Game Builder Garage is an important step forward for Nintendo.
One might have laughed at Labo’s experiment with folding cardboard and using physical objects assembled by players themselves to improve simple games. But behind these paper creations is a vigorous leap for a company that has traditionally relied most heavily on its well-loved beloved series.
Nowhere is this shift more evident than in Labo Garage, a “Build What You Want” mode that lets people play with the same tools that make Labo projects work. Now Nintendo is taking this concept further by abandoning cardboard and creating a Switch game cartridge that has all the tools needed to make an entire game for Switch.
It all starts with the nodons. These “creatures of great character,” as Nintendo describes them, are the building blocks of any game created in Game Builder Garage. On the programming screen, they look like little colorful boxes that can take on any number of roles. By forming connections between the different nodons, literally drawing a line between them, you define the rules of the game.
Thus, the Stick nodon – which has a cute little symbol on the control handle to help identify it – which tells Switch how to react when someone moves the control handle left or right, can be attached to the Person nodon for left/right movements. If you want the Person Nodon to be able to jump as well, just invoke the Button Nodon and connect it to the right place on the Person Nodon.
See how the line extends from the Button Nodon to the Person Nodon. Forming the links that dictate the rules in the Game Designer Garage is very simple.
Look at how the line stretches from the nodon of the stick to the nodon of the person. Forming connections to dictate the rules in the “Game Builder’s Garage” is just as simple.
The seven games included in the game, which must be assembled by following the instructions, serve as lessons that introduce players to key programming concepts in Game Builder Garage. Crucially, many of these lessons show the “wrong” way to do something before presenting a way to fix it–though “right” and “wrong” are a bit of a misnomer here; the only limitation is the player’s creativity.
For example, one of the games you have to create is a side-scrolling shooter in which you control a spaceship and shoot off aliens. One of the lessons in this project teaches you how to make the screen scroll from left to right by first addressing the “Game Screen” nodon and applying several other nodons to its X-axis.
If you follow the instructions step by step, the screen scrolls from left to right. But these basic instructions cause the scrolling speed to be too fast for the game–when you go to the game view, the camera just whizzes past everything. This intentional error opens the door to a kind of lesson that allows Game Builder Garage to more clearly explain the nuances of the Nodons you’ll use to power the scrolling game screen.
This should be the focus throughout the seven sets of Game Builder lessons. By allowing players to make mistakes in a controlled environment of guided instructions that act as a tutorial, Nintendo gives them an idea of how the basic mechanics work.
The idea is to take all the tips and tricks learned in the seven guided exercises and transfer them to Game Builder Garage’s Free Programming mode. Here, the training wheels are removed and players are left with a dizzying list of nodons to choose from. This is where the main part of the game should come to life.
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It also makes the whole game somewhat challenging to preview. There are tons and tons of nodons and connectivity options, from easy to understand, such as stick and button nodons, to more mathematically oriented creatures, such as an absolute value nodon or a trigger nodon of 0. A superficial look at all of this is simply discouraging. So how will players keep track of it all?
Nintendo hopes that the exercises, each of which is a special course in game development, will help people get the hang of it. Each one has several parts – the aforementioned “shooter” has 10 lessons – and covers several topics, while circumstantial points (like the scrolling example) are meant to highlight how players can modify the rules to create something original.
Also, despite the cute atmosphere, the concepts behind each build are pretty universal. The AAA game development tools with which Assassin’s Creed or Call of Duty are built may look and work differently, but they still rely on many of the same basics. Nintendo has simply put those basics into a charming, user-friendly package that is inherently designed to speak the language of real game development and teach it. You can even plug a USB mouse into your Switch console and use it with this software.
The $30 price tag from the start speaks volumes about how Nintendo looks at this new Game Builder Garage experiment. It’s an admission that this thing isn’t really a game. Like Labo, it’s a toy. Yes, a toy that stimulates creativity, and a toy that can serve as a sort of tutorial. But unlike Mario or Zelda, the depth here is literally whatever you make it.
It’s game design, reduced to clicking and swiping. Kids in particular should be attracted to cute characters, a bright color palette, and silly names. But all of this is just a cover for a set of game development exercises that teach users the rules and tools of Game Builder Garage (and game development in general!), with each lesson culminating in the creation of a tangible creation that can be played like any other game.
In the end, they are just a starting point, and it’s another sign that this set is different from the typical Switch cartridge. In most of the games we buy, the structured material is the whole goal. But here it’s just a hurdle, a necessary limitation. The built-in tutorials are meant to show you how things work, but the real bounty of Game Builder Garage is what you’ll do by following all the directions.
Game Builder Garage comes out for the Nintendo Switch on June 11.