Some of these programs require a basic understanding of programming to really be used to their fullest, while others don’t even ask for a single line of code. For things like art, music and other assets that can help bring your game to life, as well as additional resources like tutorials, I’ve put together a couple links at the bottom of the page. It’s never a bad time to learn a thing or two about game design!
And now, in no particular order:
PuzzleScript is a free, open-source game engine designed to help you make tile-based puzzle games. It was developed in HTML5, so you can run the tool right in your browser and play the games right in your browser. While its IDE-like interface may seem imposing to non-programmers, it’s actually quite straightforward and simple to learn.
Increpare, an influential game designer and the creator of PuzzleScript, has put together a handy beginner’s tutorial here, as well as a more advanced document here. Not feeling inspired? Check out some of the awesome games that have been made with this tool so far!
You have a couple options with GameMaker. You can download GameMaker 8.1 and use either the free version or pay $39.99 for the Pro version on Windows, or $19.99 for the Pro version on Mac. Or you can download the free version of GameMaker: Studio or dish out ridiculous amounts of money for the Standard, Professional and Master versions. This list is about free tools, though, so let’s talk about the free versions.
First of all, most people know about GameMaker already. It’s a prominent game creation tool by YoYoGames, with drag-and-drop options and other easy-to-use features for non-programmers, as well as a built-in scripting language for people with a little more experience. The original, freeware version of Spelunky, as well as Hotline Miami, were developed in GameMaker, so despite seeming like a simple tool, its possibilities are vast.
The issue with the Lite and Pro versions of GameMaker 8.1 is YoYoGames will no longer be updating them as they’ve shifted their focus to Studio. However, the limitations on Lite vs. the limitations on the free version of Studio are very different. Lite limits your use of certain advanced functions, like 3D, blending, data structures, etc. There will also be a watermark on your game. The free version of Studio, however, limits your use of resources, like objects, rooms, sprites, sound files, etc. Which one you use depends entirely on your priorities.
3. Construct 2
Construct 2 is similar to GameMaker, but arguably even easier to use if you’re a non-programmer. A lot of basic coding lingo used in GameMaker’s drag-and-drop features is replaced in favor of more straightforward terminology, plus it comes with a lot of simplified visual effects! There are two paid versions, with the free version coming with some limits and restrictions, which you can read more about here. Besides that, it’s a handy tool and a great alternative to GameMaker.
Stencyl is cool because it allows you to design games easily, while learning some basic programming logic in the process. By utilizing drag-and-drop within a snappable, block-based environment, Stencyl enables you to code events without actually writing any code, while still allowing you to visualize your game’s logic. Learn more here!
Unlike the previous tools I’ve talked about here, Twine‘s focus is on creating hypertext-based interactive fiction games. Twine games are saved as HTML files and use hyperlinks to connect various scenes and other segments of the game together, rather than relying on a text parser system, as in traditional, text-based adventure games. This, coupled with the intuitive graphical interface that allows you to map out scenes in a web-like environment, makes Twine really easy to learn and use. Anna Anthropy has a great beginner’s tutorial located here.
The kinds of games produced by Twine have often been compared to Choose Your Own Adventure books, but because of the tool’s ability to track variables, player-inputted text, use a variety of unique components, plug-ins and more, the possibilities are really quite vast.
6. Inform 7
Inform is a programming language designed to create player-inputted, command-based interactive fiction. The latest version, Inform 7, comes with its own IDE, library and compiler, all of which you can download here. Inform is unique because it bases its logic off the vocabulary and syntax of natural language, making it relatively easy to comprehend for beginning programmers.
For instance, you could type, “Forest is a room,” which will create Forest as a location in your game world. Then you could type, “Cabin is north of forest,” creating a new location in relation to another. This will connect Cabin to Forest with the user-input command “north” or “go north.” Of course, things get a little more complicated from there, but overall, the language is far more accessible than most when it comes to writing interactive fiction.
Ren’Py is a free and open source visual novel engine that allows users to combine images, text and sound to create interactive simulation games. A lot of dating sims are made using the visual novel format, but it doesn’t have to be limited to just that.
This software is good for beginners because of its super simple scripting language, but it also allows more experienced coders to write games in Python.
Katawa Shoujo is an example of a popular game built in Ren’Py.
Adventure Game Studio is aimed at more intermediate developers, allowing users to create their own point-and-click or keyboard-controlled adventure games. A lot of popular indie games have been created using this software, including the Blackwell series and Gemini Rue.
Why pay for Adobe’s expensive Flash suite when you can just use these free, open-source ActionScript 3 libraries? FlashPunk and Flixel aren’t game-making tools like the rest of the applications on this list, but they are great if you’re looking to create 2D Flash games and have some experience in object-oriented programming. FlashPunk in particular is based on the GML library, making it a smooth transition point for people looking to break away from GameMaker.
Of course, to make use of these libraries, you’ll need to download a separate IDE to work in. FlashDevelop is a free and open-source code editor recommended by the developers of both FlashPunk and Flixel. The two have compiled a great list of resources, tutorials and other information here to help you get started.
Like GameMaker, including Unity on this list was an obvious choice. Unity is a game engine that supports development across an impressive range of platforms, making it one of the most popular game development tools right now. It comes with a built-in IDE, is useful for making both 3D and 2D games and has a huge asset store available.
One downside to Unity is that it’s free as long as you’re not using it for a hefty commercial gain. If your annual gross income exceeds $100,000, you’re required to buy a Unity Pro license for $1,500. The Pro version does come with some additional features, though!
11. RPG Maker XP
Whoa! You said there were only ten things on this list!
Well, technically, I said there were ten free things on this list… even though I did go over that by including FlashPunk and Flixel, but I don’t care. Who complains about getting more than they expected?
RPG Maker isn’t free, even though [SECRET]most people I know who use it didn’t exactly pay for it.[/SECRET]
I’m not encouraging piracy here, but I just couldn’t let this list be completed without RPG Maker XP. RPG Maker 98 and XP were my first game-making tools growing up, and I love, love love them. There’s a free trial for RPG Maker XP you can install here, or you can dish out the $30 to buy it here.
I haven’t heard the best things about RPG Maker VX, but it is their newest product, so there’s that too.
Do you have a good resource I should add to this list? Let me know in the comments below!