A Dark Room

One of my readers recently contacted me to ask for some advice, and in the course of talking to them, they turned me on to A Dark Room, which is the first rogue-like game that I’ve really liked. (“Rogue-like” is a pretty broad and flexible term, and I’ve played a lot of games before that use a permadeath mechanic, procedurally-generated maps, and ASCII graphics, but despite recognizing that the genre is significant and influential, I’ve never found roguelikes to be my cup of tea.)

It takes a little time to get going, but once you get a glimpse of what’s going on, the game opens up and gives you more new stuff to explore and figure out, and this creates a compelling obsession to continue playing. Fortunately, it’s not a huge game, and has an ending, which I discovered a little before 4AM last night, or else I might still be playing it. You can beat the game in a single evening long playing session, so I wouldn’t call it a long game, but it took a few days for me to figure out all the things that I needed to know in order to get to that point.

There’s so much this game does right that I want to take some time to analyze its design in order to explain why it succeeds so well.

At first, the game is simple. There’s not much going on, and not much to do. You start out with nothing, and after a few clicks and reading some sparse narration, you’re introduced to a new mechanic, and begin building a village in the wilderness. There’s no graphics, just text, and all you do is develop an economy based on gathering wood and trapping for meat and fur. Despite this portion of the game consisting mainly of watching progress bars count down and various resources (hopefully go up, this part of the game had an addictive quality for me; I couldn’t stop myself from building and taking care of my villagers! If I did, the game would make something bad happen to them, and if I tended to them, they flourished. It kept me paying tight attention to ensure that they were safe, that the village was growing, and my stores of resources were increasing.

And then, just when I was starting to wonder if this was all the game had to offer, it opened up yet again, and revealed that I could leave the relative safety of the village and explore a larger world. Suddenly, all the resources my village had been producing had a purpose: to outfit me so I could go explore and adventure. I went out and died a bunch of times, which set me back, but not terribly, and eventually I figured out how to survive most encounters, although if I strayed too far from home, I would encounter enemies I couldn’t defeat, or would run out of food or water.

The overworld map is graphical, but it is rendered in ASCII, but unlike a lot of other ASCII graphic games I found it intuitive and easy to read. Various types of passable terrain are rendered in a light grey text, while points of interest are rendered in black, which helps considerably. You’re a rogue-standard @ symbol, which is easy to remember because that’s where you’re “at”. Other points of interest are represented by easy to remember symbols: V is a caVe, O is a suburb (Outskirts of a larger citY? Y = city.) H is a house, and so on. As you play you are introduced to these symbols gradually, so they are not difficult to learn, and reading the map is easy and intuitive after a short learning curve.

It took me a few excursions to figure out how to survive and make it back t my home villAge. So at first I didn’t realize that by prevailing in a string of encounters, you could clear out a caVe or Outskirts or citY, and turn it into a Pacified wayPoint where you can heal and resupply. Creating a waypoint also creates a path where you can travel safely — you won’t encounter random enemies on a path, and walking on the path consumes less water and food, which allows you to go further.

I also figured out that I could clear out mines and start mining new types of resources, which took me back to the village to juggle my economy and craft more new gear, so I could go out and adventure a bit less fearfully. It was a pleasing cycle. Once I discovered the secret of steelworking, I got to a point where I was pretty confident that I could survive in the wilds, so long as I was cautious and kept a close eye on my vital stats. I found a few more types of resource, which seemed mysterious, and made me wonder what else was out there to be discovered.

Eventually, I made a discovery that put me into the endgame. I won’t spoil it for you, but at that point I felt like I’d accomplished my purpose, and was able to put the game down.

Along the way, I created this spreadsheet to help me plan the village economics and make sure I wasn’t running a deficit on any of the vital resources I needed to make progress and survive. I’ll be direct and say that at least 90% of the enjoyment you will get from the game is through figuring this out on your own, but keeping notes to stay organized once the village economy gets to a certain size and complexity is, perhaps not quite a must, but definitely very helpful. I haven’t given it all away, there’s still a few secrets waiting to be discovered. But if you want spoilers on how to manage your village, the spreadsheet will get you through that phase of the game handily.

