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How Video Games Work (A Less Technical Explanation)

I can imagine just how difficult and confusing it must be for so many people trying to get into game development from a non-programming and technical background. Actually, even technical people get a hard time figuring out how to get started making video games.


For this reason I made this post. If you are having trouble understanding just how video games work, hopefully this explanation will give you better starting point.


The truth is that there is a lot to say about how games actually work, but I feel that not all of it is important to grasp all at once for someone who just started thinking about becoming a game developer.


And so with that, I hope you find this article useful.


How video works

A video is made up of multiple pictures called frames. Frames are like snapshots of an event happening over time. Take for instance an actor walking. If you have a camera following an actor as he walks, the camera saves/creates multiple snapshots of the actor very quickly during the walk. 

Now if you were to stack these frames or pictures over each other and quickly flip through them like a flip-book, you would create the effect of motion. This is the foundation of traditional animation.

The speed at which the frames are “flipped” or switched or played over time is called Frame Rate or Frames Per Second. Usually known as FPS.


Now the animated GIFs above are made from just 4 frames of a walk-cycle. As you can tell 4 frames don’t really make a very “nice” walking animation or motion. So even increasing the frame rate will not necessarily make the walking animation look better.


However if a video like a movie or a game is choppy and doesn’t “feel smooth”, the issue is usually that the FPS count is low.


Hi FPS like 60 FPS feels a lot smoother than say 30 FPS.


Check out this video on YouTube to get a better idea of how a change in FPS feels like. Also remember to make sure that you change the video quality to 720p or higher.


All that we have seen so far are properties that videos and video games have in common.


How video games are different from normal video


First of all, you can’t separate elements in a video after you have captured them. Once you take a 5 hour shot of the sun rising, you cannot take the sun away after you have produced the video.


You could certainly use programs to edit the sun out of your video, but that doesn’t change the fact that the sun was always “one with the video”. A video is merged scene.


Video games however, are like videos that haven’t been produced yet. Meaning, you are still taking the shot and are still manipulating things that are on screen.


I hope that makes sense.


In a video, you watch a person walk across the screen and you (the viewer) can do nothing about it except stop the video, speed it up, slow it down or rewind it.


In a video game, you can make the person jump, turn around, kick and whatever you (the player) want that person to do. You can also change the clothes the person is wearing, the background, the location and the number of people you want to see in the scene and so much more depending on the game you are playing.


Videos are static. Once you have watched a video, you know exactly what it is about. You can never change it’s outcome.


One video game can give you different experiences and outcomes every new time you play.


The components of a video game: Objects

Objects are the heart of video games. They are everything that you or the game itself can interact with.

They include players, enemies, bosses, coin pickups, fire that can hurt you, bullets, vehicles, menu items and so much more. For now, try to think of objects as things that you would want your game to have… that can do things… or things can be done to them.

However, objects aren’t always things you can see like players, enemies, coins, menu items and health pickups.

Sometimes they are large and more complex usually controlling a number of objects at once. Sometimes developers use objects as “systems”. For example, a day-night cycle in a game. Or enemy spawning mechanic. Or a level manager. A level manager could control where items are placed, where traps for triggers are placed… where and when level objectives should appear and so on.


The components of a video game: Scenes

Scenes are also called levels and stages in other situations. But they represent the same thing… a location where the game takes place.

It is a place where you place objects in. A container. Basically that’s it.

The components of a video game: Camera

This is your view into the game. This is what you want the player to see. And for the most part, the camera behaves the same way a normal camera would. You have to realize that as a game devloper, you are practically directing a movie. This is why a lot of the terms we have discussed so far are also present in the world of film and video.

The components of a video game: Logic

(work in progress)


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