When we were younger all we wanted to do was make our own Super Mario game. We’d take graph paper, look at level maps in Nintendo Power, and try to design our own Super Mario Brothers levels. Who knew that decades later, thanks to the Mario Maker series, you would not only be able to design and share your own custom Mario levels, but as of April 2020, design and share a complete Mario game.
That begs the question: Can you learn actual technical game development skills, like game design, or even programming from playing video games? Luckily, the answer is: of course!
There are games out there that help you hone skills like level design, and programming, even some that encourage you to build entire worlds and create your own masterpieces.
In fact, some people have actually received job offers from game studios based on the work that they’ve made within some of the games on this list! In this article we will look at 12 games that can help you kickstart your gamedev journey!
1. Super Mario Maker series
The Super Mario Maker series debuted in 2015 with the WiiU title Super Mario Maker. When the title came out, it was like nothing ever seen before, and it made every Nintendo fan’s dreams come true.
With Super Mario Maker you were able to build your own levels using characters, building materials, elements, powerups, and more in the style of Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World, and the New Super Mario Bros. U. Not only that, but you could upload and share your levels. The community exploded almost overnight and designers from all over the world populated the game with custom levels. In no time, players were starting to see their creations featured on sites like Kotaku.
Soon after, some of the best game designers in the game industry started joining in on the fun. Polygon even started a series called Devs Make Mario where they featured the likes of Matt Thorson, Keiji Inafune, Derek Yu, and more building their own levels.
In 2019 Super Mario Maker 2 launched adding elements from Super Mario 3D world, more ways to build, and it’s biggest feature yet... In a 2020 update, Nintendo added the world-maker. Prior to this, you could only make and share single levels. There wasn’t a cohesive wrapper to tie all of your creations together. World-maker allows you to design an overworld map, and place your creations within the world.
This gives creators what they’ve been waiting for since the beginning - the ability to build and share an entire 40-level Mario game! If you want to design a platformer, but don’t know where to start. Try out Super Mario Maker 2. It’s available on the Nintendo Switch. Who knows, you might end up just building an entire game out of it.
It’s the newest title by the team that brought you Crashlands - Butterscotch Shenanigans. Like Super Mario Maker, you can design and share levels using elements that are commonplace in great platformer games. The game also has a pretty in-depth single-player campaign (filled with Butterscotch Shenanigans’ trademark humour) to help show you the ropes and teach you what’s possible for your own creations. While the game may feel like a Mario title near the beginning, by the end, you’ll be venturing into tough-as-nails Super Meat Boy-eque territory. It’s a great way to introduce you to the rules and world of Levelhead while inspiring you to come up with some outlandish level designs of your own.
The dev team also does a great job of nurturing the community. They provide Daily Build challenges, and they also regularly feature community creations on their website and Steam page.
While Levelhead has only recently launched, it’s also been in Early Access for over a year. This is great for anyone wanting to pick up the title as there is already a thriving community, complete with an endless amount of player-created levels. You can find Levelhead on Steam, Epic Game Store, Nintendo Switch, Google Play, the App Store, and Xbox One. As of this writing, it’s also available on Xbox Game Pass.
3. LittleBigPlanet series by Media Molecule
LittleBigPlanet debuted on the PS3 in 2008, and has since spawned two sequels: LittleBigPlanet 2, and LittleBigPlanet 3. When the title was announced, everyone fell in love with the aesthetic, the game’s mascot Sackboy, and of course the promise of being able to create some amazing levels and contraptions. In an interview with SF Gate, Reggie Fils-Aime even said
I've been very intrigued with Little Big Planet. I don't know that it belongs on their platform.
When asked if there was a game that he wished that Nintendo had on Wii. It’s a fair assessment given that LittleBigPlanet looks like it was inspired by Nintendo’s catalogue. It would also be fair to say, though, that LittleBigPlanet went on to inspire the look of future Nintendo titles like Kirby’s Epic Yarn, and Yoshi’s Woolly World.
In LittleBigPlanet, you play as Sackboy, a sack puppet on an adventure through a whimsical 2 and a half D world. The levels are happy, unique, and look beautifully handcrafted. The game would have probably done well already as a standalone platformer.
The heart of the game though is its ability to create. Like the previous titles on this list you can create your own levels and share them in the game. You can also create special objects and share those too - sort of like creating assets for an asset store. So you can not only share your levels, but you can influence the design of other creators’ levels by having them use your creations. Subsequent titles in the series added more and more creator tools and options, allowing for more expansive levels.
