So you want to make a Christian video game, huh? Good for you. These are exciting times for Christians in the video games space – the opportunities are bigger than ever, with more gamers from more demographics, more platforms with more distribution methods, and what’s more, right now people are crying out for games with meaning, games that matter. Who could be better placed to fulfil that need than Christians – after all, don’t we claim to know the ultimate meaning?
What You Really Want, What You Really Really Want
But before we proceed, let me ask you a question: are you sure you want to make a Christian video game? The experience of many shows that making Christian video games is hard – incredibly hard. Nothing less than the very best motivation is going to see you through to the end, and so it’s important to check that your foundations are solid before you begin to build. Even though you may think you want to make a Christian video game, let me suggest to you that there are a number of different desires that masquerade as that, but which are decidedly not the same thing – at least if my own experience is anything to go by.
- You want there to be Christian video games – maybe you love playing video games but feel slightly uncomfortable with all of the violence and the secular worldviews; maybe you’ve got kids and you wish there were a few more wholesome alternatives; maybe you just think there are some bits of the Bible that would make for an awesome game – whatever your angle, there are a tonne of reasons why you might wish there were Christian video games out there, and maybe you feel like if you didn’t make them yourself then nobody else would. I want to suggest that on its own, this is a poor reason to try to make a Christian video game – for starters, you’re not the only one who feels this way! Ask yourself honestly whether you’re really the best qualified person to take on this challenge – maybe you’d be better off using your energy and talents to get behind somebody else’s project, either joining their team or just being their number one most awesome fan, helping them build a following and raise donations and so on.
- You want to have made a Christian video game – this one is a subtle difference, but it’s a vitally important one. Even if you have a fantastic idea for a Christian video game, even if you theoretically have all the skills necessary to make it, it’s important to face up to the fact that the process of actually making a game can be a hard slog, and not always a whole lot of fun. Bits of it are fun, and the act of completing a game can be incredibly rewarding, but if you don’t get at least some enjoyment from the actual game-making process then your project is likely to falter. I’ve struggled with this one time and time again – I dream about the finished article all the time, but when it boils down to it I’m much more interested in designing and developing toolsets than I am in actually using those tools to make games. I end up procrastinating and wasting hours and hours because I’m reluctant to get on with the hard grind of actually making the game. Just because I’m excited about what it would be like to have finished my game doesn’t mean I’m cut out to actually make it.
- You want to be known for making Christian video games – this is one of the nastier motivations, but I’m sure there’s a part of it in all of us. The Christian video games market is still wide open – nobody has really made a big success out of it, neither in terms of profit nor simply in terms of having an influence on people. The thought of trying to be the first one to pull it off, being the one to show all the doubters how wrong they were – that can be a powerful driving force. I’m just not sure it’s very godly, nor strong enough to get you through those moments when it doesn’t seem to be coming together and those doubters begin to sound pretty sensible.
Before You Begin
So you’ve had a think about your motivations, and you still want to give it a go? Great! So what’s next? Time to buy a license to a state-of-the-art MMO engine and launch your epic virtual world? Not quite yet – it’s important to learn to walk before you run! This next little bit is going to be a painful few minutes where it’s going to feel like I’m raining on your parade, but I would urge you to think through what I’m saying carefully and give it some serious consideration.
