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Game Making with Kids: How the Ouya and Free Software Saved Summer Camp
by Christopher Totten on 07/03/13 12:26:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


This is a repost from my blog, DevFromBelowwhere I talk about game dev for the little guy. 

Like many kids in the 80’s and 90’s, I thought it would be cool to create a video game. Being of a more artistic mindset, my grand designs were most often merely drawings of what I thought my games could look like: platformers with my friends, family, and self-created superheroes fighting burglars. The actual creation of such games, however, was black magic. Though our teachers attempted to teach us BASIC through “hello world!” exercises, my elementary school self could only stare at the blinking cursor on the TRS-80 Color screen and wonder when we’d get to the interesting part.

 TRS-80 screen

 I was more of an MS Paintbrush kid...

Now, in many ways, we have cycled back to the type of independent game creation that was common in the 1980’s. The ZX Spectrum, Apple II, Commodore 64, and other computers for which people distributed their own games have been replaced by smartphones, tablets, and a resurgence in PC gaming. Distribution channels such as Steam, the App Store, and Google Play have likewise replaced the floppy disks in plastic baggies that once littered Radioshack shelves (though an image of one would make a killer app icon.)

While the publishing landscape is opening up again, the tools for actually developing games are, in many ways, more accessible than ever before. Unlike the days when an elementary school version of this author stared into the green abyss of the TRS-80, game making is no longer the sole purview of programmers. Game engines, once proprietary tools released only for mods or licensed for large sums of money, can be cheaply downloaded and published from. Even art-leaning indie designers like myself can make games in Game Maker, Unity, Construct 2, or a myriad of other integrated development environments (IDE’s.) Perhaps even more drastic, however, is the attitude of parents towards the idea of making games. Decades ago, video games were only productive if it was raining outside or if one wanted to be a fighter pilot when they grew up. Now, projects such as Sissy’s Magical Ponycorn Adventure and the Ouya’s Astronaut Rescue show the results of parents and their kids making games as a way to spend time together.

This summer, I’ve been teaching game development courses during a camp at George Mason University called the Summer Game Institute. The camp consists of week-long classes for kids (in age groups from 9-12 and 13-18) in topics such as basic game design, Minecraft modding, and even mobile game development, which I teach. To be honest, I had my reservations about mobile development and 9-year olds: certain marketplaces are too restrictive, require a paid subscription (which kids may or may not fully utilize if parents buy them), and feature complicated setup processes for launching. My goal was to give the kids attending the ability to go home and make games on their own computers for free, regardless of launching platform, but be able to expand their knowledge in the future to include mobile. This required choosing accessible game engines, asset creation tools, and finding a platform that would provide the gratifying feeling of “look, I made that…” 

 Mickey Sorcerer's Apprentice

Game making is more fun if it feels like this

This article describes the planning process that went into my first course for the camp – a mobile game development course for 9-12 year-olds – and the tools and technologies we chose that resulted in its success.

Choosing Engines

My first step was to find game engines. The criteria here was to search for an engine that launched to mobile, but also provided a simple enough development environment that the students could also create games on their own computers without too much advanced knowledge. For this, my first inclination was Game Maker (GM) – it requires little programming, but can be extended by scripting with the Game Maker Language (GML.) While the mobile tools are not quite to the level of other engines, my feeling was that the kids could get a good introduction to game making through GM’s action-based event builder. Unity was another choice for the course, but had both pros and cons. On the plus-side, it is a very simple engine for launching to both iOS and Android. This made Unity a very attractive choice for addressing the class’s mobile theme. However, its more complicated interface and reliance on scripting presented a problem – would the kids be able to create something that they could put onto devices within a week? I decided to evaluate how the students were progressing with GM before making a decision either way.

Asset Creation: Industry Standard or Outside of the Box?

My next challenge was choosing tools for teaching asset development. Unlike engines, which have drastically opened up, industry-standard asset creation tools such as Photoshop, 3D Studio Max, and Maya still come at a premium price. While student versions of these applications are available with a “.edu” e-mail address, this does little to a child who is years away from college. In this instance, I turned to open-source software. Since I was focusing on Game Maker to teach development, I opted to use the GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP) as the primary art tool for my course in the camp. Like the engines, it is freely available for kids to download at home, but offers features that allow them to later expand their knowledge to Photoshop or other industry standard tools.

