No-Code Parallels in Game Tech
No code is a hot topic, both in and outside of gaming. Think of companies like Webflow, Shopify, Squarespace, Bubble, or Zapier; all tools that help non-developers build products without code. Shopify, the anti-Amazon e-commerce giant, is certainly the juggernaut in the no-code space with a $135b market cap. Webflow is a newer but fast growing entrant, having just raised $140m in funding earlier this year. These companies don’t compete with each other though, they are all applications of no-code in different industries and areas of operations. Shopify is for building ecommerce storefronts, Webflow helps designers build websites, Bubble focuses on full fledged web app products with true data manipulation and management, and Zapier connects the various apps you might use for internal processes. Shopify was started in 2006, Zapier in 2011, Webflow and Bubble both in 2012. Over the past two decades, these companies have made running a business in the internet age without software developers a reality for many.
The question is whether that can be done in gaming, and what that world might look like. There is actually a fair amount of activity underway. Unity and their addons (3D Game kit, 2D Game Kit, Bolt) are making strides in this direction. Though they are a full fledged game engine, they are trying to build the engine for everyone, even those that don’t code. Godot, a widely popular open source engine also has visual scripting. Some other players in the space include GameMaker, Buildbox, GDevelop, Construct 3, and a number of others. In reality, all game engines have some characteristics of “no-code”, it’s a spectrum of what is abstracted away. This is really what no-code is all about: how and how much underlying logic do you abstract? Each level of abstraction reduces complexity for the end user (making it easier to use and understand), but it also reduces functionality. There tends to be an inverse correlation between ease of use and functionality. You can do anything with machine code, you’re very limited with Squarespace; these same fundamentals of software development carry into game development.
On no-code platforms, you’re still building out logic systems, but it’s visual. You’re filling out forms, chaining actions together, essentially writing functions without knowing it. But you’re given invisible guardrails that you can’t step out of. These guardrails are what enable you to build something without understanding the underlying logic and system, but eventually they will hinder what you can and cannot do. You will push the limits of what the no-code platform can do and you will get frustrated. The developers behind these platforms will work tirelessly to add the features you want, but it’s a seemingly never ending cycle. Once a no-code platform can provide all the functionality you could possibly want, it’s likely just as complex as the underlying language; you’re probably better off just learning to code. That happy medium of abstraction is an art, not a science.
Another area of frustration for many developers with no-code platforms is auditing. Tracking changes with tools like git is incredibly important in software development; it lets you go back to previous versions, look at specific changes written by different developers working on the same codebase, and review code before it’s pushed out to the world. Auditing and tracking revisions is much more difficult with no-code solutions today. Security is another area developers worry about with no-code platforms. Because you don’t have to understand the underlying technology, you don’t have to think about any security flaws in what you may be programming. If the guardrails are set up well, you can simply trust the no-code platform you’re building on. If there is something that’s been overlooked, you have no way of knowing. I found this secure and reliable no-code project quite entertaining. Realistically though, most well established no-code platforms have probably done a pretty good job of taking care of security for you. But no-code tools are also built in-house at companies all the time, simple abstraction layers for non-developers to change and update things. I’m sure there is much less emphasis placed on security in many of these internal applications.
Some platforms try to get around this by implementing “low-code” features, where you can open up the system for more advanced users. This is almost how game engines have been built to-date. They open up a lot of functionality for the developer to tweak and customize to their liking, if they wish. This is an interesting and unique phenomenon in the gaming industry not mirrored elsewhere. In certain ways, the gaming industry is far ahead of this no-code or low-code trend. Developing a game is such a large, complex, and advanced undertaking that the industry needed these game engines (low-code platforms) to support development.
One unmentioned area is user generated content (UGC). Low-code is working in UGC platforms like Roblox and Minecraft and we’re sure to see these market leaders and new entrants (like our portfolio company Hiber) lean heavily into no-code moving forward. No-code/low-code doesn’t work for everything, but it will likely cover 80% of what people want to do. Which is good enough for most people to get started and build interesting experiences they, and others, will care about.