A Dark Room Wiki is a guide dedicated to the game, but I didn’t discover it until after I’d beaten the game. It’s also available as a mobile app game on iOS and Android.

GameMaker Marketplace Asset: PNG_2_room

PNG_2_room is a simple, easy to modify demo for how to populate a room with instances according to a color coded image file.

Each pixel in the source image can be color coded to correspond to an object or tile in your game. Use the script room_instance_add_from_png() to populate a room with instances using the image as a key.

For example, this PNG image:


…was used to generate this room:room

You can modify the script to use whatever colors you wish to represent whatever objects or tiles in your project.

With this script, instead of using the built-in room editor, now you can use any image editor to create maps for your game more quickly!

You can even allow players of your games to create their own custom maps for your game, using whatever image editor they choose as a resource editor for your game!

A simple demo included in the asset shows how to use the script.

Full documentation at: https://goo.gl/z3du5f

Purchase at the GameMaker: Marketplace.

New GameMaker Community Forums now live (finally!)

Following up on my earlier posts on this subject, after long delays, the new GameMaker Community Forums is now live. The archive of the old GMC forums is still at its old url. YoYo Games are offering a 10% discount coupon as a token of appreciation to users who’ve put up with the lengthy downtime as the old forums were transitioned and the new forums took unexpectedly long to bring online. It’s good to have writable forums once again.


Why arguing about Link’s gender is dumb, and why it’s important

So there is a new Legend of Zelda game coming out, as there always is. Nintendo have shown it at E3, and fans have been speculating about it endlessly in anticipation, as they always do. I guess somewhere or other, people glommed on to a rumor that Link might be a girl in this next incarnation.

Nintendo shot down that rumor with some spurious logic about balancing the triforce, which apparently becomes unbalanced if it goes from 2/3 male to 2/3 female. See, in the original Legend of Zelda, a Triforce was a golden triangle made out of 8 pieces of smaller triangles, and there were three of them: a triforce of wisdom, a triforce of power, and uh I forget let me look it up, oh yes a triforce of Courage. These triforces brought “balance” to the world, and whenever the balance gets out of whack, Link (Courage) has an adventure to restore balance and peace to the world.

Later, I guess, these triforces became identified with the major characters in the Zelda world: Link, Zelda, and Gannon. And because these characters have gender, and because a 2M:1F gender ratio is apparently “balanced”, you can’t make Link a girl. Because apparently there’s no way to restore that imbalance through adventuring, or rewrite Zelda to be a dude, or whatever. It would just ruin Zelda as we know it, according to Nintendo.

Link can be anything you can possibly imagine... except a girl.

Link can be anything you can possibly imagine… except a girl.

My point in writing this is not to slam Nintendo for their decision to keep Link male, but to point out that Link is Nintendo’s property, and they can manage their property however they want to. They don’t have to make up dumb excuses why Link has to be male. They don’t owe fans a female Link. If they decided to offer a female incarnation of Link, there’s nothing wrong with that, either. But Nintendo created and own the Legend of Zelda world, and they’re the ones who get to decide how it works.

Except… We get to play in that world. As it unfolds for us, we take part in the creation, and all of us own a small piece of it. We are invited to become Link, as is the common convention with nearly ever videogame ever made: you are the protagonist.

And, it turns out, about half of us are girls. So, regardless of what the instruction manual says, or what the pixels look like, or what Nintendo wants, about half of all Links are girls.

For some girls, they may think of Link as a boy, and so they’re playing “in drag” while they use Link as their avatar, in much the same way that, in Shakespearean times, men played the women roles too, since real women weren’t allowed to be actors.

