March 23, 2017

The Talk

game design, game making programs, twine, mario maker

I’m going to go meta on you and talk about how difficult this post was to write.


First, I have no idea how many, if any, of you reading this right now have seen any of my previous writing here on +10. It isn’t much, but if you have you already might have noticed that I can tend to come across as a bit…ranty. It’s a forthrightness that stems from a sense of conviction, a strong belief in the legitimacy of my concerns, however trivial. This time, however, I find myself writing about a question I’m not entirely sure how to answer. The question: If anyone really can make a videogame, why aren’t more people doing it?


That may seem like a pointless question. Lots of people are making videogames, obviously. More than ever. There’s even a DIY movement that rose to prominence in the last few years, facilitated by the presence of easy-to-use design tools like Twine and RPG Maker (and I will probably mention these two a lot further into this post). I can make a quick trip to, or even the Twine subreddit and find these games easily. They exist. They didn’t exist before and now they do. That should be proof enough that things are working out.


But I still can’t shake that nagging feeling….


Minimum Requirements for a Revolution


I am not a photographer.


And yet, people I know have asked me to take photos of them on their iPads and iPhones, sometimes even to the point of just following them through everyday life and taking snapshot after snapshot of everyday things. Just yesterday I wound up taking a picture of the floor. Not a carefully decorated floor or the floor of some famous location, just…a floor. Why? Because Technology Makes It Possible.™


I am not an artist.


And yet, classmates would always ask me to draw them growing up. And I’d do it. Somewhere in the world, in some old dusty folder tearing apart down the middle, some girl (a woman by now) may be keeping a caricature of herself in basketball clothes. But don’t look for it, and if that’s somehow you reading this right now, don’t go back and find it. And please, don’t post it on the internet. It was kind of awful.


I am not a filmmaker.


And yet, me and my sisters and brothers used to use a camcorder to record our own movies. They were pretty bizarre things, ranging from a game show parody full of family in-jokes to Dragonball Z-style fight scenes (looking back, it wouldn’t have killed us not to have hit each other so hard) to formless, plot-less anti-stories of the supernatural (also full of in-jokes.) My family is, last time I checked, in the process of converting these tapes to DVD. And I would almost always be the one holding the camera. I would also almost always be the one asked to play the villain, and I still don’t know how to take that.


I am not a writer.


…And yet, here we are.


I can do all of these things fairly easily. These forms are accessible, and have been all my life. Additionally, if I wanted to take a photo about something different, or make a drawing or a movie or an essay about something different, about anything, I could, and I could apply the entirety of all existing theory in any of these fields to my work. But most importantly, the tools that would allow me do to so are so ubiquitous that I’ve gained access to most of them unintentionally.

It’s become this simple now. (Source)

But the closest things we have to tools like that in videogames are the aforementioned design tools, to whose ranks I add Scratch, Inform 7, and IG Maker. And the experience of using them would be, although liberating, not quite analogous. I could write stories about a lot of different things, but I wouldn’t be able to make something that fit outside the specific type or genre of videogame those tools have made their specialty. I wouldn’t be able to make anything the way one could potentially draw anything with a pencil and a sketchpad. I could engage with any topic, but I couldn’t engage with the form with the same level of freedom. Not in the same way.


This may be a problem.


Some of the reasons are obvious. The most common argument you’ll hear is that videogames are a cool, hip medium that can do cool, hip things, and it doesn’t seem right for people not to have the opportunity to be a part of that. That expressing yourself through interactivity can be therapeutic, liberating, or good for the soul. That exploring the depths of our artform is a rare privilege, too rare in fact, one that more people ought to have. That we want to see a wider range of people making a wider range of games. These are all good arguments, but there’s one more.


