A GOLDEN ERA FOR USER-CREATION
When I was about ten years old, one of my favourite games to play on my Mac (I know…) was The Incredible Machine. I think it was more famous as a DOS game back then, but the basic gist of the game was creating intricate and ridiculous Rube Goldberg-esque machines. The main game was a series of puzzles where a ‘machine’ was left half-finished and the player has to fill in the gaps with whatever was available (handguns, mice, balloons, fans, hoovers etc.) to complete an objective. It was good fun, but the real draw was creation mode, where my ten-year-old imagination could run wild.
Creation mode seemed limitless to me at the time; a wonderful mixture of fun and ridiculous puzzle pieces that could be put together in infinite combinations. Gravity and air pressure could be changed too, resulting in brilliant, hilarious results on screen: umpteen cats chasing mice in zero-gravity; handguns firing bullets across the screen to switch on desk fans; an army of tiny people finding their way to their tiny houses.
Looking at screenshots and footage of the game now, it’s laughable how simple it really is. What seemed at the time to be a promise of endless possibility was actually just a million slight variations on the same crude practical joke.
But it harboured in me, at ten years old, a curiosity about how games work; how the logic of them fits together to create captivating things happen on screen. I’d make ‘stories’ in the game, using the limited palette available to create epic tales, in my mind at least.
For today’s curious and creative ten-year-olds, things are a lot better, with three games in particular leading the charge for what I think is the golden era of user-creation.
First, there’s Dreams on PS4. Media Molecule proved themselves the darlings of user-created game content with LittleBigPlanet, but Dreams promises to be much wider in scopes and more granular in detail. Where user creations in LittleBigPlanet were (mostly) limited to the confines of Sackboy’s ‘unique’ jumping arc and physics, Dreams looks to truly be a game of a million games.
I’ve watched videos on some truly incredible user creations made in Dreams, and I’m blown away by them. I will never have the time to make anything as impressive as what I’ve seen, but its existence makes me truly jealous of every young PS4 owner lucky enough to get their hands on it.
Nintendo has its own answer to Dreams though.
I’ve had a play about with Labo VR’s own toolkit for making mini-games. It’s a surprisingly detailed bit of kit, and while the focus is definitely on making little experiments rather than full games, I was happy to see how in-depth you can get.
Every mini-game in the Labo VR kit was made using the same system, and they can all be opened on a deep, logical level and toyed with. Inputs and outputs can be changed freely, and there’s a push towards encouraging kids to understand how the technology works and experiment with it joyful, tactile ways.
I’ve not created anything worthwhile yet, but I love being able to make things react to button pushes and waves of the arm in real-time. It’s like being exposed to a Nintendo-themed Matrix, but instead of green code falling down the screen it’s fun little Switch-themed gizmos and nodes.
However, moreso than Dreams or Labo VR, there is one game on the horizon that I think will usher in a whole new generation of young game developers: Super Mario Maker 2.
Bear with me here.
I know I just said that LittleBigPlanet was limited, and in comparison Super Mario Maker 2 seems even more limited. However, those limits also happen to be the engine behind the best and most recognisable 2D platform series ever (sorry Sonic…)
Everybody knows Mario, and every kid dreams of making their own adventures for him.
The first Mario Maker was brilliant, but now it looks like the possibilities have been expanded exponentially. Not only that, but with the Switch having been such a mammoth success compared to the Wii U, there’s an in-built massive community of budding creators. I truly believe Nintendo has a smash-hit in its hands.
Through Dreams, Labo VR and Mario Maker 2, we’re going to see a whole generation of young minds being opened up the the possibilities of game design, and that’s a wonderful thought.