One of my favorite former students (who is now enjoying a professor’s job of his own) emailed to ask for my advice on a videogame design course he’s teaching. It seems that it’s becoming more common for professors of humanities to teach this kind of course, even though few of us have the programming chops to teach C++ or Java. Fortunately, there are plenty of options out there for teachers who want to teach the basics of game development without having to learn (or explain to wide-eyed students) pointers, classes, and syntax. Better yet, these tools are powerful enough to create great games, even commercial quality games. Even better–they’re all free for teachers and students.
When I’m considering a tool for helping students make games, I have a few criteria in mind:
- Ease of Use. How much prior knowledge is required before your students can get in there and start making games? In most non-programming classes, there just isn’t time to dedicate to technical instruction. Ideally, students will only need a brief introduction to the tool before they start using it.
- Versatility. How versatile is the tool? It’s also important to consider what kind of assignment or project you have in mind. If, for instance, you want students to create a text adventure, you’d want something like Inform 7, a very powerful, but intuitive, engine for this kind of game. If, on the other hand, you want students to have the option of creating shoot’em up games, point-and-click adventures, or even first-person shooters, you’ll need something more versatile.
- Compatibility. What platforms do you want the resulting games to run on? For maximum compatibility, I prefer a tool that can make games that will play right in your web browser. If you want students to make games for iOS or Android, you’ll need to make sure the tool supports it.
- Assets. How many assets are freely or cheaply available? By “assets,” I mean stuff like graphics, sprites, sounds, and music, but also scripts or packages students can install to add functionality to their games. For example, game creation tools have scripts you can implement to add high score tables, fancy explosions, or even realistic physics. In many cases, developing these things on their own will be much too involved, so it’s nice to know that they can add this functionality with only a few clicks.
- Transferability. How transferable is the knowledge they’ll gain by working with the tool? Ideally, they will have learned concepts, principles, and techniques that will apply equally well to other tools. There’s less advantage in mastering a complex scripting language, for instance, if it only works for one tool.
Below, I’ve taken three different tools that I and others have used in the classroom, ranking them from 1 (poor) to 5 (excellent) in each of these criteria.
Construct 2 is a tool that allegedly makes game creation “effortless.” It is easy to use, and the games you create with it can easily be posted on a website for sharing online. It’s very well supported with tutorials, manuals, and materials specifically created for students. The website has a store where you can purchase sounds, music, and more. It’s being very actively developed, and the support community is growing fast. In short, even if you don’t intend to use it, it’s one you want to keep your eye on.
- Ease of Use: 3/5. Construct 2 is easy enough if you’ve taken the time to work through the tutorials first (plan to spend at least a few hours doing this before presenting it to your class).
- Versatility: 3/5. A look at the arcade page should give you a good idea of the variety of games and applications you can build with this tool. the engine is based on HTML5, which makes it ideal for browser-based games. Obviously, you’re not going to be making the next COD with this tool, but it does have a physics engine for making games like Angry Birds or Catapult.
- Compatibility: 3/5. Just about everything you can think of is supported, but only if you pay for the personal ($118.99) or business ($398.99) versions. The free version is limited to HTML5, but since that can run in a browser, it’s actually quite versatile, and seems to be steadily replacing Flash.
- Assets: 3/5. Construct 2 ships with a few sprite packs, but there are none available on the online store. One of the forum members on the site also posted a big list of free assets you might find useful.
Gamemaker is the tool I learned to make games with, so I’m naturally a bit partial to it. However, the free version of the product (called “Studio”) is now limited in painful ways, including a cap on the resources you can use. Serious users will have to spend an appalling $800 for the “Master” package before they can export to Android, iOS, and HTML 5. However, if you just want to make games for Mac and PC, the $50 package will suffice. All in all, I love this product, but $800 for the real package just makes it a non-starter.
- Ease of Use: 3/5. I consider Gamemaker easy to learn; it’s pretty much drag’n drop. The scripting language will take more time to master, but it’s about as easy as it’s going to get.