Whenever in modern history there has been a revolution, people could always count on the prominent artforms of the day to empower the masses to spread awareness of a cause, and to inspire them to take that cause up, from art movements to documentaries to manifestos. And given the importance of art in social progress, it has always been necessary that an artform be fully accessible by all. You never know where the next revolution is going to come from, or who is going to be the person whose work finally sets it in motion. But whoever this person is, and wherever she may come from, she has to have the artform of the day within reach, and she will need to be able to apply the full depth of what is possible within it.


And whenever a tool has appeared that has allowed that kind of creative freedom, the results have made history.

Hannah Höch

These days, availability is no longer a problem.


Photographers have the Kodak.


Artists have the sketchbook.


Filmmakers have the camcorder.


Animators have the flipbook.


Writers can have as little as a piece of paper and a pen.


But what do we have?


Why Am I Still Talking about Mario?


Okay, so maybe we’re not quite at the “Sketchpad of Videogames” yet. But since we’re on the topic, why don’t we use our imaginations for a moment and imagine how a program like that would operate?


For one thing, any design tool of that magnitude is going to have to be able to remain usable and intuitive despite allowing the user to control a long, long list of factors and access a wide variety of rules and resources. It’d best be something that can be used out of the box without a tutorial. Prominent game design and personal “My Hero” Anna Anthropy once said that her “ideal level editor is ms paint.” Which makes sense. We want something that gets as close to a 1:1 metaphor for creation itself that using it becomes as natural as breathing. The editor points out here, though, that the MS Paint metaphor would be too simplified for the hypothetical omni-functional tool we’re describing here. This also makes sense. It doesn’t have to be that simple. It just shouldn’t be impenetrable.


More challenging than usability, though, is the problem of scope. While scripting will undoubtedly be helpful and programming will probably always be necessary once we get into the reeeally out-there stuff, we’d generally want a user to have access to a wide enough range of features to let her imagination run wild without immediate fear of constraint. Have you seen what our imaginations are capable of? That’s gonna be a lot of scope.


And even if we can provide a viable amount of that scope, the real problem is whether or not we can predict that scope. What if the user needs a certain feature that is possible within the limits of the tool, but was simply never considered and therefore never implemented? Here a system of plugins and other user-generated content would be helpful. We’d want this tool to be mod-friendly, something that expands its functionality as time went on. Who knows what people could get it to do?


How do we find a sense of direction with a challenge like this? The first step is to look back in history for examples of designers that got it right, and figure out what we can learn from them moving forward. There are plenty of examples in the past; level editors have existed for decades, long enough that some of today’s game designers cut their teeth on them. Examples include Excitebike, ZZT, Knytt Stories, WarioWare: D.I.Y., Lode Runner, F-Zero X, the last two or three Super Smash Bros. games, LittleBigPlanet, Sound Shapes, etc. etc. The point is, there have been a lot of them. Even the first Zelda game was originally intended to have one in 1986.



Looking to the future, Super Mario Maker promises to be especially interesting to observe. Not just because it’s a level editor for Mario games (It’s about time we got one!), but because it compresses everything from the first 5 Super Mario Bros. games (and the last 4) into a single screen and allows you to recreate nearly everything that ever happened or was even possible within them, and more, all using a touchpen and a tablet.


Part of what makes all of this functionality manageable is that Super Mario Maker reveals its myriad parameters and features through intuitive visual logic. Add a mushroom to an element to make it bigger. Drag one object to another object to make a combination. Wings + Koopa = Flying Koopa. Fire Flower + Pipe = A Fire Flower growing out of a pipe. Shake a green shell and it gets warped into a red shell, accompanied by a little swirling animation that drives the metaphor home. Shake a Wiggler around and it just turns angry, because of course it does. It’s an axiom, as is everything else in the game’s Course Maker. It’s less concerned with numbers and terminology and more concerned with approximating the user’s train of thought, and as a result the interface clicks immediately. It’s the most naturalistic level editor I’ve ever seen.


(UPDATE: I’m minutes away from posting this, and I’ve just learned that Anna Anthropy has also written something about Super Mario Maker as a tool for non-coders. Why not give it a look? I’ve read it; it’s great.)


