4 years ago when I was supporting classes in an IT department we started using Scratch to teach basic game-programming stuff to kids aged 11-16. Some of them took to it, some of them didn’t. This rekindled a love of making game-like-things (I won’t called them “games” because none of them ever reached a state of playability) during my teenage years. I would spend hours make environments in HalfLife’s editor, and bending Warcraft 3’s engine to try and make genres it wasn’t really intended to make – a practice that gave us the MOBA genre and the (re?)birth of tower defence. Scratch was particularly easy to pick up because the “coding” involved simply involves clicking together blocks of logic into a sort of flow-chart structure. It’s cheating, and its severely limiting, but it’s a nifty shortcut to get to grips with the basics.
About 18 months ago I started playing around with Stencyl. Stencyl is ostensibly a “grown up” version of Scratch. Whereas Scratch games were (last time I checked) only playable in Scratch, Stencyl can export to Flash and various other file formats. It can make iOS or Android or native PC games (with a reasonable additional upgrade fee for these formats). Stencyl is still essentially “cheating”, allowing me to make my game-like-objects without having to learn to program.
Below there’s a short video of something I started making back before I was confident in my own art assets – probably my most accomplished Stencyl project. The planet is procedurally generated from a solid wall of tiles plus a script which digs out various winding caves and tunnels and places ores at different depths. The player’s ship controls in a “floaty” way similar to the older Lander and Thrust games and has an elemental damage system lifted straight out of Borderlands. This is the sort of game where Stencyl’s built in box2d physics system really comes into its own. Rogue-likes (where the game environment is generated in-game rather than authored) are do-able, and having planets you can only visit once was both a nod to rogue-like conventions and also a response to limitations in the system. Unlike RPG Maker, Stencyl has no built-in functionality for remembering what the player did last time they were in the current room.
The strengths of the program are very much a case of “the proof is in the pudding”. People thought you couldn’t make decent stuff in GM:S until people started doing it. One of the more bizarre things I’ve seen trotted out in Stencyl vs Gamemaker debates is that you can’t code in Stencyl. This simply isn’t true. I’ve looked at both programs, both have a “drag and drop” lego-brick style kiddie language like this one, and both also allow you to code from scratch, it’s simply that Stencyl has been marketed along the same bright, simplistic, kiddy-friendly lines as Scratch whereas GM:Studio looks a lot sleeker. Any “proper” game developer will tell you that working without code is severely limiting in a lot of ways but, to be honest, that isn’t my main bugbear with the program. You sort of expect ease-of-use to have some sort of cost. The main issues which stand out to me are more related to general usability and workflow. There are so many keyboard shortcuts that are generally thought of as universal to anyone who uses Adobe or Office which simply aren’t there. Stencyl is also programmed to assume that you’re making a physics-enabled sideview action game. Want to make something top-down? Something turn-based? Something like a board game or which is heavily dependent on GUI? Have fun de-checking all those default boxes that ensure every object you create initially behaves like a bouncy ball!
I might go back to my StarBastards game one day and have a crack at some pixel-art for it. At the same time, I’m slightly wary of using Stencyl for something like a PC indie game because it currently doesn’t handle console controllers (which is sort of a must) and I’m also wary of how it handles resolution changes. In the long run I would love to see its developers concentrate a little bit less on the “get rich quick by making a small iphone game” and to see some Stencyl made games breaking the misconceptions that people have about the engine (in the same way that Hotline Miami and Spelunky did for GameMaker). I think the developers have tried to portray Impossible Pixel in this light but it seems very similar to Super Meat Boy. Personally, the most impressive Stencyl game I’ve played so far would probably be something like Quantum Corps which has some genuinely fresh mechanics and not a whiff of Stencyl’s frankly overused platformer template.
Some of my Stencyl Projects
G315T! was an attempt at a sandbox physics game where you play a poltergeist. I didn’t get very far with it. The first Stencyl project I made which actually started to look like a game.
Next came Beatopia, which was an attempt at a minimalist, squad-based puzzle platformer. You click the guys and then use the arrow keys to move them. I wanted to make music integral to the game but wasn’t sure how, might revisit it at some point.
the Brewdem Bar-o-matic was an attempt at creating a generator of random battle raps. The things it produces contain a lot of British slang and are usually nonsensical, scatological or otherwise offensive. You have been warned.
VR Tycoon (shown below) was another recent project I built in Stencyl with a friend providing graphics and helping design the actual gameplay. I learnt a little bit about pathfinding through this project. I also learnt that Stencyl is a bit of a pain in the ass when it comes to text-heavy genres of game.