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Category: business

12-month license moves GameMaker Studio toward SaaS business model

YoYoGames recently announced a new edition of GameMaker Studio 2.  Called the “Creator Edition”, it is  $40/year subscription.

I’d pointed out earlier in the year that YoYoGames had taken all the necessary steps to make ready to abandon perpetual licensing, and this announcement proves my assessment was right on. See, reddit? I was right.

Permanent subscriptions are still offered starting at $99, although the software license is active only as long as the machine it’s installed on is able to log your YoYo Account in with YYG’s license server. Which is to say, if they want to they can disable your license, and if they go out of business, or if the license server goes down, you won’t be able to use the software.

Achievement unlocked: $100 in revenue on GameMaker Marketplace

On July 20, 2014, I released my first asset for GameMaker Marketplace, MMap Mini Maps.

Today, nearly three years later, I have finally reached the $100 author revenue milestone, meaning I’ll finally get paid.

In celebration, I’ve put all of my paid assets on the GameMaker Marketplace on sale for just $0.99 for one week, ending 4/10/2017. Update: I’ve decided to extend the discounts by one day per asset sold during the sale. So currently the sale will run through 4/12/17. We’ll see how long we can keep this going.

You can buy them here.

Enjoy! And share! And thanks!

N-Key Quest

It appears that a major obstacle to getting laptop makers to provide better keyboards is getting them to understand what properties matter to users.

I’m just one small person, but I am trying to raise awareness of key rollover and why it matters to laptop users.

A while ago, I had a chat with Lenovo Support. I had noticed that they had added an additional keyboard option to the P-series ThinkPads, and was hoping (though not holding my breath) that it might mean the new keyboard SKU would be for a model with acceptable rollover. Spoiler: The new keyboard option is for backlit or non-backlit keyboard, but they appear to have the same, poor, unacceptable key rollover characteristics as when I purchased my P50 last March.

But at first when I discussed with Lenovo Sales Support, they didn’t even understand what rollover is. I guess that’s not terribly uncommon; it’s a geek thing. But when your customers are geeks, it’s important to be able to speak about things they are concerned with, understand those concerns, and care about them.

Sales Rep: Hello, thanks for contacting Lenovo. My name is Quentin E.. I am reviewing your information now.

Me: Hi Quentin

Sales Rep: Hello, my name is Quentin with Lenovo Sales REP ID# #2900723431, at the end of this chat there will be a short survey that will pop up, Survey ranges from 1-9 and 9 being the highest, if you don’t mind taking a second to let my managers know how I am doing.

Sales Rep: I will be more than happy to assist with your purchase today

Me: I have a question about the ThinkPad P50. Last spring, I bought a P50, and at the time there was only one option for the keyboard. I see now that you are offering the choice of a backlit keyboard.

Me: I am very satisfied with my purchase overall, but with the keyboard I was very disappointed that it does not support N-key rollover.

Me: I am wondering what the key rollover property of the current keyboard offerings is?

Sales Rep: Are you looking to purchase an new keyboard today?

Me: potentially, if it offers improved key rollover to my current keyboard.

Me: are you familiar with what key rollover is?

Me: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rollover_(key)

Sales Rep: No I am not familiar

Me: that article will explain; it is the ability of the keyboard to register multiple simultaneous key strokes

Sales Rep: Are you interested in wireless keyboard ?

Me: I am a video game developer, and I have found that for my work in programming and testing video games that I make, the built-in keyboard does not reliably catch key strokes when more than 2 keys are pressed down at the same time. I’m forced to use an external USB keyboard if I am testing games. But I would like to replace the built-in keyboard with a keyboard that can hadnle multiple keystrokes, if that were a possibility.

Me: i’m not interested in a wireless keyboard, to answer your question.

Sales Rep: http://shop.lenovo.com/SEUILibrary/controller/e/web/LenovoPortal/en_US/catalog.workflow:item.detail?hide_menu_area=true&GroupID=460&Code=0B47190

Me: Like I said, I’m currently using an external keyboard, since the built-in keyboard doesn’t support N-key rollover…

Me: I’m just trying to find out whether there are any replacement keyboards available for the P50 that support higher key rollover. i’d prefer N-key, but 5 or 6 key rollover would be a major improvement.

Sales Rep: This is the only keyboard option for the P50

Sales Rep: other than the wireless keyboard

Me: I am seeing that there is an option for a backlit keyboard on the P50 — I don’t recall that being available when I ordered mine. If you could tell me what the key rollover property is for your offerings, it would be very helpful.

