Even the most demanding creative fields can have low barriers to entry. For instance, you don’t need to know how to use photo editing or video editing software to take a picture or shoot a movie on your phone. Humanity wrote brilliant literature with paper, ink, and feathers for hundreds of years before word processors. But what about video games, the most modern artistic medium?
Today, you have more options than ever for pursuing a career in game development and more ways of sharpening your skills beyond modding new Doom level WAD files. Every year, new generations of developers graduate from game design schools all over the world. Shout out to DePaul, DigiPen, Full Sail, and NYU Game Center. But with just a computer and some self-motivation, you can teach yourself to make the game of your dreams with consumer video game development software.
Choose Your Character
How do we define consumer video game development software? The programs we looked at— Construct, Stencyl, Twine, Fuze4, and our Editors’ Choice GameMaker—let you create fully functional video games from scratch. Although you may learn plenty about creativity and game design from games and products like Baba Is You, Dreams, Human Resource Machine, LittleBigPlanet, Levelhead, Minecraft, Nintendo Labo, Roblox, Super Mario Maker, or a Lego Mindstorms kit, they aren’t included on this list. They don’t let you create wholly original work, and their interfaces are just a little too far removed from the real coding required to develop real games. That said, plenty of games turn coding concepts into fun puzzles, and playing good video games can spark your imagination for your own projects
We also didn’t include CryEngine, Unity, and other robust engines that primarily target professional game developers at indie studios, as well as large companies. Not only are these programs typically more expensive, but they assume a baseline knowledge level not everyone has. Many studios also create and use proprietary engines exclusively for themselves, even after third-party rivals surpass their technology. Bethesda’s engines and EA’s Frostbite come to mind.
The programs featured in this roundup will walk absolute beginners through the process of making a game. Once you feel confident in your skills, feel free to try out other popular engines. The ubiquitous Unreal Engine currently costs nothing and you can check out a developer marketplace through the Epic Games Store.
Finally, we tried to focus on software that lets you create a wide variety of video games rather than a specific niche. If you only care about dating sims, fighting games, RPGs, esoteric text adventures, or machinima movies, check out Ren’Py, Mugen, RPG Maker, Inform 7, or Valve’s Source Filmmaker, respectively. We do highlight Twine, but only because that program easily lets you make a surprisingly varied amount of games in the interactive fiction format.
What Kinds of Games Can You Make?
Besides Twine, the other products in this roundup let you make any kind of 2D game you can think of. For 3D development, you need a more powerful tool. Still, developers have used these engines to create everything from side-scrolling platformers to top-down shooters based on Netflix movies to the highly influential indie RPG Undertale. If you grew up playing online Flash games on sites like Newgrounds and Kongregate, you’ll recognize the look and feel of these games.
However, when it comes to features you can add to your game, not all engines are created equal. GameMaker and Fuze4 offer limited support for 3D graphics. Stencyl lets you use a controller plugged into your computer, but you can’t add multiplayer to your projects. Aside from Fuze4, which locks all of your projects to the Nintendo Switch, all of these tools let you publish to the web via HTML5. Twine and Construct even run in a web browser. Most subscriptions also offer tiers to publish PC games and mobile games with in-app purchase options. As for consoles, only GameMaker sells licenses for Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One. We don’t know yet if this deal will carry forward to the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X.
Pay to Win
Pricing varies depending on what software you pick. Twine is completely free. Fuze4 costs $20, but you own it forever. Construct and Stencyl offer free versions, but you need to pay at least $99 per year to fully take advantage of their features and sell your games for money. GameMaker has a 30-day free trial, a $99 permanent license, as well as a $1,500 annual subscription for selling your games on all three consoles. That price, while unavoidably high, may be worth it to gain access to the large and lucrative console audience.
Note that these are all standard, individual prices. Pricing can also change if you’re a company making more than a certain amount of money, or an educator looking to teach game development in the classroom. Teachers should also consider researching services just for them. Youth Digital, once an Editors’ Choice for coding classes with a focus on game design, has now become the digital curriculum Apex Learning. Even if you’re an adult, online learning services, in general, may nicely supplement your game development education.
Learn to Code (or Don’t)
If you want to become a serious game developer, eventually you should learn how to code. Video games consist of wonderful art, smooth animations, catchy music, and clever gameplay systems created by very talented individuals, but it’s code that binds them all together into a game. Learning code is tough, though, so what makes these programs especially convenient for consumers is how they ease you into the coding process, or make it fully optional.
Heavily emphasizing a visual language makes game development much more accessible for non-technical users. At their best, visual languages also weave in more complicated concepts (such as collision masks, frame rate, and variables) that help you better transition into proper coding, and set you up for success as you take your potential professional career more seriously. These programs also let you write your own code from scratch if you want more control from the start. Fuze4 forces you to write in code, with no visual language option, so you’ll need to connect a keyboard to your Nintendo Switch to avoid the annoyances of typing on its touch screen.
By making coding simpler, these programs also free you up to focus on other vital, creative elements of game design. Use built-in image editors to draw sprites, animate them, and arrange them on the levels you build from tilesets. Synthesize your own sound effects or import music files. You’ll get deeply invested in your game much faster once you have a sense of ownership over it, and custom handmade sounds and visuals provide a more personal stamp than sterile code.
What good is art if you don’t share it with people? These engines aren’t just tools, they’re jumping-off points for users to share knowledge and resources. These programs provide helpful documentation on how to get started. Once you’ve mastered the tutorials, look to the community, on forums or through online videos, for tips on how to improve your projects.
Twine creators love swapping tricks on how to take stories to the next level. Fuze4 lets you share games with friends and download new games from strangers through the online portal. GameMaker, Construct, and Stencyl feature community marketplaces where you can purchase or freely download graphics, sound effects, game demos, useful code, and other assets to speed along your own development. You don’t have to limit yourself to one store or another. Indie game store itch.io also sells plenty of assets.
Don’t Beat Them, Join Them
There’s nothing wrong with simply being a fan of video games. Still, making a video game yourself will give you a greater appreciation for the hard work that goes into the wonderful video games you play. Our top picks for consumer video game development software give you the skills and tools you need to get started on your journey to become the next Amy Hennig, Shigeru Miyamoto, or Gabe Newell. Soon enough, you’ll see your game earn five stars right here on PCMag.com.
Once your game is done, sell it to the masses using a PC gaming marketplace. Then, let an influencer give it attention via a video game live streaming service.