After a hands-off preview of Nintendo’s upcoming Game Builder Garage, I am tentatively optimistic that it will be the game-creating teaching tool I never had growing up but wished I did. With a vibe inspired by Nintendo Labo sans the cardboard, Game Builder Garage centers around a core of guided lessons, each several minutes long, that teach users how to make seven distinct video games. These include a runner, a racing game, a motion-controlled maze, a 2D side-scrolling shooter, a 3D adventure game, an escape room, and a multiplayer game of tag.
I was introduced to Game Builder Garage through one of the lessons you’re watching now, in which the goal was to make a game called Alien Blaster, a sidescroller where the player controls a little UFO that, well, blasts aliens. This was lesson four, meaning that a rudimentary version of Alien Blaster had already been built in previous lessons, so far consisting of just a single screen and a couple aliens to blast. It centered around teaching the player to build out the level further, with more aliens and obstacles, and then actually getting the screen to scroll.
The immediately apparent brilliance of Game Builder Garage lies in the ways it breaks down programming problems via its cast of Nodons — mysterious creatures that “live” in a Nintendo Switch and make games work. Though really just a kid-friendly explanation for coding, the Nodons add a necessary burst of personality to the lessons, with each different type of Nodon — objects, inputs, counters, and so many more — given its own distinct personality reflective of its job. Their uses are explained not just by their appearances, but also by a friendly bouncing blue dot named Bob that walks you through each step of building a game. This includes making very normal programming “mistakes” on purpose, like setting your screen scroll speed so fast you go careening into space, so you can then learn how to rectify them.
Game Builder Garage is fundamentally about making the seven games packed in with it, and there isn’t much creative freedom within the lessons themselves. They’re there to explain themselves step by step, which may be frustrating to experienced game makers but is critical for the game’s primary audience: coding novices, especially kids. But that doesn’t mean people with experience can’t enjoy the Garage, as there’s a separate game mode that lets users create freely with all the tools of Game Builder Garage available to them. I saw a handful of custom games during the preview, including something that looked like Hyperdot with a shooting mechanic, a far more complex version of Alien Blaster, and what appeared to be a recreation of that old pinball game everyone had on their computers once upon a time, Space Cadet.
As the representative playing the preview dug into the free creation mode, I was shown a number of fascinating features that speak to Game Builder Garage’s further potential as both an educational and creation tool. These included the ability to make either competitive or cooperative games for up to four players, Nodons that are impacted by the Switch’s motion controls, lessons in making and programming AI, and the ability to link games together — suggesting that someone might be able to craft a detailed level within one “game,” then link it to another level in another game and make a far more complex beast.
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=It%26%2339%3Bs%20not%20accurate%20to%20think%20of%20Game%20Builder%20Garage%20as%20some%20kind%20of%20limitless%20creative%20tool%20ala%20Dreams.”]
But it’s not accurate to think of Game Builder Garage as some kind of limitless creative tool ala Dreams. It has limitations; some obvious, some not. For instance, there are only so many sound effects, and for obvious reasons you can’t upload your own. Same with music — Game Builder Garage includes pre-built tunes and ways to adjust the instrumentation, volume, and speed, but that’s it. Visual assets have a bit more freedom as you can build more complex objects out of smaller shapes, but Nintendo seems to be taking the view that people who already have experience and are looking for something far more complex should probably do that instead rather than try to build an extremely detailed tank out of thousands of interacting shapes (though if you really want to, the rep who ran my preview said Nintendo is curious to see you try).
The most notable limitation to Game Builder Garage is something that has been absolutely essential to Nintendo’s other user-generated content venture, Super Mario Maker: proper sharing functions. During the preview, I was told that Game Builder Garage will have a function that lets you upload any games you make online, generating a code that you can share with friends to let them download what you made. Then, they can both play it for themselves as well as take it apart, examine the Nodons that make it up, and learn from, edit, and reassemble it as they like on their own. The ability to see into the guts of someone else’s game is one of my favorite bits of Game Builder Garage, and potentially its most powerful teaching tool after the lessons themselves.
But this is hampered meaningfully by the fact that Game Builder Garage does not include any organic discoverability feature whatsoever. There’s no built-in browser, no 100 Mario Challenge equivalent, and seemingly no ability to just find interesting games without inputting a known game code, meaning discovery functions will likely be offloaded naturally to social media platforms. I suspect this is in part a recognition of the issues with Super Smash Bros. Stage Builder. It’s already hard enough to detect explicit imagery in creation tools like this, and now that players will be working with customizable shapes instead of just Mario Maker’s less malleable blocks, it likely made sense for Nintendo to try and avoid the issue of moderation almost altogether, though you can still report courses that you look up via code if someone sends you an offensive one.
[poilib element=”quoteBox” parameters=”excerpt=The%20ability%20to%20see%20into%20the%20guts%20of%20someone%20else%26%2339%3Bs%20game%20is%20potentially%20its%20most%20powerful%20teaching%20tool%20after%20the%20lessons%20themselves.”]
It’s an understandable decision, if a frustrating one, if you think of Game Builder Garage’s audience. This is a game for people who do not know how to make video games, that will enable them to make seven functional video games without any experience or knowledge of how anything works. It’s a kid-friendly introduction focused on teaching tools; it is not intended as a place to make things with a Dreams-esque level of detail and complexity. Still, even though discoverability is limited, there seems to be potential for something like the community of streamers and creators that sprang up around Mario Maker and built wild, interesting courses — provided those with interest and ability are willing to take to social media to spread the good word.
But with its focus on education first, Game Builder Garage seems perfect for me, a total goober who blinked at RPG Maker once in high school and thought, “No, that’s too much.” More importantly though, its colorful cast of Nodons are poised to be helpful, personable guides to game development for the middle school-or-thereabouts age group they’re targeting. With Game Builder Garage’s lessons purported to come from “the minds at Nintendo,” I’m stoked to see the future creations that an upcoming generation of game creators make under its tutelage.
Rebekah Valentine is a news reporter for IGN. You can find her on Twitter @duckvalentine.