GIMP was an appealing choice thanks to a well-built support community, lots of existing documentation, and a Photoshop-like layer system. Perhaps the most important element of using GIMP over other freeware spriter such as GraphicsGale was the expandability. GIMP can do sprites with the proper settings, but it is primarily photo-manipulation software. This opens the doors for future outside-the-classroom learning with digital painting or other techniques. 

Lastly, I had to find a launching platform that would provide a satisfying end to the week when the kids would learn how games are published. For this younger group, I stayed away from the Apple Provisioning Portal, though I plan to show it to the older groups in future classes. In my own development process, I lean towards Android as a demonstration platform, as I can export builds to my devices quickly and without the need for provisioning. This led it to be my demonstration platform of choice for the camp, though I was still unsure whether the kids would be impressed with their game on a small screen.

In-class Implementation

In retrospect, I’m ecstatic that I made the software choices I did. Game Maker, despite some initial head scratching over building behaviors, became the hit of the week after only the first day. My TA and I opened with a tutorial from the book The Game Maker’s Apprentice where the students could make a simple shooting game. From then on, every morning the kids would sit down at their computers and work on their own projects in the engine. While we built a lesson plan of several games for them to create, the first introduction was all it took before they explored the engine and went above and beyond even what we had planned to teach.

GIMP was also a great hit among the students after the first intro. For teaching sprite animation, I kept them to a 16 x 24 pixel grid, showed them how to turn on the appropriate guideline features in the program, and showed them how to proportion an RPG sprite’s body.

Like the Game Maker tutorial, GIMP caught on and many of the students would come in each morning with sprites they had created and animated at home the night before. Once they had learned how GIMP worked, many of them began making sprites for other types of games they had seen: side scrollers, schmups, and others.

Saved by Dark Horses

Initially the most difficult issue in our planning process, launching platforms became the highlight of the course for both the teachers and the students thanks to some serendipity and good timing by the DHL delivery service. The first major boon to our course was an announcement by Unity mere days before the camp that their platform would now allow mobile publishing for free. As Unity had been brought up as a way to fulfill the mobile title of the course, it became a goal we pushed for during our work with the kids. The other coincidence was that the week before the camp started, my Ouya finally arrived.

Like so many, I had backed Ouya’s Kickstarter campaign last year, and had even thrown in the extra money for the special-edition copper console with an extra controller. To me, the console was an artifact, something to hold up in future iterations of my History of Game Design course as an example of the “microconsole”, whose ultimate fate has yet to be decided. Upon getting it, I played a few games, though pickings were slimmer than they are at the time of this writing (Towerfallwhich came out during the camp, is good enough for killer-app status.) Through viewing a few YouTube tutorials, I was able to sideload my own Android builds to the device.

Sideloading my new game onto Ouya

It was from this that I had the most fun with the Ouya, making it my own and showing off my own games on a true TV console, something that I had not experienced before as a mobile dev. Then it hit me, could I have the kids in my class help me build an Android game for the Ouya?

I set to work on a simple platformer based on a mobile game tutorial I had created for my college students in Unity. I added character sprites I had dug up for my GIMP sprite animation tutorial to give the course some continuity. Lastly, I created prefabricated blocks from which I would construct the game levels. From this setup, the students could import environment tiles that they had created in GIMP, using them as textures for the Unity blocks, and each design their own level for the game.

 Building a level

One of the students building a level

When they were done building, I compiled all of their levels into one game, uploaded the Android file to a Dropbox, and downloaded it through the Ouya’s web browser. Without yet diving into the actual Ouya SDK, we were pleasantly surprised to learn that our character’s WASD movement controls mapped right to the Ouya’s control stick and that his jump (using the default space bar setting) mapped to the Ouya’s “A” button. For the camp’s grand finale, we sat in front of the classroom’s TV passing the controller around so each kid could play his or her own level of a real video game.

 playing our game



For us teachers more than the students themselves, there were lessons to be learned from how we structured the mobile portion of our camp. The first was that making games can be a pleasurable and empowering experience when one removes the restrictive aspects of the process: industry standard software and foci on specific technologies. The second is there is creativity out there to be fostered if we only give it a small nudge: most of the students needed only a short tutorial in each software before they were pushing it past where we had intended to go with it. In many ways, it was largely due to the accessibility and freedom of the tools we utilized – the simplicity of Game Maker, the newly opened Unity mobile options, GIMP’s accessibility, and Ouya’s transparency - that the course was a success. They made it more about the games and the kids’ ability to create something of their own.

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Kujel s
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This sounds like an awesome summer camp (I wish such a thing existed when I was a kid). It sounds like both you and the kids had a lot of fun and it's really cool they were able to play their levels on the big screen with a controller. Kudos for such a cool project and an awesome write up.

