Questions to ask yourself before you design a game

I once answered a question in the game design section of the Gamemaker (GM) forums regarding how to go about starting a large game project; my answer was that the person should ask themselves several questions before they do anything else.

My reply received 3 upvotes.  The person who asked the original question then took my answer and used it to write a whole topic based on that – and their post received 5 upvotes!

I did contact them about the fact that they had basically copied and pasted my answer, with a few minor edits, and asked for a bit of credit – to which they did and I got a thanks in their post.

For this article I will take my original post and expand it .

When starting a game the first thing you should do is ask yourself several, critical, questions – WHO,WHAT, WHEN, WHERE, WHY and HOW.

Now let’s look at those questions one at a time.

WHO – Who is this game aimed at?

You simply cannot make a game that appeals to all walks of life, so don’t even try.

I personally try to make games that my five year old daughter would enjoy playing, the reason for this is that it keeps her happy and if you have a child then you will know what I mean!

So I like simple puzzle games that have easy to use controls, easy to learn and presents a simple challenge that everyone can enjoy.

Therefore my target audience is people who like simple puzzle games; my main source of revenue will be players who enjoy a challenge and parents who wish to keep their child happy playing (and there is a big market there, trust me as I’ve bought several $2 games just to keep my child happy for the day.)

One of my long term projects is a Dungeons & Dragons style game that plays like the old game of ‘Wizards Crown’ (my game is called LOBAG, short for Land of Blood and Gold).

My target audience will be completely different from my puzzle games as it targets those who like strategy, character building, RPG games. This game won’t be playable by my kids as it is too complex, but the target audience for this are willing to pay big money for expansions – just look at WoW, Ultima online or Everquest!

The next question is to ask what are the graphics going to be like? Cartoon style graphics will allow you to aim at children while realistic blood splats will be an instant turn off for that same demographic.

WHAT – What is the game about?

If you can’t describe your game in one sentence then you have either made it too complex or you yourself don’t know exactly what it’s about.

Describing it can be a simple ‘A puzzle game where Danika must rescue her father’ all the way up to ‘a strategy city building game with a first player shooter component where you will need to control your armies’.

A basic outline of the game is important for you and to others, if you describe it to a friend and they have no idea what is going on then you need to either rethink the idea or reword it.  Actually you may think your friend is an idiot and ask someone else, but remember this, if a second friend has the same problem then it’s most probably YOU!

You also start needing to know what the basics of the game will be, ‘what setting is this? Future, medieval, outer space?’, ‘what game style are we going to use? Isometric, first person perspective, overhead?’, ‘Genre?’ e.t.c

You also need to take into account your target audience, if the game is for everyone then you can’t have a realistic war game (you can have a war game with cartoon graphics though!).

WHEN – When will all this happen?

If you are working on this yourself then the simple answer might be ‘When it’s finished’. But how many hours are you going to spend on this each week? I have a large family so I try to spend an hour a day but even that’s not possible some times.

The time you really need to ask yourself this is when you are working with others. What time frame are you looking at? This allows others to see if they can do it or not, if you want the game finished, and polished, in three months then you need full time workers – so people like me, who can only spend an hour a day, are out.

One of the biggest problems I hear with teams is that someone is ‘not committed enough’; are they?  If they are like me, as in they can only spend a certain amount of time on it each week, and they are trying their hardest then you are not all on the same page.  If a person works and spends all their spare time (even if it is only an hour a week) and produces fantastic artwork – they are going to be really offended at being called ‘non committed’.

If you are not paying people then you will not get any full time workers; students can sometimes work full time for several weeks if on holidays but even that can only last several weeks – they need to go back to school sometime.

WHERE – Where will the game be released?

This is important so you can set up revenue streams from the beginning. It doesn’t matter what your target platform will be but you need to know the target audience of that platform. For example Linux users are, usually, highly knowledgeable computer users (I can use the word ‘Nerd’ here because I use Linux as well :p ) – so a simple puzzle game isn’t going to go too well.

Once you have worked out which platform you are going to release your game on you can then work out which programming language to use; while game maker would allow us to cover most platforms there other languages out there that may be more efficient.

I used to program in PHP which was a browser based language which isn’t going to work in ios or Android (and very inefficient to use as a browser game on either of those) and that is the main reason I now use GM.

WHY – Why are you making this game?

Another serious question that you need to ask is WHY you are making this game.

To gain experience?

You may be trying to get a professional job in the industry and wish to create a game to show potential employers what you can do.

Or you might wish to create the best RPG game on the market but realise that this shouldn’t be your first project, so you start with a small project to learn how it all works and what your capabilities are.

To make money?

And why not? Making money allows you to do this as a full time profession; working for a games company is the same thing except you make the money for someone else!

Please note that people don’t care whether you make money or not but they they can get upset on HOW you try to make your money – if you charge for a game and still put advertisements in it then people will get upset!

For yourself?

If you want a game that allows you to fly a Dragon around the open air then you go for it; if there is no challenge then others might not enjoy it but if that’s the way you want to play then it’s all yours.

