The Doctor Who Game Maker Is A Bit Rubbish But Vital

The essential problem with modern Doctor Who – other than its broad abandonment of science fiction in favour of magic did it – is that it’s a show which earns an enormous amount from kids’ merchandise but whose most fervent audience is adult. This creates impossible expectations: to be light and fluffy and full of funny monsters, but to be complex and dark and with long, involved plot arcs filled with secrets and lore. The BBC’s laudable Doctor Who Game Maker project is entirely stranded in that vast no man’s land between ‘y’know, for kids’ and adult expectation. Create your own Doctor Who game – here are easy tools and a ton of official artwork to use as you like, then share it with the world. Anything your imagination can conceive, etc, etc.

The reality: hope you like crude platformers! But I think this is an extremely worthwhile project nonethless.

The tool is limited, and so too are the results. It was perhaps unfair of me to expect much from a free, browser-based application that is essentially a promotional tool, although it is part of the BBC’s Make It Digital campaign, which is designed to help young people understand the rudiments of programming and design. In these job-poor times, giving kids a leg up into an increasingly digital future is only a good thing.

I’d hoped that the tool would offer scope to write your own text and perhaps basic physics puzzles, but it’s pretty much restricted to dragging and dropping platforms, enemies and collectibles then jumping and blasting your way through very short levels. As such, there’s very little variety in the games released so far, although it’s not impossible that, in the longer term, people will create more ambitious games.

There are already two recurring variations kicking around – Asteroids clones and a sort of top-down maze game. Real ingenuity, in terms of seeing through the application’s limitations and turning them to new purpose, does occasionally creep in – such as the guy who’s built a labyrinthine series of corridors out of stitched-together platforms, through which you steer a spaceship while giant lasers chase you, or building platforms out of hovering Dalek saucers. The vast majority are maddening platformers with far too many insta-death jumps and enemies, but that is perhaps to be expected.

Where this is valuable, I think, is in the necessity to think about the space you’re making, no matter how basic or repetitive its contents may be. What flows? What is fun? What looks enticing? What’s too easy, what’s too hard, what’s satisfyingly challenging? The tool is so simple to use, in the main, that there is real freedom for a young creator to be thinking about this – about level design, about what makes a game rather than simply a random collection of Daleks and lasers – rather than battling to understand the UI or the lingo. First attempts will, almost invetiably, involve shoving everything in there, as many Cybermen and Tardises as possible, but that’s going to lead, in the best cases, to thoughtfulness: hang on, what can I actually make? What feels good? What else can I add to it? What do I want to show other people?

Simply looking at the way people have decorated levels is fascinating – it’s a sort of sticker book concept, but there are ones which look like nonsense, ones which look stark and ones where you can tell someone’s really tried to introduce a theme. Basic, limited, repetitive, yes – but it’s getting someone’s mind working. The tutorials are probably the most valuable thing here – they introduce language and concepts vital to game-making, granting clear insight into how our digital worlds get made, even if the results here are inescapably simple.

There’s also occasionally gonzo stuff, like controlling five Peter Capaldis simultaneously, which is pushing against the limits of the tool and doesn’t really achieve anything, but it’s a consequence of the creator thinking ‘what if?’ and experimenting. Because this is Doctor Who, people are having a go – in a way they probably wouldn’t were this simply a general game-making tool. If some kid makes a basic Dalek-blaster here then becomes frustrated they can’t do more, perhaps they’ll go seek out Gamemaker or something like that, and really get into it. Bright futures. Have a go.

(Damn shame there are no keyboard controls when it runs in Chrome, however. I used Internet Explorer in order to make anything playable/buildable).

19 Comments

  1. Nootrac4571 says:

    I think it’s unfortunate that this came out at around the same time as Mario Maker – the comparison does it no favours whatsoever.

  2. int says:

    Never knew Clint Eastwood was in Doctor Who.

  3. Sam says:

    Approaching from an introduction to programming standpoint:

    Switching to “advanced mode” on an item lets you see the event-based logic. It has a bunch of premade scripts that the user can look at and fiddle with. For instance making something a collectible adds a script “WHEN NEAR player ADD TO SCORE and DESTROY self”. More importantly you’re free to add your own stuff, which almost makes it a really flexible and nice tool.

    Once you try to actually make something it’s strangely limited. All movement and rotation actions except “teleport” are permanently greyed out, which greatly limits the ability to make reactive worlds. I wonder if they’ve simply not implemented that part yet?

    But it’s certainly not terrible. Where Mario Maker has you place a special block type that vanishes after being stepped on, this give you the tools to script that yourself. Which is certainly a better first step towards teaching programming.

    • Sam says:

      Turns out to use the movement actions, you have to go through the Movement component’s scripts, rather then the general purpose Brain component. Which is unpleasantly inconsistent – you can affect health from the Brain as well as from the Health component. It all feels very inelegant.

      Everything in the world is either Player, Enemy, Item, or Platform. But there’s no obvious way to see what an item you’re working with actually is. Does changing the graphic change what type it’s considered, or does it remember what it was originally created in the editor as? (It appears to be that it stays as whatever it was originally spawned as. Hope you don’t forget what that was!)

      Some stuff that just doesn’t work. I made an enemy that chases after items and should collect them. The chasing works, but even though they’re both physics objects they don’t collide and so never trigger the collection event. I guess they wanted to keep it simple and let enemies walk though power-ups without colliding, but because that’s a fixed rule the possibility of creating unusual things is greatly limited. Which is a real shame because kids (and adults) could get a lot of motivating fun and good learning experience by playing with things like that. “What would happen if the Daleks could pick up the gems? Nothing.”

