Deus Ex Writer Creates Tool For Teaching Development

By John Walker on December 20th, 2012 at 3:00 pm.

Sheldon J. Pacotti, writer of Deus Ex, provided us with a very surprising, and very odd, indie game last year. Cell: emergence bemused me. It asked you to Fantastic Voyage your way through voxelly insides to fight off infection, and I couldn’t do it. But now the man is back with something quite different.

Described as “a free library of visual programming ‘blocks’ for first-time game developers,” Game Blocks is the result of something Pacotti built for an interactive writing course he teaches at the University of Texas. The idea being to encourage others to create non-linear storytelling in games. It’s a visually simple tool, based on BYOB, that lets you construct scenes without being stuck in a linear path, as well as include simple physics, and even platforming. Confused? There’s a free lecture below to explain!

Pacotti tells me, “They are meant to provide the simplest possible environment for constructing non-linear stories, which in my mind comprise more than talk trees and branching conversations. My students typically add mini-games, puzzles, and even arcade-like interactions to their projects, all of which can convey story.” Take a look at the video that explains it all:

This is the first part of a series of videos that will get deeper into how to use Game Blocks. Clearly Pacotti’s desire is to get people started in game development, give them a tool that provides a space to begin seeing what’s possible, rather than a complete solution for game development. You can get it for free, here.

In other news, I am so envious of University of Texas students who get to attend lectures on game writing by the author of Deus Ex.

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46 Comments »

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  1. Gnoupi says:

    Hm, I thought I was recognizing Scratch in the screenshot.
    Indeed, BYOB is based on it.

  2. Unrein says:

    Apparently the University of Texas can’t afford a microphone worth a damn.

    • Sparkasaurusmex says:

      They afford their own TV station and largest dorm in the US. They’re probably just stingy.

      • Michael Fogg says:

        They also have separate dorms for students who like to excercise their 2nd Amendment rights on campus.

        • erikagarver9 says:

          My mothers neighbour is working part time and averaging $9000 a month. I’m a single mum and just got my first paycheck for $6546! I still can’t believe it. I tried it out cause I got really desperate and now I couldn’t be happier. Heres what I do..Read More

    • Havok9120 says:

      If anyone here has played The Nameless Mod, you may remember that the guy who recorded the voice over for Sheldon’s character used a microphone at least as bad as this.

      Coincidence? I THINK NOT!

      • nasbas1645 says:

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      • Phantoon says:

        Spam bot, go away.

        And I thought the people sometimes having terrible dialogue was just part of the game, since it’s all online personas anyways.

  3. archdrone says:

    Isn’t the picture on the story, a picture of scratch: http://scratch.mit.edu/

  4. RC-1290'Dreadnought' says:

    You better double check that system, the mechanic was an imposter.

  5. Ryan Huggins says:

    This is cool and all, but aren’t there already plenty of things like this out there? Haha. Also, I personally think that learning things like this is a waste of time!

    • Justin Keverne says:

      Why’s that?

      • Ryan Huggins says:

        Well, it’s just personal preference, but I find that learning things through some sort of alternative visual method ends up stifling the ability to learn it the hard way later. It depends on the ability though and potentially doesn’t apply to writing, like this does, but it’s about the general idea.

        It’s kind of like where sometimes someone who learns Game Maker Language before learning to code in something “real”, I guess, has trouble learning to actually code later after picking up habitual bad practices.

        This has something that’s caused me problems before! But, I’m just a student as well, so I’m unsure of whether these things actually work or not.

        • Unaco says:

          “Well, it’s just personal preference, but I find that learning things through some sort of alternative visual method ends up stifling the ability to learn it the hard way later. It depends on the ability though and potentially doesn’t apply to writing, like this does, but it’s about the general idea.”

          This is actually the situation for Coding/Programming and the more ‘technical’ disciplines. What studies have shown, and my own Department’s experience, is that systems like these (heavily visual, drag and drop, cut n paste things) do improve performance for the courses that they’re used for… but further performance for those students, in subsequent courses, drops significantly, when compared with students who are just thrown into a standard IDE and made to get to grips with Java/C++ from the off. The students that use these visual systems are unprepared for when they (eventually) have to actually grasp a language and ‘pure’ coding. It’s a false benefit that they get from it.

