With all of the tools on the market in today’s gaming industry, it’s easier than ever to get into game development without any formal education. That isn’t to say that it’s easy to become a successful game developer, or that it’s easy to make a good game that people would want to play, just that it’s easy to get started. If you want to make an actual run at game development as a serious career, you should probably pursue more traditional means, but recent success stories do prove that it’s entirely possible to do without. Whether you’re moonlighting as a developer after you get home from working your day job, or going all-in on a long-shot Kickstarter to make your dream game a reality, this list is constructed to give you the resources that you need to get started.
Keep in mind though, this list is not necessarily organized in order of the easiest programs to use, or the most powerful programs to use, but rather which ones are the overall best for beginners. As the list goes on, the programs chosen are a nice balance of user-friendliness, power, and flexibility. I am by no-means a successful game developer, so feel free to give shout-outs to your preferred choices down in the comments.
Price: Completely Free
Publishing Platform: Browser
It’s easy to forget that, before we had fancy HD graphics and several gigs of storage space for games, words on a screen sufficed. In the early days, before graphical games, you would have text-based adventures that unfolded similar to a choose-your-own-adventure story. In fact, making a text-based game is an advisable first game project undertake. Since you don’t have to worry about graphics and lots of programming, you can focus in on creating a believable narrative with in-depth dialogue trees and choices.
As a result, Quest is a surprisingly intuitive and simple text-game creator to use. The interface is free of clutter and it’s designed in a way that makes sense from a game-creation point of view. If you’d like to create story for others to get involved with and want to keep things as basic as possible. Quest is a great place to start, and it can even be used entirely in your browser.
Price: Completely Free
Publishing Platform: Flash
Out of all the entries on this list, Flixel is one of the most flexible, but the nature of the program is relatively dated. Since Flixel is designed for making 2D Flash games, its use isn’t quite as flexible. For example, iOS devices don’t support Flash at all and it can be a pain to get everything working on some platforms. In fact, the image shown above is of a game called Canabalt, a very popular endless runner that was made in just about 5 days with the program.
In regards to the program itself, it’s actually quite easy-to-use and learn. Within a few weeks you could have a working game up and running and within a few more weeks, you could have something truly great. Experience in any type of C programming language and prior object-based programming knowledge will go a long way, but isn’t absolutely necessary. There are a good number of tutorials out there and a decently sized community, so learning the program could be worth your time.
8) Adventure Game Studio
Price: Completely Free
Publishing Platform: PC
Funny enough, other than retro-style games, adventure games are one of the other big genres that have seen a big comeback in recent years. Off the heels of efforts from TellTale Studios, it’s opened the door drastically for indie developers to tap back into the pulse of the Myst faithful. It’s a smart evolution as well, since most games in the Adventure genre could be summarized as Text-based adventure games with graphical presentations.
Adventure Game Studio is designed to be not only simple to use, but totally free. There haven’t been a lot of blockbusters made with the program, but that doesn’t mean there haven’t been any successes either. Above is an image of Ben There, Dan That, a great little indie adventure game that you can buy right now on Steam.
Price: Tiered Subscription Model – $0 – $200/year
Platform: iPhone, Android, Flash, Windows, Mac, and Linux
Now we can move into the programs designed with more versatile game design in mind. Stencyl is a nifty little program that’s geared mostly towards mobile gaming and offers a lot of functionality for those that just want to quickly get started making games for mobile devices. It supports exporting to other platforms, but it’s definitely designed with mobile in mind.
What’s really great about Stencyl, is that they’ve done a great job of taking the process and fitting as much of it as possible into menus and buttons that make the interface super easy to navigate. With a built in “Education” section of the website and program as well, it’s a solid choice for starters. If you start to get some traction, you an even upgrade to the Studio version to support full publishing without a splash screen.
6) Construct 2
Price: Tiered One-Time Payment Model – $0 – $430
Publishing Platform: HTML5, Windows 8, iOS, Android, Mac, and Linux
Now we’re moving into the parts of the list that have well-known and successful games attached to them. That isn’t to say that it’s easy to make a game that would be popular, but rather that these are the programs of choice for some successful developers. Construct 2 supports a lot of platforms, but is geared mostly towards HTML5 development.
The big caveat with this one is that, if you’re an individual, you’ll pay a lot less than if you were using this as part of a team or studio. Their tiered model has a lot of stipulations and restrictions, but even the free version has enough functionality for you to get your feet wet. The Scirra Store also has a nice selection of items, from music packs all the way to games that other community members have made.
