(Excerpt from the book Let a Billion Videogames Bloom.)

When it comes to making games, everybody is afraid of the programming side. They all think the hard part is taking an engine (never mind coding one from scratch) and turning it into something that can be recognized as a game. That fear is why Unity3D has become so popular. The promise of not having to code to make a game entices many, many people. It's enticing even to me, and I am a programmer.

But if you look online, you'll see a lot of game development projects abandoned at the stage of "a little dude running around a nearly empty map". And that's odd, because if programming was the issue, then you'd expect people to show off a pile of writing, concept art, 3D models and music, then complain they didn't have the programming skills to put it all together. You'd expect Unity3D demos with huge multi-map worlds where you can run around and look at things but not much else, simply because the creator lacked the skills to script a full-blown game, and couldn't get someone to do it for them, either.

Where are those piles of content? The maps, the tomes of lore, the introductory novellas, the visual guides to someone's pet fantasy setting?

You aren't going to find many, because what Tolkien did with Middle Earth was the hard part.

Look, programming is tricky. It's a mess. Take it from a professional. Making that part of game development easier is essential if we want to democratize the medium. But if we don't also make it easier for people to make art and music, or at least reuse existing assets, we're not going to get very far.

Wait, did I just say reuse? Why, yes. Imagine you're making a game with playing cards in it. Should you have to draw your own deck from scratch? Obviously not, that would be absurd. Indeed, it's not hard to find playing card images online under a permissive license, or even in the public domain. Or rather, it's not hard as long as you're looking for the standard deck. Tarots, surprisingly enough, are less readily available in digital form, even though the best known decks are long out of copyright. As for other kinds? At one point there was a project called WTactics, aiming to create an open source collectible card game, but as of June 2015 the project seems dormant at best, with little of use released to the public.

You don't have to reinvent language every time you write a novel. And language isn't just words, but also expressions, sayings, common metaphors... All of them already there, for anyone to use. Oh, a novel still takes work to write, just as it still takes work to build a house even when you have all the bricks. But imagine having to make your own on top of everything else. And being expected to make the most cutting-edge bricks you possibly can, using the newest and shiniest machines on the market, for every single new construction project.

Luckily, there are ongoing efforts to do for visual imagery what dictionaries have done for writing. Open Clip Art (edit: now defunct) and Open Game Art are two of them. The former is pretty much what it says on the tin: a large collection of public domain clipart, with no specific focus or style but good for illustrating a wide variety of material. The latter is much more game-oriented, and despite the name also provides other kinds of assets such as sounds and fonts. It can be hard to assemble a complete set by mixing and matching, and open source licenses don't always play nice together either, but overall it works remarkably well. Sure, you might roll your eyes a little when every few days a new shoot'em up using Kenney's public domain Space Shooter Redux art pack is published on Itch.io, but I say that just goes to show how much our expectations have been skewed by decades of gaming being equated with flashy graphics. How we use those graphics hardly ever matters, apparently, since people keep buying AAA games even as they complain about subpar gameplay and story.

How many famous novels can you think of where a constructed language was the main focus and selling point? Last time I checked, even Lord of the Rings was written primarily in English.

(Incidentally, I can think of one or two text adventures revolving around constructed languages. If you know how to make your own, more power to you.)

Now, if you do have the time and inclination, then by all means, make your own art and music. I hear it's not that hard to learn how to use a tracker, and tutorials on the basics of music theory can be found online. As for graphics, you might already have useful skills and not realize it. Nothing But Mazes (Greg Boettcher, 2006) made a very good impression with its whimsical illustrations in colored pencil. And you'll say that's just interactive fiction, but then so is 80 Days, Inkle Studios' smash hit from 2014. Admittedly, the latter uses rather more advanced technology than just static pictures, but the point is, a game can be successful with much less glitz than you think.

Of course, nothing can spare you from the work of actually writing the dialogs and whatnot in your game, or putting all that art together just so. But doing the latter in imaginative ways is no less valuable than making the pieces in the first place. After all, a pile of bricks isn't a house yet. And we're still seeing innovations in house design after many thousands of years.

Games, however, appear to be stuck in a rut after just a few short decades. Could it be because we spend so much effort recreating the building blocks every time instead of figuring out how best to combine them?

Let's start a culture of remix in videogames and see where it takes us.