          But, I don’t think that’s a problem here. Like you say, this is geared towards writing, and, as Ricc says below, the people learning with this probably aren’t going to be going away and coding… or, this isn’t what they’ll be using to learn programming.

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            Mo says:

            Do you have sources for that research? I think it’s lazy to blame the tools when the professor/course plays a much bigger role. I know students who have memorized Java syntax without fully understanding what it does. After all, text is easiest thing for doing “cut n paste things”. :) These students were similarly unprepared for moving out of “toy examples” into writing real code.

            At the end of the day, what really matters is learning about formulating logic, designing data structures and writing algorithms. Picking up the syntax of a language is the easy part.

          • Unaco says:

            I didn’t investigate it myself… I don’t lead the courses (Uni undergrad programming), and people with far, far more experience with these sorts of things make these decisions. I do remember a student looked at these things for his dissertation, and there was an awful lot of debate in the Dept. about their efficacy and studies looking at this… specifically that if you take 2 groups (University age undergrads, entering Comp Sci degrees), teach them (largely) the same, 1 in a Visual environment, the other in a standard text IDE (same teachers, same environs etc., the only difference being the tool used, therefore any differences CAN be blamed on the tools) and teach them the basics of programming (logical structures and flow, variables, conditionals, iteration, recursion etc.), and then you measure their performance/knowledge/learning etc., the group that used the Visual environment will outperform the other group… not by a large margin, but a significant improvement.

            But, if you then follow up with these students on the next course(s) in programming, where the Visual environment is dropped (they do suffer from things like the Deutsch limit etc), they are consistently outperformed by students that started initially in the Text IDE, and didn’t learn with the Visual system.

            Our Dept. even decided to do their own “test” using such an environment… ALICE, developed by Carnegie Mellon (whereas we usually used BlueJ initially, moving to Eclipse around 3rd/4th semester). We saw the same pattern… improvements in our first semester students’ performance, but then significant decreases in further semesters when we moved to the more standard IDEs. We also had to use around 2 weeks of teaching time to introduce them to the standard IDE and Java at the start of 2nd semester.

            I don’t know why, or the theories behind why, these patterns are seen. Maybe software engineering/coding shouldn’t be seen through a visual metaphor… maybe the environments teach them the wrong metaphors, encourage the “wrong” way of thinking about things. From my experience with ALICE, I had some problems that it didn’t get across certain aspects of the program flow, and that it didn’t introduce students to data typing. Then you have problems such as a lot of s’ware eng. problems are not necessarily spatial, or can’t really be represented in such a way (giving students the wrong picture of something), that concentrating on a 2D, visual representation perhaps focusses the student on the wrong aspects. I think the Visual metaphor for code can only go so far. One telling quote I’ve come across…

            “When we use visual expressions as a means of communication, there is no need to learn computer-specific concepts beforehand, resulting in a friendly computing environment which enables immediate access to computers even for computer non-specialists who pursue application”

            (emphasis mine). Perhaps, in order to learn s’ware engineering/coding, learning the computer specific concepts is important. By trying to use this ‘friendly environment’ you’re missing out on that.

            I’ll just add that this is all focussed on University age/level. I think these things could have great efficacy for younger students.

        • Bart Stewart says:

          It’s kind of like where sometimes someone who learns Game Maker Language before learning to code in something “real”, I guess, has trouble learning to actually code later after picking up habitual bad practices.

          The same was said of BASIC back in the day. But despite complaints about “spaghetti code” and Dijkstra’s “GOTO Considered Harmful,” BASIC successfully introduced a lot of future professional developers to coding.

          Someone who has the programmer gene will find a way to code effectively in any language. Making those first steps enjoyable seems wise to me.

          Incidentally, we’ve been working on a commercial tool inspired by Scratch called Storybricks. We’re currently retooling it, but we got a fair bit of positive response from those who tried the demo.

        • Justin Keverne says:

          As a tool to learn a programming language something like this isn’t necessarily that useful, but as an introduction to the type of visual scripting often used by writers and designers it could provide a good starting point. Students who have learnt how to implement game logic in something like this could transfer those skills to Kismet or another visual scripting language.

          That aside, it’s worth remembering that Spelunky was original made in Game Maker, so learning “real” programming languages is not always necessary.

