How Making a Video Game Works

By: Tim Crosby

Video games like Guitar Hero offer interactive fun. Brad Whitford, center, checks out Aerosmith Guitar Hero with Harrison Whitford, left, and Graham Whitford, right. See more video game pictures.
© Kevin Mazur/WireImage/Getty Images

Playing a video game nowadays is like entering another world, one with its own unique sights, sounds and realities. Game playing is also growing in frequency -- users spend up to four hours a day playing games like "Grand Theft Auto," "Guitar Hero" and "Wii Sports" [source: Nielsen Media]. But how many players stop and think about what's involved with creating these games?

Video Game Image Gallery


Video game makers are the creative masters behind today's video games. Making video games requires many different talents, such as the visual imagination of an artist and the storytelling skills of an author. Finally, video game creators must possess the technical computer programming skills necessary to make their vision of a reality, at least in cyberspace.

A video game combines all the elements of a great story -- adventure, danger, colorful and daring characters and a plot -- with enhanced computer graphics and interactivity. Video game makers do their best to put players inside the game, an attempt to give them the most intense and entertaining experience. Video game makers have to push themselves in this way, as the video game market is extremely competitive.

So how do these creative, technically skilled folks do this? There are many programs for making video games. Video game makers also turn to video game software, which is specially designed to facilitate the vast amount of computer software code needed to bring a game to life.

Creating video games is not only fun, but it's also a growing field. Software publishing as a career is expected to grow by 32 percent by 2012. [source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics].

So, what are the basics of creating a video game? What software programs do you need? Read on to find out.

Making a Video Game: Start with the Basics

Many video games combine adventure with characters like Raven, an Xbox character.
Many video games combine adventure with characters like Raven, an Xbox character.
© Jeff Christensen/Getty Images

If you want to make a video game, the first thing you need is a plan.

Planning a video game is like planning any visual art form, such as a movie. Productions involve a plot, characters and action. One of the best ways to plan how those three elements will interact is by using a storyboard.


A good storyboard lays the foundation for your game. It should be done before the video game maker even thinks about touching a computer. A game that hasn't been planned well will fall short, no matter how good the graphics.

Storyboarding a game means the maker sketches out ideas for characters and scenes and then places them in order. With a video game, this might include a sequence of screens or scenes in which characters face certain challenges. In order to move forward in resolving the game's object (or the story's plot), the players must master certain skills involved in each scene.

Along with storyboarding, you may want to create a document that describes every aspect of the game. This document, sometimes called a "game design document," details everything from how menus work to character back stories. It will help keep you organized.

Creating characters is an important part of the storyboard process. Since the players will essentially become or interact with these characters, a game maker must make sure the characters are interesting. In some cases, artists work on drawings of important characters, which are scanned into computers and animated. Both the look of the characters and their personalities are important.

The planning process also gives video game makers a chance to dream up and refine the cyber environment in which their story will take place. These backdrops form the physical world in which the characters live, and they are akin to the film sets that movie makers use to frame the action on the screen. Video game creators can add subtle special effects to their environments to make them more memorable or realistic. Such effects include sounds as well as sight. Hearing a character's footsteps as it moves through the environment is one example. Changing the sound of those footsteps to reflect the surface they're running on -- crunchy leaves or echoing in a cavernous hall -- can add a great sense of realism.

What happens after the storyboard is created? How do video game makers determine what software to use? Read on to find out.

Software Needed for Making a Video Game

Video game creators rely on drawings and computer programs to bring gaming worlds to life.
Video game creators rely on drawings and computer programs to bring gaming worlds to life.
© Dennis O'Clair/Stone/Getty Images

After designing the game's concept, as well as the characters and environments, the video game maker is ready for the computer work that will make it reality.

There are many programs for making video games and software packages available to the novice and experienced game maker that allows them to bring their creations to life without heavy use of coding. These software packages instead perform many functions automatically, using common computer interface actions such as "drag and drop," highlighting and double clicking.


Software packages for making video games generally include three categories: 3-D games, 2-D games and role-playing games. The 3-D software is more powerful than the 2-D, and role-playing game software is different all together.

