• A game-making app for everyone?

    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

    "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

    Twine

    "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.

    WarioWare D.I.Y.

    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.

    Mario Maker

    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.

    Puzzlescript

    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.

    Ugh

    Game Maker, Stencyl and Construct are now advanced tools with steep learning curves and an intimidating array of options, features and deployment platforms to think about.

    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.

  • What games must learn from children's books

    One of the most playful design choices I've ever encountered is in a book called The Z Was Zapped by Chris Van Allsburg. It's an alphabet book—or, as the subtitle has it, A Play in Twenty-Six Acts.

    Every other page of The Z Was Zapped features a gorgeous charcoal drawing, almost photographic in attention to lighting and texture, of something terrible happening to one of the twenty-six letters of the alphabet. The first depicts a chunky Letter A standing on a curtained stage, sporting its serifs quite handsomely as a hail of fat stones cascade down on it from above. The scene will not end well for our Letter A.

    Turn the page and you'll find the caption that goes with the illustration: "The A was in an Avalanche." Small black letters on an otherwise blank white page, like some stiff-nosed butler reporting the death of another heir to your great-aunt's fortune. And on the next page, an illustration of a letter B being eviscerated by a toothy dog-mouth.

    It's this placement of the text accompanying each illustration that makes the book playful. Because you have to turn the page in order to read the caption, you can't help looking at each picture and trying to guess which letter-appropriate act of violence is being depicted. I showed the book to my partner and they started guessing without even being prompted. "The B was Bitten." "The D was… Drowned?" "The N… Oh my god." (The letter N has about a hundred metal nails sticking out of it.)

    zzapped2

    Van Allsburg is known best for the book Jumanji, which is about a board game that takes over the house of the two children who play it.That's really very typical of games these days— games are obsessed with control. A digital version of The Z Was Zapped wouldn't let you turn the page until you'd entered the correct word. When you got it wrong, it would blarrrt at you and make you do it over again. Maybe there'd be an "in-app purchase" that would let you see the total number of letters in the word.

    What I like about The Z Was Zapped is that, as a humble picture book, it doesn't provide any explicit rules, nor does it make any effort to enforce a guessing game. And yet the reader can't help but engage with the book in a playful way. The trick of The Z is Zapped, and most good children's books, is to invite play, not to try and enforce or legislate it.

    Okay, but what do I mean when I use "play" as a noun? My friend Miguel Sicart wrote an entire book on this subject: In Play Matters, he makes statements like "Play is…an activity in tension between creation and destruction." Play is carnivalesque, in that it up-ends the accepted social order. Play is disruptive because it changes the contexts of things. I wouldn't argue with any of these statements, but my definition is a little simpler: Above all else, play is transformative.

    Nick Bantock's The Egyptian Jukebox, via Pamela Velner

    Nick Bantock's The Egyptian Jukebox, via Pamela Velner

    A necessary part of transformation is collaboration. When my partner spontaneously transformed The Z Was Zapped into a series of visual riddles, they were working in collaboration with Van Allsburg's book, rather than just consuming a piece of media. Like the stages on which Van Allsburg's letters are splattered by rocks, any piece of media—a children's book or digital game or painstakingly detailed tabletop train simulation – is only a theater in which play is performed. The media does not provide the play itself.

    This is the fundamental thing most game designers get wrong. Between tabletop gaming's celebritizing of designers and digital games' ability to function as increasingly perfect score-keepers, we're becoming obsessed with rules. Game designers have become pedant legislators, trying to make sure players are playing our games the right way. We've become obsessed with controlling play.

    I can usually gauge whether I'll like a game by how thick the rulebook is. It's an indicator of whether I should expect to be playing with my friends or just playing out the rules. We've started thinking of players not as collaborators but as just a kind of lubrication for the systems we design—essentially passive, even though they may be hitting buttons and pushing joysticks.

    The formalist approach to design reveres the game as a kind of mathematical artifact, pure in form and precise in function: A neat matrix of abstract systems in which comfortingly quantifiable values bounce off one another in rational ways. Only in numbers are there truth, formalism tell us. All else lies.

