Do You Kodu?
Microsoft’s Kodu Game Lab has been designed to make many things, the least of which appears to be money. Unless you were paying very close attention on July 1, or have since browsed the midsection of the Community Games channel, you probably didn’t know it was out, and might not even know it exists. If you did, and went one further by actually buying it, you’d have parted with a meagre 400 points (about £3.50, or half the price of the Rocky And Bullwinkle game). This must be one of the most muted firstparty launches in the history of Xbox.
To understand it, you first have to understand its creator, Microsoft Research, and the industry-wide problems it’s trying to solve. We’ll leave that to lead programmer Matt MacLaurin, who does a fine job in just a few moments. First, though, you probably want to know what Kodu actually is, and whether it’s really Redmond’s answer to LittleBigPlanet. Here’s a hint: it’s not.
Pitched simply as a ‘visual programming language for kids’, it doesn’t strike you as a classic user-generated content creator. There aren’t many building blocks, and nor is there a tutorial beyond a loose array of test scenarios and behaviours. There isn’t much of a visual motif beyond the weird fabric of cubes that makes up its terrain, and the vague anime style designed to lure an audience aged nine and up. As for mascots, it has the Kodu itself (a vague cross between one of Roald Dahl’s Vermicious Knids and a motorbike) and that’s about it.
But if you cast your mind back to before user-generated content became User-Generated Content, you realise that Kodu, in its relative simplicity, is a classic content creator. Like Logo during the ’60s and ’70s, it’s an educational abstraction of code – in Microsoft’s words: ‘A real, albeit small and specialised language’. Its vocabulary is a series of icons depicting verbs and conditions – if/then clauses you use to form behaviours. Make one of those dangerous and you have yourself a challenge. Impose a victory condition and you have yourself a game.
An example: you want your Kodu to gobble a dozen apples sitting along a precipitous ledge, avoiding the attentions of marauding UFOs. Having built the ledge using a simple set of terrain tools, the only thing left is to make sure one thing leads to another. If player touches apple, then apple is eaten. If player touches apple, then player also scores a point. If player touches lava, then player comes a cropper. If UFO sees player, then UFO gives chase. If player gets a dozen points, player wins the game. You’d be surprised how much this puts within your grasp.
Kodu’s name, we’re told, is simply a play on the word ‘code’, though we suspect there’s a bit more to it. ‘Haiku is a word that comes to mind’, reads one of the developer’s blog posts, referring to the size of game you’re expected to build, and possibly the phrasing of the ‘code’ itself. Though a complex game will run to several pages of clauses for each of its actors, not to mention a few global conditions and defined AI paths, its syntax is as simple as the most basic ‘HELLO, WORLD!’
Some surprisingly complex and recognisable game-types have been built by the Kodu community, but good luck downloading them. There’s some bafflement over Microsoft’s choice of a purely peer-to-peer sharing system, shunning centralised servers and features such as ratings and searches. Faced with an audience limited to their friends lists, users on the moco.net Kodu forum have even set up personal Xboxes as ad-hoc public servers. The downsides are obvious: friends lists max out so fast that the current recommended ‘server’ has the Gamertag ‘KoduGameshare 3’.
A popular favourite shortly after launch was Busch Stadium by the user tavishhill2003. While more an environment than a game, this convincing reproduction of the real-life venue resembles something out of a Sega 32X game. Not long after it appeared, one admirer claimed to have stripped out its urban backdrop and turned it into a simple GTA clone featuring cars, jets and balloons. Someone else is making a Rock Band clone, someone else a turn-based RTS. In total, over 80 ‘games’ have already been posted.
With a patch expected to address the biggest user bugbear – a limit of only six pages of ‘code’ per actor in a level – the inability to create ‘worlds’ out of multiple levels is next in line. Microsoft promises multiple versions and ongoing support, but won’t be drawn on the broader possibilities. Kodu might yet be the future of user-generated content, or the key to educating a new generation of talent. At the very least, for just 400 points, it’s got to be better than a downloadable Yoda.