Some girls playing as Link may think of Link as a girl. That’s fine. Maybe Link’s a tomboy. Or maybe she’s disguised as a boy, because Hyrule doesn’t accept that women can be action adventure heroes. Or maybe some other thing.

Who cares? If someone wants to play the game and use it with their imagination that way, who are we to tell anyone that they’re wrong? That’s the experience they had, playing their game. There’s nothing official about it of course, but that doesn’t matter.

The thing with videogame characters is, we inhabit them for the duration we play the game. It’s like putting on a costume and playing a role. Each actor brings something different to a role.

But if we neglect this aspect of theatrical artifice, and consider the character of Link as a real person, who is a distinct individual, the character has its own identity. Its original incarnation as designed by the original creator seems to have some sort of magical hold on the character concept that defines it. Link is small. Link wears green. Link uses a sword and shield. Link is… male.

But every time a serial storyline has a new story written, or goes on a new adventure, the author may create new things. These may be said to extend the existing body of canonical stories that have to agree in continuity. Or they may have an “alternate” reality, often thought of as subordinate to the original, or subject to pre-existing continuity where possible, but existing in a multiverse of worlds surrounding different incarnations of the characters. Sometimes serial stories are “rebooted” or “reinterpreted” by new authors who take aspects of the original work, and use them as raw materials for writing completely outside of the canonical milieu.

There’s some core things that we sense in the character that can’t be changed, and everything else is subject to the interpretation the author/publisher chooses to present, and the vestiges of the actor’s persona that a player brings for the time they inhabit the role. In cinema, characters like James Bond and Batman have been portrayed by different actors. On stage, over four hundred plus years, different actors have portrayed the characters of William Shakespeare. In comic books, different writers and artists crank out new stories in a world that has been worked on in some cases for 75+ years, while the characters never seem to age, despite the world around them always being contemporary to the time of publication. Sometimes these characters go through dramatic re-inventions or spin-offs.

People debate whether these things are good or not, but the world keeps on going.

What’s different about videogames is, we all inhabit the role of our videogame protagonists. This is different from Christian Bale inhabiting Batman for a while, and then handing it off to Ben Affleck, etc. Each of us who plays a Zelda game is Link, contemporaneously. Link *is* a girl, in hundreds of thousands of living rooms, right now. And Link is a boy. Link is all things to all people.

And Link is Link, the published work offered on the market by Nintendo. We’re invited to play with him, as him, and become him. But Nintendo gives us a set of traits and constraints to work with.

People just need to get over it and accept it, or ignore it and substitute their own reality. It literally doesn’t matter which you choose.

If the publishers want to reinvent the character or take it in some really different direction, it’s up to them to do so in a way that brings the bulk of the fanbase along, or to be willing to leave a chunk of the fans behind. Either way, it’s fine.

Classic videogame storage

If you’re a classic game collector, videogame storage is a constant challenge. After hunting for the better part of a year, I have found that Sterilite 32-quart/30L “Clear View Latch” containers are just about perfect for my needs. Measuring 23 5/8″ L x 16 3/8″ W x 6 1/2″ H, they seem to be an ideal size for Atari 2600/Colecovision/Intellivision and NES cartridges. I highly recommend these, and I hope that Sterilite won’t discontinue them any time soon. I bought several at Target recently for $6.29 each.

Product label for Sterilite 32-quart Clear View Latch container

It’s also a good size for carrying and moving — they are not too heavy when fully loaded, are sturdy enough not to bend when lifted, and the lid latches securely to the bin. The walls and corners are somewhat rounded, which is necessary for strength and rigidity with this type of plastic, but are straight enough that you don’t end up with a lot of wasted space or weird humps that prevent the games from lining up nicely into rows and columns.