- Versatility: 5/5. I wouldn’t try to make a first-person shooter with, but there are really lots of possibilities here. In my opinion, it excels at making platform, shoot’em up, and 2D RPG games, but it’s powerful enough to do just about anything, including 3D games.
- Compatibility: 1/5. Unless you’re willing to shell out $800, you’re stuck with an executable that will only run on Windows.
- Assets: 3/5. Gamemaker ships with plenty of art, sounds, and so on to get started with, and several other packs you can download.
- Transferability: 3/5. Beyond general concepts of game design, you’re not going to learn much here that will be useful when you graduate to the next level. However, the scripting language is well-integrated and fairly powerful. Moving from that to C# or Java won’t be simple, though.
- Ease of Use: 5/5. It just doesn’t get easier than this. If you struggle making a simple game with Stencyl, you just aren’t trying.
- Versatility: 4/5. A look at the Stencyl showcase suggests that users are most comfortable building platform games with it, though the built-in physics engine (the same one the $800 Gamemaker uses!) should enable physics-based games like Angry Birds as well.
- Compatibility: 2/5. The problem here is that you are limited to Flash (.swf) games. Almost everything but iPhones and iPads have Flash, so it’s not a huge deal, but you won’t be able to make standalone games (like .exe for Windows) for free. Instead of just paying a one-time fee to do more, you have to take out a yearly subscription: $79 for Flash and Desktop, $149 for iOS and Android ($99 for students), and $199 ($149 for students) for everything.
- Assets: 5/5. The built-in StencylForge tool makes it easy to plugin everything from graphics and sounds to “behaviors” and “kits.” Behaviors are common things you might want your characters to do, such as moving around, following a path, or bouncing. The “kits” are pretty much rough drafts of game types that can be modified and customized into a complete game.
- Transferability: 4/5. If you stick to the drag’n drop interface, you’ll only be getting basic concepts, but Haxe looks (to me, at least!) to be a big step towards learning the professional stuff.
Each of these options has its diehard fans, but, really, each one has its drawbacks. Gamemaker is probably the most powerful of the three, but $800 is far too much to spend on a hobby development kit, period. However, it is the only free option or making executable files (which will likely run much faster than HTML5 or Flash games). However, in my experience, being able to share games in a browser is absolutely key, since few folks will care to download and install an executable file on their computer.
So, the real choice comes down to Stencyl vs. Construct 2. Both offer a lot of functionality with their free versions, but there are advantages to upgrading to a “professional package.” The free version of Stencyl limits you to Flash (.swf) files; you’ll have to pay a yearly subscription to make standalone games or export to other platforms. Construct 2’s free version limits you to HTML5 games. Many people nowadays favor HTML5; it’s not controlled by a single company (Flash games require Adobe’s Flash Player to run), and almost all web browsers support it. HTML5 is controlled by a committee made up of Opera, Mozilla, and Apple, so it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.
In short, if I were limited to the free versions of either Stencyl or Construct 2, I’d go with Construct 2. That said, either would be fine for most classrooms, and the only real downside to Construct 2 is the lack of a built-in store for buying or downloading assets. If it had something like Stencyl’s StencylForge, it’d be a clear winner.
If all three of these options look overwhelming, there’s always Scratch. It’s specifically designed for kids–so, yeah, you’ll probably feel like an idiot if you can’t figure it out. It’s very simplified, so don’t expect to make anything commercial quality games with it. However, if your goal is just to learn the basics and basic exposure to development concepts, I think this is a great choice.
If you’re teaching in a Macintosh lab, you should also consider GameSalad. I’d especially recommend this if you’re an Apple fan who wants to make games for iPhones and iPads. Last year, they released a Beta version for Windows, so hopefully an official release will be arriving soon.
Finally, there are some freely available resources that everyone should know about. One is the Open Game Art Bundle. It includes lots of professional quality soundtracks, artwork, and spritesheets. Another great resource is SpriteLib, another large collection of sprites. OpenGameArt.Org is a great source for free game art–and if you’re teaching graphics or art yourself, it’d be great to have your students contribute their work to it.
If you’ve used any of these tools before, let me know your thoughts on them. Also, if there’s another tool you think should be mentioned here, feel free to mention it in the comments section.