Kodu Game Labs from Microsoft is a powerful, free game creation engine for children and adults alike. Originally designed for the easy creation of 3D games on the Xbox using only a game controller, games can be constructed by combining visual elements together to construct the game environment and logic. Kodu does this by provding a large repertoire of object and logic to begin with that the user can customize, combine, tweak, and work with in a wide variety of different ways.
Kodu is surprisingly powerful and versatile; I have seen it produce remarkable results within an hour or two of my eight year old using it. Aside from being a game creation engine, it is also fun to work with and a terrific educational tool.
A case study: my son, age 8, is growing up in a world of ubiquitous computers, Xboxes, iPhones, iPads, and gadgets of all kinds. An avid gamer (like his dad), his mother and I try to limit his screen time, but recently we figured that he could get more out of trying to make games rather than just consuming them. Therefore, we introduced him first to Scratch and then Kodu, both game building environments for kids. We were amazed at the results he could get so quickly out of both; but Kodu is his clear favorite. “It’s easier, and it’s 3D, and it’s cooler” is a direct quote
The console connection: Kodu was developed for the Xbox, with the expectation that users would be using a game controller to program it. The end result, a game designing environment built for consoles with an extremely simplified interface. The console connection also meant that the games were designed to look like console games, which is to say they look good, slightly cartoonish, and user friendly. These contingencies may have made the project too ambitious and more likely to fail; but it didn’t. In my view it succeeded spectacularly.
The user interface: Kodu looks more like a game than a game engine. A Mac-like dock on bottom is the starting point for all actions (see image below). You can zoom in and out of the 3D environment via the mouse and scroll wheel, and drag and place 3D objects to build the game environment much like building a Lego universe. Clicking on any object will produce a context menu with various options to interact with it and to program the game logic.
The learning curve: is smaller than you might think. Kodu comes with a great many user friendly tutorials, and they are very fun to go through.
The building blocks: part of Kodu’s appeal is the basic console-like objects that it offers to work with. There is a good variety of these (characters, buildings, bits and pieces of the physical world) and although they can be customized to some degree (e.g. color, size, orientation) they are otherwise ready-made for you to fit into your game or story. You will not be creating sprites from scratch with Kodu, but it will not occur to most users to do so, as there is so much in there that you could use right off the bat.
The visual programming language: is very simplified but, more importantly, very easy to grasp quickly. My eight year old son zooms thought a string of if/then logical instructions in a flash. All the different events (e.g. if bump, if sees, etc.) make complete sense to him off the bat.
The community: users can export and share their creations easily (see here). The exported file sizes are remarkable small even for ambitious games with large universes, but as you may have guessed you will need to have Kodu installed to play them.
The verdict: Kodu is a triumph in more ways than one. In some sense it is more fun to build with and to use than most games are to play. It has managed to engage my eight year old and capture his imagination in a manner that is very gratifying, since we know that he is simultaneously being creative, playing, and learning. If ever there was a FUN learning tool for kids, Kodu is it.
Moreover, the results – the games – that Kodu can produce are very playable and quite impressive, and a user can get a result to be proud of in short order, after a mere hour or two of playing with the tool. In short, Kodu is a winner. Try it, you will like it.
[Thanks to reader Panzer for the tip re: Kodu]
Version tested: 1.2
Compatibility: Windows XP, Vista, Windows 7. A graphics card that supports DirectX 9.0c and Shader Model 2.0 or higher. Also requires .NET Framework 3.5 and XNA Framework 3.1 (Note: do not worry about these; the installer will check and open the necessary download pages if any of there is missing).
Go to the Kodu Game Lab page to download (~181 megs).