Most of the game developers you know today, and even the ones you don’t, grew up making games with some extremely arcane tools. Nintendo’s newest game, Game Builder Garage, might look like it’s aimed at kids — but it’s part of a new era of game development that’s more accessible than ever.
Back in the day, a lot of developers learned the ropes with BASIC — a precursor to modern programming languages, which you probably know as the one that you can use to “PRINT “Hello, World!”“. Developers that are a little older may have used Assembly language, which is pretty much the language that computers themselves speak.
Assembly is what’s known as a “low-level” programming language, which means it has fewer of the abstraction layers that make higher-level languages easier for human people to use. It’s like speaking fluent French to a French person, rather than having to check a guide to ask where the toilets are, or asking Google Translate to turn “my leg has fallen off” into French for you. As a result, it’s fast, because no “translation” is needed, but it’s also extremely hard to make complex things with it, unless you’re basically a programming wizard.
Imagine trying to write a novel in Latin with your eyes closed, and that’s pretty much what it’s like to make games in Assembly. Almost all NES, SNES, and Mega Drive games were made in Assembly, as well as the original Pokémon games, and Rollercoaster Tycoon, which is insane.
Fast forward to a little later on, and a surprisingly high number of modern-day video game developers got their start in FPS modding. Dear Esther, the game that kicked off the “walking simulator” genre, began life as a Half-Life 2 mod, and so did The Stanley Parable.
Others, like Super Meat Boy and Binding of Isaac creator Edmund McMillen, found success in Flash (RIP), publishing their games on sites like Newgrounds and eventually gathering enough support to publish them for real. Some people even learned to code on Neopets. Seriously.
Hopefully, this extremely brief history lesson of early-ish game dev has helped you realise how it’s honestly a miracle that anyone ever pushed past these obtuse game tools to create the video games you know and love.
Right, we’re quite a few paragraphs in, and I haven’t really mentioned the title of this piece yet. Game Builder Garage is Nintendo’s new game, announced out of nowhere, that promises that “anyone can be a game programmer”. It’s actually not new at all, but a revamped, expanded version of the software included with the Labo VR kit, which sadly didn’t sell particularly well.
Game Builder Garage is the latest in a crop of tools that make game development even more accessible, in the hopes that children of all ages will be able to understand what’s going on behind the scenes of games like Minecraft, Super Mario, and Fortnite.
There’s the PlayStation-exclusive Dreams, which lets players create… pretty much whatever they want; Roblox includes game creation tools that are so popular that some fan-made games, like “Adopt Me!“, have made millions of dollars. Minecraft’s Command Blocks, which allow players to mess with commands in the game, was introduced in 2012, and has since inspired players to create some extremely complex things.
There are even games about programming. If you’ve played Tomorrow Corporation’s Human Resource Machine, then congratulations — you’ve experienced Assembly. If you’ve given puzzle game Opus Magnum a go, then you’ve basically started learning multithreaded programming. If you’ve put any number of hours into legendarily complex game, TIS-100, then… you might be beyond help.
So, how does Game Builder Garage fit into these accessible tools? It doesn’t look quite as complex as Command Blocks, but it’s definitely a few levels above Super Mario Maker. Nintendo’s developers have done a lot of the fiddly work for you, like creating the art assets that you can use, from characters to objects. That leaves you, the player, free to play around with these tools to make something new — whether that’s a simple platforming level, a top-down shooter, or a much more complex idea, like a recreation of your favourite Zelda game.
What Game Builder Garage does (at least, in the trailer) is turn all that programming gunk into friendly faces. Variables, logic gates, commands, and inputs alike are now chatty, tutorialised monsters, and it’s hard to get annoyed at a colourful little monster. What’s more, the visual interface — what you’re interacting with on screen — is a simplified version of node-based programming, which is commonly used in game development software, like Unreal Engine’s blueprint system.
So, not only will kids (and adults) be able to learn the basics of programming through bright, accessible, charming methods, but they’re actually learning real programming methods that are in use in actual game studios. Game Builder Garage is a gateway to more complex systems, just like nursery rhymes are a gateway to music, lyric writing, and poetry, and learning the alphabet is a gateway to writing novels.
What this means for game development has yet to be seen — but, if the game developers of today got their start in Flash, Half-Life 2 modding, and making crappy BASIC games on their Commodore 64, imagine what the class of 2030 will be doing after getting their start with much more friendly tools. Greater accessibility also means a wider range of people will be able to learn game development with fewer obstacles (like cost, availability, and support), and that hopefully means a more diverse generation of game developers in the future, which can only be a good thing.
The game developers who earned their stripes back in the ’00s, ’90s, ’80s, and ’70s are old enough to have children of their own, now, in an age where video games are pretty mainstream. The idea that they could learn programming from Nintendo — a company which employs some of the greatest game designers in the world — would have probably blown their minds back when they were painstakingly trying to emulate Super Mario’s mechanics, copying code chunks out of a programming book the size of their head.
Game Builder Garage may seem like a strange, weird Nintendo project that no one really asked for — but it’s part of a game development revolution that could change the future of gaming. Here’s to the next generation of creators!