Like a lot of gamers, I would love to be able to make a game of my own someday. And it’s not as simple as “learn to code” — for one thing, I actually did learn coding in junior high and high school, and even took a college course which resulted in the hardest C- I’ve ever worked for. I have the basics down, but my skills aren’t up to the task of doing it for a living… or making the game of my dreams. Lots of STEM programs and products have been released to try to make the process a little bit easier and I’ve tried quite a few of them during my time at Engadget. Nintendo’s Game Builder Garage might be the one I finally stick with.
Some coding kits are very dry, walking users through the basics of putting together text strings to do specific things. Others jazz it up a bit by making each function into a colorful block, instructing users to stack them together like LEGO. Garage is even further along the playfulness spectrum, making each function, called a Nodon, into a living block with a personality — there’s even a small storyline buried into them, as they greet you like an old friend after you’ve already used them a few times and they’ll have friendly chats with each other. It’s half ReBoot, and half Adventure Time in style.
That candy-coding extends to the lessons themselves, which are friendly, encouraging and even a bit patronizing. Game Builder Garage is a tool that will hold your hand every step of the way, even telling you when it’s time to close a window. People with any kind of game making experience will probably hate how much the Interactive Lessons babysit you, but the good news is that you can skip them completely. The game has a Free Programming mode available from the start, you don’t have to unlock anything, as all the different functions are there to experiment with to your heart’s content.
I love how easy it is in both the Interactive Lessons and Free Programming to switch between the game and coding screens — just a press of the “+” button will toggle between the two, letting you see how it’s laid out under the hood or what the game currently looks and plays like with the existing coding. I’m a hands-on learner, so being able to experiment helps me understand how something works better than simply being told — though the game will do plenty of that. Game Garage Builder knows you aren’t going to get everything right away, so it repeats itself a lot, telling you exactly what to do even when it’s already told you before. Maybe you forgot, or maybe you just weren’t paying attention the first time. It’s okay, you got this.
After an initial tutorial there are seven titles that Game Builder Garage will walk you through, in different genres and with mechanics that build on what you’ve learned before. But it doesn’t really expect you to remember everything until around lesson four, so don’t worry about being thrown into the pool without a life ring. Each lesson consists of a number of smaller steps, so you can start a project and finish it later if you choose. One nice touch is that the game tells you how many minutes each lesson will take — completing all of the lessons will take about eight hours in total, not counting the mandatory checkpoints, which are puzzles that you might figure out right away or struggle with for a while.
As a Duolingo user, the checkpoint system in Game Builder Garage made me nervous at first, but it’s designed to be really hard to fail. You’re given a board with a person and an apple, and you must “grab” the apple to proceed. There’s always something in your way or something that doesn’t work right, forcing you to delve into the code screen and “fix” the problem. There might be multiple solutions, but Game Builder Garage has one right answer it wants you to use. To guide you, all the functions you don’t need will be locked down and the Nodons you do need will have little thought bubbles above their heads to hint at what you should be doing. Sometimes all it takes is a little trial and error and, once I figured that out, the checkpoints became incredibly easy. I don’t dread the checkpoints in Garage the way I dread them in Duolingo. But the two educational programs have a lot of other things in common, like the use of repetition and of course, the cute, colorful characters.
As a game engine, Game Builder Garage can be pretty robust. All of your functions are broken up by type: input, middle, output and objects. Each Nodon has a settings window which is where a lot of the magic happens… and the math. I’ve been told repeatedly that you don’t need to be good at math to code, but I found myself drawing on a lot of the lessons I learned my first year of high school-level mathematics, including logic (like AND, OR and NOT functions) and Cartesian coordinates (X, Y and Z). Maybe you don’t need full-on calculus, but having these basics down will be a big help in mastering the game engine.
If you want to put together a platformer or racing game, Game Builder Garage can manage that just fine — and with some creativity you can even dabble in genres like hidden object games. But you’ll find that it’s best suited for action titles, and players who prefer something more cerebral would be better off with an engine like RPG Maker. As would anyone who wants a game they can actually sell in a store, as Game Builder Garage is a sealed ecosystem and people who want to play your creations must own their own copy of the Switch title. To share games players must exchange codes, as there is no central repository for user-generated content. For this reason Nintendo isn’t particularly worried about copyright infringement, since it means people are still buying its product. But it also means the company has no control over any communities that may arise.
And hopefully plenty will, unlike previous efforts like the Labo Toy-Con Garage. The big advantage here is that the Game Builder Garage is so much cheaper than any Labo at $30. (You may still be able to find select Labo kits for as little as $25 — I personally recommend the VR Blaster set.) Sure, there are plenty of cheap programming tools available that will help you make and publish a full game to put on Steam or itch.io, but none of them will be as patient or forgiving as Game Builder Garage — or let you play around with the full Swiss Army knife selection of features on the Switch. Which might be Nintendo’s real endgame here; not to just create more potential game designers, but ones who are used to working with Nintendo’s unique hardware.
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