One of the annoying problems of storing Atari 2600 games is the odd sizes certain third parties packaged their games in. M-network, Parker Bros., Imagic, and others, used non-standard sizes which will mess up any specialized solution that uses slots. This container is tall enough that this is not a problem for all but the “double ender” carts that are two games in one, elongated shell. This is great for me, because it means that I can finally store almost all of my games in alphabetical order by Title, without compromising by storing the oddball cartridges in another container.

About 80 NES games fit neatly in one bin.

NES games in four rows of twenty fit neatly in the bin

And about 102 Atari 2600/7800/Colecovision/Intellivision sized cartridges.
Atari games in 6 rows of 17, for a total of 102, fit efficiently in the bin

I need to buy more to box up the rest of my collection, but when I do I’ll post some more photos showing how they do with Atari 5200, SNES, and N64-sized cartridges.

Follow Up to GameMaker: Exodus

My earlier post airing my dissatisfaction with GameMaker since YoYoGames was acquired by PlayTech has been unexpectedly popular. Shortly after the post went live, prominent indie game developer and owner of the ersatz gamemakerblog website, TrueValhalla, retweeted the article, bringing a great deal of traffic to this site, and many other retweets, likes, and comments.

This evening, the article received some attention from Shaun Spalding, of YoYoGames, and I had a brief exchange with him on Twitter, although due to the time zone difference it was late for him and we weren’t able to go in depth. Shaun’s a recent hire at the company, and has been in charge of the community forums since joining. Previously, his YouTube channel has provided a great series of GML tutorials. He’s an all around good guy, and I have nothing against him personally. In fact, I’d like to be clear, I have nothing against any of the other prominent YYG personalities such as Mike Dailly or Russell Kay, or GMC forums administrator Mark “Nocturne” Alexander, or former YYG CEO Sandy Duncan. All of them have been friendly and accessible, and have always responded to questions, suggestions, and even the occasional complaint professionally. It’s great to have such accessible and visible people standing behind the product. I’m not looking to make enemies or get into a fight with anyone. I’m interested in frank dialog.

TrueValhalla characterized my post as detailing the “decline of GameMaker” since the PlayTech acquisition. I didn’t use those words myself, but it seems like a reasonable way to characterize my position, given the numerous disappointments and failings I had outlined in my post. I would say that my confidence in YoYo and in the future of GameMaker is at a low point. In my opinion, GameMaker hasn’t declined, exactly — it’s improved over what it was a year ago — but the rate of improvements has slowed noticeably over the last year. With the failed migration of the GMC Forums n the last couple months, I’m very concerned.

Absent insider knowledge of what’s going on, I am left to speculate that it’s due to the way PlayTech have managed them. A large part of the problem has been YYG’s failure at maintaining community relations to let concerned users know what’s going on with the product.

The minute the new GMC Forums release was late, or better still, the moment they knew it would be late, YYG should have communicated to the community to let them know what was going on, why, and what to expect, and when.

I’m not slamming YYG by saying this; I’m trying to help them by calling attention to problems, so that they can make improvements. My dissatisfaction with GameMaker doesn’t mean that I want to see GameMaker fail, or even that I don’t like GameMaker. Quite the contrary, I love it and want to see it thriving. But, the fact is, I don’t see GameMaker thriving right now, and I see numerous reasons for concern as I outlined in my previous post. There should be no controversy: a company must listen to its customers and be responsive to their needs.

But, given their track record over the last year since the PlayTech acquisition, I don’t have much hope for improvement. And so I’m looking at alternatives, and I’m currently very interested in the Godot engine, which seems to be delivering improvements with great velocity and doing all the right things to attract my attention as a developer. It’s good to have alternatives, and anyone who’s passionate about game development is constantly looking for better tools anyway. However good GameMaker is, they have to improve continuously in order to remain competitive in the marketplace. Slowing down or stagnating is death in this business climate. I really don’t want to see that happen.

Let’s look at Shaun’s responses in detail.

First, he responded by tweeting that he disagreed with “basically everything” in my post, but couldn’t articulate why in 140 char. So, ok. That’s fair. This blog post is an invitation for Shaun or anyone else at YoYo or PlayTech to respond in depth to my points.

