Play Your Own Games

Geek Culture

Games are everywhere. Computer. Console. Mobile Phone. Tablet. Cardboard box. I’ve been a gamer so long I honestly can’t remember them all other than a few milestones. For board games, Stratego and Risk were my absolute favorites growing up. Atari 2600 was the first console game in my house — Space Invaders, Asteroids, Pac-Man (yes, that lame version), and more. The Mac (1984) was the very first computer in our house and provided me a few years of Infocom games as well as the earliest of early graphics games. The first PDA I owned was the Palm Treo (non-color version) and I had a ton of games for it, my most played being Space Trader. My mobile phone, an Android, has a handful of game apps on it now. And, of course, the iPad, where I’ve had to start creating folders upon folders to hold all the free and $0.99 game apps I’ve collected over the past 18 months.

Most geek dads have their favorites, old and new, and we all of have our own reasons for enjoying them as well. I’m not a big fan of Game X, but I can’t name it here for fear of retaliation from my fellow contributors. (One of our editors, Jonathan, an avid gamer and game reviewer for, has been known to take out contracts on his fellow contributors who post dissenting reviews. Just kidding, Jonathan. We’re cool, right? Jonathan?)

I bring all this up because given all the games we’ve played in our days, I imagine that most of us geek dads have, at one point or another, paused mid-game and thought to ourselves I could come up with a better game than this.

But most of us leave it there, never to try our hand at actual game design. Which is probably a good thing, as those of us who are carpenters, accountants, teachers, lawyers, plumbers, electricians, engineers and writers are probably somewhat good at our jobs and should not jump the fence and venture outside our respective skillsets.

But… what if?

Most of us are not computer science majors or professional programmers. We may have had some basic programming training in college, but let’s face it — programming in C or Java and simply trying to get a ball bouncing around the screen is difficult. Programming something like the original Space Invaders or Donkey Kong? Forget it!

Last week I posted a writeup about a great little game called Desktop Dungeons. The early version of this game (called the Alpha version on their website) is well-done. It’s polished, fun to play, and it’s got some complexity to it. Most of us would admit that even a game like this would be pushing the limits of our game design skills.

But I was surprised to discover that this game was designed using a game creation tool called Game Maker, and I had actually taught myself the basics of Game Maker a couple of years back using a book titled The Game Maker’s Apprentice. When I found out that Desktop Dungeons was created with Game Maker, I realized that there’s a real chance for the rest of us to design and build a game from scratch if we’re willing to put in the time to learn the ropes.

The Game Maker’s Apprentice is an older book — published back in 2006. The print version comes with a CD that contains all the files — everything — you need to learn to make eight games. The book is in full color and by the end of Chapter 2, you’ll have created your very first game… an extremely simple little shooter, but still an impressive game. The book assumes no programming experience, so the first few games hold your hand and walk you through every click, every button selection, every option. You learn about sprites, collisions, and scoring and much more. Again, by the end of Chapter 2, you’ll be quite surprised at how much you’ve learned. (Chapter 1, by the way, is a short tutorial on how to install the game, so the book really wastes no time in getting you involved.)

Further chapters teach you even more skills — variables, level design, object versus instances, parent/child theory — and in between every few game design chapters you’ll find some great game design theory chapters that offer up advice on what makes a great game, how to turn ideas into reality, and how to make certain the player is never bored and continually challenged. It’s not just high-level discussion, either — you get some actual examples where the authors take the existing games you’ve created and modify them with some outstanding improvements. And they even offer the code for these improvements so you can go behind the scenes and reverse-engineer the improvements to see how they work.

I spent a month or so back in 2008 working my way through the entire book — I designed each game using the included files (such as sprite images and background figures and title screen graphics) and was quite pleased when I reached the last game in the book, a top-down where your adventurer is in a tomb being chased by mummies and other nasties as he tries to collect treasure. I knew there was plenty that I still hadn’t learned about Game Maker, but the book had given me a jump start on many of the concepts and the terminology I would need to understand if I wanted to make more games.

But unfortunately that didn’t happen. Life, family, and job get priority, so I put away the book, thankful to have a glimpse into the world of game design and a better understanding of what level of skill is needed to create a good game.

I may never actually create a real game of my own using Game Maker, but I like knowing that I have read, understood, and performed the actual tasks needed to build some basic games. I have some boys that are going to be growing up, and I think how cool would it be if I could design some simple games with them that are customized, just for them? Disaster Decker’s Deadly Dungeon! Sawyer’s Silly Shoot-Em-Up!

They don’t have to be great… and they don’t have to be complicated. They just have to be something I can do with my boys (if they are interested) and share some creative time. And who knows? Maybe they’ll design a retro game for Dear ol’ Dad… something with a decidedly 80s theme and sound effects. I’d play it with pride.

By the way — if you work your way through The Game Maker’s Apprentice and want more, you’ll be happy to know that the authors released a follow-up called The Game Maker’s Companion in 2010. It contains updated instruction on the latest version of Game Maker as well as more advanced training on game design not covered in the first book. I have a copy on order and will try to do a follow-up on the book after I work my way through it. I’ve re-read The Game Maker’s Apprentice in preparation for it and I’m happy to report that everything in it made sense. Again.

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