Microsoft Popfly Meets Game Maker

Microsoft says it views the Popfly Game Creator as a training tool and gateway to its flagship Visual studio tool set.

Microsoft has built upon its Popfly mashup tool to fashion a new way for beginners and nonprogrammers to create games.

The software giant on May 2 announced the alpha release of its Popfly Game Creator, which builds on Popfly's current set of mashup and Web page authoring tools to add support for easy creation and sharing of casual games.

John Montgomery, group program manager for Popfly and Visual Studio Express, said Popfly Game Creator is a Silverlight tool for people who have little to no programming skills but who want to create games and share them with friends. Silverlight is Microsoft's rich Internet application platform that competes with Adobe Flash.

Montgomery said Microsoft tested the software on two disparate sets of users: youngsters aged 14 and under, and retirees. He said the groups had very different results. "The younger you were, the more likely you would build a game that was a story," while older creators built two-dimensional and action games, he said.

Montgomery said in Microsoft's research about what beginning developers wanted to do most with programming the company found that creating games was always among the top interests. So the Popfly team put a group of five developers on the task of creating a game builder. It took them about two months to come up with the alpha release, Montgomery said.

Gateway to Visual Studio Tools

Although Microsoft is interested in seeing people use its technology for entertainment and social value, there are other goals for the Popfly Mashup Creator as well.

"As a company, the big thing Microsoft is looking to do here is create a larger base of people who know how to program and are familiar with Microsoft tools and technologies," Montgomery said. He noted that Microsoft also has "the expectation that a portion of those people might become professional developers," which would benefit the industry.

Microsoft views the Popfly Game Creator as a training tool that connects to Microsoft's flagship Visual Studio tool set. "So there's a path up into Visual Studio as well," Montgomery said.

For a more detailed look at Microsoft Popfly, click here.

In a demonstration of the technology, Montgomery showed that the Popfly Game Creator features an intuitive interface that guides users through the process of selecting the actors, scenes and behaviors that define a game without needing to write a line of code. With just a few clicks, Popfly puts casual gamers into the driver's seat and empowers them to express their creativity, he said.

On the first page of the tool the user can choose from 18 templates that are "all scaffolded out" for users build upon. Montgomery went on to build a "Space Invaders"-like game in a matter of minutes by clicking and choosing from various images and backgrounds.

"You can attach code to all of these events," he said. "All of this is JavaScript code that runs atop Popfly. And you can modify the code to create interesting behaviors."

The tool allows users to simply build playable games or to also delve deeper and actually learn to program by following the steps taken along the way to build games. "The core premise works well for people with no coding experience," Montgomery said.

Montgomery said he looked at other tools aimed at teaching youngsters to program, such as Alice, Logo and KPL (Kids Programming Language), "and the problem I had with all of them was they felt too hard, and you had to install a lot of software on the computer" to get them to work. Essentially, they were meant as teaching tools for teachers to use in classrooms, he said.

"We wanted to make this easy, wanted it to be so simple, so approachable and easy to get," Montgomery said. "All you need is a browser and Silverlight."

Montgomery said he did not have an exact time frame for when Microsoft would deliver a beta and then a "completed" version of the product. But he said the alpha is solid and usable. The Popfly team will be unveiling the Game Creator at the Maker Faire event held in San Mateo, Calif., on May 3-4.

Meanwhile, on the purely mashup front, Microsoft also revamped the Popfly interface for embedding mashups in other Web pages or turning them into Vista sidebar gadgets. The company also improved performance and caching, updated the Twitter block and created a World of Warcraft mashup that users can add to their Facebook pages.