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GDC 2010: Hands-on with Sketch Nation Shooter

When I was reminded of its name at GDC, I couldn't recall hearing much about Engineous Games. It's the development studio founded by Nitzan Wilnai, a former software developer at EA and Yahoo who's gone to work making iPhone games for himself. But I did recall Engenious' first title, Tatomic, which I wrote about a while ago -- it was a great puzzler that put a new spin on Tetris' falling block gameplay.

Unfortunately, despite my purchase, Tatomic didn't sell as well as Wilnai would have liked, so he's decided to "create a game that would sell itself." It's called Sketch Nation Shooter, and he sat down to show it to me last week in San Francisco. He started off the demo by promising that he would make a game for me in two minutes, and sure enough, 98 seconds later, he had a custom spaceship shooter game up and running, as you can see in the photo above.

So how did he do it? Sketch Nation Shooter is really a whole genre of games -- it allows you to create your own shooter game using your own art, rules, and designs. Whenever you head in to create, you can choose Basic or Advance, and Wilnai first showed me basic -- it asks you to take a picture of a drawing (it should be surrounded by white, in relatively good light and so on), and then it analyzes that drawing and turns it into a graphic for your shooter's player character. You can do the same with enemies, and the game adds their pictures as well. Then hit play, and within just a few minutes, you've got a Gradius-style shooter -- your ship just kicks out a continuous stream of fire, and you control it by moving your finger around the screen as the ship stays in view right on front of it.

But what's really cool is what happens after the shooter is made. Wilnai has set up a few servers to run the game, and so players can upload and share their creations with everyone playing Sketch Nation Shooter. Not only can you make and share games with your friends (the game uses your Facebook login to sign in), but you can access anyone's games, and games are even rated (so you can just dive in and play the top 10 rated games any time you want). Every game has its own leaderboard as well, both globally and among your friends, so not only can you play whatever games are invented, but you can compete on each for the best score.

The Advanced editor really takes things over the top -- you can add multiple enemies and define their weapons and behaviors (create kamakazi enemies, have them run patterns, or just have them hover at the top of the screen), and you can even create levels just by drawing and taking pictures of those, and define boss creatures and set their hit points, attack types, and so on. The game is very customizable, and even if you're not artistically inclined, there are included art packs to chose from, featuring themed art that you can use in the games however you like.

And if nothing else, it'll be interesting to see what people come up with -- I got to play an Under-the-Sea inspired shooter by Wilnai's wife, a World War II shooter, and even a game called "Traffic" that took shooting out of the equation entirely and just had you maneuvering a car through a crowded highway. And that's just what Wilnai and his beta testers thought of -- you can pretty easily imagine a Little Big Planet-style community popping up around this one as designers get more and more creative with the options. That's what Wilnai meant as "a game that sells itself" -- he's hoping people will make games and get their friends to download the app just to try them out.

He's not sure about a price yet, but he did promise that since your friends may be entreating you to buy it to play their shooters, it'll be "cheap enough to check it out." And the app is due out on the store sometime in early April -- if you've wanted to create an iPhone game for yourself without actually downloading the SDK, you might want to give this one a look.

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