What’s In A Game?

What’s In A Game?

So, if I’m going to be blogging about game creation programs, one central question that has to be addressed is that of the criteria for inclusion. What is a game creation program, exactly? (This is by no means the only important question that has to be addressed, but I’ll cover the others in a separate post.) For many programs, the answers are obvious. GameMaker Studio is obviously a game creation program. (Heck, it’s even right there in the name.) Intuit QuickBooks just as obviously isn’t. But there are some edge cases that have to be considered.

The decisions about these cases are by nature arbitrary. By their nature, these cases are ambiguous, and an argument could be made either way. But I have to draw a line somewhere, so in this post I’m going to endeavor as best I can to firm up exactly where the line will be drawn.

First of all, the core criterion is that the software in question must be primarily intended for the creation of games—or at least the creation of games must explicitly be a major intended purpose. The fact that it can be used to make games, or has been used to make games, isn’t enough to qualify. It’s not hard to make a game in PowerPoint, but that’s not what it was designed for, and not what it’s advertised as. I wouldn’t be surprised if with enough creativity you could figure out how to make a game in Intuit QuickBooks. That doesn’t make it a game creation system.

Also, when I say a “game”, I mean a program intended for the purpose of entertainment. That includes so-called “edutainment“, where the game is intended to educate as well as entertain, but it doesn’t include “serious games” that, for instance, create interactive scenarios intended for industrial training purposes, or explorable 3D environments for “flythroughs” of proposed construction projects. Yes, those same engines could easily be turned to use to make entertaining choice-based games, or 3D game settings… but if that’s not what they’re intended for, or not what they’re used for, then I’ll exclude them. My list is long enough I probably need to find excuses to exclude more than I’m already excluding anyway.

But even what that criterion firmly set, there are still some special cases to consider. Such as…

  • What genres of game will be included?
All of them. A game is a game.

My favorite game genres are RPGs and adventure games. I’d never get tired of creating those. To a lesser degree, I often enjoy some puzzle games and platformers, too, and maybe some strategy games. But there are a lot of racing games with track editors, and golf games with course editors, and shooter makers, and so on, and I’ll cover those too. I’ve even got a couple of programs on my list, for example, that are geared toward dating sim games, and I’m… not looking forward to those. Particularly since I know little enough about dating sim games that I’m going to feel obligated to try playing some first to get a feel for how they’re supposed to work, and as little as I know about them I’m still pretty certain they’re not going to be my cup of tea. But I will suffer for my art.

  • What about level editors for existing games?
On balance, I think level editors have enough in common with full fledged game creation systems that they should probably be included. It’s not always easy to draw a line between the two anyway, and there are some level editors that are much more powerful and versatile than some nominally full-fledged game creation systems; at times the only difference is that the former comes with preset levels to play and the latter does not (or at least that the latter downplays them in favor of the ability for the user to construct new levels).

What about a Flash game with a level editor? Sure. Why not? It’s easily disposed of. A fanmade level editor, rather than one that shipped with the game? Yes. I admit that including level editors seriously bloats my list, since there are a lot of them, but on the other hand it mostly bloats my list with simple little systems that can be dealt with quickly.

There are some limits, though, in what I’ll consider a level editor, and what will therefore be included. “Editors” that only edit details with little or no bearing on gameplay won’t count; I’d say with possible rare exceptions at minimum the editor must allow the user to edit the game maps. I won’t bother with editors that just let you change some graphics, or character editors (fanmade or otherwise) that just let you change the player’s stats or equipment. I’m also not going to bother with “editors” that just allow you to add bits of text like new questions for quiz games, or new word lists for word searches or automatically created crosswords. I also won’t count programs like Tiled or Mappy that let you lay out maps but don’t actually create them in-game, or in general have a way of directly importing the maps into the game. Also, an open-source port of a game doesn’t count as a level editor; yes, the open-source nature makes it easier to mod, but unless it has dedicated editing tools released with it it’s beyond the scope of this blog