Next, he tweeted a link to reddit, where on May 26 he responded to someone asking about why the new GMC Forums were so late. The explanation offered there is that PlayTech does gambling software, and so has much more stringent regulatory requirements for security, and because of these requirements, their IT security hasn’t cleared the new forum for release yet due to unforseen issues with the security of the new forums.

This is really sub-adequate, for at least four major reasons:

  1. This explanation happened on May 26 — the GMC forums went offline on April 8, with a promise to return in about two weeks, which would have been April 22. So this explanation is over a month late.
  2. The explanation is buried on a subreddit, not on the front page of yoyogames.com, or even on the front page of gmc.yoyogames.com, where it belongs.
  3. Someone had to ask what was going on. Didn’t it occur to anyone at YYG that the community would want to know what was going on with its forum, and that they should proactively communicate what’s been going on? YYG seem to have completely disregarded the importance of the community of active users who support their business.
  4. The explanation reveals that they weren’t prepared to perform the transition, and did not plan adequately. Good IT practice says that:
    • There should have been a rollback plan in case the deployment couldn’t happen as planned.
    • The gap between the old forum going readonly to the new forum going live should have been minimal. Even the planned two weeks of no GMC forum was far from optimal. There really isn’t any good reason why the old forums should have gone readonly until after the new forum was up and running.
    • You should understand your security posture and ensure requirements are met before you start deploying a new system. During deployment is not the time to start testing the security of your new system!

It sounds like YYG went about the transition thinking that it wouldn’t be a big deal to make changes live on the production server, and midway through PlayTech caught wind of what was going on, at which point their IT Security department said, “Hold up, just what are you doing? Oh, hell no.” And since then, they’ve been stuck trying to comply with whatever PlayTech IT Security’s requirements are. And this has been going on for two months now, with no announcement or explanation in the most obvious place to make announcements, and no end in sight, and no rollback. GMC forum users are without a forum that they can post discussion on.

There’s no way you can convince me that “it’s all for the best” or “this was the way it had to be” or “this was the best we could do under the circumstances.” It’s a disaster born of mismanagement, poor planning, and poor communication. It harms the community of customers, and it harms YoYo’s reputation.

I highly, highly doubt that since the PlayTech acquisition that the YoYoGames web servers were integrated into PlayTech’s infrastructure in such a way that a security compromise in the GMC would have any impact to PlayTech’s compliance with any gambling regulatory concerns.

Absolutely, YYG should be implementing a secure web forum to replace the old GMC. But they should have had an acceptably secure solution ready before they went to deploy it.

You can bet if the GMC forums were directly generating revenue for YYG, this would never have been allowed to happen. But YYG seem oblivious to the fact that the community of GameMaker users is the lifeblood of their company, and that trust in YYG is essential. Users do not become customers without faith in the vendor.

Next, in response to my question of why YYG haven’t fixed the performance issues in My Library for over a year, Shaun’s response was that they have a small team and struggle with prioritizing fixing existing stuff and delivering new stuff.

I don’t doubt that. However, nothing about that admission inspires confidence. It generates a little sympathy, perhaps, but I can’t build video games with sympathy.

Here’s what’s wrong with Shaun’s response:

