How To Make A 2D Game

How To Make A 2D Game

Making a 2D game is easy: fling a few canaries into the side of a pig fortress and you're on your way to two billion downloads and an easily-forgotten cinematic universe, right?

Well, the bad news is it's not quite as simple as that. The good news is it's still easier than you might think.

Whether you're inspired by Angry Birds and Wordle or Undertale and Celeste, here's everything you need to know about making your own 2D game.

This article covers:

Angry Birds

Angry Birds, developed by Rovio Entertainment

What is a 2D game?

2D games are flat, sprite-based experiences that only allow you to move up, down, left, and/or right across the screen. If all goes well, they’ll prove wildly popular and spawn a series of cynical cash-grab sequels.

2D games don’t have to be complicated. They work as well as they do because 2D games lower the barrier for entry and are far easier to pick up and play than 3D games.

If your grandparents saw you playing Super Mario, they’d get it. If they saw you playing Final Fantasy XV, they’d launch into another one of their “back in my day, all we had were dirt and conkers” speeches.
Tennis For Two
Tennis For Two, created by William Higinbotham

What was the first 2D game?

There’s a tendency to think 2D gaming began with Super Mario on the NES, but 2D gaming’s origin story is a lot more boring than that.

The first 2D game ever made was Tennis For Two, a simple tennis game and precursor to the more well-known arcade classic, Pong.

It was created in 1958 by the American physicist William Higinbotham, whose humble creation set humanity on a path that would ultimately lead us to games like Lollipop Chainsaw and Dream Daddy.

Cheers, Will.

Remember when Avatar released in 2009 and everyone thought 3D would kill traditional cinema?

Well everyone thought Super Mario 64 would do the same thing to 2D games back in the 90s. 3D was hot, and 2D was not - according to the experts, at least.

Even in the face of rising competition from 3D games, revered franchises such as Castlevania and Pokémon stuck firmly to their 2D guns before the indie boom in the mid-2000s helped kickstart the 2D revival.

Today, 2D Super Mario games are still flying off the shelves, 2D indie releases like Undertale and Celeste are scooping Game of the Year nominations, and Metroid: Dread - the first original 2D Metroid game in nearly 20 years - became the best-selling 2D entry in the series’ history.
Metroid Dread promo art
Metroid Dread, developed by Nintendo EPD & MercurySteam

How long does it take to make a 2D game?

By following our Hero's Trail tutorial, you can make a game in a matter of days, but if you’re looking to make your own game from scratch, the time it takes to create a 2D game will be influenced by:

  • Your coding experience
  • Which game engine you use
  • How large your project is
  • Whether you’re making your own 2D game assets or buying pre-made ones
  • The size of your team
  • Your budget
2D games are easier to make than 3D games, but they can still take months or even years to make, depending on your circumstances.

How much does it cost to make a 2D game?

You can actually make a 2D game for free with GameMaker, but the overall cost of making a game will come down to many of the same factors we listed above.

Some indie developers turn to crowdfund campaigns on Kickstarter to help raise the funds they require to complete their games. Undertale, for example, initially set a goal of $5,000, but went on to raise just over $51k.

On the other end of the scale, Hyper Light Drifter set an initial target of $27,000 and ultimately raised $645k.

Hyper Light Drifter

Hyper Light Drifter, developed by Heart Machine

How do you make your own 2D game?

There’s no one-size-fits-all guide to creating your own 2D game, but there are a few decisions you’ll need to make before you get started.

Play 2D games for inspiration

We’ll go out on a limb here and suggest that anyone that’s looking to make a 2D game has probably played their fair share, too.

Think back on all the 2D games that stand out in your mind: what is it about them that makes them so memorable? Is it their character design, stories, gameplay?

When it comes to playing 2D games for research, there are three categories you should consider:

  1. 2D games you loved or hated. Go back and rediscover what it was that left such an impression on you. Take inspiration from the parts you enjoyed, and work out how you’d address the things you didn’t.
  2. Classic 2D games. They’re classics for a reason: when you play Super Mario, you’re playing the game that laid the foundation for all future 2D platformers. Don’t underestimate the timeless rules of game design the classics can teach us.
  3. Modern 2D indie games. By playing games like Katana Zero, Hollow Knight, and Stardew Valley, you can get a feel for what’s resonating with gamers and learn from their examples.
Now’s the time to pick up that 2D game you’ve never gotten round to. It might just hold the key to unlocking the full potential of your own idea.

And if anyone asks why you’re still playing games at three in the morning, you can tell them it’s for science. (You monster.)

Katana Zero

Katana Zero, developed by Askiisoft

Choose your game genre

With all that research under your belt, it’s time to think about the genre of 2D game you’d like to make.

Settling on the genre early will help inform many future decisions, as every genre has its own requirements, control schemes, and game design philosophies.

Choose your 2D art style

Choosing a 2D art style is a deceptively important decision. Would the ominous atmosphere of Limbo have worked if it wasn’t monochromatic? Would Ori and the Blind Forest’s heartbreaking intro be as emotional if the game used pixel art?

A well-chosen art style can help you set the tone, tell your story, and make your game stand out from the crowd.

There are a number of 2D art styles to choose from, each with its own suitabilities and strengths.

Ori and the Blind Forest

Ori and the Blind Forest, developed by Moon Studios

Choose your 2D game engine

It’s important you pick a game engine that works best for you, your experience levels, and the type of game you’re creating.

You’ll also need to consider your long-term goals: if you’re looking to turn a game-making hobby into a career, or you’re hoping to export your game to a home console, not every game engine will be able to match those ambitions.

We’d obviously love it if you chose GameMaker, especially since 2D games are our thing, but we’ve compiled a comprehensive guide to all the major game engines to help you make the most informed decision.

Make or choose your 2D game assets

You’ve decided what game you want to make, how it’ll play, what it’ll look like, and which game engine you’ll make it with: the only question left to answer is how you’ll get your game assets.

If you or a member of your team are the artistic type, you may decide to create all of your 2D assets from scratch. Creating game assets is time-consuming work, but grants you full control over your game’s artistic direction.

If you’re planning on making your own assets, here’s a quick rundown of some of your best software options:

  • Adobe Photoshop, which will set you back $20.99 a month
  • GIMP, free and open-source image editing software
  • Aseprite, a pixel art creation tool available for a one-off $19.99 payment
  • SketchBook Pro, available for free on mobile devices, and $19.99 desktop
  • Inkscape, free and open-source software that specialises in vector graphics.
You may instead decide to use pre-made 2D assets from your game engine’s asset library or marketplace. You’ll sacrifice a bit of originality if you take this route, but you’ll be able to start creating your games much faster.

At GameMaker, we release a new asset bundle each month to help indie developers bring their creations to life.

Asset Bundle 1: Fantasy Platformer promo image

Asset Bundle 1: Fantasy Platformer, created by GameMaker

If you’re ready to start making your own 2D game, why not give GameMaker a go? It’s completely free to download, and you can even create your first game with our Hero’s Trail tutorial.

You can also sign up to the GameMaker Forum and pose any lingering game-making questions you may have to our community.

Happy GameMaking!

Written by Ross Bramble

Ross Bramble is a writer and collect-a-thon platform lover from Southampton. You’ll often find him replaying Spyro 2, chickening out of playing Bloodborne on New Game Plus, and begging Nintendo for a new Kid Icarus game.