Developers have never been faced with a broader range of platforms, nor a more difficult task when it comes to deciding on which to focus their efforts. The digital age has turned the traditional publishing model on its head, while development tools that were once the exclusive realm of experienced professionals now court amateurs with menu-driven interfaces and free licences.
For all that, though, perhaps the best place to start is still one of the oldest platforms: the humble Windows PC. Not only is it a fabulously powerful development platform in its own right, but it’s also one that you’ll probably use at some point during the process of making games for other devices.
But as home systems have become more powerful, so too has the technology behind browser-based games. Adobe launched Stage3D for Flash last year, a new set of APIs that allows for high fidelity 3D graphics in-browser. Unity, meanwhile, enables you to export your game from its development environment to Stage3D, or run it in-browser using the company’s own Unity Player plugin. And then there’s Google’s Native Client (NaCl) for its Chrome browser, which allows developers to tap directly into a computer’s native processing power to run web applications. Versions of Mini Ninjas and Bastion ported to NaCl have already proven the concept.
And when it comes to releasing your game, the open nature of the PC makes it easy to do so. Digital distribution services such as Valve’s Steam provide a publisher-free route to millions of players, Facebook provides a social network on which to frame your game, while individuals such as Minecraft (pictured) creator Markus ‘Notch’ Persson have demonstrated the efficacy of the canny use of Twitter and selling directly to your audience.
Apple’s Mac offers a smaller gaming userbase, but shouldn’t be forgotten – it has gained momentum in the sector in recent years via an ever-growing list of big-name games, with Rage, Limbo and Deus Ex: Human Revolution all making the jump to the platform. And with the launch of the Mac App Store last year, the company also began applying some of the lessons learned from its gaming success on iPhone.
Which brings us to iOS, Android and Window Phone 7 – Apple, Google and Microsoft’s mobile platforms respectively. Mobile development’s low barrier to entry and relatively speedy implementation, combined with the advent of handsets capable of delivering far more than an awkwardly controlled Snake knock-off (although you’ll still find those) has made it equally as popular with first-time developers as it has with industry vets looking to return to the ‘good old days’ of bedroom coding.
“Development in iOS is really valuable,” explains Criterion senior development director Alan McDairmant of the platform’s ability to help new (and old) hands learn. “You can get through the full development cycle of building a game from idea to release and support it pretty quickly and cheaply.”
By far the biggest markets at the time of writing are those of Android and iOS, but while a larger market can mean more sales, it can also create its own problems with discoverability, as the App Store and Android Marketplace become ever more cluttered with competing apps. Android’s fragmented hardware specifications can also trip up unwary developers.
All three major mobile platforms’ official SDKs (software development kits) and guidance are freely available to download, so you can get up and running quickly, but in order to publish your games you’ll need to register. In the case of Google, this means a one-off payment of $25, designed to encourage more high-quality software, whereas to become an Apple or Microsoft developer requires an annual fee of $99 – and you’ll also be subject to an approval process. You’re not necessarily limited to the official SDKs, though, as development environments such as Unity can export your game to multiple platforms, including Android and iOS.
Microsoft’s $99 fee also signs you up to its App Hub which, along with allowing you to release unlimited paid-for apps and 100 free apps a year on Windows Phone 7, also gives you the option to submit up to ten games to Xbox Live Indie Games. While Microsoft has attracted a lot of criticism from the indie community for a number of Xbox 360 dashboard redesigns that have seen the channel buried ever deeper in menus, the most recent update saw it return to the top level of the Marketplace in the US.
With any luck, that change will be made in other territories too, but regardless of placement, XBLIG remains a viable option for developers – it has, after all, played host to titles such as Blendo Games’ Flotilla and My Owl Software’s Apple Jack – just don’t expect to make millions overnight.
Here, we’ve covered a selection of the available platforms, focusing on the ones that are most suitable for your first forays into game creation. Together with the tools we also detailed, it’s a lot to take in, but it’s important to remember that platforms come and go. Completing a project on any platform, using any language or tool, will provide you with lessons that you can take to the next one.
“Game developers are some of the coolest people I know,” says Unity CEO David Helgason. “They are passionate and smart, and therefore the skills they acquire are really deep when it comes to the craft of building great games. But the industry is tough, competitive, and changes very fast. Today’s hot platform is tomorrow’s quagmire of broken dreams and over-competition.
“What is really important is to build reusable skills, build a broad understanding of the industry, and simply to get a lot of experience building actual games – these things are absolutely necessary to get anywhere.”