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Have a phone with a camera? You can make games

Downpour is a tool for more approachable game design

Photo: Behrouz Mehr/AFP via Getty Images
Nicole Carpenter is a senior reporter specializing in investigative features about labor issues in the game industry, as well as the business and culture of games.

V Buckenham pulled up the Downpour app during our Zoom call Friday, and within a few seconds, we were making a game. Buckenham snapped photos of our faces on the screen, then turned the camera on themselves for a selfie. With a few taps on their phone, Buckenham linked these photos together and built a small game out of them — not their most interesting game, sure, but an interactive experience nonetheless.

“The idea is that you can be waiting at a bus stop, download [Downpour], and then by the time you get off your bus at the other end, you’ll have made a game and released it,” Buckenham said. “That’s the kind of thing I want to be possible.”

Buckenham, the founder of Downpour Limited, is part of a community of creators making game design tools with an aim towards making game design more accessible, approachable, and creative. They said it’s not necessarily the singular future of video games, but one of many futures: an option for creators looking to do something different, not a replacement for traditional game-making methods.

Polygon spoke to Buckenham via Zoom last week to chat about this community of creators making new tools — including Downpour, which Buckenham hopes will come out this year.

[Ed. note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

Polygon: I’d love to start by hearing about you and your history in the video game industry.

V Buckenham: I’ve been around the games industry for about 10 years, around the indie space. I worked with Die Gute Fabrik on Mutazione, which you might know — many, many years ago, because that was in development for years. I worked at a start-up called Sensible Object on a game called Beasts of Balance, which was a digital and physical stacking game. The company got acquired by Niantic, so in the last couple of years at Niantic, I worked on stuff that is still unannounced.

Basically, I was there long enough to earn money to buy a house and put together some savings. I left to go do my own things. Since then I’ve been working on a couple of things, but the main thing I’ve been working on is Downpour. The other thing, which is not actually video games, but it’s pretty relevant to Downpour, is that I was involved in the Twitter bot community around five to seven years ago and made a site called Cheap Bots Done Quick. There’s, like, tens of thousands of people using it to host Twitter bots. That’s my biggest, most notable creative tool. I think the fact that I’d made that gives me a lot of confidence that I can make something and it’s going to find users. It’s going to enable a wave of people to do things they otherwise wouldn’t do.

a phone screenshot of a drawing of a cat, with two options to click on Image: Downpour

What is Downpour? How does it work?

Downpour is a tool for making games quickly and approachably. The idea is that you can be waiting at a bus stop, download [Downpour] and then by the time you get off your bus, at the other end, you’ll have made a game and released it. That’s the kind of thing I want to be possible. I guess it’s just kind of saying, it could be so much faster, but of course the things you’re going to make are going to be limited. I don’t know if you know HyperCard, this ancient MacOS thing, but basically if you have an image and you can link bits of that image to other images, there’s a lot you can do with that. It’s very flexible. It also allows you to do your game-making by drawing things on a piece of paper or doing silly faces. That just feels much more tactile than doing it on a computer, and it means you can spend time outside of that. People have phones, and phones have cameras, so let’s use this technology in a way that otherwise you couldn’t. I was especially thinking of teenagers who don’t necessarily have a nice laptop computer or stuff like that, so managing to make that accessible to people who just have phones feels important.

The bit that’s missing from this [right now] is a button that you can press and then it uploads to my servers, and you can share [your game] immediately. There’s loads of other features I need to focus on, but that’s the foundation of it.

Why is it important to you to make game design more approachable? It feels like Downpour iterates on the experience and impact of other tools like Bitsy and Twine.

Honestly, with all the things going on right now, I don’t know if I can justify it as actually important. But I do know it’s cool to see people making stuff. There’s joy in that. And if I can make people make more things … the feeling of making an approachable tool and someone does something with it, and you’re like, ‘Wow, that’s really cool. I would have never thought of that.’ I feel like I can take some small amount of credit in that. That’s hard to beat … the kind of joy you see in other people, and seeing that kind of impact. That’s great.

Do you think that approachable game-making tools are sort of the future of games? Where does it go from here?