By the launch of LittleBigPlanet 3 in late 2014, there had already been more than 9 million user generated levels created! Some of our favourites include: The Little Big Computer - a fully functioning calculator built in-game TimeTown - an atmospheric steampunk adventure And Flapper - an 8-bit arcade Shmup There’s also some pretty cool homages to games like: Plants vs. Zombies Megaman And Street Fighter LittleBigPlanet 3 is available on PlayStation 4.
If you had already thought that Media Molecule made the ultimate in-game game maker with the LittleBigPlanet series, you’d be surprised to know that their followup title is magnitudes more complex…
4. Dreams by Media Molecule
The devs of Dreams wanted to make a tool that you could use to make anything that you could dream of - and we think they succeeded! We know that’s a bold statement, but wait until you see the community creations!
Announced in 2013 and released in 2020, it’s safe to say that the devs took their time with the title. Just seeing the sheer amount of content and creation tools in the game, and thoughtfulness that they put into building the interface, you can tell that they made the most of their time!
Dreams is everything. It’s a game, a place to make and share games, and a place to play an endless amount of creations. In terms of creation tools, it’s a game framework, a 2D & 3D art & animation suite, a music studio and more.
So let’s take a look at some community creations. These are some of our favourite original creations: Rabbit and Boy - a beautiful short film Ruckus - a cartoony kaiju sim and The Pilgrim - an atmospheric 3D platformer
And just like the LittleBigPlanet community has, Dreams has a ton of fan remakes and homages. Here are a few that are really impressive: Final Fantasy VII, Crash Bandicoot and Sonic For more creations check out the Dreams subreddit at r/PS4Dreams
So could making your own masterpiece in Dreams help your gamedev journey? The Escapist wrote a great article about how Dreams is helping to foster the next generation of game developers. Some creators have even been approached by game studios already. You also know you have a bright future when IGN wants to talk to you about your Dreams creation. Colin Gluth has put over 700 hours into Dreams, working on the Aang Project - An Avatar: The Last Airbender fan game. You can check out the full interview on IGN. Dreams is available on PlayStation 4.
So far on the list we have games that are focused on art and design. Let’s switch gears. Are there any games out there that may help you become a better programmer? The answer is yes.
Games 5 through 11 on this list are by Zachtronics. Zachtronics is a game company that focuses on puzzle games that have an emphasis on engineering and programming. These titles teach you how to think like a programmer, and solve problems like one. The games have also been used in schools. In 2019 Zachtronics launched Zachademics - a program to provide a number of Zachtronics games to public and non-profit schools for free! So for this list, let’s take a look at some of those games.
SpaceChem is a visual programming game that takes place in space. You take on the role of a Reactor Engineer, and your goal is to construct elaborate factories for your colonies.
In TIS-100 you are repairing an old computer using assembly code. What’s cool about the title is that it actually comes with a manual that teaches programming and introduces concepts like assembly code, registers, and parallel programming.
Infinifactory is a first person factory builder where your goal is to build factories and automate the manufacturing of alien products as efficiently as possible.
8. SHENZHEN I/O
This is another assembly based game from the studio. In SHENZHEN I/O you work as an engineer based in Shenzhen, China and your job is to build circuit boards. This time around, the game comes with a 30-page manual complete with datasheets and technical diagrams. Make sure you read it.
9. Opus Magnum
Opus Magnum is also one of the more approachable titles on the list. In Opus Magnum your job is automate alchemy. You design and build steampunk-esque machines that build potions, poisons, and more.
It’s a cyberpunk themed game that takes place in the year 1997. In Exapunks you write computer viruses and hack into a variety of simulated networks including banks, factories, TV stations, and game consoles.
The year is 2092 and you are alone in your apartment in Romania. It’s just you and your molecular synthesizer. Your task: Program your molecular synthesizer to convert ordinary industrial chemicals into drugs.
12. Human Resources Machine
Human Resources Machine is a visual programming game from the makers of Little Inferno and World of Goo. In Human Resources Machine you automate little workers to solve tasks that come in from your boss. Basically boxes come in along the left side of the screen, and you have to figure out how to process them and get them out to the right side. Like the Zachtronics titles, Human Resources Machine won’t teach you a specific coding language, but the game is designed to make you think like a programmer.
The devs have also stated that they based the design of the game around Assembly. We love the title’s art, the simplicity of its coding blocks, and its overwhelming amount of presentation and charm. You can pick up Human Resources Machine on Steam, Epic Games Store, Nintendo eShop, Google Play, and the App Store. If you want to dip your toes into the space, we highly recommend it.