Who says you have to go to college for an expensive game developer's education? Microsoft Research's Kodu puts the power of a dev kit right in your hand for a mere $5.
Kodu Game Lab isn't a video game, per se, but a lot of the pre-packaged worlds that come with the Game Lab certainly count. There's a Frogger recreation, a bumper boat style game, and even an odd take on air hockey with really awesome controls. Also, since Kodu players can upload their own worlds, you're basically buying an eternal ticket to whatever games other users can come up with.
And if you don't like what they come up with, you can always make your own games.
Myriad Options: Kodu lets users change everything in the game world from the sky color to the topography of the terrain, as well as character behavior to game conditions for winning and losing. Far from being a simple exercise in matching colors and textures, or teaching a Kodu to move forward, the options lets users create a multitude of environments and game types. You could spend hours inventing your own environments—like the inside of a computer, a planet in deep space, etc.—or, like me, two hours trying to recreate the opening world from the original Super Mario Bros.
Cute Kodus: The default objects (apples, clouds, trees, etc.) and creatures (Kodus and Bots) are easily recognizable and very cute. The simplicity of the design makes it easier to come up with ideas for worlds. My first attempt was an adventure in which a motorcycle falls in love with a blimp on top of a castle and has to collect gold coins from a forest to enter the castle and reach the blimp. It was awesome—and by awesome, I mean ridiculously cute.
Lousy Interface: There are two primary interfaces users need to master to build words. The first is a drop-down listing of what the 360 controller buttons do that remains on screen whenever you go into Edit mode; the second is a side-scrolling menu where you can select all your world-editing tools. The two menus don't match up with each other stylistically and sometimes the side-scrolling menu will cover up the drop-down menu. This can make it especially tough for first-timers to figure out where to go in one menu and what to press once they get there to make the editing go. The interface can also make it hard for users to figure out what's breaking their world when they go to run it since there's no way to tell if it's the trees spitting coins or a mistake in the blimp's "express love" behavior programming that's ruining the frame rate.
Kodu Game Lab is a pretty spiffy tool for anyone with aspirations of game design. For anyone else, though, the myriad options and clunky interface might be overwhelming. Even if that's the case, I still think Kodu might be worth a look a week or two after its release, just to see what kind of games people have come up with.
Like I said, don't think of it as a one-time purchase kind of game – think of it as a ticket to the minds of fledgling game developers.
Kodu Game Lab was developed by Microsoft Research for Xbox Live Community Games on June 30. Retails for 400 Microsoft Points ($5). Played all tutorial and pre-packaged worlds and created one complete and one partial world of my own.
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