    As a marginalized person in a field where I am constantly reminded of my difference, forced to be aware of how my body and identity shape the ways I interact with my peers and with games, I can't think of anything more alienating to me than an e-sport in which depersonalized squares shunt balls at each other.

    bewitching22

    Games do not exist in a vacuum, as much as we might like to find beauty in the perfection of pure design. It has become clear to me that the lumpy, messy thing we try to smooth out in our iterative design is often our humanity.
    I recently updated my witch fashion design game, Be Witching, to remove a system I'd implemented in the original release. In the beginning, the aesthetics the players were designing for were randomly-generated. Flip over a couple of cards and you'd have an earthy, animal-themed aesthetic. The cards would even generate a cute name! House Treecat. It was like the civilizations in Small World! How clever! I felt so proud of it.

    These "House cards" (representing different ancestral Houses of magic players represented at the Witch Ball) ended up being a source of confusion and cognitive dissonance for players. You picked a House, but you weren't supposed to design for that House's aesthetic—everyone else was. Somehow everyone else was supposed to design an outfit that was simultaneously earthy and animal-themed as well as curvy and fiery and monochromatic and regal.

    At every step of designing this game, I've started with something needlessly overdesigned, and simplified it to something that worked much better. The first prototype of the game that I playtested had a complicated simultaneous bidding system. It was terrible. But the temptation is always of falling so in love with the cleverness of your own design that you're unable to see it doesn't inspire meaningful play.

    I replaced the House system with index cards. Players write their own awards on them: "Most likely to succeed," "Most fabulous additional appendage," or (in the last playtest session) "Puppies!!!!!!" Later, each player gives out her award to the player most deserving. It worked way better: Players are interacting with each other by creating prompts for other players to design around rather than fiddling with a self-important system.

    I've been slowly unlearning design, restraining my instincts to shout at players, "Look! Look how clever this is! No, do it this way!" And I get why the instinct to control the player's experience, to make sure they're playing the right way, is a powerful one, especially in (for example) a super-competitive mobile market.

    device666

    But I quit Simogo's acclaimed, puzzlebook-inspired Device 6 after two days when I couldn't be bothered to figure out the password to pass level three. Yet I owned Nick Bantock's physical puzzlebook, The Egyptian Jukebox for at least six months before I finally solved its central riddle. And it was amazing: I reread its stories, pored over its pictures many times before discovering the secrets hidden in them, solving the book in a single long evening of note-taking and creative breakthroughs.

    (Not to pick on Simogo, though, I really liked their more open-ended The Sailor's Dream, which never requires you to stop and deduce a password from diagrams of flowers.)

    Guess which of the above kinds of play made me feel like my time was being wasted? It's the one where the game was hovering over me, saying "Look at this. Okay, now solve this puzzle. Good, now read this. Solve this puzzle. Wrong, do it over." Meanwhile, I can play Offworld favorite Metamorphabet for hours, endlessly setting that robot R on its back and watching as it rights itself and starts running again, and feel like i'm spending my time meaningfully.

    If there's something for game designers to take away from less rules-obsessed media like The Z Was Zapped or The Egyptian Jukebox—or even more recent children's books like Ella Bailey's No Such Thing, where a little girl tries to disprove the existence of ghosts while all along the reader spots ghosts hidden on every single page—it's this: stop getting in the way of play. And let players play, already.

  • When fashion is frightening

    My first experience of Nintendo's Style Savvy: Trendsetters was abject terror. As the game begins, my avatar stares wistfully through the window of a fashion boutique; it has some name like Stella Mia. The arriving owner of the shop senses my innate fashion passion, invites me inside and immediately gives me a job. She pushes me toward a customer ("Should be no problem for someone as well-dressed as you"), who says something like, "I'm looking for a girly base layer." A shelf full of clothing pops up. I freeze.

    The stakes were, in reality, probably pretty low. Most of the pieces I could have chosen would probably have satisfied her. I'm sure she would have happily let me keep showing her item after item until I found one that qualified. But this situation is one that I live some variation of every day, and in those cases, the stakes could not be higher.

    As a trans woman who grew up without ever being taught the thousand secret rules of performing femininity, I walk through life terrified that I'm wearing something the wrong way, this couldn't possibly go with that, I must look ridiculous wearing this outfit in this weather – no one else is wearing a long black dress and tights. Any detail could give away the game, could expose the facade of my femininity to reveal that I'm a Fake Woman.