Sales Rep: can you provide the part number

Me: I’m looking, but i don’t see the part number. In the “configure to order” options for the P50, I see two options now: “Keybaord with Number Pad – English” and “Backlit Keyboard with Number Pad – English”

Me: and under help me decide it says this:

Me: Lenovo has refreshed the keyset on all ThinkPad laptops, outfitting them with the ThinkPad Precision Keyboard.

Me: This new keyset allows a more comfortable, fluid and accurate typing experience with it’s slate of individually rounded, spacious, and low-set keys. The ThinkPad Precision Keyboard simultaneously delivers a modern look and feel to your ThinkPad.

Sales Rep: That is only an option when config

Me: So I am wondering if this means that they have improved the key rollover property of these refreshed keyboards

Me: Surely the keyboard is an FRU that can be ordered? I would be interested to do so if you could tell me the key rollover.

Sales Rep: You can contact the parts department for additional information keyboard

Sales Rep: 855-253-6686 op 4

Me: ok.

Me: would you be able to pass feedback along to the system engineers who design the ThinkPad line, to let them know that this is an important characteristic?

Me: I would be willing to pay as much as $100 extra for a keyboard that supports N-key rollover, it is essential for my work.

Sales Rep: You can give the information to the parts department also

Me: ok

Me: this matters a great deal to me. As a satisfied user of the T-61 model, I felt it had the best built-in keyboard of any laptop I’ve ever used.

Me: I even wrote a detailed article on why it is the best.

Me: https://csanyk.com/2015/06/the-best-laptop-keyboard-yet-devised-by-humankind/

Me: It is one of the most popular articles on my blog.

Me: I will mention this to the parts dept as well.

Me: does the parts dept have a web chat feature or or email? or just phone number to reach them?

Please wait while we transfer your chat to the next available agent.

Service Agent is your new agent for the chat session.

Customer Service Rep: Hello, thanks for contacting Lenovo. My name is Mikella T.. I am reviewing your information now.

Me: hi…

Me: i was chatting with Quentin a moment ago, and then I guess he transferred me to you. Are you in parts?

Customer Service Rep: Hello Chris

Me: hi

Me: are you able to see my questions?

Customer Service Rep: Are you trying to reach the parts department

Me: Not really. I am just trying to get an answer to a question about the characteristics of the built-in keyboard for the ThinkPad P50.

Me: in the “customization” options for this model, it says “Lenovo has refreshed the keyset on all ThinkPad laptops, outfitting them with the ThinkPad Precision Keyboard.

Me: This new keyset allows a more comfortable, fluid and accurate typing experience with it’s slate of individually rounded, spacious, and low-set keys. The ThinkPad Precision Keyboard simultaneously delivers a modern look and feel to your ThinkPad.”

Me: I purchased a P50 last year, and at the time there was no option; I’m now seeing an optional backlit keyboard, and the description above suggests that the keyboards you’re shipping now may be different from what were shipped a year ago.

Me: so I am interested to learn the “key rollover” property of the currently offered keyboards

Me: my P50 does not register keystrokes if I have more than 2 keys pressed simultaneously (it may or may not register a third keystroke at that point). This makes it a poor keyboard for playing games. I am a game developer, so spend a lot of time testing games that I am making.

Customer Service Rep: Ok , so we are not the appropriate department for that

Me: so if the keyboards now offered have improved rollover, i would be interested to purchase and replace the one that i have.

Customer Service Rep: Perhaps the number provided by sales can assist you with that inquiry

Customer Service Rep: As this is customer support

Me: Quentin did give me the number for parts, but only a phone number. it is better for me if i could use chat or email to reach them. is that possible?

Customer Service Rep: Sorry that is the only contact information that we have

Me: ok what was the number again?

Customer Service Rep: 855-253-6686 op 4

Me: ok thank you.

I give them credit for trying. Normally their sales support people are very helpful and can provide detailed information, but it doesn’t seem like anyone at Lenovo have bothered to document their keyboards rollover characteristic, as though they don’t care or aren’t even aware that rollover is a thing.

I did call the number the Customer Service Rep gave me, but it didn’t get me anywhere. Their technical people still could not answer the question.

I suppose I could try ordering one of the new “ThinkPad Precision” keyboards (with a name that has Precision in it, you’d really hope that it would mean that the keyboard is capable of detecting precisely which keys are down at any given time, no matter which or how many.)

Perhaps I will stop by a local computer store and test out their ThinkPads to see if their keyboards are registering new keystrokes.

