Build world, Populate world, Play
I doubt that there are many Totally readers old enough to remember H.U.R.G. Developed by Melbourne House as a game development “toy” on the ZX Spectrum, H.U.R.G stood for High resolution User friendly Realtime Games development tool, though in reality it ticked none of those boxes, merely allowing errant young teenage speccy owners to produce crude animations and truly rubbish minigames.
Many press sources seem to instantly jump on the bandwagon of comparing Microsoft’s new game development “toy” to Sony’s LittleBigPlanet. If ever there was an unfair comparison in gaming, it’s likening the rather crude and inflexible (and seemingly quite limited) toolsets in Kodu with LittleBigPlanet’s ingenious and beautifully artistic creation environment.
I have eulogised previously on Totally Games about LittleBigPlanet so I’ll concentrate my efforts on Kodu. For 400 points, the creation suite seems quite reasonably priced – and there’s even a trial version. Assuming that you can get your head around the basics of the interface and the first set of tutorials in a little under ten minutes (because that’s all the time you get with the trial), you should at least get an inkling into what Kodu is all about.
Oh no, it’s Mr Blobby!
Kodu starts off by presenting you with a puzzle / challenge that helps you to understand how its logic and decision-making “language” works. Don’t panic, to get to grips with Kodu you won’t have to become a programming genius – you just need the ability to think through and understand how you assign behaviours to objects.
The first tutorial example gives you the task of guiding a bouncing blob-like creature to a distant castle and once you highlight the creature and bring up its behaviour menu, you can see that it’s not actually programmed to do much except bounce and look cute. You need to make it move, and more importantly you need to make it move towards the castle. So with a swift waggle of the left stick you can select options like “If you can see (castle), move towards (castle)”. Once done, hit the Play button and your creation lurches into life. This simple tutorial puzzle demonstrates how you can start to map quite complex behaviour strings together with the simplest logic.
One thing I liked about Kodu early on was that results are instantaneous. You don’t have to wait for the screen to redraw, you don’t have to shift between a create or a play mode, you just do your menu twiddling and then play your creation.
Kodu’s gameworld is set in three dimensional space – and if you start with a blank canvas you get various terrain tools to allow you to begin to build your world. Each gameworld is created from blocks, and you can choose ground, water and other materials to construct your levels from. Once you start filling your blank space with land, you can raise and lower the level of your terrain (this works a bit like Sim City / Populous and you can smoothe your landscape out a bit to make it less blocky with the appropriate smoothing tool too). Navigating your way around the various menus and selection tools is swift and easy, and overall though Kodu lacks the smart design and artistic loveliness of LittleBigPlanet, it’s certainly not entirely ugly.
Eventually you can start to populate your world with other objects, characters, bits of scenery etc. In the demo you get a limited number of characters and objects but Microsoft are promising more either as downloadable content or as community-created content. If there’s one part of Kodu they need to get absolutely right, it’s making the tool attractive to a wide range of users who can start building their own stuff in it, and sharing it with their friends (naturally you need a copy of Kodu to play any user-created content so getting your pals to shell out 400 points for it is your first obstacle).
If you build it they will come
Kodu has potential. The developers of the system have claimed that they have made several well known game types using the system (everything from Pacman clones to mini racing games). As with Little Big Planet it becomes screamingly obvious from the word go that Kodu requires a lot of time, a lot of patience and a bit of artistic flair to produce anything that looks vaguely attractive or playable.
Harking back to H.U.R.G, I remember sinking hour after frustrating hour into it in the vain hope that I might produce something that I could play and enjoy myself as well as sharing with my speccy-owning mates. I feel that Kodu would require a similar commitment of time and probably wouldn’t allow users to create the next Bioshock or Gears of War, but would certainly allow them to make minigames of a comparable quality to some of the stuff festering away in the Community Games section of the Live Marketplace.
If you think you’ve got the time and the inclination, 400 points seems pretty reasonable for something that has serious potential – but if you’re just looking for an amusing and distracting toy that will give you instant gratification and pleasing results, then Kodu’s probably not for you.