    Possible repercussions range from micro-aggressions that will slowly but steadily erode my self-esteem to immediate physical violence. So when a tiny video game woman asked me to pick out a top that would look good on her, I panicked for a minute. She could not know, Nintendo could not have known, what it would mean to have a video game correct me on women's clothing. It wouldn't just mean I didn't know my fashion: It would call into question my entire relationship to womanhood.

    stylegame1

    I eventually chose something, probably a camisole in the cream-to-pink range, and of course she loved it. "Wow, you've got a real eye for fashion," said my new supervisor. I remained on edge the next few requests ("I'd like some feminine shoes," "I could really use a pop outer layer"), but it soon becomes clear that there's a one-to-one relationship between the adjectives customers use to describe the styles they want and the handful of different clothing brands in the game. The words "pop," "feminine" and "girly" are all printed in a different color so you know they're Important Keywords — match the keyword to the fashion label to win.

    "You're a real visionary," gushes the boutique owner, who I think is named Michaela. "I would love it if you could start working here full-time. I can tell you have a bright future ahead of you." For residents of the reputedly cut-throat fashion world, people in this game sure are nice.

    Later in the game, when you're running the boutique yourself, a representative from the local clothing depot will drop by to ask which brand she should next solicit for a stall in her building. When I pick the Raven Candle brand, with the gothic corsets and things like that (I need more black clothes in my virtual closet), she tells me, "We were just conferring about this and came to the exact same conclusion. I knew your knack for the latest styles wouldn't let me down."

    You can't help asking yourself: are these cisgender ladies patronizing me? Especially when that spectre of doubt plagues my every interaction with a style-savvy afab (Assigned Female at Birth) or cis woman friend. Compliment my shoes? Tell me my dress looks good? You're just saying that because I'm trans. You're trying to be nice. I show up to my video game fashion boutique wearing a green zebra-print top with a purple leather jacket and orange miniskirt and my customers rave about how well-dressed I am before begging me to find them a "boho-chic" outer layer.

    stylegame2

    When you're a tall, fat trans lady, the game quickly becomes a wish-fulfilment engine. There's only one body type in the world of Style Savvy — ultra-thin — and everything fits it. For every piece of clothing you buy for your boutique, a "free sample" of the same piece is delivered to your home by a delivery bro who's likeable despite himself, and who has an obvious crush on you. Soon you've got quite a wardrobe. The thought of wearing a whole new outfit each day, instead of just alternating between the same two outfits I currently feel comfortable leaving the house in, is an amazing escapist fantasy to me.

    It's expensive to be a woman, or at least the kind of woman I want people to think of me as. The kind who's been at this for years instead of just for the few years since I grew comfortable enough to walk outside in a dress (and then had to figure out how to shop for dresses). I want people to think my outfits are dictated by my unerring sense of style instead of my dysphoria. If I wear black all the time, it's because it's slimming, goes with anything and absolves me of having to match colors. Looking towards my closet, I see a wall of black fabric with a single denim vest and purple hoodie peeking out. (The purple hoodie has black stripes.)

    At the intersection of trans and living below the poverty line lies a potent impostor syndrome. I make sure the same friend doesn't see me wear the same thing twice in a row, at least changing my shoes or a cardigan, lest my my gender be seen as a cheap disguise. Is that the only dress she owns?

    Games have always been an escape from that, offering an entire closet to choose from (and, often, a less dysphoric body to dress). From the kisekae games I played when I was little and not yet woman-identified to contemporary Flash dollmakers, these virtual paper dolls gave me permission to fantasize about what presenting femme might look like. I can still spend hours on dolldivine.com.

    Without these games, who knows if the me-I-used-to-be would have been able to imagine the me-I-am-now into existence? This is why I'm immediately drawn to any game that has avatar-editing, and Style Savvy is nothing but.

    stylegame4

    I'm currently designing my own fashion game about chubby witches wearing magical clothes – at first it was a kisekae-style single-player game, then a multiplayer game with real paper dolls and Magic: the Gathering-style sorcerers' combat, and most recently it's become a game about designing outfits and fighting over magical accessories. Now, it's going in a direction inspired more by the runway walk and ball culture, where players design and present outfits and take turns as judges, cutting down each other's creations.

    Those right there are the twin heads of the fashion beast: one is the liberation of endlessly reimagining ourselves, and the other is the swift social censure for imagining ourselves incorrectly. The customers I dress in Style Savvy — all the same model with the features slightly changed, all the same woman- – don't laugh behind my back (did you see what she was wearing?). Or if they do, I haven't unlocked that mode yet.

    But for half an hour of my adult trans life, the threat of an imaginary cis woman raising a skeptical eyebrow at me was seriously scary. Almost as scary as that mother alien in Sesame Street 1 2 3 who shook her head at you when you got a math problem wrong. I was six years old, and I never picked up that game again.