the River. In true modern day tradition, you can't ever see a Game Over screen in my game, so there has to be some level of difficulty. But we'll see...

Above: It IS possible to get to the top of the tree. Strange place to put a bed, mind...

5) Music makes a massive difference to mood

When I first made the 'clouds' bonus level, it was silent, except for the sound of gems being collected. As soon as I added the piano music, with its gentle tempo and heavy reverb, the game sound effects sounded trivial – and I even considered taking them out. Now I'm used to them, I think they're fine. It's fun to collect a load of cheeses in just a few seconds and hear the chimes going, even if it does obscure the music.

Above: I'd like to think the piano in the clouds bonus level sets a mood. If not, the elephants will

6) Age Ratings are harsh!

On the surface, Squeak's Dreams looks like the most harmless game in the world. But when I came to thinking about what was actually in it when submitting for the age rating, I realised it was going to have 'suggestive themes' 'alcohol or drugs reference' and 'mild fear/horror'. Why? The radio in the kitchen was originally programmed to play one of three random songs by yours truly.

'Pirate Queen' has a reference to alcohol, 'Hot On Your Tail' has mild innuendo and 'Feeling Before' contains the line 'I called the nurse / she made it worse / she raised my temperature / and halfway through I had to ask...' which is pretty suggestive. Plus there's a spider in one of the levels that is more than a little scary, if that sort of thing bothers you. So I took out two of the songs and left in 'Pirate Queen', resulting in a 12+. No Hot Coffee outcries for me, thanks.

7) Optimisation is a BIG deal

At one point early on, the game was 80MB. It used beautiful uncompressed photographic images and plenty of audio. But I realised it was going to be too big to download. So I squeezed and squeezed, going through up to four versions of some images, in an attempt to get it under 20MB. I did manage it (look at the Treetop pic up there and you'll notice the reduced colour if you look hard enough), but additional audio and imagery right near the end took it up to 31.2MB.

But it isn't just the size of the game - trying to get the game to run at 60fps took a lot of tweaking. That's why the dragonfly stage doesn't feature an animation when you collect a cheese. Usually, the cheese rotates, shrinks and fall away when it's collected - that had to go to keep the frame-rate up. It's also the reason the boss level doesn't feature lights along the walls. It did at one stage, but it caused slowdown. Snip. On an iPhone 4S, it's lovely and smooth. A 3GS? Well... 25fps isn't too bad...

Above: The darkness up there on the right should have had lights in... but that pseudo-3D floor and giant cat head is apparently a lot for an iPhone to think about

8) Graphics can be too busy

Initially, I was really pleased with my backgrounds. They looked crisp, detailed and exactly what I wanted the game to look like. Problem was, they were too busy for anyone who didn't know the level layout. So I changed most of them to a simpler, leafy design. I still kept in that old background on one level (couldn't bear to lose it, to be honest), but took pity on the player for the rest. 

Above: The work-in progress 'busy' background (left) and the finished version. Clearer?

I would add also that animation is damn hard, especially when you're trying to make a realistic-looking game. The sprite for Squeak is cute... but he's a little bit basic, in honesty.

9) PR is damn fun

I made a gameplay trailer...

...and a musical/animated trailer...

...and even handed out free cheese to my colleagues this morning. Great fun - I highly recommend it.

10) I want to make another one

Without wanting to sound corny (or, indeed - cheesy), I've learnt so much over the past year. I see games in a new light, too - I can see the rules that run Mario, for example. I already have ideas for more games, too, but it's also taken a huge effort and I do admittedly feel exhausted. So I'll be playing more Skyrim now over the break for Christmas, then starting afresh in the New Year. In the mean-time, if you should care to have a go on my venture into the other side of the gaming world, just search the UK or US App Store for Squeak's Dreams.

Topics

iPhone

27 comments

  • alllifeinfate - June 10, 2013 10:32 p.m.

    Nice insight, even if it's for iPhone game makers... :)
  • tenrdrmer - July 30, 2013 9:33 p.m.

    GameSalad is also for developing Android, Nook, Kindle, and Windows 8 apps You can learn a ton by checking out gshelper.com we have great game assets and game templates available. We also have TONs of free tutorials.
  • NoCanDoApps - October 25, 2012 9:38 a.m.

    Great job Justin! Have you made any good money yet?
  • Rhymenocerous - December 13, 2011 8:22 a.m.

    Well done Justin! I tried making a game with Flash (ActionScript) but yeah, it's too hard. So now I stick with Unreal Ed, which allows you to use Kismet 'Visual Programming' instead of having to learn Unreal Script. Also, I still have a license for 3ds Max 2011 for making models.
  • talleyXIV - December 12, 2011 4:36 p.m.

    I learned all this from playing LittleBigPlanet2, I was once banned for a level that had one naughty word in it.
  • linorn - December 12, 2011 3:29 p.m.

    It's Lemmiwinks: The Game! Please bring this to android. I'd love to play it.
  • IzzyDunn - December 12, 2011 3:06 p.m.

    Was enjoying the article and then I watched the video to see you wailing on a Maverick! I've got an F1 hardtail waiting to be set up before it's usable. As far as the game goes, I'll probably purchase it once a 5.1 jailbreak comes out for the 2nd hand iPhone I've purchased...
  • Y2Ken - December 12, 2011 2:39 p.m.