5) RPG Maker VX Ace
Price: Free Trial, $70 Full Download
Publishing Platform: PC
RPG Maker has been around for a very, very long time. In fact, my experiences with the program date back to the PS1 release of this program, something I must have spent hundreds of hours tinkering around with. Thankfully though, the VX Ace edition of RPG Maker has come a long way and is an incredibly powerful and flexible program in today’s industry. It may not be as well respected as a lot of other programs when it comes to making professional commercial games, but there are plenty of exceptions.
The program is designed, like an RPG, with tons of menus and areas to sift through and learn, but the community is extremely vast and helpful. It’s actually quite easy to pick up and learn pretty quickly, but expect to dedicate a significant amount of time if you expect to make anything worth playing, just like everything on this list. Funnily enough, one of the most well-known projects made with RPG Maker, isn’t even a traditional RPG, it’s more of an interactive story, but it’s brilliant. That game, To the Moon, is featured in the image above.
Price: Completely Free
Publishing Platform: HTML
At first glance, this program might seem out of place. It has a lot of similarities to Quest, in that it is designed to be used as a primarily text-based game creator, but Twine’s focus is much more oriented towards Interactive Fiction, rather than adventure games. One of the best and most recent examples of this is Zoe Quinn’s contentious Depression Quest, which recently released for free on Steam.
Twine is great because it helps you visualize a lot of processes that are otherwise overly abstract. For example, dialogue trees. When writing a story, or especially a game, it can be tough to keep track of all the branching dialogue possibilities, so having Twine help you by literally making trees out of those elements is incredibly intuitive and helpful. Twine is available completely free over on its website, linked above, and is a great starting point.
3) Game Salad
Price: Tiered Subscription Model – $0 – $300/year
Publishing Platform: Web, Mac, iOS, Windows 8, Android, Tizen
Out of all the programs that are designed to be quick and easy to use (like Construct 2, Stencyl, etc) I would put Game Salad in the upper echelon of that list. With Game Salad, you can quickly and easily get up and running with all different types of games. It is once again mostly geared towards making mobile games, but actually supports a large number of export platforms.
Game Salad also does a great job of promoting games made by its developers, providing education materials, and even utilizing a robust marketplace with tons of assets you can purchase and use in your games. The creator does not require any coding knowledge, but the result of that is something that is restricted in what exactly you can do.
Price: Mixed Tier Payment Model – Free Trial, $1,500 One-Time, or $75/month
Publishing Platform: PC, Windows Phone, Windows Apps, Mac, Linux, HTML, iOS, Android, BlackBerry
If you’re not an absolute beginner and already have some experience and/or programming knowledge, then Unity should definitely be your program of choice. The only reason it’s not ranked #1 on this list is because it can be extremely intimidating to learn for complete beginners. This limitation and the fact that the pro license is expensive and is actually required if you’re making a steady profit off of your creations.
With that being said, Unity is easily the most flexible and powerful program on this list, with tons of support, assets to purchase, its own built-in IDE, and the ability to make all kinds of 2D and 3D games. Suffice to say that if you want to dive right in, really want to make 3D games, or have some background in a programming language, maybe Unity is the right choice for you, otherwise, continue on to the last entry.
1) Game Maker: Studio
Price: Tiered One-Time Payment Model – $0 – $800
Publishing Platform: PC, Windows Phone, Windows Apps, Mac, Linux, HTML5, iOS, Android, Tizen, PS3, PS4, and Vita. Xbox One coming soon.
Hands-down, Game Maker: Studio is one of the most flexible, easy-to-understand, and deceptively powerful game making programs available. YoYo Games have recently opened up the full Standard license completely for free, launched their own asset marketplace, and have one of the largest and most helpful communities of all.
Not to mention that the internal programming language, GML, is easy to learn and teaches you concepts you can apply to other languages, like C#. As a result, Game Maker is the perfect starting point for any budding developer. And the growing list of high-quality games made with the program (Hotline Miami, Spelunky, Risk of Rain, Gunpoint, Hyper Light Drifter, and many others) brings validation to a program that’s struggled to shed its past reputation.
The programs drag-and-drop interface makes it easy to pick up and get started immediately, and lays the foundation you need to branch off into coding your own games. There is an endless wealth of information and tutorials online, so it’s an excellent program to kick start any indie developer’s career.
In fact, here are two very basic games I created over the span of about 2 weeks, starting from scratch. These games were created by either making my own assets, or finding free resources online. I followed YouTube tutorials for both of them. The first one is a very basic platforming game, and the second is a simple top-down space shooter.