Want to make games? Don't worry about the code.

At the top of this year, the Code Hero project launched its Kickstarter drive, quickly attracting positive attention ranging from highly visible blog write-ups to TV news interviews. Code Hero promised to teach anyone how to make video games by way of a videogame, an undeniably attractive proposition to many.

The team’s own enthusiasm for the concept effectively counteracted the fact that the extremely ambitious project was in the earliest stages of development, and they blew past their initial $100,000 funding goal. Their page remains frozen at the moment the drive ended, so you can still see their admirably bold appeals to US senators to plug their states’ educational budgets into the project, and their giddy promise that the game would transform from a single-user experience into an MMO if they could raise just a few more thousand dollars.

As winter settles in, however, the comments page for Code Hero paints a dire portrait of the project’s status: a cascade of unhappy, empty-handed backers asking for refunds, which has more recently evolved into community investigation of where their money might have gone. Clicking around the project’s Kickstarter page and the official website, one gets the picture that the project’s team went completely quiet after missing its self-imposed early-September deadline. (Though you can continue to order $13 copies of the game on its apparently still-functional order form, if you wish.)

Perhaps the team has chosen to take a hard-line approach to completing their development with no further promises or teasers, even to the point of allowing a dissatisfied-customer backlash to flourish unchecked on their Kickstarter page. I would be delighted to see the team resurface a year from now with a polished 1.0 release. But today, I do not foresee this happening.

I surprised myself by feeling a little bit angry about this development as I revisited it recently. Not simply because the project may likely fail — I have been in the software business for long enough to let Failure just keep one of my guest parking passes in its car. It happens, and we move on. But from my perspective, this particular failure helps me better see what sounded a little off-key to me about this project when I first heard during its higher-energy days. The problem, to my ear, lies right in the title: I very much doubt that an effort to teach game design or development that leads with code, or with any other technical aspect of the art, can truly succeed.

From what I can tell by reading the experiences of those who have stumbled around its extant alpha, Code Hero says “I’ll teach you how to make games!” and then proceeds to show you how to cause green cubes to float around in a bare Unity environment by pasting around chunks of JavaScript. At best, this might be laying the groundwork for eventually showing someone how to make a very particular sort of 3D-based videogame. My doubts about its effectiveness to one side, this emphasis on the technical guts of working with primitive shapes and such strikes me as near-sighted nerdery of the bad sort, an obsession on tools and execution over concepts and spirit.

My frustration stems from the fact that this project received so much attention and money from good people hoping for what I fear is a magic bullet, when as far as I’m concerned we already know the best way to learn to make games, and it is this: Start making games. Pick up any tool at all that has a decent online community, and consider something a tad less varsity-level than Unity — Twine has been getting some well-deserved attention lately, for one, and there is also things like GameMaker or my beloved Inform. Start making tiny, awful games with broken code and ill-fitting rules that barely work, but nonetheless lurch towards the model in your head of the game that you know can be beautiful. Each attempt will make you better, and you might be shocked at how quickly you can iterate and improve.

Just as someone who is truly passionate about, say, running should consider nerdery over different brands of running shoes a distraction, so should someone truly determined to make games worry far less about tools and techniques than overall design goals. Once someone is determined to make a game, and is convinced that their dream is possible, they will teach themselves what they need to in order to make it happen. As far as I’m concerned, nothing beats making small, silly, but nonetheless completely self-motivated projects to demonstrate to oneself that one’s dreams are achievable.

Good game-studies teachers already know that the path to getting students’ brains afire about their own ability to create has nothing to do with trying to get them excited about pushing around blocks of JavaScript, or learning how shaders and splines work. The best game-development classes emphasize the value of paper prototyping, or even putting the electronics away entirely and developing compelling tabletop rules.

The code is merely a means to an end. It’s a thing to get good at eventually, sure, if you decide that making video games is a thing you want to spend a lot more time doing. But just as good coders know about the evils of premature optimization, good developers should also know that premature emphasis on code over design presents a similarly tempting pitfall. It’s the wrong foot to lead with in any education about game-making, and I’m sad to see it lead to such a public and potentially discouraging failure in the case of Code Hero.

Pick up a tool. Make terrible games. Surprise yourself. Go.

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2 Responses to Want to make games? Don't worry about the code.

  1. Miko says:

    Hi Jason, thanks for the article! You're absolutely right that people who want to make games should just start putting some stuff together and learn by doing. You've made some great points that with the tools we now have available, many designers can get started right away without needing to know too much code.

    But I think it is possible to teach anyone anything within a cleverly designed game, and I'm excited to see more teams working towards this type of goal. Maybe this wasn't the right way to go about it (or maybe the project will finish and be a runaway success!) I just hope that more people keep trying to push educational games into new directions, even if some of them fail.

    • Jason McIntosh says:

      I agree with you, and certainly do not oppose the use of games to teach. I too look forward to seeing more efforts -- and indeed suspect that there exist quite a few already, just none that promised the moon so much (and then sputtered out so sadly) as this one.

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