As much as I'm thrilled by this prospect as a gamer, I'm even more intrigued as a content creator by what the tools are able to offer not just amateurs, but even professional designers. While development tools have become much more readily available and easy to learn over the last console generation, the Portal 2 editor is the first one I've been able to pick up and start producing what I'd call good, playable content within just a few minutes.
Disclaimer: I am not a programmer, and the things I say here might come across as short-sighted, ignorant or patently incorrect. I apologize if this is the case. My goal here is only to illustrate and make arguments from the perspective of a designer.
Tools Should Be Easy
Unfortunately, even today one of the biggest obstacles for a designer to get into the games industry is the general impenetrability of the tools. Someone might have one of the best creative minds out there, but even creating basic game content can be a big challenge, even with the most accessible tools around. It certainly would not surprise me to hear that there are many veterans with SDKs like Unreal and Unity that still have no idea at all how to do certain things, or how to take advantage of certain shortcuts.
These dev tools can still ultimately resemble 3D modeling programs and other complicated software, despite the vast majority of functions simply not being necessary for 90% of the work involved in creating games. Multiple viewports, dedicated toolbar buttons for each and every action, arcane and obscure keyboard shortcuts to speed things up... it's all great to know, but the barrier to entry is exceptionally high, and any time something new needs to be done, there's a whole new learning curve thrown in. Sometimes it can take a week or more of practice just to get to grips with a single piece of an SDK, and that's not efficient.
For all the power available, sometimes I just want to move an object a few feet and re-test gameplay, or add a few objects to pretty a scene up... and doing so can require several minutes of waiting or longer in the worst cases. There has to be a better way of handling things without giving up that power.
Tools Should Be Design-Driven
Portal 2's level editor goes one step farther than Unity, Unreal and others. Whereas even some of the best tools around are often created from the mindset of "how can we put as many features together as possible?", with little care for intuitiveness, Portal 2's editor is firmly focused on intelligent organization, quick and easy shortcuts for the most common actions, and is generally build to enable designers to create content as quickly and easily as possible, with as little learning curve as possible.
Although it only works in a simple grid and allows for the manipulation of fixed blocks, and thus has a lot of limitations, actually using it could not be simpler. Adding walls is as simple as clicking and dragging, or selecting faces and pressing the + or - keys. Gameplay objects can be added to a scene from a simple palette in a matter of seconds, and rather than using scripting, simple relationships can be plotted out using right-click context menus.
What this mostly comes down to is a sensitivity towards what designers actually want to do with the tools they're given. Let's face it, if you're just building a level and aren't involved in scripting, creating game assets, programming, and so on, the most common thing you'll be doing is building base geometry and adding detail on top, tweaking, tweaking and tweaking some more, testing as often as possible, until something looks right. Then, you'll probably tear down half of it when you realize something's broken or doesn't work well. Most SDKs I've used have made this cumbersome and awkward to do, even with all the grid-snapping, multiple viewports, etc. available. Most of the time, less is more.
When it comes to building gameplay, it's also fair to say that the vast majority of the time designers will be placing oft-used objects and entities with fixed functionality - placing enemies, trigger zones to create those enemies, creating buttons that open doors, and so on. It's one of the most time-consuming parts of game development, and yet the interfaces of SDKs rarely lend themselves to doing this quickly and effectively. Yet, to do something as simple as make a sliding door in Unreal, it could take me several minutes. In Portal 2, even complex logical interactions between objects can be set up in mere seconds, and the emphasis suddenly shifts from creating a game, to designing one.
It goes without saying that Portal 2's tools, as exceptionally easy and fun as they are to use, are also extremely limited. They only work with one game platform and one engine. They only let you make one type of game to begin with. They have a very fixed number of functions and tools available. It's impossible to do very complicated scripting, cutscenes, etc. It's tied to Valve's infrastructure. Obviously, I'm referring to the UI concepts more than I am to the current implementation and feature set.
Looking past that though, there are still some concerns. How do you reconcile such tools with existing tools and game technology, and are there any barriers to compatibility? How do you get new assets into it? How do you script something? How do you do your keyframe animation? What if you want to add more detail than what the tools allow, or plug in a new piece of software? There's an argument to be made that professional tools are as complicated and imposing as they are because they need to be that way.
|Despite being quite limited, there's also no reason why levels created in simple Portal 2-like tools couldn't be brought into other, more powerful tools when needed, or why there simply couldn't be a more design-driven UI on existing tools.|
Sure, there is that 10% of time where a designer won't be able to do something with what's available... but for the remaining 90%, building game content is as simple and effective as can be. In my opinion, that's a very, very good trade-off if it means that 90% of the time is more productive, and more fun for that matter.
Some designers might scoff at the fact that these tools intended for general consumers, and might even look at such a package as being overly simplified compared to the "real thing," but I think even the most hardened professionals should be able to appreciate just how fast and easy it is to create gameplay that is fun and engaging. Even if, theoretically, such tools were to somehow reduce what's possible in creating game levels, I'd almost say that's already worthwhile simply due to how much time you'd save otherwise.
I certainly wouldn't be surprised if Valve's own designers use similar technology to build Portal 3 and other subsequent games due to how quickly they'll be able to prototype, before taking it into their full editor in order to build release-quality visuals and implement the finishing touches. After all, the process isn't at all dissimilar from what other tools already do... it's just much, much quicker and lacks the steep learning curve and interface challenges.
I've written before on the state of tools in the gaming world, and while things are definitely better than they were a few years ago, I think that Portal 2 shows we have a long way to go before game level creation is able to transition from technology-driven to truly design-driven.