We find out about a free game engine that's built for first-time developers

Tools Spotlight: New Life Interactive

Game Blocks is pitched as a gateway drug for aspiring games developers. It was originally created for a creative writing class at the University of Texas, and aims to be the simplest possible learning environment for new and non-technical games designers.

The man behind the toolkit is Sheldon Pacotti, principal writer on the first two Deus Ex titles and president of New Life Interactive.

Pacotti founded New Life in autumn 2008 as a vehicle for creating experimental games, specifically based on the massive parallel processing of microcomputers. Its first title, Cell: emergence, explored the gameplay possibilities of ‘dynamic voxels’ – volumetric pixels that respond to game state, in addition to containing visual information or data.

“In contrast to modding tools or hobbyist tools built around a specific game type, Game Blocks gives new developers the full expressiveness of game code,” Pacotti tells Develop.

“Games are built with Lego-like coloured blocks, which allow even first-time programmers to realise their own game ideas. Though it provides basic building blocks for common game types such as RPGs, the user retains complete flexibility in how those elements are combined, because the toolkit runs within the BYOB visual programming environment.”

Game Blocks is primarily an educational toolkit, and has been used in dozens of student projects to date, although no commercial products as yet.

However, it did make an appearance at the opening party of SXSW Interactive in Austin, Texas, as the technology behind a voting interface inspired by the classic Lunar Lander video game. Its simplicity allowed Pacotti to create a complete game in a couple of hours to realise a last-minute suggestion to poll the attendees on whether they thought the Wink robot companion was ‘Creepy’ or ‘Cute’.

New Life’s current focus is on porting Game Blocks to the new version of BYOB, called Snap!, which it expects will offer huge performance gains. Pacotti anticipates new features to continue to emerge each semester from the video game writing class he teaches, and a new revision to the toolkit may appear roughly twice a year.

For instance, blocks related to platforming gameplay could be expanded, he suggests, and would also like to see the underlying coding environment (BYOB/Snap!) evolve to support commercial games, though that’s in the hands of the computer scientists at UC Berkeley.

“I would love to see the barriers to entry into video games continue to come down. What I would really like to see is greater attention paid to the computer as a content creator or content collaborator,” Pacotti says.

“Big studios can afford to have teams of artists in cubicles fine-tuning every polygon of every model in a game, but I think an indie studio might be better served by an MMO-style character creator, for instance, which could provide a wide possibility space of character models, all correctly rigged and textured. Tools like that could open the door for games that are ‘indie’ but also relatively high fidelity.”


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