So Your Kid Wants To Be A Game Designer

Game Review: Gamestar Mechanic
Release: October 2010
Genre: Adventure / Educational
Developer: E-Line Media / Institute of Play
Available Platforms: Web Browser Based
Players: 1
MSRP: Free
Premium Membership: $5.95 US / Month
ESRB Rating: Not Rated

So your kid wants to be a game designer.  Where does one start?  If this is on your mind, or the mind of any “tween” you know, send them (and yourself) to check out Gamestar Mechanic where the basics of game design can be explored – for free.  Keeping the emphasis on design instead of programming allows Gamestar Mechanic to be fun and inviting to children.

As the character Addison, you enter the world of Factory 7 – where game designers rule – and where trouble is afoot.  An elite game designer has stolen rare and precious sprites and gone rogue!  You (Addison) are looking to join the League of Game Mechanics and partner with each of the Schools of Game Design to develop the skills you will need to catch the thief, recover the sprites and save Factory 7 from those trying to destroy the gaming way of life!  And thus the first quest “Addison Joins the League” begins.

The quests are presented in anime-steampunk comic-book panels with simple animation.  It’s nicely done and lends to the site being mainly for children.  As the player proceeds through the story there are mini-games that have to be completed.  These vary from top-view style games to side scrollers but stop short of getting into 3D rendering or modelling.  They are all “flat” sprite based games that feel a bit retro in style but make a wonderful foundation for learning design.

Each mini-game serves a purpose in teaching game design and acts as a milestone to earn components (sprites) that can be used later to build your own games.  For example, one of the early games is just as simple as walking through a simple maze to make sure the path from the entrance to the exit can be traversed.  The reward for completing 3 levels of this mini-game is the sprite used to create the walls and barriers in a level.  I found the approach of “you must learn how a thing works before we let you have it” a refreshing and motivating approach or building a library of sprites.  This assures you will know the purpose, usage, and pitfalls of each element available to you for your own designs.

Don’t expect to jump right in and start throwing game levels together.  Until the first five levels (chapters) are completed, constructing a game isn’t even an option.  The focus is on learning what each sprite does, planning a level and even learning to spot design mistakes in levels and fixing them (such as walls making some treasures uncollectable).  Once able to access the workshop, your games that you have designed can be played by friends and family.  The icing on the cake is that the entire experience can be managed via a parent account.

I found the site to be a great introduction to the thought processes behind designing video games as well as an entertaining adventure with an age appropriate storyline.  For a second opinion, I went to a member of the target audience, my fifteen year old son, Dakota.

Dakota has expressed interest in game design for several years.  It began with level editors in games like Halo 3 and learning what works and what doesn’t through trial and error.  He soon moved into working with the Doom engine and creating levels for a retro PC game, Chex Quest, to play online with his friends.  (There really is an underground fan base for this FPS based on Chex cereal.)  So, he’s a little farther along than a beginner (he has done some fantastically elaborate levels for Halo and Doom) but still within the target age.  Dakota had this to say about his time with Gamestar Mechanic.

“Gamestar Mechanic is a neat online game and a good start for those who want to have more insight on the structure of games. The game has a Quest mode in which for every few (or so) levels, you earn a sprite.  It can either be a playable character for your game, an enemy, piece of scenery, etcetera, in which you can go into the workshop and create your own games with. The quest was quite fun, as were the additional bonus levels in which one can earn more sprites.

When creating games in the Workshop, you can choose whether the game has a Top-Down Perspective, or if it has a Platformer (Side-Scroller) Perspective.  As far as enemies go, you can edit their properties, and modify how much damage they deal, how much health they have, their paths and speeds.  You can also choose what type of character you control with settings for jumping or shooting, as well as the health and the speed levels.

Overall, Gamestar Mechanic is a good place for one to start if they want to know more about creating video games.” – Dakota Forbis

Gamestar Mechanic and its “Play, Design, Share” concept is the brain child of Eric Zimmerman who wrote the original proposal in 2006.  With generous funding from the MacArthur Foundation, the project originally called “Game Designer” became a reality, finally launching in October 2010.  The project survived the closing of Zimmerman’s GameLab (Creator of Diner Dash) and is now in the watchful hands of the Institute of Play, also founded by Zimmerman and his GameLab partner, Peter Lee.   These are some seriously creative people, working on new ways of combining play and learning, and Gamestar Mechanic is a shining example of how entertainment and education can be blending into an immersive adventure that can keep children engaged.

While only the first quest of Gamestar Mechanic is free, it is more than enough to show what the game has to offer to children and parents.  Additional quests and features are available to premium members at $5.95 US per month or $49.95 US annually.

Premium subscribers can review data about how others play the games they design.  This allows young designers to see what players find to be fun about the games they create and what may need to be improved.  Additional quests, sprite collections, backdrops and soundtracks are also available only to premium members.

If you have a child or teen – or know one who wants designing video games to be a part of their future, turn them onto Gamestar Mechanic.  It will give them a glimpse of what it takes and who knows, it might just inspire them to pursue a career in gaming to create new and innovative games for all of us to play.

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