Digital Game Making Tools Round-Up

[Cross-posted to markdangerchen.net]

Games are about two things: agency and empathy.

Games are made up of systems of rules or constraints and particular goals. When a player explores these systems, they make meaning from the relationship that emerges out of their actions with the possibility space of the game systems. When they start to understand the systems, they gain agency–the ability to make decisions and affect change.

Games are also made up of stories. A designer has a particular story or experience they wish to convey, and a player has a particular history with a game that can be retold and shared. This sharing of experiences, like good books, are the surest way I know towards building empathy.

All this is to say, we ought to encourage gaming literacy with a focus on building these two things. And not just encourage playing games in a critical, reflective way, but also encourage all people to make games and tell their stories.

Luckily, there’s a ton of free game-making tools out there that are easy to use, many of them requiring no programming experience and some of them not even requiring art. It’s often assumed that making games is about the programming and art, but I believe the true power of learning game design is in learning how to plan and design relationships and experiences.

So, here’s a round up of some free tools that anyone can jump right into using. You could try them out over a weekend, during a game jam, or whenever you have free time!

The below list is culled from a collective spreadsheet found online at https://goo.gl/PpyPCC

Its level of detail and scope improves with more users, so please feel free to add to it!

This list will also be appearing in the IGDA Learning Education and Games SIG book volume 2!

Lots of these are reviewed on the awesome site Graphite.org!

Name Stencyl
URL http://www.stencyl.com/
Dev Platforms Windows, Mac, Linux
Target Platforms Flash, Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS, Android
Genres / types of games top-down, side-scrollers, platformers, flexible for almost anything
Issues and Notes Stencyl, GameMaker Studio, Construct 2, and GameSalad are all relatively similar tools to create mostly 2D platformers or topdown sprite-based games.

Stencyl uses the same drag-n-drop building-block interface for programming as Lego Mindstorms and Scratch. Graphite.org review at https://www.graphite.org/game/stencyl

Name GameMaker Studio
URL http://www.yoyogames.com/studio
Dev Platforms Windows
Target Platforms mobiles, desktops, and consoles
Genres / types of games top-down, side-scrollers, platformers, flexible for almost anything
Issues and Notes Very popular and massive community, in part due to it being available on Steam. GameMaker Studio has built-in source control through the use of usernames/passwords checking in and out process. Steps in this are 30/second, btw. Graphite.org review at https://www.graphite.org/game/gamemaker-studio
Name Construct 2
URL https://www.scirra.com/construct2
Dev Platforms Windows
Target Platforms HTML5
Genres / types of games top-down, side-scrollers, platformers, flexible for almost anything
Issues and Notes Very popular and massive community, in part due to it being available on Steam. Vibrant sharing community. Steps in this are 60/second. Graphite.org review at https://www.graphite.org/game/construct-2
Name GameSalad
URL http://gamesalad.com/
Dev Platforms Windows, Mac
Target Platforms Mac, Windows, iOS, Android
Genres / types of games top-down, side-scrollers, platformers
Issues and Notes Looks like no programming is necessary (just drag and drop). Could probably be used in more introductory courses before moving onto one of the other three (or to Unity), but there’s a paid subscription model that might not work for some classrooms. Graphite.org review at https://www.graphite.org/game/gamesalad
Name Twine
URL http://twinery.org
Dev Platforms Windows, Mac, Linux
Target Platforms browser
Genres / types of games web-based interactive stories, though technically, it could be completely image driven
Issues and Notes Twine, InkleWriter, Ren’Py, and Quest are similar in that they make text-based games with Ren’Py making “visual novels.”

Twine is massively popular as a low-barrier entry for designers from diverse backgrounds to share their voices and experiences. Very easy to use; the main barrier/bottleneck is having written content ready. Creates a URL for your interactive story. Hugely extensible through HTML, Javascript, and stylesheets, but doing all that means knowing how to do all that… Depression Quest is an excellent Twine game.