- Get some game development experience – I’ve been trying to program games my whole life, ever since my Dad bought me a magazine for kids called “Let’s Compute!” back in the 80s. But the key word there is “trying”: I had a realisation recently that all I have to show for it is a string of what are essentially “tech demos” – half started projects that demonstrate some concept but which falls a long way short of being a complete game. This may seem like a small detail – after all, theoretically I have all the know-how the make a complete game (“I know Objective-C!”) – but I’ve learnt the hard way that there’s a world of difference between that theory and actually making games. If you’re deadly serious about making Christian video games, then don’t try and do it all at once – get some experience learning what it takes to finish a game, what’s fun and what’s not, what people will actually be willing to play, and above all, how much blood, sweat and tears it takes to actually finish a project. I know this is frustrating – we all have our epic project ideas that we’d like to make (the next World of Warcraft, the next Halo, the next Monkey Island) and it can feel like a waste of time to go and make a Tic Tac Toe game instead. But trust me, there’s no shortcut through this process. If you don’t go and get the experience first, you’ll just spend ten years writing and re-writing your project a hundred different ways instead because you didn’t have a clue what you were doing, and you’ll have a lot less to show for it at the end. Besides, there’s more to Tic Tac Toe than meets the eye, and I have a feeling there are still a few ways to breathe life into that concept yet 😉
- Get some experience of meaningful games – one of the reasons why Christian video games are so hard to make is that games with any sort of depth and meaning are hard to make. At the very least, you ought to be trying to get your hands on any and every game out there that shows a hint of doing a good job of this. Play those games that explore meaningful player choices, but especially play some of the smaller indie games, since realistically this is the sort of scale of project that you’re going to be working on. Play some games like Portal, Braid, or even one of the CDN SpeedGames, Soulings Quest. Anything that might give you some kind of framework for how to inject meaning into a game without ruining the fun of it. Better yet, try and make some mini games of your own that explore some of these ideas – just little projects that you can complete in a few weeks but which help you develop some of those muscles. By doing this you help not only yourself but the whole Christian gaming scene, as you’ll be giving us all another example we can learn from.
- Try to build yourself a team – it’s very hard to make a game of any scale all by yourself, and one of the best ways you could be building towards your dream is to try and build a team around yourself. Try to find people with a similar kind of skill level to yourself so that you can all learn together, and try and make a few games together. The CDN SpeedGames are a great opportunity to try some of this kind of collaboration without making a huge life-long commitment. Even if the people you work with don’t end up being lifelong business partners, you’ll learn some indispensable experience of what it’s like working in a team which will all serve to make your next team that much more functional.
Choosing A Project
Okay, so you’ve got plenty of experience and you’ve surrounded yourself with a talented team with all the skills you’re going to need. What kind of game should you actually try and make? Your instinct is going to be to try and make the type of game that you love yourself, and chances are that’s going to be a totally epic project, biting off way more than you can chew. Let me offer a few humble suggestions:
- Seek out all of the indie games you can get your hands on – the kinds of games that small teams can make a success of are very different from the kinds of games that large teams with million-dollar budgets can make a success of, so it’s worth tracking down the best-in-class indie games for some models of how to do a small game well. Platforms like iOS are a fantastic breeding ground for this kind of project, so if you’re an avid iPhone gamer you’ve probably played some already. TIGSource is also a good resource for those interested in the indie gaming scene. And be sure to watch Indie Game: The Movie when that comes out.
- Pay special attention to story-driven games – in general, it’s much easier to inject meaning into a game that is story-driven like Monkey Island rather than something like Tetris. Sure, you can make up a backstory for Tetris, but it takes more work. Look for examples of games that manage to do this well – how to tell a compelling story but without overwhelming and boring the player. One game I’d recommend that falls into this category is called Aquaria – there’s a free demo you can play to get a feel for it if you don’t want to invest in the full game.
- Make a game you can get excited about – all that said, you need to find a game that you can get excited about, otherwise you don’t stand a chance of finishing it. So if you really do only like first person shooters, then I guess an FPS it will have to be. But please, try to keep it simple! Even usually epic games like RPGs can be kept small and manageable if you work hard at it.
What Makes It Christian
It’s worth taking a moment to make it explicit what it is that makes your game “Christian”. As I see it, there are three main ways you can go about this:
- Setting – in this model, a moment from the Bible is used as the setting for your game. For example, the game “Deliverance” was set during the Exodus, putting the player in control of Moses as he led the Israelites out of Egypt. By their nature, games with a Christian setting are very explicitly Christian. If you take this approach, be very careful that the message of your game cuts with the grain of the Bible story you’re basing it on – something that I’m not sure Deliverance gets right at all. Don’t simply rip the characters out of their context and make something unrelated to the message the Bible is trying to teach.
