Flowlab Takes Visual Game Development To The Cloud, Free Beta Released

Flowlab

As long as technology keeps innovating, we’re going to see game development widen up more and more as the barriers of coding and creating art are stripped away. Ken Railey has taken the whole process, from the first sprite and all the way to digital distribution, and strimmed out the fat in order to keep it accessible and all in one easily manageable space with his newly released game creation tool, Flowlab. Ken is a professional developer, with a specialisation on virtual worlds and MMO experiences for children. His most recent role was the lead developer on Ubisoft’s now defunct Imagine Town MMO. Funnily enough, it was the combination of game development and design appealing to children that birthed Flowlab.

“Flowlab started as a way to teach my son about programming and logic in a visual way. The idea grew as I realized there is really no truly integrated and easy to use game builder that encapsulates everything that a new or non-technical designer would need – from asset creation, to development, to distribution.”

FlowlabEssentially, Flowlab streamlines the whole arduous process of creating a game by taking away anything that may be too complex for a fresh-faced developer and representing in a visual interface. The idea is based on “Flow Based Programming”, which was pioneered back in the 1970s by J. Paul Morrison, but never took off in the game development industry. The thinking is that programming is easier if you’re assembling visual elements than trying to manipulate traditional text-based code. Ken believes that this method of programming is perfect for his target users of non-programmers and visually-minded people.

“You essentially connect nodes together, and can watch them play back in real time, while you see the nodes communicate. For example, to make a character move to the right, you would connect a “keyboard” node to send a “Number” into the players “X velocity” node. Then you can watch the nodes react in real time as you play test the game. The ability to see the logic visually flow through the nodes as you test also helps with tuning and finding errors in a way you just can’t do with code.”

Having just released the beta of Flowlab means that there is still plenty of work to be done and feedback to collate. While the logic editor is able to support fairly complex logic and mechanics at the moment, Ken is currently working on some more sophisticated organizational tools so that projects will become easier to manage as they grow. But right now you can jump straight into Flowlab and start playing around with it and make a couple of games if you get to grips with it, which you should do fairly quickly.

If you stick with your free account, you’ll be able to host up to two games that can be shared online, but you will not be able to export them to iOS. You’ll need to upgrade to a premium account for that, of which there are two tiers. The “Indie” account at $10 a month gives you capacity to host up to 10 games with iOS exporting, while the “Studio” tier at $24 a month removes all restrictions on the number of games you can host, and it also gives you the ability to disable the in-game editor if you desire.

Make It Rain

Ghoster Blue QuestSo far, a few games have been completed using Flowlab during its alpha stage, and you can see them all on the dedicated Games page. Having created a few of them himself for testing purposes, Ken reports that the tool is designed to be flexible enough for users to create most types of games – certainly platformers and shooters. He does note that the tool is restricted to 2D games, and only ones of a single player nature at the moment, though multiplayer support could arrive in the future. Generally, action and arcade games are easily handled, but anything more complex will be difficult – card games and text-based adventures would probably be a bit of a pain to create too.

One of the greater advantages of Flowlab, other than visual programming, is that it’s all web-based. Ken expands:

“Since the editor runs on the web, there is no “export” step – the editor is integrated and can be accessed at any time while playing the game. Nothing to download or install, and the projects are all hosted in the cloud – access them at any time from anywhere. This also means that collaboration is trivial – no emailing assets around. Reduces the barrier for casual users to make and share. No need to export and upload games – just send a link or click the Facebook or Twitter button below your game.”

Of course, if you’re looking to publish your game on the App Store, then you’ll need to export a version of the game and submit it to Apple for approval, as is always the case. Overall, while Flowlab has more work to be done on it, streamlining the development and distribution of a game seems like something we could see more tools aiming to do in the future. Of course, for more complex games, the tool isn’t ideal, but it appears to be a very good entry level tool that is continuing to expand in what developers can do with it, how they manage their projects and the various tutorials.