  1. Having been acquired by a larger company, YYG should have resources to hire additional staff to get to these tasks.
  2. YYG project managers need to assess the capability of their team and release only what they can maintain.
  3. The Marketplace is a major new feature. Releasing a beta, and then not continuing to develop it is not the right way to do a beta. Beta releases should be actively developed, and given priority. The purpose of doing a beta release is to allow the users an opportunity to use the solution, and provide feedback that can be used to improve it prior to the official release. Failing to act on feedback about the beta defeats the entire purpose of releasing it. Labeling something “beta” is not an excuse for poor quality.
  4. The workaround solution offered by YYG limits the number of assets a user can effectively own. Any defect that limits or discourages users from purchasing assets in the Marketplace should be considered a critical bug and given top priority. The whole purpose of the Marketplace is to generate sales of the assets sold there.  Anything that discourages or limits the number of assets a user of the Marketplace can own is a top priority problem. Imagine if Amazon had a bug whereby every time you buy something from them, it makes the amazon user experience slow down, eventually preventing people from using anything they bought from them. What priority do you think Amazon would give to fixing that problem? Do you think the fix would be to advise customers to not buy so many things that it hurts performance, where “so many” is a number that can be represented in 7 bits?
  5. The performance problem of My Library is embarrassing. YYG should prioritize fixing it out of pride. Or shame. Either way. There’s no way a computer built after 1977 should have a problem managing a list of 100 items! Even an Apple ][ should be able to generate the list in under a second. Whatever is wrong with the code in My Library that causes this performance degradation, it is very, very wrong. No matter how bad Delphi is, surely it was always capable of managing a list of 100 items in a few milliseconds. It shouldn’t take a 2.0 GHz Core 2 Duo with 8 GB of RAM 11 minutes to populate the list! It shouldn’t take another 11 minutes each and every time the list needs to be refreshed!
  6. If your team is hard pressed to balance fixing current issues vs. building future solutions, your team needs to stop working on building future solutions immediately, and start fixing problems until you’re free enough of technical debt that you can advance while maintaining what you’ve released. Ideally, fixing problems can be accomplished by releasing the future solution. Get off the Delphi codebase and work on releasing a clean, maintainable rewrite. But don’t introduce more new features that you can’t support until you’ve gotten a handle on supporting what you’ve already released. If Delphi makes development difficult, stop using it.

My conversation with Shaun ended before we could get very deep into these points, so I don’t mean to bury him before he’s had a chance to address things, and I hope to hear more from him or others at YYG about how they intend to address these problems. But the response that I’ve seen so far haven’t been what I’d hope to hear, and do not inspire confidence.

I sincerely hope that YYG can turn things around and give its customers the GameMaker they deserve. But how they can accomplish this, given what they’ve shown lately, I don’t know. Getting the new GMC Forums up and running as soon as possible has got to be a top priority for them. Addressing the performance problems with My Library for “large” manifests has got to be a top priority for them. Releasing GM:S 1.5 or GM:Next, and getting off of the Delphi codebase that has given them so much technical debt has got to be a top priority for them. YYG need to understand what’s important to their users, and act to deliver the most important things. They used to do pretty good at this, prior to being bought by PlayTech. They need to get back to that, right away.

GameMaker: Exodus

I’ve been doing game dev programming in GameMaker since 2010, and lately I’ve been feeling rather frustrated by the pace with which they’ve been improving the tool. Since being bought by PlayTech in February 2015, YoYoGames seem to have hit a brick wall.

Languishing, poor quality betas of (potentially) exciting new features

The GameMaker Marketplace debuted almost two years ago. Today, it is still in Beta. Much worse than that, there has not been any substantial development in the Marketplace website, or the integration with the GM:S IDE, in about the last year-plus.

There’s been a long-standing bug with their marketplace integration, when you have purchased a “large” number of assets from the Marketplace, the interface for managing them bogs down and becomes nearly unusable. I reported this defect, a year ago, and YoYo have acknowledged the problem, but done nothing to address it in a meaningful way, other than to warn users not to buy too many marketplace assets. That’s right: YoYoGames built a store for its users to sell assets they’ve made to each other, and then told them not to buy too many assets.

The interface for My Library is terrible — very basic, and lacking in features to allow you to organize the assets you’ve purchased. The performance problem especially is infuriating, and makes the My Library feature basically useless. I offered some ideas for improving the My Library interface on the GMC Suggestions sub-forum, which is now unavailable — apparently YYG have done more in “archiving” the old forums than simply setting them to readonly. [Internet Archive snapshot of the forum thread.]