My game Lobag is made for my entertainment because of my love for the game Wizards Crown – but I can only play that so many times and I am yet to find a replacement!  If others play the game and enjoy it then that’s good but it’s mainly for me.

For someone else?

The flying dragon game I talked about just then is actually a game I have a design document for; but the game isn’t for me, it’s for my daughter.

She has gone on and on about how there is no game where you can simply fly a dragon around the skies, so the game will be made for her.  If others enjoy it then that’s good as well but I wont lose any sleep if no one else wants to play it, just as long as my daughter plays it and gives my wife and I five minutes of peace and quiet!!

This is not a full list; you may be making the game to learn a new programming language, for a school project e.t.c

A final word on WHY – there is no wrong answer as to why you wish to make a game.

I know of people who made the game Tetris in C++, they didn’t make it for any other reason than to learn C++ and they succeeded.  From there they can use their newly acquired experience to create bigger and better (hopefully profitable) projects.

HOW – How are you making this game? And HOW are you going to cover your costs?

If you are making the game in Game maker (GM) then you have the question answered on HOW you are going to make the game and that’s a huge step in the right direction.

But what if the project cannot be handled by GM?  There are a lot of choices out there and the final decision will be dependant on what you wish to produce.

Another aspect of HOW is the covering your costs.  Unless the game is for family and friends then there will be a cost involved; costs could be hosting fees, bandwidth fees and many others (many of these you have no idea about until you have been through the process).

Try to work out how you will be getting revenue from your game as you will need to put this into your design document.  An example would be a game where the game is free but the extra characters need to be paid for; if you make this decision at the start of designing then you can work with it, but if you finish the game and THEN decide to implement this idea it could cause problems – what if you made a character that was critical to the plot into a paid character?  It could make it too hard to finish and players would be spiteful.

After the questions

After you have gone through these questions (at least gone through them in your head) you need some simple drawings of potential screenshots – I can’t draw at all yet I have no problem doing very simply diagrams that others can understand.

Don’t be afraid to draw ideas on paper, Dangerous Danika started with one piece of paper where my daughter and I drew a game she would like to play 🙂

The next step in creating a game is creating a design document.  In the next issue I will tell you WHY you need this document and WHY you need to treat it as your bible! 🙂

Copyright for Game Design



One of the most misconceived discussions I read on the forum boards involve copyright.  While some people seem to have a vague idea there are others that have no idea and often lead others up the wrong path – and this wrong path could involve facing legal action if a major copyright infringement occurs.

I will attempt to put the facts before you but I know that the subject will still crop up on the forum boards – hopefully this article will explain what the answer should be.

What is it?

Copyright is the legal concept of allowing the original creator of a work to profit from it for an amount of time.  And while it may sound simple in that one line it can lead to massive headaches all around if not followed properly.

Why do I need it?

If you make a little game that you and your friends play then you may not worry about protecting your own copyright, but you still own the copyright to it.

It’s only when others start to play it, and charge others for it, that you may have to stand up for yourself – because you have the legal, ethical and morale right to do so.

Imagine making a game over 2 years that turned into the next ‘angry birds’ (in sales, not gameplay as that would be copyright infringement!), you then put this game on steam for $19.95 and watch the money steam in (pun intended).

Then imagine the money stopped overnight and after investigating you find that another company is selling your game on steam for $4.95.  And I’m not talking about a clone of your game either, I mean YOUR game.  If there was no copyright then they would be able to do this!  But with copyright on your side you can simply email steam and get them taken off (and take legal action if you wish to recuperate lost revenue).

Another side note is that your game copyrights more than just the game; if your game stars  the detective ‘Jolly Joker’ and his sidekick ‘Captain Koala’ (this is a comic book I wrote btw so those characters are in fact copyrighted) then another company cannot make a game starring either of those two without my written permission.

Is it legal to make games with other game characters?

If they are not copyrighted then yes, if they are then NO.

The most famous example is Mario brothers, the amount of people who wish to use them in a game amazes me, mainly because I am not a big fan of them (but each to their own).

The short answer is you CANNOT use Mario brothers in a game, you cannot use a character that even resembles him.  It’s a simple test really, if you showed your character to  a normal person, would they confuse it with Mario?  If they say “that looks like that Italian plumber bloke from that game” then you have a problem.

So what characters are not copyrighted?  Those in the public domain (Robin Hood for example).

Marvel comics own all the copyrights to their characters and so do DC comics (so Batman and Superman are out), but there is one company that DOES NOT own copyright to a lot of their own characters – Disney (did your jaw just hit the ground?).

While the Disney company does own copyright to the characters of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck e.t.c they DO NOT own the copyright of Snow White, Prince Charming, Sleeping Beauty (and others) – why? Because these characters were created by the German Grimm Brothers in 1812 (actually they added and subtracted stories over the years so the exact dates may be different for each character).

Now before you go making your own version of a Snow White game, now that you know you can’t be sued, you must know one more thing – Disney owns the IMAGE of Snow White that appears in all their books and movies (short black hair, yellow dress e.t.c).  That’s why movie studios use a completely different look for the character – the movie ‘Snow White and the Huntsman’  had Kristen Stewart as ‘Snow White’, this movie did not need to purchase any copyrights from Disney as Kirsten did not look like their version.