  • What about simulator games that have a “sandbox” mode?
Many games like the Sims, Second Life, Dwarf Fortress, Line Rider, and Minecraft have sandbox modes that let you build whatever you want. But they’re not really game creation systems, or even level editors, because you’re not making a game; you’re just building an environment… you’re not setting objectives, or necessarily placing things with the intent of someone else interacting with them. You could certainly externally impose some goals—I know people have built games in Minecraft—but that’s not really the main point. I can see some good arguments for including these games anyway—they do have a lot in common with level editors, after all, and by extension with game creation systems, and I am kind of tempted to lump them in. But, as I said, I have to draw a line somewhere, and I’m putting more than enough on my plate already. I think I’ll leave these out. Admittedly, it does seem a little arbitrary to include level editors but not sandbox games like these… but wherever I draw the line will inevitably be arbitrary anyway.
  • What about programming languages?
Of course, a lot of game creation programs include scripting functionality. But what if it’s just scripting? What if the entire “system” comprises just a specialized programming language? Does that count as a game creation program? For the purposes of this blog, I’m going to say yes—after all, otherwise I’m excluding Inform, TADS, Alan, Hugo, and almost every other popular text adventure creation tool (except maybe Adrift, I guess, which does have a graphical interface). As with other software, though, the language must have been designed specifically for game creation; the fact that it can be or has been used to create a game isn’t enough. Thus, for example, DarkBASIC qualifies; awk doesn’t, even though “Cloak of Darkness” was ported into it. (Huh, that makes the second time I’ve mentioned “Cloak of Darkness” in as many posts. It’s likely to be the last.)
  • What about game engines?
There are popular game engines that aren’t exactly full-fledged game creation systems, in that they still require external programming, but they supply the programmer with a lot of tools to make his or her job easier… and after all, they are primarily intended for the creation of games. Should they be included? I’m going to say yes, provided that either the game system has been used to create multiple games, or it was intended for wide release and use beyond its creators. One-shot game engines used only in a single game don’t qualify; things like the Unreal Engine do. I may decide to narrow this rule later on as the number of publicly available game engines proliferates, but it’ll do to start with.
  • What about toolkits for existing engines or systems?
Eh… this I’ll take on a case by case basis. If it’s a toolkit that just adds one feature to the engine, meh… if it’s one that really adds a lot of functionality, or is particularly notable, then maybe.
  • What about children’s/educational systems?
There are some systems that, while they do allow the user to create a game, are really primarily intended for educational purposes—the real point is to teach the user programming skills, or something similar. Should these be included? Well, if they can be used to create a game, sure, I guess. And I’m in a position to render a somewhat informed judgment about educational programs, anyway, since I work as a teacher. More specifically, I’m a studio teacher, working with underage actors on film sets, which means that while my specialties are math and physics (that’s what I have my degrees in) I could find myself having to teach just about any subject and any grade level… so if I’m ever working with a student who’s learning programming, it’s conceivable (though not necessarily likely) that I could find such a program useful in my work.

So… those are the ground rules. A lot of cases will be judgment calls, and there may be times I find reasons to break my rules and include something that technically doesn’t meet these criteria, or exclude something that does… though I’ll only do that if I think there’s a very good reason for it. I may also tighten these criteria as time goes on; they’ll certainly do for the 80s, when there are relatively few systems that qualify, and maybe even through the 90s, but if I make it to the 2000s I may have to start getting a little—or a lot—more restrictive. But it’ll be a long time before I have to worry about that. For now, if in doubt, I err on the side of including a game in my list; if when I get to it it turns out it doesn’t qualify by my criteria (or the criteria have changed), I’ll get rid of it then.

Anyway, although this post covers what I will or won’t count as a game creation system, there are some other points that should probably be addressed… but that’ll be the subject of another post. Which… probably won’t be tomorrow, but maybe the day after.

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2 thoughts on “What’s In A Game?

  1. Will this blog be limited to computer games, or will you include console games as well?

    For example, there is RPG Maker (and sequels) for the PlayStation console. As best I can determine from reviewing the the manual, Famicom BASIC is designed to teach simple programming to children through the creation of simple games. For that matter, Excitebike on the NES includes a track editor.

    1. That’s one of the questions I intend to address in my next post (which should go up later tonight), but to answer your question: yes, I’m going to try to cover console game creation systems as well, though there aren’t nearly as many of them. In fact, all three that you mention are already on my list. (Which is going to be the subject of my post after next…)

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