On Wednesday, Nintendo announced Game Builder Garage for the Nintendo Switch, a game that will let players "Learn how to make games from the minds at Nintendo!" With Game Builder Garage, players will be able to create whatever they can dream up with tools and tutorials crafted by Nintendo’s developers.
To call a tool made by Nintendo that lets you develop your own games “exciting” is selling it short. Nintendo’s name has prestige — this is the company responsible for some of the most successful and iconic games ever made, including Pokémon and Mario, which are the top and ninth top-grossing media franchises of all time, respectively. The market appeal of Nintendo’s games and properties is vast, and Game Builder Garage’s affordable $30 price point almost guarantees it as a hit.
But Game Builder Garage isn’t the first tool of its kind — a number of similar products that let customers create games already exist on the market. Roblox and the Unity engine both recently had incredibly successful IPOs and reach audiences of tens of millions across vast age ranges, with market caps of $35 and $25 billion respectively. Fans have been tweaking existing games and making their own since the earliest days of the medium, but the recent success of Roblox and Unity have started a new industry arms race to put the power to create in the hands of users.
Roblox’s mobile presence has helped it enjoy success across a wide age range. App Store ratings are up 620% since 2018, now sitting at 5.2 million with an average rating of 4.6 stars. Nintendo is not unlike Roblox in that way; its games appeal to a similar demographic, and the blockbuster success of the portable hybrid Nintendo Switch means that Game Builder Garage can exist in everyone’s backpack or pocket.
Game engines and game-makers
There is a difference between a "game engine" and a "game-maker" — one is a complex tool used by industry professionals. The other is a consumer product that lets players make their own video games.
The former is a complex, often proprietary software tool that studios use to build video games. Engines like Unity, are available for public use. "Unity Personal" is a free version of the engine that is available for individuals or organizations with less than $100,000 in revenue over the last twelve months. There is also a "full" version available for a subscription fee. That model has has given rise in part to a colorful independent games ecosystem. Many of the most critically acclaimed and lucrative games of the last several years — like last year’s Genshin Impact, which grossed more than $1 billion in just over a year since its release — were made with Unity, and the engine is used for industries beyond gaming much like its biggest competitor, the Unreal Engine.
As the industry continues to grow, so too does Unity’s workforce. Despite a steep pandemic drop off, Unity’s job listings are up 62% from 2020.
“Game-makers,” on the other hand, can be thought of as video games about developing your own video games. These are sometimes parsed-down versions of game engines that are designed to be approachable to someone who doesn’t have a game design degree or has never programmed something in their life. More often than not, players are able to publish their own creations and play games made by others via a searchable portal. The Playstation 4 "game-maker" Dreams is known for its high-quality fan projects; just search “Dreams creations” on YouTube and you’ll see user-made creations that rival multi-million dollar studio projects in visuals and quality, whether it’s a game about a pig detective solving crimes or riding a bike through cyberspace.
The issue with "game-makers" like Dreams is that a player’s creation isn’t truly their own. While developer Media Molecule said in a blog post that players own the intellectual property of anything they create in Dreams, things created in-game stay there forever, for the most part — players can’t monetize any games they make on the platform. Roblox stands out among its competition in that it lets users monetize creations while taking a 30% fee. Children and adults alike have turned their games and creations into legitimate businesses. Megan Letter, a Roblox YouTuber-turned-developer, has built a multi-million dollar business on the platform.
Game Builder Garage, however, won’t have the portal feature that made other “game-makers” (including Nintendo’s own Mario Maker and Mario Maker 2) so successful. Nintendo has said that instead, players will be able to share their projects “with friends and family over the internet or via a local wireless connection.” While the lack of a portal is disappointing for some, Nintendo works hard to upkeep its Disney-like image — Launching Game Builder Garage without a portal means it won't have to break a sweat any time someone uses 100 tiny Marios to draw genitals.
An open portal comes with the challenge and expense of moderating user-generated content. Dreams’ content moderation guidelines explicitly prohibit “Sexual content or overly violent content” from being published on its portal, and made headlines last year when Nintendo sent a DMCA takedown notice for the vast catalog of fan games that used copyrighted Nintendo properties. Roblox’s guidelines also prohibit sexual content, but the company has struggled to moderate and remove such content from its platform.
AI Dungeon 2, a text-based game which uses a sophisticated AI to respond to player inputs and generate stories, is a prime example of the worst-case scenario of moderation failure. Latitude, the game’s owner, recently fell victim to a data breach which showed that 50% of all user-generated content was pornographic. The company then implemented a filter to block any pornographic content involving minors, but plunged the game into chaos when users found that even their unpublished, private work was being flagged by the system.
A portal could also damage Game Builder Garage’s potential as an education tool. Classrooms across the country are already using Roblox to teach programming, and Nintendo has partnered with schools in the past to bring its cardboard Nintendo Labo products to schools.
“Game-makers” appeal to everyone from the most seasoned professionals to schoolchildren. If Unity and Roblox’s monumental success haven’t sent a clear sign to the industry yet, the most recognizable name in gaming’s bet on user-generated content will: the people who play your games want to make their own, and they want you to teach them how to do it.
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