YoYo acknowledged the problem, but rather than fixing the performance problem, they recommend a workaround of disabling assets from your purchase manifest, until the number of purchased assets is at a number that GM:S can manage without choking. That is, YoYo recommend that you disable assets that you’ve purchased through the Marketplace store, until you’ve disabled however many assets you may need to get below a number that their terrible interface can manage. We’re talking modern computers with billions of bytes of memory and multi-core gigahertz processors, choking on a list of perhaps 75-125 assets. It’s an embarrassment, and the worst part of it is that it discourages users from purchasing more assets from the marketplace, or using them.

None of this has stopped YYG from taking 30% of sellers’ revenue from Marketplace sales. In many cases, sellers are building assets which provide features and functionality that YYG should have developed themselves. For example, GameMaker 8.x used to have something called Room Transitions, which gave a neat visual transition when switching between one room and other. These were implemented in a way that took advantage of native Windows system calls, and couldn’t be supported on other build targets easily, so rather than re-implementing them in a cross-platform way so that all build platforms could make use of them, the room transition functions were deprecated and removed from GM:S.

Developers were told to write their own room transition code, and not expect the built-in transitions to return in any future updates. A few enterprising GM:S users have done so, and now sell room transitions asset packs through the Marketplace. The result of this is that a feature once included in GM:S now a separate add-on that you have to pay for. Except YYG don’t have to pay the developer anything for the work, and instead take a 30% cut of the developer’s income. This makes the Marketplace a very cheap way to outsource development that should be happening in the core product, not as aftermarket add-ons.

Of course there’s also a lot of assets for sale in the Marketplace that are free, and/or do things that are useful but should not be core engine features. The Marketplace was a great idea, and has a lot of promise, but has languished since the PlayTech acquisition.

Hamstrung by legacy cruft

YYG have been stuck with an old, crufty codebase written in Delphi C for the main IDE, and haven’t gotten off of it in 4 years. They always blame the old codebase for why they can’t deliver new features to the IDE, and promise to consider ideas for new features in “GM: Next”. They had made excellent progress in the first 2-3 years, focusing first on improving the performance of games built with GameMaker by introducing the YoYo compiler and runtime, porting those to modern C++, and incorporating exciting new features like Box2D Physics and Shaders into the old IDE. But since then, we haven’t seen much. GM:S 1.4 was released in late 2014. The PlayTech acquisition was announced a few months later in early 2015. Before the acquisition, we had a major update about once a year: Since the acquisition, YoYo have only released minor bugfix updates to 1.4. The biggest missing deliverable by far is the replacement of the old IDE with something modern and coded in a more maintainable way. The old Delphi codebase has left them hobbled, unable to deliver new features, and having to work harder than they should have to to add simple enhancements and fix bugs in the old.

In the meantime, a third-party IDE for GameMaker has been offered by at least two different groups. Parakeet and Enigma are the effort of frustrated GameMaker users who got sick of waiting for an official rewrite of the GM:S IDE, and took matters into their own hands and built their own. While it’s good to have alternatives, these are precariously positioned as GameMaker is closed source and any third party efforts such as these are prone to breaking if YYG change the way GameMaker works.

Promises undelivered and unfulfilled

“GM: Next” feels more and more like vaporware as time goes on. There’s no timetable for its release any longer; YYG have actually withdrawn their old roadmap that charted out their plans for the future so you could know what features might be coming and when.

The last straw has been this failure of the migration from the old GameMaker Community Forum software to a replacement running something with better security and features. They put the old forums in readonly mode in early April and promised the new forum in a couple weeks, which was itself a pretty headdesk move on their part, since there’s no reason why there should have been any downtime — archive the old forum only once the new forum is up and running, ready to launch.