Seems like a pretty long shot….

Even so, I hope my fellow keyboard geeks can raise their voices and make themselves heard. If Lenovo gets enough feedback from users, I think it could make a difference in their future offerings.

GameMaker Studio 2 licensing is de facto subscription-based

Today I had a bit of a reminder, of something that has been gradually coalescing for some time. And since it got my attention, I thought it might be a good time to talk about some specific things, and some far-ranging points as well.

It started innocently enough… I launched GameMaker Studio 2 today, and got an error message:

GMS2: license expired

I clicked Retry, and was prompted to log in with my YoYo Account. I supplied my credentials, and…

GMS2 authentication failed

Something must be wrong with their authentication backend for the IDE, perhaps? My login credentials allow me access to the website, so I know that my credentials are good. I logged in there, and reviewed my license, and my license duration says “permanent” although at the moment apparently there’s something wrong and my license is “expired” according to the software.GMS2 permanent license

I eventually got in by doing a password reset. I’m still unclear why I was able to authenticate to the YYG website, but not GMS2, using the same known-good credentials, but resetting did the trick. I’m back in.

All’s well that ends well, right?

Implications

“OK, so what? What does that all mean, and why should I care?” you might ask.

What it means is this: Despite the label saying so, my product activation isn’t permanent. At the very least, it’s subject to YoYoGames continuing to exist, and having their licensing service up and running, and contingent on my software refreshing some authentication token periodically.

If that can’t happen any longer, for whatever reason, then I lose access to the software that I paid for. And that’s disturbing!

(To be fair, this had been the case under GMS1.x as well, all along, although previously in GMS1 license activation wasn’t explicitly tied to a user authentication. GMS1 users had to have a network connection in order to refresh their product license, which needed to happen about once a month.)

Moreover, although YYG have been quiet about it, all the groundwork is laid for them to switch to a subscription-based model, at a point when they decide the time is right. My guess is that probably this will happen a few years from now, once the consumer software market has accepted SaaS — if and when that happens. I believe it is more “when” than “if”, at this point. The average consumer doesn’t care or understand enough to make it a matter of “if” any longer.

We could quibble if we wanted, but what I’m getting at is that what YYG call a “permanent license” I will call a “permanent subscription.” The license is activated by virtue of the account authentication, and if this ever breaks or is revoked, the software is not usable.

The vendor controls the version numbers, so they can play the game that when they want to break the promise of permanent licensing, all they have to do is release “GMS3” which will be a new product, and thus not bound to the old licensing terms in the way that 2.1 or 2.9 or 2.x would have been. YYG have already done this — they amended the terms of the GM:S Master Collection license, which originally had a provision entitling users who purchased Master Collection to all new versions and modules that YYG released, without qualification; later this was changed to “within the 1.x sequence”. So Master Collection owners would have to pay for GMS2 when it came out.

That’s the thing with these license agreements; the vendor can change them at any time, and users have little choice but to go along with it. This is a major reason why I view click-through agreements as false contracts. In real contracts, one party cannot change the terms of the agreement on a whim, without the consent of the other party. In the world of click-through license agreements, this happens all the time, and users have little choice but to accept it, or stop using the product. Very often, users aren’t even aware of the terms, before or after the change. It’s almost meaningless to the user, because they have so little say, so little power, that there is little to no benefit to them in understanding the agreement that they supposedly are agreeing to.

So of course YoYo would amend a previously stupidly over-open agreement to close a loophole and provide necessary limitations. Of course, that’s just the way business is. Businesses need to make money, and if they don’t make money, they stop existing. Restaurants may offer free refills, but if you go back the next day they make you buy a drink again. But you have to be careful when promising things that are unlimited, permanent, or infinite. The reality is, nothing like that ever exists. Customers should know better than that. It doesn’t stop them from complaining when they discover that in reality there are limits, impermanence, and finities.

To be clear, I don’t mind paying for new versions when they are released, just as I don’t mind buying a new car when my current car is worn out and needs to be replaced. I fully recognize that paying the company for new products enables it to continue developing those products, and I want to support that. But I want to own the car that I own! I don’t want to have to buy a new car every single year, regardless of how much use I have gotten out of my car, or how well the car still works. I don’t want to lease or rent a car, or pay a taxi service to drive me about when I need to go somewhere. I don’t mind that these are all options — I simply believe that consumers should be able to choose freely what makes the most sense for them, the choice that provides them with the greatest value.