    Big congrats on finally finishing Justin! Sadly I don't have an iPhone but I know a couple of people who do so I'll point them your way. It's really interesting to hear what you learned along the way too.
  • adamforse - December 12, 2011 2:07 p.m.

    Will we ever see a sequel (or a sqeakuel, even)? Perhaps "PRiMULA INTO DREAMS" or something... Mousey can guide two young neon-haired children through a world of dreams and nightmares, flying through hoops and between mousetraps in a graceful, balletic style the way only a small rodent can. Make it happen, Justin. You have the power.
  • Sausage Warrior - December 12, 2011 1:36 p.m.

    This looks amazing for a first attempt at game creation. You should definitely continue making games, you're only going to get better. I'm starting to miss making games. I used to make games with Clickteam products for PC, learning even the most basic rules for making a game character move and not fall through the floor was quite an experience. Started with "Klik & Play", made incredibly basic and rubbish South Park platformers in 2000 that could be made in less than a couple weeks, no screen scrolling, horrible photo backgrounds with limited colours, hardly any "animation" required. My last big game project was Sonic: Time Attacked (Sonic fan from the start, always wanted to make my own Sonic game), which was released in 2003, two and a half years after I started making it (yep, all that work for a non-profit product) and made with both "Click & Create" and "Multimedia Fusion". Despite being very popular with the Sonic fangaming community back in the day, the game still failed to recreate the physics of the classic Sonic games. It's experiences like these that make you appreciate just how smart and talented a lot of professional and indie game developers are and how much work has to go into making a game.
  • lotosjk - December 12, 2011 1:23 p.m.

    So I've been playing the game for a little while now and I have to say Justin, it's very well done. The music is great and the graphics look beautiful for the size of the game,and it has such an interesting concept that sets it apart from a lot of these games on the App Store and whatnot. But unfortunately, I have a major gripe with the controls,they're too freaking sensitive! For example if I want to make a SLIGHT jump to another leaf I'll attempt it and offshoot by a mile. I've actually found that sometimes mindlessly jumping through the levels is actually easier than trying to get as much cheese as you can. With all that said it's an excellent game overall,and when I first began to play it, I knew I would have some bias even if it was a steaming pile of crap since you're one of my favorite writers on the site(Suck upery). I usually don't comment on the site and just sit back and read,but I feel like I should give some feedback. All in all, I'd say this is about an 8 overall for what it ultimately is(Though I'm trying not to be biased). A great first start for your first game and I look forward to your future endeavors in creating more games! And yes,before anyone says it,I am saying this is just as good as Halo:Reach. Whew,this turned out to be longer than I thought it would be.
  • Limbo - December 12, 2011 12:45 p.m.

    Awesome job, always been a dream of mine to make a game. Hopefully I can get there someday. Will definitely check this out!
  • Stegga - December 12, 2011 12:41 p.m.

    Just bought it :) I'll give it a go and submit I'm sure a positive review on the App Store. I really admire the way you achieve everything you set your mind to, from setting a world record in F1 2011 to creating your own game.
  • pier-luc-bergeron - December 12, 2011 12:16 p.m.

    ever heard of king's x justin ?
  • Squander - December 12, 2011 11:37 a.m.

    that's why I love Gamesradar!!
  • HankVenture - December 12, 2011 9:58 a.m.

    it looks pretty neat for a game made by a game journalist with no coding skill, I will probably get it. good job
  • kor2disturbed - December 12, 2011 9:50 a.m.

    If I had an iphone I'd buy this in a second it's very creative. It's always been my dream to make games, but while I have attempted to make them over the last several years I've never finished one. I assume your next game might be a bit easier to make now? Either way I'm glad you ended up making this and I have to say it's inspiring. Maybe I'll eventually have the willpower to finish one. Cheers.
  • TheVoid - December 12, 2011 9:36 a.m.

    As a fellow guitarist (not that it really matters) I was blown away by the music. On top of everything else (world record holder, game developer, as mentioned above) who knew you were an accomplished guitarist as well? Well, probably lots of people, but not me. Until now, of course. Unfortately my lack of iPhone prevents me from supporting your project, which I would have happily done otherwise. Any chance of a Steam release? I must admit when I read the article's title I expected the game to be something thrown together haphazardly for experience sake (which there is nothing wrong with that) but upon viewing the game's trailer I had to admit the game looks well worth the $0.99 price point. I'm sure I've bought far worse for far more... Keep it up Justin! You and only a few other GR writers have gotten to the point where I will read your articles/reviews even if the subject doesn't necessarily spark my interest because they are bound to be so damn interesting/clever/etc. In your case I whole-heartedly agree with Ultimadrago - always keep that out-of-the-box mindset of yours hungry! And a glass raised high to your game's success!
  • XanderGC - December 12, 2011 9:36 a.m.

    Creating video games has always interested me but except for a few rare occasions I have never really dabbled that much into it. I think it's great that you set this as a goal for yourself and even better you finished it. I also don't have an iPhone. Another interesting tool for game creation that is free and for PC is Stencyl. http://www.stencyl.com/
  • LEGOMatrix - December 12, 2011 9:35 a.m.

    Well done Justin, the video for the game looks great! I wonder if the experience will change how you review games in some way. Good luck when your own reviews start coming in!

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