      It’s almost a really nice introductory tool. But I think too much is locked down and some aspects of the user experience are a bit too fiddly or inconsistent. It does seem to do a good job of not losing all your work when you accidentally close the tab though. A shame that the BBC doesn’t have a link to something like Construct or Game Maker for people to graduate to.

      • georgehenryrowe says:

        Sam: we’ve fixed the issue with not knowing what Type an object is, and this will be in an update later this week. This was previously a separate component you could change, but because the change yielded no immediate effect it really confused kids under 11 in user testing, and hence why it was removed.

        Enemies not being able to pick up items is again a hard coded collision matrix – that, and that players can’t shoot players, are the only things in there that are a bit hidden (oh and platforms kind of have their own separate physics system so that in p2 physics they can be ‘immovable’, but then you can move them using the Movement component). Again, we discussed exposing the collision matrix so you could edit these things, but again it was too confusing for the wee kiddies and discarded.

        Yes, the Movement logic and the rest of the logic not being able to interact (e.g. you can’t move a Brain component with Movement in) is my least favourite part of the tool and was simply because we ran out of time :( We would love to fix this, and if the BBC see fit to update the tool then maybe we’ll be able to :)

        Without locking anything down it really becomes confusing for younger game makers, so we tried to make a progression curve that starts off easy (just dropping on platforms and players etc), and then changing them a bit by adding components, and then getting more advanced using the logic.

  4. racccoon says:

    I think the kids will love it :)

  5. MuscleHorse says:

    “Adults”.

  6. The Velour Fog says:

    New Dr Who is a bit rubbish, isn’t it

    • drinniol says:

      Old Dr Who was a bit rubbish as well, to be honest. It never was a paragon of excellent gripping drama, it’s a kids show.

      • LionsPhil says:

        I thought even its fans enjoyed it “ironically”, as a so-bad-its-good–honest thing.

        • HopeHubris says:

          Episodes vary between “A bit of silly fun” and “actually pretty shit, yeah.”

      • The Velour Fog says:

        True, but it never took itself so seriously. Now that New Who has been designed as a “cultural event” it’s all a bit much.

        To be honest I wouldn’t mind so much if not for the cringeworthy romance subplots and pop culture references

        Mass appeal blah blah gosh i’m old

    • NephilimNexus says:

      I think that I can explain that one. Old Who was like the original, 4 disk X-COM. They didn’t have two pence to rub together for special effects so they had to make up for it with actual plot, content and writing. Old Who was the antithesis of American SciFi: Good writing, bad special effects, and a hero who never shagged any of his numerous attractive female friends.

      With it’s resurgent popularity the BBC went ahead and threw all their budget at New Who, and in doing so wrecked it. Because now they can afford lots of CGI and special effects, and everything begins to unravel from there. Story writing takes a back seat to “Ohhh dinosaurs! On a space ship!” and we have Tennant openly hooking up with a blond teenager (Yes, teenager – Rose Tyler was 19 when she met The Doctor). They’ve gone completely Hollywood, not understanding that not being Hollywood is exactly what we liked about it in the first place.

      And they still haven’t figured out if they want to be a show for kids or grown-ups. In trying to please both they ended up satisfying neither.

      • The Velour Fog says:

        Well said

        In one of the first episodes there was a joke about a Britney Spears song being considered “classical” music which besides dating it horribly won’t even make sense in 10 years time because who will remember that terrible song? Who even remembers it now?

        One more grumble: Despite the bigger budget they decided to do 75% of episodes on Earth or near earth or on an Earth space station. Yawn. The doctor has an entire universe to explore and all we get is “boy wasn’t that trip to the giant broccoli planet fantastic? Oh well who wants to go to Cardiff?”

        • drinniol says:

          In one of the first original series episodes, they did the same joke with the Beatles. Granted, they lucked out on the musicians that time.

          And as it still attracts millions of viewers it must be pleasing somebody, even if Dr Who nerds seemingly only watch it to complain about it after :P.

          • The Velour Fog says:

            Lucked out? The Beatles were the biggest band in the world in 1965. Britney Spears was way past her peak when that episode aired. Not a good comparison.

  7. Jason Moyer says:

    I dunno what the audience for modern Dr Who is like in the UK, but in the states I’m pretty sure it mainly consists of teenage girls.

  8. d_gamer says:

    Heard a lot about this game, and most of the people feel this is not as good as television series. Developer failed to deliver what they promised.

  9. georgehenryrowe says:

    Hi all, full disclosure: I worked on building this thing. I think the review is a pretty fair assertion of what the Game Maker was designed to be – something that is quick and easy for young folks to pick up and start making games, but then with more depth when you dig into the Advanced Logic sections of the components.

    Bit puzzled about the no keyboard controls on Chrome; definitely works for us? What version of Chrome/OS etc?

    Sam: we’ve fixed the issue with not knowing what Type an object is, and this will be in an update later this week. This was previously a separate component you could change, but because the change yielded no immediate effect it really confused kids under 11 in user testing, and hence why it was removed.

    Enemies not being able to pick up items is again a hard coded collision matrix – that, and that players can’t shoot players, are the only things in there (oh and platforms kind of have their own separate physics system so that in p2 physics they can be ‘immovable’, but then you can move them using the Movement component. Again, we discussed exposing the collision matrix so you could edit these things, but again it was too confusing for the wee kiddies and discarded.

    Yes, the Movement logic and the rest of the logic not being able to interact (e.g. you can’t move a Brain component with Movement in) is my least favourite part of the tool and was simply because we ran out of time :( We would love to fix this, and if the BBC see fit to update the tool then maybe we’ll be able to :)

    So, hopefully this will encourage some kids to get into making games who might have otherwise not done so, and I agree with most of this article, but isn’t calling it a bit rubbish a little strong?