What’s more interesting though, to me at least, are the kinds of things being made in them. There are levels that play themselves. There are stages designed to be run through non-stop. And although a level has to be beaten at least once to be saved, there are plenty of levels for which one has to wonder how this was possible, while resisting the urge to throw the controller at the screen. Because what’s a Super Mario Bros. level editor without the obligatory Automarios and ROMHack-style nightmare levels? (The only thing missing from this game is a system of save states.)


And while these levels may seem like nothing more than a series of quirky experiments put together by first-time designers, I would like to add that this is absolutely true and that we should be in awe that this is even possible. To put this into perspective, making one’s own levels in a Mario game was once largely the domain of the dedicated ROMHackers who had managed to crack the code of the original games, and as a result the number of people who could make these levels was tied to the number of people within that category, which was limited. Furthermore, while the tools available for prospective modders may have improved over the years, they’ve still been fairly obscure up until now.


But now everyone will have the power to make something like this:



Or this:



Or even this:


(^This is nauseating to watch.)


In response to this information, I would suggest stocking up on canned goods, as well as vacuum-sealed goods with a high shelf life. You’re generally going to want to target grocery stores and gas stations. Once you have those, see if you can obtain a first aid kit at your local pharmacy, and try to get another one or two if you can, both as backup and to divide among other survivors, ideally so that everyone in your group has one of their own. You should also make sure to have a bike handy, since they’re easier to maintain then cars (making them useful if your car breaks down or is vandalized) and still offers reasonably speedy transportation. A foldable bike you can carry on your back or in a backpack is especially helpful for quick getaways. And once you have these items, as well as all the items on this list, your last step is to find someplace quiet, out of the way and low, like a basement or bunker, away from any place with easily breakable windows, and ideally away from any place populated, where you and your loved ones can wait for the impending apocalypse in relative safety.


…Alright, so the apocalypse joke is a joke. But it’s also an attempt to give you a sense of just how extreme the ramifications of such a shift in power would be if an equivalent tool existed that wasn’t tied to any particular genre, although then we’d have to multiply them at least a hundred times over. A tool like this could end up doing for indie devs what Photoshop did for digital artists, and more, much more.


Would it even be possible to make something like this? It would certainly be difficult. There’s a reason why so many of these tools only work in one genre.


But on the bright side, it’s probably not going to be as hard as sending explorers to the moon or decoding the human genome, and we’ve already done those.


Of course, such a device doesn’t currently exist, and although it may exist someday in the future, this leaves us with the present, the right here and right now. So what are we going to do right now?


On the one hand…On the other hand


I guess we could, I dunno, program it or something.


This is the part of the post that really had me at a loss for words.


See, the problem here is there are still a lot, lot, lot of people out there who don’t understand how to program. As a result, there’s a visible gap between the people who want to use games to express something and the people who have the necessary coding knowledge to make this possible. The hard part is addressing this gap. How do we do that?


On the one hand, coding isn’t really as arcane as prime time television makes it out to be (which has the effect of scaring off ordinary people,) and a push to get more people to take up coding might yield some tangible results.

Ominous enough for Latin chanting. (Source)

On the other hand, there’s a clear and significant difference between the rate of game authorship pre-Twine and post-Twine, so maybe this isn’t necessarily the ideal path.


On the one hand, again, programming isn’t that hard. When talking to Project Maiden developer Kevin Cole about the subject, I was told that “The root of programming is just problem solving. It’s breaking up an existing problem into a method using logic. You do high-level programming every day when decide your route to the bus stop.”


On the other hand, real programming isn’t quite so high level. The tricky part of learning to code isn’t the logic or problem solving, it’s learning and memorizing syntax to the point that you have a clear understanding of what means what. In other words, learning the language.


On the one hand, it makes sense that we ought to be learning a special language in order to work in this medium, like the relation cinematography has to film or musical notation has to music.