Jonathan Jennings
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I always wanted to work or create a camp like this !!!! great job for beating me to it and its great to hear about developers who keep that child-like wonder in mind when developing .

Christopher Totten
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Thanks for the feedback all. One of my goals in posting was to share it with the community so people could do their own. The tools were a really good fit and let everyone work cheaply.

Luke Meeken
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This is super-inspiring. I'm teaching a class of a similar scope (one week, elementary schoolers, GameMaker IDE, but no mobile component) at Smithsonian this year, and these ideas are great ways to expand what the kids are capable of doing beyond GameMaker.

I only have limited experience using Unity, and even less experience teaching it. It sounds like from your description you created your own dev tool in Unity in which the students could build levels in a tile-based way like GameMaker? Is there any chance you'd make this tool available for other folks (or other kids) to use?

Glenn Storm
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Thanks for this, Christopher. I've had the same idea, and it's good to hear of your success. Very encouraging. Cheers!

Kayne Ruse
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This is pretty cool, but I still don't understand GIMP... it's good to see kids getting into making games, rather than sitting on their butts and playing them.

Kujel s
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Yeah I've tried playing around with GIMP a couple of times but just can't seem to get my head around it, kind of sad considering I can program but I can't figure out a photoshop "clone".

Priyadarshi Chowdhary
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We are creating a free tool which let's kids develop games on any platform without writing actual code. A visual programming tool(DASH). We are planning to include all the features of game development inside it.

Uti Vyas
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Can you please check the "contact us" on the DASH website, which is not functional. Can we start using DASH to create touch screen game right away for academic purpose?

Christopher Totten
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@Luke: I actually just set up a small game and told them how to arrange the blocks in it - nothing too too intensive. Are you talking about Smithsonian locations in DC? If so I'd be happy to help. Hit me up on Twitter : @totter87

Herbert Joseph
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I actually did a camp much like this for two weeks at Harvard with XNA. These camps really do help out as an intro to game development, but those two weeks went REALLY fast.

The camp did help me to catch on to learning C# and Unity, something I wouldn't have done without that experience. I wish they had a more advanced camp, though.

Marcus Montgomery
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This is amazing. Through a group of my own, we've tried to setup a similar curriculum, but smaller. Seems like you had a lot of teachers and supporting staff. Can you describe the numbers of people involved and their roles?

Christopher Totten
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In terms of people involved, the school is in association with a partner group at Mason called the Potomac Arts Academy ( Everything is set up through them (including transportation to the campus) and we get a teaching assistant for the course itself. Likewise, our tools are those we have available at the university, but our tech director for our program put new images on the computers with the software we need for the camp.

Titi Naburu
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Thsanks for the article!

You should try Scratch, it's great for young kids because you program by dragging cute colourful boxes (no code to compile). Plus, it features a cool cat.

Bobby Sims II
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Awesome article! I actually do the same thing during my summers. We are using GameSalad this summer, and we had used Blender before. We also use GIMP for our sprite creations. GameSalad is kinda like Game Maker, which I use myself, except there is no programming whatsoever. Ill have to send this article to the head admin, and push my point of using Game Maker harder lol.

Stephen Richards
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I am quite jealous of all your young students! I didn't learn all this stuff till I was at university and I did it all the slow way. Having grown up in the 90s and 00s I was perhaps part of the generation given the least useful ICT syllabus there's ever been. It was mostly dull, basic use of microsoft office software which has long since become obsolete.

Game Maker, unity, gimp and dropbox are all great pieces of software for beginner developers. The Game Maker IDE has actually become really outdated by now but fortunately it looks like it'll be vastly improved next year. Gimp can do some cool things but over time I've become increasingly dissatisfied with it. (Unlike most people, I decided not to pirate photoshop.)

I also noticed Unity now has a big competitive advantage over Game Maker with the free exporting. It certainly makes the choice of engine a harder one. I would say you made the right choice with Game Maker though. It's not nearly as sophisticated as Unity but you can go from being a programming novice to finishing a full game in a much shorter time frame. It's also great for quick prototypes and game jams.

Christopher Totten
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I definitely agree when it comes to GameMaker and GIMP. For what we were doing with graphics, GIMP was fine for allowing the kids to take their work home, as was GameMaker. I am thinking for future iterations of the course, however, that I would use something like Construct 2 or Stencyl: both look really cool and seem to do many of the same things.