It's easy to come up with an idea for a video game, but it's much harder to turn that thought into reality. Game development is a difficult and complicated process and, while accessible tools like Twine and RPG Maker open certain avenues, there’s an enormous gap between the easy-to-learn beginner's tools and serious programming.
That's not surprising, but it is an opportunity. Crayta isn't the first game-stroke-platform-stroke-tool that this industry has seen, and it won't be the last. The idea is to make visual drag-and-drop creation easy for beginners, underneath which are more advanced features for those wanting to get more technical.
I went to meet developers Unit 2, a 30-person team that's set up across a couple of floors in an industrial estate on the outskirts of Leamington Spa. The studio is largely composed of ex-Radiant Worlds staff. In this context Crayta makes a bit more sense: Radiant Worlds' only game was Skysaga, a sandbox MMOG with an emphasis on crafting elements. Skysaga was cancelled in August 2017, before Radiant Worlds was acquired by Rebellion and re-named Rebellion Warwick.
The idea is pretty similar to something like Roblox, inasmuch as you create games using the developer’s toolset. Unlike Roblox it integrates the game-playing and creation tools into one, aiming for a more holistic experience. While we're doing comparisons, you run around the world Minecraft-style (or can 'fly' using a disembodied camera), build environments and objects out of voxels, and then decide how the rules within your creation will function. It supports multiplayer creation and, if you really want to go for it, the Lua programming language.
I spoke to Hannah Waddilove and Natalie Griffith from Unit 2 games about Crayta, which is already in (very) limited release. The studio has elected to slowly let players into the development process, before the game is ready for the wider public, because ultimately this is the kind of project that depends on community.
“When you have a game like this which is going to live and die on its community, the game will get better the more people get involved,” Waddilove says. “We can’t get much better before a point where we have to start letting more players into our little loop. It will feed itself eventually.”
“It’s quite tricky knowing where to start investing public players into a game like this, because it’s not really like many other games out there. It’s a little bit like elements of Little Big Planet, it has some things in common with Roblox, it’s a bit like a few other games, but its not exactly like any of those, so it can be tricky working out where to target people for early play.”
“We’ve been quite lucky, we’ve picked some people up just through Twitter, we had very early on some people who had followed us from Skysaga who had really enjoyed that and kept an eye on what we were working on next. We had a bit of a pre-existing community there which was really, really lucky. Outside of that, we have been looking at people who enjoy making games using relatively simple tools. People who are involved in communities like bitsy and twine, that sort of thing. Game designers who want to make games but don’t really want to learn to use tools like unity or unreal.”
As part of this the studio also livestreams development.
The unique aspect of Crayta, after watching copious amounts of footage, is the learning curve of its game creation tools. On a basic level you build worlds by dropping blocks into place, either by walking or flying around the environments. If you want to make a specific game mode, like capture the flag, there are simple drag-and-drop tools to add those parameters. Then if you want to get into the guts of the thing, or code from scratch, the Lua programming language is supported. The road from drag-and-drop, to experimenting with values, to more ambitious coding endeavours seems both enticing and hugely flexible. a quick Google search for how to change a colour in Lua script shows just how easy it is to mess around with core values, and tweak
“You can can sort of engage to the level that you want to: there are basic tools and more advanced tools in there,” says Griffiths. “You can ease your way in rather than be confronted with ‘you must do code now.’”
Griffiths tells me that a big part of testing for the game has been centred around the local community, and in particular Warwickshire College.
“We’ve got quite a good relationship with the local art course at Warwickshire College, they’re throwing one of their courses basically at it. Each week they're spending a chunk of time on Crayta and it’s amazing the sort of things they’re creating with it. It’s really reassuring, because people create things that you don't think are possible.”
“We’re game developers, so it’s sometimes hard to know when things are the right level of accessibility, but working with 16 and 17 year olds on a games art course, they’re not necessarily people who have done much coding before, or who have done much game design before, and they all have really interesting ideas they want to try implementing. They really reassure us these tools are accessible.”
Some of the ideas shown off, created in many cases by university students rather than members of the development team, really caught my attention. There was one game in particular, a modified capture the flag map turned into laser basketball with lightsabers, which really showed off how the rulesets can be messed around with to create new experiences.
Crayta may be a melting pot of a few ideas we have seen in other games previously, but the way it combines creation and play tools, and allows for more complex editing of games made with accessible tools, does feel like it's bringing something new.