Kodu, you may remember, is the game programming tool shown at CES by “actual 12-year-old girl,” Sparrow. It was cartoony and cute and bright, and many people wrote it off instantly: “LBP rip-off!”, “Stupid rock-carrying game?!”, and so on. I really wanted to try it out, and now, apparently, it’s out. I say apparently because it’s gotten almost no press, and the only way I found out was by randomly browsing the Community Games channel and seeing it there. (Okay, Joystiq and other sites did post about it, but I had relatives over for the past two weeks so maybe I just missed it.) Still, after the CES demo I thought its release would be a much bigger event, and it would show up somewhere on the Xbox dashboard (Spotlight). It’s too bad it wasn’t released on XBLA rather than the CG channel, the place where no one dares tread.
Anyway, I’ve been playing around with it for the past few days, and it’s great! You really can create all sorts of games, from FPSs, to side-scrollers, to racing games. The interface is very well designed, for the most part, using nested pie menus for all of the actions/objects. There are lots of different lighting options and ground materials to help change the look of your games, so don’t think everything created has to be blue-skies-and-rainbows. The programming is easy, but surprisingly deep if you learn how everything works. Because it was initially designed for kids, it’s also very fast. You can go from editing your level to playing it in under a second.
I was programming a dual-stick shooter for a video I hope to put up, and my roommate started watching. “What happens when you run into the UFOs?” he asked.
“They blow up and damage your ship.”
“Is that what always happens?”
“Well no, that’s what I made them do. I can program it to do whatever. I can make them…turn into apples, if I wanted to.”
“Do it!” Literally twenty seconds later I had it working that way, just for fun. The Kode (yes, I just called it that):
WHEN bump puck DO vanish me
WHEN bump puck DO create apple
Crazy how simple it can be, isn’t it?
There are definitely limitations though. One of my biggest complaints is that not every object has every option available to it — you can create a tree that shoots missiles, but a soccer ball can’t follow a path the way lights and bots can. I was hoping each object would simply look different, and have sliders set differently (bounciness, speed, etc.), but could be programmed however you want. If you like how one vehicle controls, but wished you could use a different 3D model, you’re out of luck. But this is where extreme creativity shines. With these limitations, how far can you take it? Some game types seem impossible, but someone will figure out how to make it work. Kodu comes with a bunch of samples and prebuilt games, so you can learn how the more advanced games are programmed (they’re all editable). Be sure to check out “gawlf” to see how they brilliantly used the health bar to act as your swing power meter.
Did I mention it’s only five dollars, which is a steal? I easily would have paid $20, and with a more robust system it could have been a retail game. I should mention that Kodu does a pretty poor job at introducing you to the game. They desperately need a “play tutorials” button on the main menu, with a list of tutorials that get checked off as you go along, each one with a hint system (where’s Clippy when you need him?*). There are just three tutorials that come with Kodu, mixed in with the other games, and they don’t actually explain anything. I guess they thought it was so well designed it didn’t need any explanation. So I recommend watching some video tutorials (online — none are included) first to get an idea of it before you jump in (I hope to have some tutorials up in the near future).
You won’t be able to make the next Gears of War, and you won’t even be able to make exactly the arcade game you had in mind, but new ideas will appear, and you’ll have fun doing it. If you have kids, buy Kodu. Even if they can’t use it on their own, you can create things with them. If you’ve ever had a game idea of your own, buy Kodu. It’s designed to get you thinking like a programmer, and it succeeds.
Right now game sharing sucks — you have to be friends with the person, and both be running Kodu at the same time. They are working on a patch though, which will add three dedicated servers! There’s also a bug where levels seem to get deleted — if it happens, restart Kodu and it might fix it (more info here). The patch will also fix this and other issues.
* Please don’t include Clippy. In anything. Ever.