Some popular video game software for 3-D includes DarkBASIC and DarkBASIC Pro. The pro version is for more advanced game makers, while the other caters to hobbyists. Both, however, have a strong community of users who can serve as mentors.

Another software program, Game Maker, allows you to create a 3-D game. The software also can help users learn higher coding functions by showing the code that is created by simple drag and drop-type operations. This can start a user on the path to further customization and flexibility.

Game Editor is a 2-D game design software with a reputation for being extremely user-friendly. The program, though not particularly advanced, is intuitive, making it easy for a novice game designer to use it. You can create games for personal computers or mobile phones using this program.

Role-playing game making software includes RPG Toolkit, RPG 95, 2000, 2003 and XP; and Hephaestus, among others.

Most of these programs don't require writing codes. And, many video-game software programs are available for free on the Web. The programs offer simple, intuitive steps to creating video games without using a source code. If you have an idea, some organization and basic computer skills, you'll have no trouble using this software.

There are different levels of sophistication used in the software, however. Some are designed to create the high-end, 3-D games typically played on game consoles. Others are simpler, 2-D software while still others focus on role-playing games, fighting games, adventure games and more.

Because of their ease of use and relative power and customization potential, video game software has opened up the world of video game development to a mass audience.

Some video game software programs include:

  • Mugen is a popular fighting game-maker for the 2-D arena. The program allows you to create characters and place them in the game or download characters from other game makers. It relies on a network of fan sites for such interactivity.
  • Game Editor allows the designer to develop 2-D games for PCs, cell phones or other mobile devices. It works well across systems and is user-friendly.
  • Adventure Game Studios -- or AGS -- uses point-and-click ease to make adventure games. This free software is available for download. Its advanced functions, however, do require some coding knowledge.

Role-playing game making software includes RPG Toolkit, RPG 95, 2000, 2003 and XP; and Hephaestus, among others.

However, in most cases designing more sophisticated games requires writing code. How do you use code to make a video game? Check out the next page to find out.

Making Video Games with Code

Video gamers enjoy the challenge of playing in an alternate world like that of the "Grand Theft Auto" series.
Video gamers enjoy the challenge of playing in an alternate world like that of the "Grand Theft Auto" series.
© Cate Gillon/Getty Images Europe

If you want to design a truly unique game, writing computer code is almost a necessity.

Knowledge of computer code -- how to read and write it -- is very helpful in making video games. Typically, the more advanced the game in terms of performance and graphics, the more advanced the code. Programs for making video games generally work by automatically entering code in response to simple commands. But writing code from scratch, while more cumbersome, usually results in a finer, more customized product.


For example, programs for making video games might give you a few weapons or colors to choose from. But someone who can write code can invent new weapons and create any color in the spectrum. It's sort of the difference between baking a cake from scratch and baking one that comes premixed in a box. The cake that comes from scratch -- assuming the baker is good! -- will have more personality and better flavor.

Software computer code programs a computer at the most basic level. This fine degree of instruction, in properly skilled hands, results in a more masterful control of video game features. And with computer manufacturers adding more power to each new model, video game makers who can use code will have opportunities to create increasingly vivid game worlds.

Video game creators sometimes refer to their chosen code as "the engine" that makes the game run. This code will make the billions of instant calculations needed to make a character fly, run or use a weapon. It will network with other computers and keep the environment running, along with sound effects and musical score.

Video game makers use several codes to create their games. These include C++, Python, Visual Basic and Perl, among others.

These are just some of the software code programs used to create video games like "Grand Theft Auto," "Guitar Hero" and "Mario Kart." The popularity of video games is growing -- it's estimated that at any one time over 1 million U.S. households are playing [source: Nielsen Media].

For lots more information about making video games and related topics, check out the links on the next page.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


  • Adventure Game Studio. ( 
  • Game Editor. ( 
  • "How to Make a Video Game for Free!" Storm the Castle. (
  • "Making a Video Game from Start to Finish: An Overview for Beginners." Tkach, Joseph. Game Career Guide. (
  • Python Programming Language. (
  • "The Video Game Revolution." PBS. (