          • Ryan Huggins says:

            Definitely! I’d like to see an article about whether these things are actually useful or not actually. Some sort of study, potentially. It seems like a discussion worth having. :P Unless it just degrades into people yelling at each other about what works and doesn’t work.

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            RobF says:

            More games get made, more people get to make games. I think that’s a net win, man.

            That people use these things in large numbers and we’re seeing a rebirth of home coding on an unprecedented scale, isn’t that study enough that they’re useful?

          • Ryan Huggins says:

            Considering I’m a student at college for game design, some of these developments may directly effect me! I’m just wondering how many developers themselves find these things useful. For example, I do not. Regardless, it seems like the guys that frequent RPS do, at least. Haha

          • Unaco says:

            I’d think, much like use of similar systems for coding/programming, the quality of what’s produced using these systems would be of concern, rather than just quantity, for any sort of measure of their efficacy. Also, do the people that use these systems then have no problems if they do eventually move on to more powerful systems.

            If these systems give a short term increase in the numbers creating “simple” or low quality games, but a long term stagnation (as they aren’t prepared to move on to more complex systems, or aren’t able to evolve and progress from their initial abilities), I’m not sure we can call that a win.

            They are a nice idea for ‘easing’ people in, introducing people to something… but sometimes hand holding isn’t helpful, and can actually be detrimental to a person’s development. Sometimes taking the plunge is needed, as is seen with Visual Programming languages/systems and actual coding.

          • Premium User Badge

            RobF says:

            Useful for what though? Getting people into making games? Yes, they’re absolutely useful for that. Unequivocally so. Useful for transitioning people into more advanced languages? Sometimes! It doesn’t really matter, to be honest. Useful for building things in studios? This particular example, probably not so much as Scratch is more likely to slow the process down than help in any discernible way, stuff like Gamemaker though? Yes, entirely, more so now with Studio and its cross platform building capabilities. If it’s good enough for Curve and other studios who prototype using it, what you’ve learned in 8.1 is good enough to put games together with, right?

            Kids are able to work with Logo but I wouldn’t want to write my game in it, yeah? Does that mean Logo isn’t useful? For me, yes. For the kid? Totally not! It’s a great tool for teaching. Step up from Logo and you have Scratch/Kodu/Stencil and other things that build on or around Scratch and Scratch-esque systems and so it goes.

            Once you’re beyond that, utility is very much down to what you want to achieve and how your mind copes with constructing stuff and to a large degree, best tool for the best job. Not all games are 3d extravaganzas, not everyone aspires to that and thank cock for that! That’s where Twine, Inform, Processing, Gamemaker, Construct, GLBasic, Blitz, Monkey, DBPro, Flixel and all the myriad of options come in and they’re all immensely valuable because they -all- allow people to contribute to and widen our gaming ecosystem and bring their voices in hopefully at a level they’re comfortable with. Using something they can communicate their ideas with. From head to screen to the best of their ability.

            The world is bigger than you, y’know? And it’s getting wonderfully bigger all the time. And that’s where this stuff comes in, it aids that. That’s where its use lies.

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            Ninja Dodo says:

            What RobF said.

            Don’t make the mistake of assuming that everyone who uses tools like these wants to eventually transition into ‘real’ programming. Becoming a coder is not the inevitable end goal of wanting to make games.

            Choosing to learn code properly means not spending that time learning more about game design or art, or any number of other things you may be interested in.

            Nothing wrong with shortcuts if they allow you to put more energy into the things that matter to you. Same reason not everyone is coding their own graphics engine… Sure it’s impressive, but it’s probably not better than what you would’ve gotten with an existing tool and you could’ve spent that time making the game more fun.

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            Mo says:

            You think GameMaker is bad? Guys, I learned to program with Klik & Play. I maintain that it’s the best thing that ever happened to me. It taught me the fundamentals of logic: if x then y. As a 10 year old, this was a big deal.

            I moved up through languages that “real programmers” despise: Visual Basic, then Dark Basic. The latter especially was great, because it gave me the setup/framework/environment “for free”. As an up-and-coming developer, you learn nothing from “how to init a DirectDraw window in Win32.” Instead, each language continued to teach me about logic, organizing data structures, and managing a project. Finally, I got to Java and C++. Learning how classes work isn’t difficult when writing logic feels like second nature.

