When Trey Smith wanted to build a mobile game, he ran into one major obstacle: he had no coding or gaming development experience.
Around the same time, Smith called up engineer Nik Rudenko, and the duo began working on what would later become the no-code gaming development platform, Buildbox. Smith’s original problem became the company’s sole mission: democratize gaming so creatives can break through the technical barriers — like a programming degree or an affinity for math — that have kept them out of game creation.
Since going live, Buildbox has helped non-developers from all over the world create tens of thousands of games, including Smith’s “The Line Zen,” a one-time No. 1 download on the App Store that has accrued more than 10 million downloads to date.
“I’m not saying that the first game you make will hit it big,” Smith said. “But I think my story plus the other successes we’ve seen speak to our platform’s ability to eliminate skill barriers.”
Now, following AppOnboard’s acquisition of Buildbox last summer, Smith, AppOnboard’s chief product officer, and Rudenko, AppOnboard’s SVP of engineering, hope to continue to make waves in the no-code gaming movement by removing development skill — and cost barriers — in game design.
Gaming, a greenfield project
Before co-founding Buildbox, Smith attempted to develop a basic spaceship game that required command coding, which he found online and then copied and pasted into his game. After making little progress, he shifted to another platform that he described as “glorified scripting” based on if/then statements.
“Finally, after an hour, I made the spaceship move across the screen,” Smith said. “But that was it. I couldn’t change the direction, and it was painfully slow.”
Around the time, Smith asked Rudenko, an engineer he had been working with, if it’d be possible to build out a gaming development platform that offered drag and drop action functionalities like Keynote and PowerPoint.
Rudenko said it was possible, but the greenfield project would not be without its challenges.
“We had to invent something from the ground up without having any reference of what worked before,” Smith said. “We failed a ton.”
We had to invent something from the ground up.”
Early on, Smith and Rudenko rolled out Buildbox on a web browser but eventually scrapped the entire model in favor of a native platform to increase performance.
“So many companies write huge papers detailing how a product or feature is going to flow,” Rudenko said. “But when you actually start to build it, it ends up being a horrible user experience.”
Instead of following a detail-heavy technical design document, the Buildbox team followed Rudenko’s iterative approach.
“We came up with something small, even ugly, to feel it out,” Rudenko said. “Then we added more to the prototype and continued to experiment until we had the perfect polished product.”
That same iterative process has carried over into different versions of the Buildbox platform.
Buildbox 1 marked the team’s first polished product, which provided users the ability to create limited 2D scrolling types of games, like arcade action and 2D hyper-casual style games. Users could grab effects and animations from a menu for different characters, move them into their game model, and make further adjustments like how they shoot, jump and engage with their world.
Smith’s first game using Buildbox, “Phases,” debuted in 2014 and eventually ranked 28th on the App Store.
“I’ve always loved to create stuff, but I never had the technical skill to do it,” Smith said. “Buildbox opened up this opportunity for people like me.”
Addressing “inherent limitation”
Following Buildbox’s initial launch, Smith said he and Rudenko struggled with what Smith refers to as “inherent limitation,” or how to provide a menu of actions and commands that fulfill creators’ endless wishlists.
To address this, Rudenko said Buildbox had to provide options that provided more creative freedom for different types of games.
In 2016, they released Buildbox 2, which attempted to solve this by expanding its 2D gaming capabilities. But Buildbox’s third version, which went live in May 2019, was when they really differentiated themselves, Smith said.
“Buildbox is the first game engine to ever offer true no-code 3D gaming development,” Smith said.
Additionally, Buildbox 3 introduced smart assets and brainboxes, which allow creators to add predefined gameplay features and functionalities like data or motion without having to add and link individual nodes to define the logic.
Plus, if designers wanted to make their characters do something that wasn’t available in Buildbox’s menu, they could now create their own plugins called “nodes.” Once those nodes are created, then other designers can add them into their own games.
“About 10 to 15 percent of our community does code, but 90 percent does not,” Smith said. “And that small portion that codes creates these plugins for other people to use throughout the Buildbox community.”
Making it free
Since Buildbox’s inception, Smith said he had wanted to offer the platform for free, but an entirely bootstrapped effort kept the idea at bay.
“It was too risky,” Smith said. “If you have a product that’s paid only and you launch a free one, you’re going to take a revenue hit as you’re growing that community.”
A month after Buildbox 3 hit the market, AppOnboard, a no-code mobile development platform, announced its acquisition of Buildbox to merge their no-code movement efforts.
“One of my goals with the acquisition was to see if AppOnboard would help us go free,” Smith said. “And we did, and it worked.”
Our goal is to build the largest no-code community out there, period.”
Rudenko said they’ve seen major jumps in new Buildbox members since going free in December 2019 and set the record for their highest day of user activity in March.
“Our goal is to build the largest no-code community out there, period,” Smith said. “In order to do that, you have to have a free product to get that sort of reach, and now we’re seeing a lot more from Discord and social media activity as our community grows.”
Looking ahead, Smith and Rudenko said users can expect to see console support for creating games for Nintendo Switch, Xbox and PlayStation, multiplayer support and more collaboration tools to help people who are working on games as teams.
“We’re excited,” Smith said. “I think Buildbox offers a substantial boost to society in general by allowing artists to create instead of just people who are mathematically-minded.”