Subscription-based GameMaker: someday

Nevertheless, it seems very plain that at some point in the future, YYG intend to switch to a subscription model. This could be the day all casual game developers will be done with GameMaker. I expect that YYG are well aware of this, and will be very careful about how and when they do it. Just as it makes little sense to pay for a gym membership that one only uses a few times a year, it will be hard to justify subscribing to GMS as a software as a service if the service is not used often enough. YYG will want to retain those users.

Well, perhaps they’ve thought of that as well. In Help::About, there’s an interesting statistic that they display for you, counting how long you’ve been running the IDE:

GMS2 time in IDE

Potentially, then, this means that YYG are in a position to offer GMS2 on a metered basis, charging users not on a subscription basis, but on a consumption basis. This could feasibly make it affordable for casual users to pay for the software hourly, and if they use it enough, it could then cap the cost and cut over to a subscription for the whole year.

Let’s say YYG’s business target is to extract, for example, $100/customer/year on average from all users. Professionals will pay considerably more, in order to gain access to “pro” features that they need to do business, such as additional build targets, access to the Marketplace, etc. Pro users are their “bread and butter” so they focus on delivering products with features that will attract and keep the pro segment of the market happy.

These features are by and large attractive to non-professional users as well, and especially to students and other users who have aspirations at turning professional at some point. Cultivating future pro users is very important to the continued success and growth of the product. So YYG will do well to subsidize the student/apprentice developer with professional aspirations.

But a lot of game developers are not releasing games professionally. YYG know this very well. YYG know that casual game developers won’t go for paying an annual subscription that amounts to $100/year. That amount sounds like a lot of money to many people. Many of their users still complain about YYG raising the cost of GM8.x from $25 to $40, and then introducing GM:S at a $99 price point. A lot of GM:S users still only use the free version of the software, and likely will never willingly spend any amount of money on it. YYG know that some users may only use GameMaker for a few hours a year, perhaps amounting to a few days of total usage at the most.

And yet, if you amortize a cost of $100 over the course of a year, it’s just about $0.27/day. In the early 1980s, people would pay quarter just to play one arcade game for a few minutes. $0.27/day sounds much more reasonable than $100/year, even though it’s the same amount. YYG can tap in to the casual developer market as a revenue source by softening the psychological barrier to paying $100 all at once.

So, to bring them in as paying customers, YYG can provide a metered pay option, and if they decided to charge $100/year for the software as a subscription, and to create a perception of “value” for the $100 annual expense, maybe they charge $1/hour or $1/day or $10/month for metered users — something higher than the “bulk” rate of $100/year, but something still reasonable that a casual developer will (perhaps grudgingly at first) accept. At $1/hour, a heavy user would hit 100 hours quickly, and at that point they would be better off cutting over to the annual subscription model (and if YYG wants to keep customers happy, that cutover should happen seamlessly), but a casual user who maybe puts in a weekend game jam or two a year will come close to 100 hours of use in a year, and YYG can still extract close to their goal, by hitting them with the metered cost.

And maybe this is even good. The videogame marketplace is choked with free product produced by, it seems by now, millions of developers, very few of whom are able to make significant income at it. Maybe the barriers to enter that market are too low right now, resulting in glut and pain and low quality products. Maybe easiest to use tool with the largest number of users should be priced out of the reach of people who aren’t really serious and really talented, enough to be able to create truly viable games. Maybe there’s some silver lining to that.

I’m not against YoYo making money, and if this keeps their lights on so they can continue to develop the product, then good for them…

But…

In the pre-SaaS subscription days, software companies would generate the revenue they needed by scheduling a major release to occur (roughly) annually, and sell permanent licenses for that version. More or less users felt forced to upgrade annually in order to stay current, and the vendor would offer an upgrade discount to soften the blow, as well as provide new features, improved user experience, bug fixes and support as the incentive to buy into the annual upgrade.

The crucial difference was that software activation was permanent, and wasn’t dependent upon a service that needed to be up and working. This meant that users could opt not to upgrade, if they didn’t feel that what the vendor was offering was worth upgrading. Often, causal users would choose to remain a few versions behind, rather than pay for the upgrade. In some cases, this was due to not liking the direction the vendor was taking with the product, and very frequently it was due to the fact that software bloat meant that older hardware had a hard time running the latest version of a product, but could run an older version very fast.

The downside of course was that permanently activated licensed software was prone to piracy, and over the years the sales lost to product activation circumvention has been a vast, but literally uncountable figure. Software developers know this and network-managed licenses tied to accounts that are ultimately in the control of the vendor seems to be the final solution.