No, I mean, it’s a future. The go-to answer here is that there’s clearly going to continue to be expensive things. You know, indie games are gradually getting more expensive to make in certain categories. But there’s also people making things that weren’t here before, but that feels like a thing.

So, you know, I don’t know. Roblox is going in both directions simultaneously, right? It’s easier than ever to make a game. But there are also increasingly professionalized games. I think all this stuff can coexist.

When you showed the tool at Now Play This, were there any games or experiences that came out of that were especially unique or surprising to you? It must be exciting to see what people are making with this.

Yeah, a couple things that were pretty cool. One was people doing stop-motion sort of stuff. There’s one that’s like, just basically a turtle going through a door. Another one that’s slightly cheating, because it was done by Jo who is one of the organizers of Now Play This, who was able to detach the tablet and wander around with it. But basically, she did a walkthrough of the festival, like going through all the doors and all kinds of stuff. There’s a thing about taking pictures in 3D space, like it’s a 3D scan of your environment that you can walk around in, like the kind of thing people did with that weird house that was a warehouse that was previously a church. I even went to that in VR Chat.

There’s that, and then there’s the low-tech thing of taking photos and linking it together and getting that weird, actually really 3D sense of being in a space. The fact that people can do that is pretty exciting.

Is there anything that you’ve made using Downpour that you’re particularly proud of?

I did this thread [of games] as a way to force me into actually making it. Because once I’m making it, I’m in tunnel mode and it’s hard to shift to actually using it. The one I’m probably most proud of is the Pluto one, just because I think blink comparators are really cool, just using that technique and flicking between code and seeing what’s changed. Being able to share that stuff is really nice.

Also, I’m not necessarily recommending anyone looks at it, [but I made one when] I had a tooth extracted. And I was just kind of knocked out and posted various pictures of the tooth, using it in that kind of diary, personal sense. It has a certain amount of playfulness in just, ‘Don’t click here,’ and then you click here, and making that approachable. I’m on Mastodon, and it was definitely an inspiration for this kind of thing being on there and seeing the way that the content warning feature can be used for jokes. Here’s the set-up, and you’ve got to click a button. When you click the button, you see the punchline. But the fact that you clicked it makes you responsible for seeing the punch line in a way that makes things fun. Being able to put jokes in is pretty inspiring.

You’ve talked a bit before about flatgames being an inspiration for the tool. I’d never heard the term flatgames before. Can you explain that?

a screenshot from and i made sure to hold your head sideways Image: Jenny Jiao Hsia

Yeah, this is a movement I’d seen around, and seen some exciting stuff, like some of Llaura [McGee’s] early games. There was the Flatgame Jam. And Jenny Jiao Hsia’s and i made sure to hold your head sideways. That game is amazing. But yeah, it’s just just a style of here’s how we can make stuff more approachable, especially in that assets should ideally be made on paper.

Making stuff on paper feels really great. But then there’s this sticky bit in the middle where I have to get stuff into the computer. And then I have to write scripts in Unity. And I can write scripts in Unity, I’m capable of doing that. But it’s annoyingly unapproachable for reasons that feel technical and incidental rather than inherent in the form. The other part of that is that we had flatgame stuff at Now Play This in the past, and seeing people get really into it. The setup there was that people were drawing on pieces of paper and they were being scanned using this tool that someone had made. That was really good. People were putting together games using the stuff that was made by it. That kind of showing how stuff is made and making it more approachable is great, but at the same time, it’s a shame that people couldn’t make the games themselves. That was a good number of years ago, but basically, I knew this could have been better. OK, actually, I can make this better.

Is there anything else you think people should know about this project or your experience in making it?

Yeah, other than it’s hopefully coming out later this year, it’s that there is a community of people making these creative tools. Nathalie Lawhead, [their] blog posts on this really give a sense of the vibrant community. It’s not like I’m pioneering this thing that otherwise wouldn’t exist. I’m doing this because there are some really cool tools. Can I do that, too? Also, a shout out to sok-stories, the Sokpop Collective tool. It has you drawing these little things, but the drawing interface is really nicely constrained. And then you’re just dragging and dropping things. And then it sometimes turns into a third thing or produces another thing.

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