Make a Hit Game Without Code

Chances are you’ve already played a game Colin made. He created Battle Golf, Dunkers, Golf Zero, Touchdowners, and Wrassling, just to name a few. You might be surprised to find out that he created all of these games without writing any code, or making any art. I interviewed him (along with several other independent developers) to see if they had any tips for how to succeed. Colin presents some insight into his workflow, and how to succeed with just the ability to design a game.

How did you get into developing apps?

I was working in the fitness industry, working in gyms and personal training for about 10 years, then I got my first iPhone. I think it was the 3G. I just loved the little mini-games on it. Games like Stickman Golf and Angry Birds. Mad Skills Motocross, played a lot of that. I’ve always been playing games. I had consoles for years: Super Nintendo, Play Station, and so on. But the bigger games I never pictured myself making, AAA games like Metal Gear Solid. But a lot of the mini-games interested me. I’ve always been a fan of mini-games on Flashportal, Miniclip, and on the AppStore. When I saw the iPhone I said, “I want to make a game for the iPhone”, so I started looking into how to do that. I had no background or experience, so for a while I was designing on pen and paper, talking to other developers, trying to work out how I’d go about hiring someone. I started speaking to a few little studios, and so on, but it was looking expensive and difficult. Eventually, a guy who made an iOS game I liked sent me Stencyl, a program with visual scripting. He said to start off making some Flash games, which I did. I really enjoyed it. It went quite smoothly, and I actually started making some money from Flash games. Eventually I decided to take the step, once I got enough money, to get the Apple Developer license and the license for Stencyl to export for mobile. I launched into mobile from there.

What tools do you use to make apps?

It’s pretty much just Stencyl, since I’m not a game designer, and I’m not a programmer, but I’m visual scripting. The only things I’m using are Stencyl and pen and paper. I work with artists, I don’t do any art myself. So they send everything as a PNG, and I drop it straight into Stencyl. I use a little bit of Audacity for a bit of editing sound files, but apart from that, just Stencyl.

Do you think it would have been a good investment to learn a different tool?

Stencyl caters for everything that I want to do. I actually studied game design after I released my first app. I did a two year course here in Stockholm, and I used Unreal Engine 4 and Unity. I actually worked at a game studio for a year using Unity, but as a game designer. So I’ve experienced these more professional, powerful engines. But the barrier for Unity is having to learn C# or JavaScript. I’ve tried, but it’s not gonna happen anytime soon. And Unreal Engine didn’t really seem suited for mobile, or for what I wanted to do. I’m interested in other engines, looking at things like Game Maker: Studio and Construct, but I’m very unmotivated to learn something new. I want to create. I have a tool right now that allows me to create. Something would have to badly break within Stencyl to force me to learn something new, because I know with a new engine I wouldn’t be creating for a while.

How do you go about designing your games?

I prototype a lot. If a little idea pops into my head, I prototype it right away. Because they’re normally quite simple games, quite small arcade games, it’s easy to get an early idea if it’s going to be fun or not. If it’s something a bit bigger, like Golf Zero and it’s going to be level based, I do a bit of pen and paper design to figure out how the levels will play out, but I’m very hands on. I like to try and build things and experience them, and I often find a thing seems like a good concept in your head, but once you try and build it you get a better understanding of it.

Looks harmless enough.

What are some of the biggest issues you face during development?

iOS profiles and certificates were a bit tricky, not knowing any programming, but it’s never been that bad. There’s quite a good community on Stencyl so normally you can find someone else who’s been through it who can help you. There haven’t been that many hurdles, actually. It’s been surprisingly smooth.

I don’t have a huge Twitter presence

How do you spread the word about your games?

That’s an interesting topic, because I don’t do much in terms of spreading. I like to use TouchArcade forums. In the early days, when nobody really knew who I was, I would make a thread like, “New Game Coming Out” and one or two people would write in it, but not much. I don’t have a huge Twitter presence, so for me my games spread because Apple features them. That’s the number one distribution of my game, it’s visibility on the AppStore. Anything I do outside of that has a negligible impact. No matter how many Facebook posts or Tweets I makes, it won’t match what an Apple feature would do. So now I’m a little bit lazy, I guess. I’ll just do a few Tweets and a forum post on TouchArcade. I’ll reach out to some press, but I don’t have much of a marketing plan when I release something.

What is the most effective form of monetization you’ve used?

For me, I like the free with adverts approach for an arcade game. And that’s purely because I want to be designing a paid game, but the market in my opinion and from some experience isn’t really working right now. If I released one of my games for $2 I don’t think I would make enough money to keep going. So my game is free with adverts, but I see it as a free paid game, because there’s no more in-depth monetization than that. If you pay $2 to remove the adverts, you have a paid product. So it’s not the smartest form of monetization, in games like Crossy Road and Drive Ahead! that have built the game around the monetization. They have very clever monetization, that’s well integrated. But I don’t have the knowledge or interest in that. I don’t want to spend hours balancing my monetization. I just put an ugly, interstitial advert in your face and you have to close it. And that’s how I get paid. If you don’t like that, then you can pay the $2 to remove them, and you essentially have a paid game. So it’s the kind of brute force approach. It works very well for me, it monetizes well. If you have an unbelievably good game you can make it paid and it’s going to be irresistible to people, and it’ll just work. I have friends who are developers who make these really high quality paid games, and it works for them. But my games are quite simple, just a bit silly. Maybe the market I’m aiming for are less likely to pay as well. So free with adverts and one in-app purchase to remove them is my favorite model.

What’s one tip you have for people who want to start developing games?

Just go for it! I see a lot of people being put off because they can’t code, or they feel it’s too high a barrier. Just pick up a little engine that allows you to drag and drop visual scripting. There’s a lot out there now. But at the same time, don’t walk into it thinking, “I see Candy Crush makes money, so I can make money.” Don’t drop big amounts of money on something without seriously researching it’s earning potential. One of the most common mistakes I see is people underestimating the importance of aesthetics. I don’t mean it has to be AAA art, or it has to look like Monument Valley, but you’re probably not going to get away with it if you’re not an artist and you try to do your best. It has to be stylized. You spoke to Joel, he made Prune [that interview will be out next month]. It’s very flat, but it’s beautiful. It’s very well presented. It doesn’t have to be AAA art, but it has to be consistent and well thought out throughout the whole app. So if you don’t do art you’ll probably have to find an artist to work with.

Go checkout some of Colin’s games on the AppStore.