Name InkleWriter
URL http://www.inklestudios.com/inklewriter
Dev Platforms browser
Target Platforms browser
Genres / types of games choose your own adventure game books
Issues and Notes Even easier to use than Twine, but also less extensible. What’s nice is students can just jump right in through a broswer. A good example of what students could create is the Inkle version of Frankenstein on iOS. Not a huge online forum, but team seems relatively responsive. Also, lots of good press recently and some notable games (like Sorcery! and 80 Days).
Name Ren’py
URL http://www.renpy.org/
Dev Platforms Windows, Mac, Linux
Target Platforms Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS, Android
Genres / types of games visual novel
Issues and Notes This makes Japanese-style “visual novels,” which are often dating sims–text heavy with little player choices, but that’s more a genre thing than a limitation of the game platform. Examples of really good, innovative games using Ren’py include Christine Love’s Digital: A Love Story and Analogue: A Hate Story.
Name Quest
URL http://textadventures.co.uk/quest/desktop
Dev Platforms Windows
Target Platforms browser
Genres / types of games text adventures
Issues and Notes Relatively popular alternative to Twine and Inkle as it makes games with a parser (a la Zork and other Interactive Fiction). This site also hosts completed games, encouraging creators to share their stories
Name Adventure Game Studio
URL http://www.adventuregamestudio.co.uk/
Dev Platforms Windows
Target Platforms Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS, Android
Genres / types of games point-n-click adventure games like old school Sierra or LucasArts games
Issues and Notes For fans of old-school point-n-click adventure games (King’s Quest, Monkey Island, etc.). Kind of a pain to actually use, though, compared to newer apps such as Stencyl, Construct 2, or GameSalad.
Name Scratch
URL http://scratch.mit.edu/
Dev Platforms browser
Target Platforms browser
Genres / types of games stories, games, and animations
Issues and Notes Massively popular with schools and lots of academic research. Could easily create an interactive narrative in one day. Designed for ages 8 and up and classroom use. It’s easy to take and modify someone else’s game on their website. Graphite.org’s review at https://www.graphite.org/website/scratch
Name Snap!
URL http://snap.berkeley.edu/
Dev Platforms browser
Target Platforms browser
Genres / types of games 2D games, stories, and animations
Issues and Notes A derivative of Scratch that’s targetted to slightly older stuents (high school instead of pre-high school) and is meant to serve as a great intro to computer science.
Name ARIS
URL http://arisgames.org/
Dev Platforms browser
Target Platforms iOS with GPS, Android support soon!
Genres / types of games location-based mobile games, tours, and interactive stories
Issues and Notes The devs claim that the tool mechanics can be learned in an hour or two. Lots of great academic research backing up ARIS projects. Their training page has docs for teachers.
Name Kodu
URL http://www.kodugamelab.com/
Dev Platforms Windows
Target Platforms Windows, XBox
Genres / types of games 2D and 3D adventure, side scroller, racing, storytelling
Issues and Notes Kodu and Gamestar Mechanic are more like game makers that come with lessons to teach kids how to make games rather than straight up programs that a game developer would use.

Designed for ages 8 and up and classroom use. Classroom kit with lesson plans available. Graphite.org review at https://www.graphite.org/game/kodu-game-lab

Name Gamestar Mechanic
URL http://gamestarmechanic.com/
Dev Platforms Windows, Mac, Linux
Target Platforms browser
Genres / types of games 2D platformer
Issues and Notes Learn the tool mechanics as you play quests. User-paced. Graphite.org review at https://www.graphite.org/game/gamestar-mechanic
Name Unity
URL http://unity3d.com/
Dev Platforms Windows, Mac
Target Platforms Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS, Android, Steam, browser, and consoles
Genres / types of games 2D and 3D, all genres
Issues and Notes This and Unreal Engine 4 are serious game creation tools that many studios use. As such, they are the most robust of the bunch and allow for full versioning control, etc. It can take years to become expert in it, however. Would be good for advanced students, hs-level self-directed courses, or full year-long game design courses.
Name Unreal Engine 4
URL https://www.unrealengine.com/
Dev Platforms Windows, Mac
Target Platforms Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS, Android, Steam, browser, and consoles
Genres / types of games 2D and 3D, all genres
Issues and Notes This and Unity are serious game creation tools that many studios use. As such, they are the most robust of the bunch and allow for full versioning control, etc. It can take years to become expert in it, however. Would be good for advanced students, hs-level self-directed courses, or full year-long game design courses.
Name RPG Maker
URL http://www.rpgmakerweb.com/
Dev Platforms Windows
Target Platforms Windows
Genres / types of games 2D RPGs with sprites and character overlays similar to a visual novel
Issues and Notes Mostly makes old-school Japanese-style Role-Playing Games (JRPGs) with character classes, advancement schemes, and monster events are almost drag-n-drop. Adding dialog, etc. is a little trickier, or at least doesn’t seem to have it’s own heading in the tutorials that I skimmed.
Name Gamefroot
URL http://gamefroot.com/
Dev Platforms browser
Target Platforms browser, iOS for Pro
Genres / types of games 2D platformers
Issues and Notes Gamefroot, Flowlab, and Sploder are browser based apps. They are pretty limited but are included here in case someone needs a browser based app (e.g. teachers who have no administration rights to their computers).

Sort of similar to GameSalad, but so far I’ve seen only the most basic of games come out of using Gamefroot… Maybe in the right hands, this could be a contender, but, if you can manage it, I’d suggest just going with one of the first few tools on this list instead.

Name Flowlab
URL http://flowlab.io/
Dev Platforms browser
Target Platforms browser
Genres / types of games 2D platformers
Issues and Notes This tool is notable for the way it uses flowcharts to diagram programming logic. The user interface has many, many issues and is likely to frustrate greatly, though. Graphite.org review at https://www.graphite.org/game/flowlab
Name Sploder
URL http://www.sploder.com/
Dev Platforms browser
Target Platforms browser
Genres / types of games varied: platformers, puzzlers, top-down shooters
Issues and Notes Actually, Sploder offers a suite of tools to make different types of games, but they are all pretty rigid with no consistency in user-interface between them. Graphite.org review at https://www.graphite.org/website/sploder
Name CraftStudio
URL http://craftstud.io/
Dev Platforms Windows, Mac, Linux
Target Platforms Windows, Mac, Linux, HTML5
Genres / types of games 3D games
Issues and Notes Both visual and Lua text scripting options. Building blocks. CraftStudio is relatively unique in that it allows for multiple users to manipulate the same project at the same time (like Google Docs). The fact that designers can work on the same project live, without having to worry about versioning, checking assets in and out, etc. makes this definitely one to watch, especially for group-based classroom use.

 

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