Three years ago I wrote a book called Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, and in the back I listed all the accessible, no-programming-required game-making tools I could. Recently I've been surveying the current landscape of similar tools. Spoiler: They all suck now.
"Scratch is a programming language and online community where you can create your own interactive stories, games, and animations — and share your creations with others around the world." – Get started
Many of the tools I suggested as possible options for a budding game creator with no programming experience—Game Maker, Construct, Stencyl—have shifted towards marketing themselves as professional, commercial game-making tools for Capital I Indie, Capital D game Developers. In today's market, that means accomodating touch screens, mobile games, and filling every tool with so many options that I, who have been making games for ten years, get overwhelmed and lost. How would I teach these to someone who's never made a game before?
Of the other tools I wrote about, Scratch, a free tool designed for kids, is still about perfect. And Twine has blossomed into a beautiful orchid beyond my wildest dreams. But as far as graphical game-making tools go, I find myself wishing more tools were like Warioware D.I.Y. for the Nintendo DS, whose servers finally went offline a couple of years ago. Although it has some painful shortcomings, there's lots to learn from what it got right, in the hopes other toolsets can take those lessons on.
It had lots of shortcuts
"An open-source tool for telling interactive, nonlinear stories, you don't need to write any code to create a simple story with Twine, but you can extend your stories [with code] when you're ready." – Read more
Any obstacle between an idea and the finished game can become be the hill a creator's enthusiasm dies on. Let's say I want to make a game where you try to pet a cat in a park and she hisses at you—but now I've got to draw all the graphics, paint a background and write some music. That's an intimidating amount of work for someone who's never made a game before.
WarioWare emphasizes shortcuts. Tiling patterns for backgrounds and a large selection of reusable stamps for scenery. The music editor lets you hum into the mic, or you can choose a tempo and mood (like "spooky" or "spicy" or "fun") and WarioWare will auto-generate a tune for you. The erasers in drawing mode double as special effects you can harness for your games.
WarioWare's tutorial for beginning authors celebrates "laziness"—doing things as quickly and functionally as possible, paying more attention to the "feel" of things than to polish. The game keeps reminding creators that creativity is more important than perfection. No wonder Warioware D.I.Y. became a mainstay of glorioustrainwrecks.com, the two-hour game-making community.
It gave creators prompts
When you create a new game in WarioWare, you're faced with the most terrifying project-stopper of all: a blank title field, waiting for you to name your unmade creation. It's the same kind of terror a blank page represents to a writer: a cruel and immediate test of your confidence.
A perfect mini-game compilation and beloved game design tool released for the Nintendo DS in 2009, the platform is now sadly defunct. – Wikipedia
But WarioWare had a solution here, too. Tap the "Auto" button and WarioWare will come up with a random name for you, like "Duck Strike" or "Fruit King" or "I'm…Sad?" You can keep clicking until you find one that spurs an idea.
That's pretty excellent. If you're an artist, you can doodle until you come up with something you could develop into a picture. Game creation needs an equivalent process, a way to play around with ideas until you find something that hits you the right way.
An earlier version of Scratch had a weirdo feature I really loved, which was unfortunately taken out of the latest release: You could press a button to add a random sprite to a game, any character from Scratch's extensive sample sprite library. Click, click: A scuba diver and a basketball. There's your game idea right there.
(Scratch, if you're reading this: bring this feature back, please!)
It had a playful interface
In WarioWare's image editor, when you flip a stamp, the tiny caveman holding up the stamp also flips, showing you his back. When you play notes on the keyboard in music mode, tiny faces pop up to sing the notes to you. Each menu has different background music: When you go to set your game's winning condition, the music changes to a celebratory march, like you're in the home stretch.
Nintendo's forthcoming game design and sharing app is out September 11, and promises all sorts of easy-to-use features. But will you buy a Wii U to get them? – Homepage
These little interactions do more than underscore the effects of individual tools or functions: They make interacting with the interface playful and rewarding and joyful. They make what could have been a cold, intimidating tool warm and friendly. They also encourage discoverability: If all these buttons do cool things, won't you try touching them?
In this essential read on the development of Kid Pix, a Mac art tool for kids, developer Craig Hickman outlines his fundamental philosophy of kid-friendly software: "Every opportunity should be taken to make the program surprising and satisfying to use. The process of making a picture should be as important as the picture produced."
You could actually draw
Thanks to the stylus-and-touchscreen setup of the DS, WarioWare D.I.Y. can boast one of the most accessible interfaces of any creative software: Getting to actually draw on the screen with a plastic pen. Mouse dexterity has to be learned, but many people, regardless of their level of computer fluency, can sketch or doodle with a pen. The stylus is immediately familiar.
