The explosion of indie, mobile and social games reaching all-new audiences across nearly every imaginable device is having reverberating impact on the tools space. As the barrier to entry for gaming gets ever lower, so too must the barrier of entry to development: experimentation with accessible creation tools is fast becoming something that an entire generation wants to do.
Increasingly, creating games or building content within existing games isn't just for commercial or even skilled indies -- my 13 year-old cousin is devoted to building her own spaces within Minecraft and wishes she had a level editor for Angry Birds, for example, and she surely isn't alone.
Creation tools that hobbyists and the merely curious can experiment with is something even professional tools providers are beginning to think about providing, and interestingly, such accessible utilities can end up serving the ecosystem around larger game engines.
Torque engine maker GarageGames is developing a solution called 3 Step Studio that aims to let people make their own games based on existing templates with adjustable values, without requiring any programming whatsoever. The company wants to address hobbyists more interested in art and design than in coding, and 3 Step Studio is actually an important component of its strategy for Torque 2D, with a shared code base.
"We'd been working in the tools space for years now, and so we have a lot of experience with the Torque product line," GarageGames Kyle Miller, 3 Step Studio's product manager, tells Gamasutra.
"A lot of our audience is more tech-oriented and wants to do programming, but there are obviously a lot of individuals that don't want to do that portion of game development," he says. "Many individuals pick up Torque, or Unity, or something like that to try to get into game development and make ideas come to life... but they don't want to do programming, so they hit a block and it becomes more difficult."
With 3 Step Studio the company hopes to address what it sees as a "huge market" for gamers who have developed ideas from their own creations as a result of the increasing pervasiveness of gaming on everyday devices. GarageGames hopes students might be attracted to the tool as well, as a way of playing with basic concepts around design, balancing and values adjustments without having to be adept at coding.
GarageGames has gone to Kickstarter first in the hopes of helping fund a 3 Step Studio prototype that starts with a few basic genre templates. Finished games can be published on Windows, Mac and iOS, with web the next big goal on the horizon. "A lot of people in the more casual environment would like to publish to that arena," Miller says. "And we're also looking at Android and Linux -- we're trying to do a Linux port of Torque now, so that would be right up our alley."
"It's really about the democratization of game development -- lots more people are trying to get into it now, and we're getting better at making tools," he continues. "3 Step Studio is our big push [toward evolving] user experience and usability, providing interfaces that are intuitive, accessibel and easy to use."
The company has taken Torque 3D free and open source, and will soon take a similar route with Torque 2D. "We realize there's a shift in the industry, so we've started to shift as a company, and we thought the right way to do that was to crowdsource that development, continue support of those two codebases, and be able to piggyback off of that for 3 Step," says Miller.
3 Step is built from basic iTorque and Torque 2D technology, and sharing the codebase effectively enables the community to contribute to the engine through feedback and sharing. "Open-sourcing it lets any work done by the community [become] work done on Torque," Miller explains. "And if someone does mess around with 3Step, they then have an avenue to transition into Torque 2D."
The approach of creating a "gateway drug" to more complex tools can benefit both entry-level aspiring developers as well as the engine-makers and tools houses that have been servicing the professional dev community for years. Alleviating some of the friction created by the fact so many people find programming intimidating means more people can discover design and transition into game-making at a level that makes them comfortable.
That goal of friction reduction is also reflected in the initial crowdfunding approach an pricing scheme for 3 Step, Miller says. Successful crowdfunding means the community that will be using the tools gets to shape its features, and the intended pricing scheme involves offering a base set of utilities, art packs and templates for free, with more advanced versions and additional options available for purchase. 3 Step is also designed to consider artists or audio designers who simply want to try putting their assets into the context of a working game, in order to refine or to showcase them.
As part of usability testing, GarageGames has put early prototypes of 3Step into the hands of participants in Los Angeles' local Boys & Girls Clubs. "Watching those teens use it was validation that that's a perfect audience," Miller suggets. "Kids that just want to mess around with variants of games they like to play, and don't want to get too serious about that, yet."
Kickstarter is a challenging avenue to fund the prototype, Miller admits. The audience that funds games and tools on the platform tends to be more tech-minded, with project successes frequently correlating to how well they appeal to a core audience. "But we need to try to hit more of the consumer audience out there," Miller says, emphasizing that appealing to game consumers' curiosity about creation and experimentation is one essential avenue for the company's tools agenda.
Miller says he himself was surprised at how diverse and flexible 3 Step Studio is turning out to be, despite being based on templates -- its Tower Defense template could be used to make a Pac Man-alike, for example, and while the Physics Launcher genre is designed to tickle the Angry Birds fan, it's also possible to develop a pinball game based on the same logic and base.
"There's so much you can do to affect a game by changing the speed of something, by swapping out assets," he suggests.
Users who make games with 3 Step Studio will be able to generate their own installers, publish and even monetize their work at their discretion; GarageGames has no plan to charge royalties or take any sort of cut, even if users make games with the company's provided assets.
The company believes that with the right tools and front-end interfaces, complicated scripting can be made more accessible to designers at all levels of interest -- and the company's tools suite can benefit from the input of a broader community of game-makers.