There’s certainly no shortage of gaming media on YouTube. From gaming news channels to Let’s Plays to irate commentaries on the latest controversy, video games have been part of the landscape on YouTube for years at this point, offering innumerable ways to consume that sweet, sweet content.
But what if you wanted to take a step back from the barrage of scandals and news and watch something that digs a little deeper into what makes a game work? What if you wanted to learn what procedural generation actually is or how stealth mechanics in a game actually work? And just what the heck does a producer even do, anyway? Thankfully, there are plenty of channels making videos that scratch that particular itch. Here are a few of the best.
5. Game Maker’s Toolkit
With a wealth of knowledge and a soothing English accent in which to deliver it, Mark Brown’s channel provides viewers with a deep dive into game design and production. Game Maker’s Toolkit features videos ranging from a look into the nitty-gritty of level design and how it can tell a story, to analysis of specific moves in a particular game and how they fit into the grand design, to the nature of a particular commonly-used mechanic like randomness and AI.
Mark has also made a few mini-series within his own channel, such as Boss Keys, focusing specifically on dungeon design in the Legend of Zelda games (plus a few others); School of Stealth, in which he picks apart various staples of the stealth game genre and explains how they work; and Designing for Disability, a series that examines common pitfalls and solutions for a range of accessibility issues in games, along with an analysis of the biggest games each year and how they fare on the matter. For the last few years he’s even hosted his own game jam, where he showcases thousands of games submitted by fans holding to themes such as ‘Out of Control’, ‘Only One’ and ‘Genre Without Mechanic’.
GMTK provides a fascinating insight to what goes on behind the curtain of your favourite games. If you’ve ever wondered how the different pieces of a game actually fit together cohesively, definitely make this your first stop.
4. Extra Credits
From humble beginnings on The Escapist to a multi-million subscriber channel on YouTube, Extra Credits have been in the game (if you’ll pardon the pun) for quite a while. With their simple yet expressive animation style and a wealth of experience, the team at EC help you to break down the principles and mechanics behind your favourite games, and even give you a measured insight into the business side of things.
One of my favourite collections from the Extra Credits channel is Games You Might Not Have Tried. In this multi-part series that began in 2012, the team gathers several, well, games you might not have tried. Usually (but not always) from small indie developers, they do not promise that every game on the list is good, necessarily, but always that it is interesting in some way, featuring some unusual mechanic or bonkers approach to storytelling or something. It’s proved a really good way of introducing lesser-known games to a larger audience over the years, and some of the games I saw on their videos have become absolute favourites of mine.
Their videos on game design, the games industry and much more have spawned a small empire of off-shoot series, from Extra History, delivering bite-sized accounts of historical moments both famous and obscure, to Extra Sci-Fi, charting the evolution of science fiction from modest origins to a modern place as one of the pillars of literature, and even to Extra Politics, breaking down many of the intricacies of the American political and electoral systems into relatable and understandable tidbits. The team has changed over the years, but they’ve consistently delivered quality material on a range of subjects that is well worth delving into.
3. New Frame Plus
Started by former Extra Credits presenter Dan Floyd, New Frame Plus takes a closer look at the animation of games. As an animator himself – indeed, one who worked for Pixar in the past – Dan is well-positioned as an authority on animation, and it shows in his videos. His voice is calm, but you can sense the passion he has for what he’s talking about, and the wealth of knowledge that supports his observations.
Animation in games was never something I paid much attention to – I usually considered it a simple tool, a way of getting, say, one character model from point A to point B without it looking too weird – but the videos on New Frame Plus helped showcase for me the sheer amount of choreography that goes into even the simplest transition in the most lo-fi of games. Add to that an abundance of fun little facts about the industry (his playthroughs of the Kingdom Hearts games on his other channel are peppered with stories and bon mots about the animation and history of the original Disney movies, for example) and you have a very entertaining, very informative channel for anyone with even a passing interest in the animation of video games.
2. Errant Signal
On its surface, Errant Signal is just another channel that peddles in video game reviews – and sure, that’s basically what it is. The focus is certainly more on indie games and takes more of a deep-dive perspective on most of the games, often centering on how particular mechanics work and how they compare to others in the genre, but it’s broadly that: a review channel.
A few years ago, however, Errant Signal released a video titled ‘0451’, in which he discussed Looking Glass Studios and the ‘immersive sim’ genre – you might recognise titles like Bioshock, Thief and Deus Ex in the video. I found this semi-historical look back on an entire mini-genre of games fascinating, and he’s done a similar thing recently with his ‘Children of DOOM’ mini-series. For every time we might compare a game to its peers or, say, classify it as a ‘Dark Souls-like’, it felt like a proper in-depth look at what had come before and how and why those games were made was rare in a lot of criticism and reviews of games, so it was great to see it showcased in such a way on Errant Signal. As a bonus, his ‘0451’ video also introduced me to the aforementioned Mark Brown, so that was pretty cool too.
He’s also recently started doing what he calls ‘Blips’: smaller episodes showcasing several little-known indie games that he feels deserve more attention. Like Extra Credits’ ‘Games You Might Not Have Tried’, he stresses that these ‘Blips’ aren’t meant to be true reviews or buying guides, but a way of showing his audience some cool games that might have slipped under their collective radar.
1. 8-Bit Music Theory
I came by 8-Bit Music Theory fairly recently, when a friend shared a video from the channel about the synthesis of classical and modern styles in the music of the Castlevania series, and I couldn’t believe it was the first I was hearing of it. I’m a music nerd at heart, and finding a channel that managed to so effortlessly marry my twin loves of music and video games was a real marvel.
To be sure, the videos are pretty heavy on the musical theory (as one would expect from a channel with ‘music theory’ in its name) but they also do a fantastic job of tying each point made to a more accessible cultural touchstone like a Bach Toccata and Fugue or a Green Day album, or elaborating on the expected emotional response from a particular musical cadence and the like. It’s also worth mentioning that, despite the name, the channel doesn’t just deal in the music of retro games: you can find recent analysis videos covering games like Animal Crossing, Paper Mario and the Yakuza series too.
So if you’ve ever wondered why some game music is so instantly recognisable, or how a swelling orchestral score can make you feel uplifted, or despairing, or proud – give this channel a watch. Who knows? You might learn something.
BONUS: Ask a Game Dev
OK, so Ask a Game Dev doesn’t really fit so well into this list – primarily because, well, it’s not a YouTube channel. However, this ongoing anonymous Q&A with an actual game developer is a colossally valuable hoard of information on countless subjects, from actual nitty-gritty development and coding questions to broader game design principles and the business practices of developers and publishers in the industry.
AAGD can certainly be blunt at times, so go in expecting to have your pre-conceived notions of the games industry challenged. Many a question citing evil publishers ruining games has been calmly but firmly dismantled, and comments on the gaming controversy du jour are always delivered thoughtfully, with a focus on how things went wrong rather than on who should be blamed. And if the idea of the author’s anonymity doesn’t sit well with you (though one could surely argue that being freed of the PR red tape in such a way lends credence to its veracity), rest assured that the writer’s claims and explanation have been cited and corroborated publicly by numerous other devs as well.
I honestly feel like I’ve learned so much about the industry from following AAGD over the years – from the precise function of different roles in game production, to interesting design and programming tidbits, to the nature of audience feedback and how it gets filtered and interpreted by marketing teams at the company. It’s well worth a read – I think we could all stand to broaden our understanding of the games industry, even if only to level more valid and more potent criticism at it.