- Story – a heavily story-driven game could convey Christian themes and messages without necessarily using a Biblical setting, for example by having your main characters be Christians. An example of this from the movie world would be Fireproof. This approach would also include a more allegorical approach, such as used in the Narnia books, allowing the Christian themes to be presented with a little more subtlety. The challenge with a story based approach can be making sure that there is sufficient integration of the gameplay and the story without making the player feel like they have no influence over the outcome, and also that the story really manages to grip the player and engage their emotions.
- Game mechanics – one of the more interesting approaches, and one which is uniquely “gamey”, is the idea of using the game mechanics themselves to reflect Christian values, or to reveal something about the player’s heart. For instance, you could come up with game mechanics that require self-sacrifice, such as in Soulings Quest, or which teach grace, or which explore forgiveness and imputed righteousness. Well, at least in theory you could! Even if you’re not actively using game mechanics to communicate your message, it’s important to make sure that your game mechanics don’t undermine your message – such as by making your game all about “grace” be utterly unforgiving and showing zero tolerance.
What Makes It Fun
The last aspect worth considering isn’t unique to Christian games at all, but is well worth thinking about nonetheless: how do you make sure your game is fun. Often, Christian game developers are so caught up in making their game faithful that we can end up doing it at the expense of making it, well you know, an actual game. So remember all your usual game development theory, such as the five types of gamer, and think through who your game appeals to and how:
- Achiever – these are the players who are all about trying to best themselves and others, possibly retrying things over and over again until they manage to top their previous score. It’s very important to give these gamers feedback so they know how well they’re doing.
- Explorer – these are the players who love to look under every rock and examine every nook and cranny, just for the sake of it. Leaving lots of hidden objects for them to discover makes these gamers happy.
- Socialiser – this kind of player enjoys the community aspects of a game, such as integrated chat and the ability to build friendships.
- Killer – the killer gets their thrills going up against other players in a test of strength. Competitive play and high score leagues are very important for these gamers.
- Creator – these are the kinds of people who are likely to enjoy games like Minecraft, people who get their thrills creating things rather than merely consuming them.
Thinking through which aspects of your game appeal to which type of gamer can be really helpful in the design stage, to make sure that you’re not unnecessarily limiting your target audience.
Making It Concrete
Once you’ve come up with all your big ideas and grand plans, try to make everything as concrete as you can. Buy yourself a little notebook and start filling it up with notes, sketches and scribbles. Start trying to work out who your characters are and what motivates them. Prototype your game ideas on paper first if it helps. Anything you can do to turn your dream into a reality will help. Even if you can’t program and are struggling to get a team together, this is something you can be getting on with – why not try making a stop-motion video of what the game would be like if you could program and sticking it on YouTube to try and get people excited about the idea?
Making It Good
One final word: in this industry, there are no points for effort. If you release a sub-par game with dodgy art and bad gameplay, it doesn’t just hurt you, it hurts all Christian video game developers. At this point in time, people have been conditioned by their previous experiences to think that Christian games are amateurish and boring, and that means that if a good Christian game ever game along it would have huge barriers to overcome before people would even give it a try. If you can’t draw, embrace your constraints and go for a retro pixel art style or something like that; if it’s not fun, either keep iterating until it is or have the integrity to can your project instead of releasing it. Whatever you do, show it to other people – preferably people you’re not related to or close friends with – and listen to their honest feedback.
Well, now you know everything you need to know and are all set to take the world by storm with your simple, focussed, fun, quality, Christian game – so go forth and create! Start small, and keep iterating until you arrive at something you can be proud of. The opportunities are huge if only you can overcome your pride and start small.
I should close with a disclaimer: I’m not writing this because I’ve done it all right, I’m writing this because I’ve broken just about every one of these rules. Consider this the advice I wish I’d taken six years ago when I first began on my quest to make a point & click adventure game based on a Bible story. I only hope and pray that this post may help some people out there to avoid the mistakes I made, and that maybe in some small way it might contribute to the desire of so many hearts, to see more games out there that reflect something of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
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