A game engine designed to create tile-based puzzle games, its versatility has been proven far beyond that simple remit — Homepage
Unfortunately, it's not an easy thing to replicate on most hardware. But drawing is still an activity that most people understand. In Rise of the Videogame Zinesters, I wrote that the most accessible game-making tool will simply lets players draw a game, and Mark Wonnacott's Kooltool is an attempt at making that literal.
Kooltool is still in development, but everything in its world can be drawn upon with the mouse. Draw on a wall tile, and the other tiles change to match it. Draw a background, draw the characters, draw notes for your big ideas directly onto the game world in flashing glowing text. It's pretty cool, alright.
It had manageable scope
The one thing that has killed more game projects (hobbyist and professional) than anything else is unchecked ambition. When I was making ZZT games as a teen, everyone was hacking away at their dream projects, equivalent in size and scope to the Final Fantasy games they loved, 80+ boards (screens) in length. (Today you'd throw around the word "epic.") Maybe five percent of these games ever got finished. Probably less.
Marrying game design tools with the format of Nintendo's WarioWare series was a brilliant move. The WarioWare games are all about quick little games played rapid-fire, one after the other. The games creators make are seconds long.
The genius of having creators design WarioWare games is that they're not allowed to be too ambitious. Feature creep in a five-second game is all but impossible. Maybe you've got a few blocks of graphics left over, so you create an animated bird that flies around in the background. That's it, that's your extravagance.
Limitations are the natural enemy of bloat – they work wonders for creativity and invention.
It offered tons of samples
WarioWare D.I.Y. comes with ninety pre-made sample games of all varieties. They show off all sorts of things WarioWare can do. But more than that, they're completely transparent: They show you how they were made.
When browsing the "shelves" of included games (or even game copies from friends), you might play something really neat and wonder how it works. A tap of the nearby "View in MakerMatic" button is all it takes to put the game's innards under glass, so you can examine the scripting, the objects, learn how it all was done. And that's the principal way people learn anything about game-making: By copying, by having an existing model to poke around in.
In fact, WarioWare creators are encouraged to directly modify and remix its sample games. "Sample games," in the sense of sampling. You can import games wholesale into WarioWare's editor, or just lift individual sprites or music tracks for reuse. Originality's for suckers, it's creation, the birth of something new from something old, that's important.
The problem with WarioWare D.I.Y.
"WarioWare D.I.Y. could have changed a generation," I tweeted recenty, "IF." The If is: If only it had had a decent infrastructure for distributing games! As a DS title, WarioWare was forced to use Nintendo's limited and unreliable Wi-Fi service to let players exchange stuff. This was pre-Miiverse: it could only connect to unsecured networks, and only badly and slowly.
Each creator got an online "warehouse" where she could have only two games available for download at any given time. Two games, two pieces of music, and two four-panel comics. The only way to see if a friend had updated her warehouse was to log into the service (this usually took several tries) and to check her warehouse. You could only check the warehouses of folks whose friend codes you already had, of course.
So you got a limited and unpredictable selection of games by a limited group of people. How rad would it have been if Warioware had some sort of website full of playable games sort of like Flipnote Hatena had for animations? A YouTube for WarioWare games, where anyone with a browser could try out your creations. In fact, most creators took to just uploading videos of themselves playing their own games to YouTube, losing the vital interativity of the games.
Game-making tools like Twine, Scratch or Stephen Lavelle's Puzzlescript export finished games as browser-friendly HTML files or simply host them directly online. The distribution angle is almost as important as the game-making itself: That's why I titled my book Rise of the Videogame Zinesters. It's not just the means to make a game that need to be accessible—creators need to be able to get their games to people!
Nintendo will launch WarioWare D.I.Y.'s apparent successor, Super Mario Maker, next month. It's a level creator for Super Mario Bros., and it looks brilliant. It has a playful interface that plays music when you place objects, it has game elements that interact in surprising ways, and it has hidden, discoverable functions: shake a turtle to turn it into a red turtle, drag a mushroom onto it to make it a BIG turtle. Best of all, it has a searchable interface for finding other people's creations that doesn't require you to use an unsecured wireless network.
But the big if for Super Mario Maker might be that it's exclusively for the Wii U, a game platform that Almost No One Has, and will quite possibly go down in Nintendo history as the corporation's worst-selling console. How much better would Super Mario Maker be on the 3DS and 2DS—something lots of kids actually own? Obviously, Nintendo's hope is that people who want to play Super Mario Maker will buy a Wii U which at least quadruples Mario Maker's cost of entry.
Once again, a Nintendo game-making tool will be letting people make great stuff – but in a place where few players can get to it. Nintendo, if you're reading this: Put Super Mario Maker on the 3DS, please.