But, almost 2 months later, they still have yet to deliver the promised replacement forum. Inexcusably, they’ve been all but silent on the matter. No apology for taking so long, no explanation of why it’s been taking way longer than expected, no revised ETA on the new forums. I’ve seen one tweet from a YYG source saying that they don’t know when it will happen, and they’re sorry but their “hands are tied” — presumably by PlayTech.

Shaun Spalding of YoYoGames commenting on the delinquent GMC forum upgrade.

Acquisition: What is it good for? Absolutely Nothing!

Say it again!

When the PlayTech acquisition happened, I expressed some concern but optimistically said I’d take a wait and see approach before judging whether it was a good thing or not. It’s pretty clear by now that it’s been a very bad thing.

It’s been my experience from watching small companies get gobbled up by large companies again and again that it’s almost always a bad thing for the small company and those who care about what it does. A small, successful company has drive, passion, and vision. A large company wants to secure its position and diversify its risk, and cares more about maintaining the status quo and staying on top than it does about disruption and shaking things up. When a large company buys out a small company, they say the same thing every time: “We’re not going to change a thing. We’re not going to risk disrupting what’s been working so well. We want to get on board and help them succeed to even greater heights.” It’s almost always a bunch of happytalk to put customers at ease and give investors a warm fuzzy feeling.

But what really happens is the small company totally gets disrupted. There’s usually a round of rebranding that happens, and the small company is paralyzed by Find/Replacing $OLDNAME to $NEWNAME, to no actual productive gain. Then there’s another round of aligning the small company’s goals to the greater strategic vision of the big company, at which point anything interesting or cool that the small company was working on gets squashed or distorted. Oftentimes the best people who made the small company great leave, pockets flush with money from the boost in the stock price from the buyout, in order to pursue other opportunities, where they can remain nimble and free to innovate without all the dead weight overhead from the large company. Products and services shift in ways that alienate former customers, the operation hemorrhages money, customers, and employees for a time, and eventually the burning dirigible crashes to the ground. Oh, the humanity.

That’s what usually — almost always — happens. I don’t know that that’s what’s happened with YoYoGames, but I’ve seen it happen time and again with countless small companies in all kinds of fields.

There’s still a lot of things I like about GameMaker: its simplicity, it’s easy learning curve, the speed with which an demo can be built. I still think it has a great deal of potential for a bright future, but I fear that PlayTech have squandered it for much of the last year. The acquisition has caused YoYo to fumble badly, and from what I’ve seen so far, I have little hope for a turnaround.

Unfortunately, for a proprietary tool a fumble like this is generally fatal. Around the time I got into GameMaker, there was another popular tool, called Torque, that was a bit more sophisticated, and went through a similar ownership transition and died shortly thereafter, to be reborn as a MIT licensed open source project. I guess it’s technically still around, but exist today largely as an afterthought. This situation is starting to feel eerily similar. Although… if GameMaker were to be open-sourced, that would be one of the best possible outcomes of the current situation. YoYoGames have stated on many occasions that this will never, ever happen, though.

Another door opens

For the last two years, I have also been watching an open-source project, called Godot. Godot is a 2D and 3D game engine with many features comparable to GameMaker, but is all modern and open source, and as of this writing is now at version 2.0. The development environment for Godot runs not only on Windows, but on Mac OS X and Linux as well. It looks really good, and I am planning to use it for my next project.

I’m very excited by this. If it works well, and I like it, I will be able to say goodbye to Microsoft, finally, and after the debacle of Windows UpdateRape, forcing users to upgrade to Windows 10 without their affirmative and informed consent, the timing couldn’t be better for me. GameMaker: Studio was the last proprietary Windows-only application that was keeping me on the Windows desktop platform, and I had been hoping that GM:Next might allow me to run GameMaker on Linux, but with Godot I may not have to wait to see if that day ever comes anymore.

I won’t be surprised in a few weeks time if I am kicking myself for not making the transition sooner.

[Update: be sure to read the follow-up post]