There's no tool in the world that can make you a good game designer - but here are a few to help you get started.
Making games is really not easy. I know you kick back on your couch and think about the kind of game you'd like to make - Bayonetta combat but with Dragon Age 2 conversations and it's an MMORPG but also it's set in your really cool and totally original universe where everyone has cat ears. Maybe you even fantasise about opening a studio, hiring some artists and programmers, and bringing this vision to life. Maybe you've signed up to a course of study to put you on this path.
The reality of games development is very likely much more complicated and difficult than you imagine - but it's nowhere near impossible. If you're humble enough to start from first principles, learning to make simple, derivative games until you grasp the theory; mastering some basic programming; and learning how graphics work so you can at least give direction to your artist; you can make great games, and maybe one day you'll attract the eye of a company on the lookout for a talented all-rounder. Or maybe you'll go into business for yourself and make the next great mobile hit.
The point is, there's nothing standing between you and becoming a games developer besides time and motivation. You don't even need to spend anything, if you've got a working PC. Check out these free tools for making games, all of which can be mastered by a determined beginner.
Note: This list is focused on software designed to help you build entire games, rather than specific tools for sound, modelling and so on. It is incomplete and presented in alphabetical order.
Adventure Game Studio
Thank to alphabetisation, the first cab off the rank is a genre-specific tool. Adventure Game Studio is exactly what you'd expect - a suite for making traditional 2D point-and-click adventure games.
This narrow restriction needn't clip your wings, though, as there's a lot more to life than taping a cat to a pole and using it to retrieve a compute mouse from a drainpipe in the name of wacky adventure. The adventure genre can be an incredibly effective storytelling medium, as the award-winning Gemini Rue shows. This, and a couple of other WadjetEye games, were put together in AGS.
AGS isn't as intuitive as some of the other tools on this list, so make sure you have a cup of tea and a basic plan before you fire up its initially overwhelming interface.
If you really want to jump right into game making with the least amount of culture shock, Construct 2 is for you. It carefully uses plain English terminology rather than jargon, and is big on WYSIWYG drag-and-drop editing.
If you like Construct 2, the paid versions offer some more features, but if you've really hit the software's limits but you still haven't satisfied your ambitions, it's probably best to move on to another tool. You're obviously in it for the long haul, and it's time you learned to talk like mummy and daddy, who are programmers.
Conveniently, the next stop for beginners after Construct 2 is usually GameMaker, which is similarly friendly to newbies but will rapidly teach you what the things you've been doing are called in the big wide world. When you're ready to venture into programming, its scripting language is there to support you.
GameMaker should not be underestimated; some of your favourite games, like Spelunky, began life in YoYoGames's free kit.
If you want to get on board, you can download the free version of GameMaker 8.1, which is no longer being updated as YoYoGames has moved on to the "sequel", I guess - GameMaker Studio. A free version of GameMaker Studio is also available. I suggest you download and try both, as they offer differing restrictions. (And if you decide to buy a full version, keep an eye out for sales, including on Steam).
Image via OgreJungle.
I can't underline firmly enough how useful modding tools are to those with an interest in telling stories or designing worlds, rather than learning programming or art or some other aspect of development. You don't need to build an engine or balance game mechanics - you can just jump in and craft a new adventure and setting using the available assets.
Whether you want to recreate your original universe in full or just design a short quest line or challenge arena, modding tools will teach you a lot about how games are put together - and what makes them satisfying.
Check your game library to see if you own any games with free modding suites, or even "simple" level editors. The Elder Scrolls series is a big supporter of modding, and one guy who took advantage of this landed a job at Bungie. Players have done some amazing things in Trials: Fusions. If you've got the time and the patience, you can build worlds - or even full games.
Next: five more great free game making tools.
Another genre-specific tool, Ren'Py is best for visual novels, a diverse and often stereotyped hodge podge of love sims and puzzlers.
Commendably open source, Ren'Py employs a delightfully simple scripting language as well as more advanced programming options for those who've exhausted the basic options.
Christine Love's excellent visual novels were built in Ren'Py, which sets quite a high standard. It also shows you don't necessarily need a huge art budget despite the often lavish art that accompanies this genre; Digital: A Love Story is almost entirely text-based, and it's a ripper.
Image via LemmaSoft.
If you're struggling to get on top of the high level concepts of programming then Stencyl is well worth a look. It offers a huge collection of pre-made code blocks, all presented in a way that makes arranging them and editing their relationships to each other easy.
Like a few other tools on this list, Stencyl supports drag-and-drop editing, but in quite a unique way - all your elements are presented as blocks and snap elements to a grid, with lines between them indicating their logical relationships. If you've ever got into a bit of a headache figuring out how it all works, you'll be in heaven.
The best part is you don't actually need to write any code; you can learn the high-level stuff without having to memorise a language. That'll make eventually learning a language much easier - or make it easier for you to work with more skilled programmers.
If your primary skill is writing, Twine offers you a great chance to showcase your chops and learn about game design at the same time. It's one of the easiest ways to generate interactive fiction ready for publication on the web.
The first Twine you game will probably be a pretty dull little branching story, but explore and you'll find it has some very interesting capacities, like pulling values from past choices to effect later branches. Again, a simple interface is a great help, although more advanced features will challenge beginners to learn.
Image from Rosencrantz's Inheritance.
One of the great heavyweights of modern development, Unity has a hell of a lot going for it. It's available for a huge variety of platforms. It works equally well for 2D and 3D games, making it excellent for any genre. It has an asset library built right in, and there's a huge marketplace of content out there just awaiting your purchase.
Unity's scripting language isn't designed for total beginners but is not hellish to learn, and if you just want to dive on in there it supports a couple of programming languages, too. Unity's full feature set includes a debugger and build automation tools, which should help smooth your beginner bumps.
Unity is being used by really truly triple-A developers like Obisidian Entertainment and Starbreeze, and powers projects from Thomas Was Alone to Firefly Online to Deus Ex: The Fall. It's kind of amazing you can have it for free, really; it doesn't require a Pro license until you're making actual money
Unreal Development Kit
Unreal Engine 3 was near ubiquitous last generation and we wouldn't be surprised if the fourth iteration of this engine proved as popular. Epic's tools replaced id Tech as industry standard and rose above competition from CryEngine to form the backbone of games as diverse as Guilty Gear, Mass Effect and Fable.
The Unreal Development Kit, or UDK, is a non-commercial version of that engine, and even stripped of some major features it is one of the most complete suites you can get your hands on at no cost.
Unlike some of the other tools on this list, it's not ideal for solo beginners. Get a few 2D projects under your belt before you dive into 3D game making - or even better, join an existing team, pick a specialisation, and work alongside colleagues until you get your bearings.
Image via Eat3D forums.
If your favourite tool is missing from this list, please share it in the comments! We'd love to see any projects you've made, too.