On the other hand, game design and programming are not the same thing, and it could also be argued that the language we ought to be learning is the language of game design itself.


Granted, the “Language of Game Design Itself” is actually a fairly novel concept. We in the industry have never really had a shared formal language we could use to talk about our work to each other (at least, not a helpful one) and the result of this is a widespread inability to describe our designs in terms that other members of staff can understand, let alone a computer. It also causes issues when trying to properly articulate what a given game got right or wrong (and IGN’s rating rubric does not, I repeat, DOES NOT cut it.) This in turn leads to the bad habit of completely forgetting what other, previous games got right, and having to reinvent the wheel every single time, a problem exacerbated by the fact that old video games are, presently, so implausibly hard to access.


However, we’ve recently been making great strides in that direction. More and more books are coming out that dig into the exact nature of the craft of game design, and develop clear terms that give form to the previously formless, among which A Game Design Vocabulary, written by the aforementioned Anna Anthropy and Wonder City designer Naomi Clark, is my personal favorite.


One popular argument brought up in favor of getting people to code is that it would be unrealistic and lazy to expect to get anywhere any other way. In fact, I’ve had this one thrown at myself a few times. But as a counterpoint, I’d like to point out that I’m a Computer Science student, have no problem learning to code myself, and am still concerned with the current status quo of game production. This is more one of those “something just feels off” problems.


I know, there’s clearly an extent to which game design is about a kind of progression and structuring of logical arguments which coding almost seems built for, but most coding languages weren’t built with the vocabulary of game design in mind, and some twisting is often necessary to make it work in a satisfactory way.


On the one hand, maybe what we need is a coding language that does take the language of game design into account and is structured in the same way a game designer would naturally think out her mechanics. Something like Inform 7, but far more wide-reaching. (Although it gets bonus points for being written like plain English.)


On the other hand…well, now I’m veering into pure speculation again.


The truth is that none of this matters right now. Right now our options are clearly defined. And while we may not have put the hypothetical beginning designer in an ideal situation yet, we can find, and are finding, ways to make her current situation more painless. Remember that push I was talking about to get coding classes earlier in schools? It’s starting to make headway, with more and more schools around the world incorporating Computer Science into their curricula, as early as primary school. On top of that, sites like KhanAcademy and Codecademy (I take it the rhyming names were an awkward coincidence?) offer curricula of their own, online and free of charge. And as for current design tools? They may not be able to produce every possible mechanic under the sun, but there’s still a lot they can do, more than you’d think, as evidenced by the overwhelming success people have found with them despite, or perhaps even because of, their limitations. Think Porprntine or Kikiyama.

In case you don’t know who Kikiyama is, here’s the image source. Just make sure the lights are on first.

But this absolutely does matter going forward.


Anyone can write. All you need is a pencil and paper and voila! The world is set ablaze.


On top of that, anyone can write, even if they can’t. We have speech-to-text technology for the disabled. Just pop in a mike and yap away.


Anyone can make a movie. All you need is a camcorder or even a phone and bam! News that shocks the world.


Anyone can take a photo. All you need to do is point and click and ta-da! Yours could be the photo historians use to get an understanding of what life was like decades ago.


Yet can anyone produce a videogame? Well, technically, I guess, but let me be the first to say that “Well, technically, I guess” is a pretty weaksauce answer.


The gap is real. So how are we going to bridge it? I can’t pretend to have the answers, but the first step is acknowledging that the problem exists. In the end, the question isn’t how we’re going to do things right now. That’s obvious. The question is: Is this the ideal scenario? Will the situation be any different 50 years from now? Can it even change at all? To be precise: Are we game designers really in the best of all possible worlds?


We’ll have to wait and see.


Although, having finally regained my confidence, I’d say probably not.

Radical Helmet
About Radical Helmet 8 Articles
A purely digital, low-poly entity. I love my helmet. You can reach me at
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