Beta the Game provides a candy-colored, block-shaped world ready for some Super Mario Bros.-style running and jumping action. The polished graphics and simple style draw the player in. But into what? Moving around on the screen, players soon discover they'll take on the role of coder: writing short, simple scripts to control an on-screen world.
Moving, jumping, and shooting in this world provide a familiar gaming context. As the player soon discovers, writing short code commands, such as "add crate" or "add platform x:3 y:5," provide the depth in the game. Tutorial levels help players learn the game's codePOP program environment, offering puzzle-like challenges that require programming code snippets to modify each level.
Patient players who stick with the game long enough to become versed in the terse codePOP terminal can invest their skills in designing new game levels that they can store and share through the Beta network. But everyone who plays Beta will learn at least a little code as they program to play.
Many educational programming games feature go-as-you-play formats. What sets Beta apart is the proprietary codePOP environment. Blending concepts from code scripting and object-oriented programming makes writing codePOP commands fairly simple. Because of this, a teacher who wants to encourage kids to try out coding will find Beta an easy way for students to dip their toes in the water. Since the code approach itself is somewhat novel, however, students may have some difficultly translating their Beta learning to more traditional programming languages.
Also, while the game offers a seemingly endless stream of alerts, pop-up code tips, articles, and how-to YouTube videos, it can still be a little hard to learn. Teachers should count on spending time walking students through the basics of the game, the interface, and the codePOP language before letting students go off on their own.
Beta offers a reasonably rich set of tools for game development that should work well as part of a game-development class or club. The depth of the tool set, and the fact that players can easily load levels created by the Beta team and others, will provide users with plenty of challenges as they improve their coding skills. Because Beta has its own programming language, however, and uses a sometimes awkward interface, teachers might find they have to spend more time than they would like supporting the idiosyncrasies of the tool. Ultimately, though, Beta makes coding easy, which will draw students in and get them started.