So you have a great idea for a casual iPhone game, but don’t know how to program in Xcode or perhaps you have no coding skills whats-so-ever. All hope is not lost, GameSalad could very well be the perfect solution for you. Gendai Games’ GameSalad is a visual, drag & drop based tool that tremendously simplifies game development, allowing just about anyone to quickly build fairly complex 2D casual games for the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch without even having to touch Xcode. So what you may have thought was impossible before could actually be within your reach. While GameSalad eliminates one major barrier to entry of app development (a knowledge of coding) it unfortunately still requires a Mac.

GameSalad’s most basic version is completely FREE and allows you to get started experimenting right away. This version will allow you to publish your games to the web, playable from within the Safari browser (on the Mac) using a special extension, but you cannot build an iPhone App. The next step up, for $99 a year gives you some additional debugging tools and allows you to publish an unlimited number of iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch titles as well. Although you must also have an Apple iPhone Developer Program Membership which will cost an additional $99 a year. There is also a professional package available for almost $2k per year which adss some additional support and features including the ability to include iAds in your app, but the $99 express package is probably enough for most aspiring developers. For less than $200 you could be on your way to App Store stardom (success is not guaranteed). It’s worth noting that Gendai Games does not take any royalties on the games you develop with GameSalad.

One look at the GameSalad forums and you’ll see that creator Gendai Games has not only conceived a new development tool, but formed a close knit a community of supportive indie app developers as well. Offering help, words of wisdom, lessons learned and more, the GameSalad community appears to be quick to revel in the success of one of their own and always happy to lend a hand to a struggling first-timer. There have been several prolific GameSalad users who have developed some modestly successful titles using the product.

Jonathan Mulcahy has created a growing library of games (with a Sue Grafton-like naming scheme) for the iPhone/iPad including Z is for Zombie, F is for Falling, Obliteration HD and (my favorite) V is for Vortex, which was actually featured a few times by Apple. When I asked Jon why he chose to use GameSalad he said ” I chose GameSalad in the first place because of how quick I was able to get a working prototype. I spent over a month pouring over an iPhone Application book I purchased, and in two weeks I had a complete working prototype of a game. A week later the entire game was fleshed out, and stood waiting for the artwork.” And with regards to his experience with the product he went on to say, “It has it’s limitations obviously, but for my dollar, there is no easier entry point to getting apps made for iOS. The community is very helpful, and I’m always amazed at what people come up with, even with GS’s limitations.”

Another of GameSalad’s success stories is Utopian Games. Darren Spencer, head of Utopian Games, has created several smaller titles using GameSalad including DropZone, Jungle Bug Rock & Roll, BuzzBee and Ghost Bash. Most recently, Utopian Games ported their popular PC puzzle game Bumps to the iPhone platform using the tool. Utopian Games has experience coding apps via traditional methods, having previously released Tumble Jumble, so I was curious why they chose to do the port using GameSalad. He told me “Bumps was ported in less than 2 months using GS, it was so fast to work with, we even managed to squeeze in 4 great mini games and 5 micro games.” Bumps has broken into the top 100 games, climbing as high as 69th place.

Now I don’t want to make GameSalad sound like a magical seed that will instantly produce an app that will bring you fame and fortune. As with any development tool, not every game that comes out of GameSalad will be a success or frankly…good for that matter. Like the many traditionally Xcode-developed games also stocking the virtual shelves of the App Store, your mileage may vary, the titles developed using GamaSalad are a mixed bag quality-wise. Crap in = crap out no matter what development tool you use! If you are going to develop an iDevice game, you still need to be able to come up with a fun idea, create good looking visuals (and sound) and put in the time to optimize and play test your title if you want to be successful. To that end, Gendai Games does offer a decent set of tutorials and guidelines for optimizing the performance of your game. While they may provide the tools, success will depend on what you make of them.

GameSalad is not perfect and it’s not going to help you create the next N.O.V.A. or Archetype, it has its share of issues and limitations. Gendai Games clearly states that games are “limited to 2D and single user, as GameSalad does not support 3D or multiplayer games yet.” In the past I have admittedly experienced some longer than average load times on GameSalad developed titles on my 2nd gen iPod Touch, but have seen some improvement in this area recently. Another common complaint is that there is no formal support for OpenFeint or as far as I can tell any of the current popular social network platforms including AGON or Plus+. If Gendai Games could find a way to implement Apple’s upcoming Game Center platform into GameSalad, this could be a huge win for them. One read through the forums and you’ll see that the tool still has some bugs, but then again, name a development kit that isn’t.

Okay, so now you are probably wondering what my experience with GameSalad has been. Unfortunately, since I don’t own a Mac, I have not been able to try the tool out for myself. I keep hoping that I’ll see an announcement, welcoming Windows users to the fold, but I’m not holding my breath. iDevice app development has always and sadly will probably always remain an activity confined to the Mac platform. If (unlike me) you own a Mac and a yearning to create a your own iPhone or iPad game, then there is really no reason not to download the free basic version of GameSalad. Give it a try and see what you can create, you might just be surprised. Mac users can point their Safari browsers to the GameSalad website and try out some current users’ games for free, like a try before you buy for the App Store. If you enjoy using this tool and want to take a chance at turning your web-based game into an iPhone app, then $200 seems like a fairly small investment.

Video Demo