The process of building a video game explained in ten steps, from conception to post-release.
Video games have been around for over half a century. In this time the game development industry has built up a broad kit of processes, roles and tools to allow even huge-scale projects to come together into a working end product. Our toolkit continues to evolve: the rise of game development environments such as Unity and Unreal Engine 4, for example, has hugely altered the development landscape.
Despite this, the underlying process of building a video game remains relatively unchanged. Let’s take a look at the steps.
Step 1: Conception
Every game starts with a concept: a core idea of what the game is and what makes it cool, fun and marketable. You can’t start building if you don’t know what to build!
A blank project in Unity. Where do you start?
Step 2: Design
You have a great game idea that you’re super enthusiastic about – you just want to jump in and start making it, right? Well, hold your horses. Experienced developers prefer to produce a game design document (GDD) based on their initial concept.
Building a video game is expensive; writing a document is cheap. The GDD goes into as much detail as possible regarding the game’s systems, aesthetics, second-to-second and minute-to-minute gameplay, and more. It typically includes concept art and mood boards to help define the aesthetic of the game.
A simple mood board for a coniferous forest setting.
Designing your game in detail helps you:
- Identify problems and inconsistencies in your concept
- Clear up areas of fuzzy thinking (Okay, the combat will be like in Zelda: Breath of the Wild – how so? Will you have jump attacks, parries, perfect dodges? Will weapons break? Can you disarm enemies? Will disarmed enemies be aware of nearby weapons and have AI to pick them up?)
- Plan aspects you may not have given much thought (What will the UI look like? Will there be multiplayer support? Will there be cutscenes?)
- Make sure the whole team understands what they’re building
- Solicit early feedback
Step 3: Prototyping
As soon as there’s enough of a plan for the coders and artists to get their teeth into, they can start to build the game.
Actually, this usually happens alongside step 2; even a simple concept like “single-player, sidescrolling 2D platformer with a jump and a dash” can keep the coders busy while the rest of the design gets fleshed out. “Fun, colourful and futuristic with a cute robot protagonist” – great, now the artists can start sketching out concepts.
Early concept art of senior priests in Smoke and Sacrifice.
If you plan to release on other platforms than the PC, you will generally need to order a development kit (devkit). This is a piece of hardware that runs the same operating system as the console you’re developing for (such as the Nintendo Switch, PS4 or Xbox One), but has extra features to help with testing and debugging your game.
Step 4: Vertical Slice
You’ve got a working prototype. You’ve got a fleshed-out design. A common next step is to work towards a vertical slice: a small, playable segment of the game with most of the game mechanics in place and just enough content to show off all the game’s key features.
Vertical slice: a small segment of the whole, but every ingredient is there
Vertical slice is widely used in the publisher/studio-for-hire model, since it demonstrates the viability of the game to those who will fund it. It also acts as a testbed for features and can be a great marketing tool. It is controversial, however, for reasons we’ll examine in another blog.
Step 5: Building to Alpha
Once you’ve proved out your game’s core features, it’s time for the meat of content creation – building levels, creating art assets, writing story, whatever is needed to turn your slice of gameplay into a complete, start-to-end game experience.
The definition of Alpha varies between studios, but often, the goal for alpha is to be content complete: there can be placeholder art assets, features that need refining, a horrible UI, and a bunch of crashes to fix – but all the levels are there and (theoretically) playable, all the monsters exist in the world, and your character can run, jump, and whatever else the design specifies.
Step 6: Polishing to Beta
After Alpha comes a process of refinement to get your game to Beta. Placeholders must be replaced with real assets, crashes and other serious bugs must be fixed, and any glaring gameplay and balance issues must be resolved.
This is where the Quality Assurance (QA) team come in. They will play your game over and over, break it in creative ways, complain about what’s not fun, and generally be a pain in your backside. Learn to love them – they are essential to your success.
The issues they find – and there will be many – will be recorded in a bug tracker and marked fixed as you address each one.
Mantis, a popular open-source bug tracker.
Step 7: Marketing
Marketing your game to the public usually falls to the publisher, if you have one. The bulk of marketing happens close to release, but some publishers have been known to drum up a ton of hype for a game that’s nothing but some cool concept art and words on paper. Others – notably Nintendo – avoid even announcing games until they are almost complete: beta stage or later.
Independent developers can build a great community by offering a closed beta, where fans can come and test the almost-finished game and help them iron out the bugs.
Step 8: Submission
It’s the big day. You’ve fixed every bug, burnt the midnight oil getting the game finished for the deadline – now it’s time to submit the final build.
Before they will sell your game on their console, manufacturers (Nintendo, Sony, Microsoft, etc.) need to check it meets their standards. Each console has standardised guidelines covering things like hardware terminology, how errors are handled, and how you interface with the system menus (e.g. correctly pausing the game and bringing up the system interface when pressing the HOME button).
That’s not a D-pad, or a + Pad, or Arrow Buttons – it’s a +Control Pad, and woe betide you if you get it wrong.
As well as checking compliance with these guidelines, the test team will also play through your game to check it’s completable, doesn’t crash and that the content doesn’t violate their policies.
This process can take weeks, and if your game fails to meet any of the requirements, you will be asked to fix the flagged issues and resubmit.
Step 9: Release
After your title has passed submission, it’s ready to go! If you have a publisher, they will generally handle all the technicalities surrounding the game’s release – agreeing dates with platform holders, distributing hard copies to stores if necessary, and so forth.
Step 10: Post-Release Support
Now that the process of building a video game is over, it’s between you and the publisher whether you support it with balance patches and bug fixes. Doing so is a great opportunity to build goodwill in the community and keep your game in the public eye for longer – which could translate to improved sales on this title and the next!