One of the most common terms I see on a day-to-day basis in areas such as industrial IoT is No-code. It is a term used to show that a complex system can be used and manipulated by users without involving programmers and the IT department to create new applications. As a programmer by trade, it should instinctively get me agitated at the very thought of this, but I am softening with age and done well these do allow people to do way more than would otherwise be possible for them if they haven’t learned to wrangle the syntax and structures of a programming language and the libraries and APIs they would need otherwise. The computing industry is always attempting to deliver solutions that provide more abstraction levels away from the bits and bytes of the hardware. There are even AI based systems in the games industry that let a designer describe the gist of a scene and it will be generated in that style. There is not a no-code standard, and some applications really are just code with pictures, one example, not from the enterprise space, is Nintendo’s Game Builder Garage that I have been experimenting with a bit this month on the Switch.

What’s this all about?

Nintendo’s Game Builder Garage, released in June 2021 for the Nintendo Switch, is designed to help anyone build almost any type of game without the need to learn a complex programming language. It is not claiming to be no-code as such but that is the implication. When you first start it up it is clear it is giving the components you will be putting together to make a game a playful twist. Games are built by putting blocks, called Nodons, together, wiring one to another to create the desired action. Each of these Nodons is itself a game character in a meta way, talking to the player (with text) as they introduce themselves on the construction screen. These conversations are part of the set of well-structured tutorials that build up the user’s skills. There is scope to just build what you want from scratch but that only happens after completing the first tutorial game creation, a very Nintendo way of getting good engagement with less experienced users but as a programmer it was slightly annoying as I wanted to just experiment. However, it turned out that the tutorials, and the mini exams between them are really informative and fun.

A first game

I would expect a simple first tutorial to be just basic character movement and how to achieve it, that is where Game Builder Garage starts but the same tutorial ends up creating a side view two player game of tag with lots of platforms to jump around on and a constant stream of obstacles (dangerous ones) dropping, bouncing and rolling around. The person Nodon is an already animated character that it is simple to add control to with the control Nodons. Dropping a person object on the construction blueprint then adding a controller one, linking the little connection point labeled “x position” on the person to the controllers “Left/Right” connection dot with a single line, and then “jump” connection dot to the “B” button is the basics of walking and jumping described in a few clicks. This can be instantly previewed in the game view, with a simple toggle between design and game. The nicely rendered little person will walk and jump around. There are a few other things that are needed though, part of the fun of the tutorial is it asks you to do something, then you find it doesn’t actually work as you might assume, which the tutorial points out as if it has made the mistake. This clever dynamic makes trial and error part of the fun of creation and makes the user feel at home with unintended bugs and how to think about solving them. In this case it is that a little person who can jump is going to have virtual gravity acting upon them. On hitting the game view, the first time they just drop out of the bottom of the screen. Back to the design, add a block Nodon, that can be sized and shaped to make a floor, that too drops away on the game screen, taking you back to the design settings panel for the block and removing its moveable properties then makes a nice static floor and the running and jumping can begin. I probably took longer to write this paragraph than it did to get a running jumping person working. The tutorial continues adding platforms, the second player, events such as collisions with ones another, a launcher Nodon that is a cannon firing spheres into the environment, all configurable for time intervals and size and shape. Being a two player game on the Switch it shows how each removable side controller is addressed differently, a great feature of the handheld machine. Once completed there are some exam tasks using the Nodons that featured in this first build. There are puzzles where only a few of the pieces of the design can be changed but challenge the user to change what can be done in the game space to achieve a goal, like walking to pick up an apple, by adjusting the code (I mean diagram setting and connections)

The next steps

The next tutorial involves creating a top-down view game, this time a rolling marble. The fun thing with this is it uses the tilt sensors to make to move the marble around. Here we are in tutorial two and already using a different form of input for a completely different style of game. It also starts to ease of the reigns a bit in that it suggests you select a category and type of Nodon, but you must find that in the menu, the first tutorial both highlighted the button to press and made it impossible to do anything else. This tutorial also introduced counter and comparison Nodons, effectively loops, variables and if-then-else combined with event handlers too. So yes, we are programming! This is a good thing! These are the building blocks of any programming language and the critical thinking required to structure these to achieve and end goal is a very useful skill to have. Further tutorials create scrolling platformers, 3d driving and even a little 3d world to run around.

Plenty more to try

As I described last time there are many ways to explore the creation of games and to either find a creative outlet you may not know you had, learn a new skill or just have a bit of a tinker around and Game Builder Garage is certainly up there and worth a look. It is the first thing that got me to close the ever-open Animal Crossing New Horizons which has been the family retreat during our many lockdowns of 2020. Playing games is a great release but building little experiences and battling with code bugs and quirks is equally entertaining I find. Go on give it a go.