Alice in wonderland is by Lewis Carroll in 1865 so they don’t have that one either.  Alice in Wonderland with long golden hair, blue dress and white apron?  That image is Disney.

Why copyright must be enforced

Another contentious point I see on forum boards is when people receive copyright infringement notices for small games or fan games.  The reason for this is that if copyright is not enforced then it is null and void; which could devastate a company like Marvel entertainment.

Copyright can be enforced by a simple letter stating that you have infringed copyright and please take down the offending material.  You will not be taken to court on a minor infringement unless you are making a monetary gain, this is because court action is too expensive and would drive any company bankrupt within days; but a simple letter is enough for a court to believe that they have enforced their copyright.

How long do I have copyright

Currently copyright is active 70 years after the death of the copyright holder.

How does this affect my game?

In two ways.

Firstly what you can and can’t use.  You can’t use another persons intellectual property unless you gain permission (and you’ll most probably need to pay for it).  So don’t use a movie, a book e.t.c to base your game unless you have written permission to.

Once there was a forum member who wished to make a fighting game with all the characters from other games that were made in Game maker; the hardest part was not the game making but getting the copyright permissions in writing, some people believed that by saying ‘yes’ was enough to allow them to use their character, but it isn’t, you need to specifically state ‘I grant the usage of my character Jolly Joker to the game xyz fighting game‘, and that’s it.

Secondly what others can use in their game.  Everything you create in your game is now yours, this includes the characters, artwork, sprites – even the CODE you write.

While a game may be the same as yours in playability it is the actual programming code that is copyrighted – if they want a game that plays like yours then they must write their own code.

Who owns what in my game?

Simple if there is no money involved, tricky if there is.

Whoever created the asset (whether it be a sprite, background art, sound bite e.t.c) has copyright on it unless SPECIFICALLY noted; the publisher may state that all copyright is to go to them (don’t ever hand over your copyrights unless you are financially compensated).

Another example is code.  If a programmer writes an engine for your game then you CANNOT use the engine in another game unless you get permission again.

If payment is made there is usually some sort of contract to say what they can use it for.  An example of this is from my game ‘Dangerous Danika’ which has a music track done by a third person; they have given me permission to use their music in the game AND NOTHING ELSE.  I cannot put the music on iTunes and sell it for 99 cents; in fact I can’t even use the music in a sequel game.

If you are employed by a professional game company then everything you create is copyrighted by that company.

What do I do when someone infringes my copyright?

Send them a take down letter.

This could be as simple as ‘I have copyright on a Koala Detective called Captain Koala which can be viewed at, please remove this character from your game’.

So why have copyright?

So a person can make a living out of their ideas – and this actually encourages more ideas.

I will use the example of Star Wars; if there was no copyright and George Lucas bought out his Space epic without making a profit then would there have been a sequel?  NO!!

The movie would never have been profitable because cinemas would never have had to pay in order to show the movie, they may have had to pay for the original movie reel but then they could have made their own copy.  All the toy manufacturers would have put out their own toys with no royalties to Lucas and so on.

This would mean that George would have only made a few dollars (selling the movie reel to the cinemas) unless he went around the country with his own projector and charged an entrance fee.

No profit means there would have been no sequels.  And poor George would have gone back to his day job to support his family!

I can’t contact the original copyright holder, now what?

So what?  They still have copyright to their works.

You either need to find them, or wait 70 years after they die and then go for it.

Copyright rorting

Have there been cases of massive copyright infringement – you betcha! And it still goes on in this day and age.

A fad two years ago was to get short stories from web sites, put them together as a book and then sell it on amazon.  For erotic stories this was amazingly profitable (it’s so profitable that it is the only area that it still occurs today, the profits are worth running the risk).

The problem was that the author of the book had not written a single story, or asked for permission, they simply ripped it all off and published it.  100% illegal and immoral.

JK Rowlings (Author of Harry Potter) was horrified when she found out an encyclopaedia of the Harry Potter world was to be published – without gaining her permission!

The offender believed that because the world of Harry Potter was all over the Internet then it was public property – it wasn’t (and still isn’t until 70 years after she dies).  This instance went to court and the Judge sided with JK Rowling.

This should never have got to court as it challenged the whole concept of copyright.  JK Rowling has copyright over the names and characters (including likeness) to all the main characters, the game of Quidditch, the names of spells … the list goes on and on – even the name Hogwarts is hers!

Copyright of this article

I, James Clifton, wrote this article so I have automatic copyright over it; I have given the magazine permission to use this article for their magazine and nothing else.  So if they wanted to bring out a book this article couldn’t be used unless I granted permission.

If someone wanted to publish this article on another website they would need to ask me for permission before they did it.

If I was paid to write this article then the magazine would own copyright.  Most of the time a magazine will pay for the RIGHT to publish an article, not for the copyright itself.


James Clifton is a games designer who uses game maker for all his games after dabbling in C++ and then PHP, he goes by the name cliftonbazaar on the gamemaker forums.