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Thursday, January 30, 2014

Book Review: Learning Stencyl 3.x Game Development - Beginner's Guide

I was given a review copy of Learning Stencyl 3.x Game Development: Beginner’s Guide. Before jumping into the details of my review, I’ll say I found the book to be an enjoyable read. I learned a lot and I can safely say this will be my go-to resource for my students when they are learning to make games with Stencyl.

Right away I was glad to see Joe Dolivo’s name in the list of reviewers for the book’s content. When I started programming with Stencyl almost two years ago, I contacted the Stencyl team to ask about classroom resources. I liked the promise of Stencyl, but I was having difficulty learning to create some simple classroom games. They directed me to Joe as someone who knows the program and knows education. He pointed out a few online resources and also told me this book was in the works. With Jonathan Chung, Stencyl’s creator, writing the forward and Joe Dolivo as part of the writing process, I knew the book’s author was writing with authority.

The book provides a great overview of Stencyl, leaving the reader with an excellent idea of what to expect from this game creation tool. Beyond that, most of the ten chapters are a step by step walk-through of creating a platform game called Monkey Run. Instead of progressing through the menus, tools or other features, it takes us through the stages of game development. Anyone who works through those chapters will have created a playable computer game. What more could a beginning game designer ask for?

Now, as I mentioned above, I had trouble getting started with Stencyl and I didn’t have much luck with the online tutorials. (I wrote about my early experiences and conclusions in this post.) I can say without question Learning Stencyl 3.x Game Development is a vast improvement over those resources. The writing is very clear. I really like how each stage starts with a brief overview of what we’ll accomplish with the game, then it goes right into a step by step explanation of how to actually make it happen using Stencyl’s tools such as actors, behaviors and blocks.

I was very pleased with these explanations, but I think the best sections are the “What just happened?” segments that follow them. As an educator, I know students want to jump right into the doing. They’re not big on reading paragraph after paragraph of the overall concept and plan.

So instead of trying to explain the why and all the terms upfront, the book elaborates on what we did and why after we’ve gone through the steps. It’s a great way to teach. By the time the learner gets to these sections, he or she has become somewhat familiar with the tools and probably already has some questions that the sections will address.

One last positive I’ll mention is I appreciated the care taken to credit the creators of the graphics and audio used in the game. The attention given to copyright and creative commons licenses, both explicitly in the appendix and by example throughout the chapters, will be very helpful as I teach these practices to students.

With all the praise I have offered, I do have to add I haven’t yet worked through any of the actual programming. I read over the first half of the book carefully and skimmed through the later chapters. I hope to return to it, preferably with students, actually going through all the programming in Stencyl as I do. At this time I can only say it all makes sense with the things I have created on my own previously.

I did download the sample code that came with the book and I tried out one of the advanced sections. (The sample code can be downloaded from the publisher's site. It is provided in sections that match each step of the book. This is a nice touch because learners can jump in at any point of the book or development process they need and have just enough of the code prepared for them in advance.)

And definitely worth mentioning, the book refers to Stencyl 3.x, but that hasn’t been released yet. The Stencyl site does say 3.0 is available through a closed beta program to paying customers.  I can only assume the authors expected that version to come out the same time the book did, but for whatever reason it hasn’t. As I mentioned, I didn’t notice anything in the steps that looked different than my initial experience with Stencyl. Also, the code section I tested out in my current version of Stencyl seemed to work fine. If there are features of 3.0 that would be significantly different, they aren’t immediately apparent.

All things considered, I am very happy to have this book for myself and my students. It has answered some questions I had about this very promising game design tool and I think it can help many more young learners to find success in game creation. I’m not currently teaching a game design or programming class, but the next time I have the opportunity, I will use Stencyl and I will provide this book to the students.

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