            I went to university and got a Comp Sci degree. My day job is software development. I don’t think I’d be here if it weren’t for Klik & Play teaching me the fundamentals of logic.

        • lijenstina says:

          Still the Venn diagram of people who know to code well and people who know to make the gameplay fun is an intersection not an union. :)

    • Ricc says:

      This is meant for people without programming experience. As far as I understood it, the students using the tool will not necessarily go on and start developing software after this. Teaching them to program “the hard way” would not accomplish much here.

      • Ryan Huggins says:

        I was using programming “the hard way” as an example! I’m not against the method that this uses, I just personally wouldn’t like to use it!

  6. biggergun says:

    The tool looks great, but I must say I’m quite surprised to know that Deus Ex was written by someone who actually teaches writing – the story in all three games had a distinctively placeholder feeling to it.

    • Bart Stewart says:

      I’m curious: why did the writing in the original Deus Ex feel placeholder to you?

      My impression is that it’s one of the best treatments of a serious subject — how is the old question of “security versus liberty” changed in a world of technologically augmented humanity — that I’ve seen in many years of playing computer games. On a subject like that, the writers could easily have chosen sides, making one or the other of these perspectives the obvious correct choice and insulting the other (as most “serious” games do).

      Instead, the story writing perfectly complemented the gameplay: you have a choice. Just as you have choices in the mechanics for solving gameplay challenges, the story in Deus Ex lets you think and decide for yourself how humanity should order itself — up to and including the multiple-future ending.

      The later games were a bit more about the mechanics. But even in those I could see the effort being made to offer a story about choice. How could they have been improved so that they didn’t feel so placeholder to you?

      • Josh W says:

        It’s interesting, the balance of the game is done excellently, with nice layers and points on either side, especially as you see the flaws of the nsf long before you have any second thoughts about them, the extra books of various kinds are also good, even if they do make you imagine moon bases a little too much.

        But in terms of writing style (prose quality?) it frequently leaves something to be desired, but in a wonderful way that complements the frequently dodgy voice acting.

        The game is always both very clever and very silly, and that constant combination is part of it’s charm, but you can imagine a game that got the silly parts and made them more plausible, DX:HR for example has lower standards in background ideological complexity, and more consistent standards of quality for voices and lines.

    • frightlever says:

      Go ahead and write a story with multiple branching paths that all have to sit together and play nice as time goes on and we’ll see how “placeholder” it feels.

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        Dilapinated says:

        Personally, I think RPS should make their own AAA-selling games before criticizing other people’s!

        ..Wait, that argument makes no sense in context, and simply stifles valid conversation without having to deal with any points made.

      • Josh W says:

        Although, sending people off to make game prototypes and explore it for themselves can’t be a bad thing…

    • zbeeblebrox says:

      Are you sure did you didn’t play some other set of games that you only thought were Deus Ex?

  7. godofdefeat says:

    ˝In other news, I am so envious of University of Texas students who get to attend lectures on game writing by the author of Deus Ex.˝

    Who IS NOT?

    Also this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aEbJ6DEz1PA

  8. ucfalumknight says:

    I actually teach Scratch to 4th and 5th (9 and 10 year olds) grade students. They quickly pick it up and make some truly interesting games. It helps to spark interest in programming and game design. This is really a great extension of that program.

  9. frightlever says:

    I’ve messed around with Scratch and Construct 2 (interesting – also on Steam) but not enough to make anything worthwhile. I understand that a lot, a LOT, of people are saying this can teach bad habits and isn’t an ideal introduction to learning to program, but it isn’t claimed to be, is it? It’s a tool to introduce development. Development =/= programming alone .

    You can get cheap and free placeholder art assets (the real bottle-neck for most projects), and drag and drop programming – the barrier to making a game has been lowered substantially and is getting lower all the time. That has to be a good thing.

  10. Roz says:

    Have messed about with scratch+byob, definitely worth looking into if you want to learn how to create games, a great stepping stone into creating games.

  11. Khalan says:

    From what I’ve seen of BYOB / Scratch etc, Construct 2 (which I’ve used a fair bit) seems not only more powerful and efficient, but also easier and more straightforward to use. I’d have to give the aforementioned engines a proper go though to fairly compare them.