Can the Game-Maker Genre Spark A Revolution?

Can the Game-Maker Genre Spark A Revolution?
When punk emerged, it was a rejection of corporate rock for a do-it-yourself philosophy that eventually led to the '90s alt-revolution and today's self-sufficient indie scene. But it's far easier to buy a guitar and learn three chords than sussing out the complexities of coding.

With big business gaming becoming similarly risk-averse in recent years, there's been a concurrent rise in indie games. Thing is, developing those still requires an incredible amount of programming skills and time.

That's why the most influential of these indies is Minecraft, which lets players bash out almost anything within its pixel-art sandbox, digging up and using virtual cubes to do everything from building Hogwarts to staging a live opera.

Initially developed in 2009 as a PC tech demo by Swedish programmer Markus "Notch" Persson, it's since sold over 54 million copies across all platforms, making it the third-biggest game ever. On Xbox Live alone, gamers have clocked over two billion hours making stuff.

Days after Minecraft went now-gen in September, Persson sold his studio Mojang to Microsoft for a cool $2.5 billion (he promptly quit, presumably to build his own real-world castle or something) with an announcement noting it had "grown from a simple game to a project of monumental significance."

Indeed, and the genre it popularized has also grown with three major releases this fall all also focused on turning players into makers: Project Spark, Disney Infinity 2.0 Marvel Super Heroes and LittleBigPlanet 3.

While emulating Skylander's highly profitable mix of video game with collectible toys, Disney Infinity includes a "toy box" mode that allows players to use the assets to construct and share their own game worlds. Infinity's younger demographic makes the mode somewhat simplified, but it remains a robust toolset that really teaches kids the nuts and bolts of game design. It's also been upgraded and refined in this superhero-skewed sequel.

Meanwhile, the craft-inspired side-scrolling platformer LittleBigPlanet 3 is adding 70 new tools to its own creator kit, which has been used to build eight million user-generated levels since the series' pioneering 2008 debut introduced the public to the concept.

But the most ambitious is the freemium Project Spark, an evolution of Microsoft's Kodu Game Lab, a visual programming tool that actually arrived in 2009 about six weeks after Minecraft's alpha version and let home users design their own racing, strategy, RPG, adventure, platform, puzzle and shooting games. But while used as an educational tool in some schools, it was still pretty hard to wrap one's head around.

Five years later, post-Minecraft gamers are a lot more sophisticated, allowing Spark's Microsoft-owned developer Team Dakota to realize its philosophy of "democratizing gamemaking."

"While making games is fun, the actual act of creating the game often isn't fun and it really hasn't been something that any game or productivity tool touched on," says Spark's creative director Henry Sterchi. Noting that the effort and time required by programming is "where the world loses a lot of future creators," he says their goal has been to tear down these barriers "by allowing anyone to realize that dream nearly instantly, and then dive as deep as they want to while polishing and perfecting it."

Though Project Spark includes a Fable-like fantasy RPG as a quasi-tutorial, the crux is the deep yet accessible toolset that allow you make almost anything either by yourself or in four-person online multiplayer. You can design and build worlds, use A.I. "brains" to apply behaviours to objects and NPCs, and even use the Kinect camera for motion-capture to make cut-scenes. Your creations can then be shared with and remixed by the community, providing a never-ending stream of new content to play.

(That said, the free-to-play game has a microtransaction-based business model to access certain assets. However, grinding will get you in-game credits to avoid spending real-world money, as will making a game others like.)

Sterchi tips his hat to Minecraft because it "helped prove the market potential for player creation and it showed that a 'game' didn't need rigid goals and 100 percent prescribed gameplay to be appealing and succeed. Seeing people take that creation side and stretching it as far as they did really encouraged us that there is a strong need for expression, creation, collaboration, and that there is a 'maker' audience."

He compares this game-maker revolution to YouTube's star-making potential, in that anyone can turn their vision into an actual game and reach an audience. Moreover, future designers will have had years more hands-on practice making art, music, gameplay, design, levels, user interface, etc. before they enter the industry. "As an indie developer, maybe you get to release a new game every few months or once a year — as a AAA developer it stretches into every 18 months or more. With Project Spark, you can try things in a flash and release a new game every day or week. You can experiment, innovate, or take risks with no downside, and you've learned along the way," Sterchi says.

"Often when we interview designers, it's all about the depth of their thinking, how they would design a system, their pillars, philosophies, and goals. Here one person, even a young kid, can have a presentable game that's fun and say 'you want to know how I design? Play this.'"

Gaming has put too much focus on appearance over innovation in recent years. But because game-maker games make creation, experimentation and iteration so accessible, the next generation of designers could be like latter-day punks leading the industry out of creative stagnation.