YoYo have not announced any plan to actually switch to a subscription model, but all the infrastructure is in place for them to switch to it at any time, and I expect that they will at some point. The writing is pretty much on the wall at this point. That day may not be in the near future, but it is probably inevitable that it will happen. Even if it doesn’t happen, users’ “permanent” licenses are anything but, so long as the user must authenticate to YYG’s product activation service on a regular basis, and may be subjected to termination if YYG deems they have violated ToS or EULA provisions. Or if YYG decide they want to stop supporting some old version of the product. Or if they go out of business, or get hacked, or whatever else.

To be clear, it’s not that I have a believe that YYG want to “screw” their customers; it’s that they have the power to do so, whether or not they ever actually exercise this power. No user wants this hanging over their head, and most tolerate it only because they’re unaware, and those who are aware tolerate it only so long as they aren’t bitten by it.

To be sure, it will never be the case that all GameMaker users will agree with every move that YYG will make with the product, and every time they do anything, there will be some users who will complain. Sometimes, some of them will have a valid point, that they are being screwed. Companies inevitably screw customers when it is not profitable to serve them.

My point is, historically it’s always been possible for disgruntled users to continue using the last version of the product that they were happy with. And for now, this continues to remain the case. Only, as of now, it only continues to remain the case for as long as YYG elect to allow it to.

Evolution of the status quo?

And, really, End User License Agreements and Terms of Service Agreements have always held such provisions, haven’t they? Users who do not agree with EULA/TOS are supposed to not use the software. Only, this was less enforceable before use of the software was tied to an account that you have to authenticate. This created both slack which allowed the users to get by even when they didn’t agree to every last term in an agreement, and tension when vendors could discern that agreements were not 100% adhered to, and felt that this was harmful to them.

That unresolved tension is in a slow process of snapping, and it’s the users who are bound to lose. I can say this with certainty, because software users are like any group of consumers, and consumers are averse to becoming organized an acting in solidarity, while businesses can only remain in business by being organized and being focused. Sure, on occasion people may raise their collective voices loud enough to be heard on issues like Network Neutrality and SOPA, but this is always a precarious, ad hoc affair, where the public’s interests are protected at the last minute, as though by a miracle. Companies can afford to play a long waiting game, and like a constrictor snake, squeeze a little bit further each time, never relaxing, until the prey is exhausted and expires. The bottom line is this: computers and software are becoming increasingly more like appliances, and less like tools. The only recourse users have is to stop using; if enough users do that, then they can kill a product. Of course, killing a product in no way creates a better, or more agreeable one. All user “victories” end up being pyrrhic in this sense. So in the end users are still screwed in a “take it or leave it” proposition. At a certain point, the only freedom attainable is to be your own programmer.

The alternative is for vendors and users to respect and support one another. To the extent that this happens, I guess we can say that software-based service companies will be successful. But really, I strongly suspect that users, much like medieval peasants, can tolerate a great deal of oppression and famine before they will revolt. So the existence of a market for software is not by itself sufficient proof of a free or happy market.

EULA/TOS agreements have for a long time now been treated as though they are contracts, even though the reality is that they fall short of being a true contract in numerous ways. Oftentimes, software usage agreements have provisions which are not legally enforceable, but including them is a “nice try” on the part of some lawyer who seeks to erode the public’s rights in some way that allows corporations to consolidate their power over the individual. Very often these “nice try” measures go unchallenged, and once they’ve been around for a while, there’s precedent for them, and suddenly they’re seen as “valid”. They go unchallenged, because users could ignore them without penalty, and pressing the matter in the courts was expensive and risky at best, not because they’re accepted. But by not challenging them, over time they become accepted and normalized.

I’ve never been happy about this state of affairs. Even as a kid, I could always smell something rotten about the idea that you could buy something and not actually own it, but only the limited right to use it under certain specific terms, which you could only agree to or not, with no provision of negotiation. It creates an unequal relationship where one side has nearly all the power, and the other side has very little, other than to boycott.

For this reason, I’ve always felt that licensing was a bogus business model, and that software should be owned outright by a customer who purchases it, with all rights that are implied by that statement. This belief comports much better with the values of the Free Software movement than it does with commercial software, and so for many years I’ve preferred to use Free software. For the most part, though, I’ve been a pragmatic believer in “best tool for the job” and if that meant the best software was commercial/licensed, then ok, but if it was Free/Libre software, then so much the better.

Wider ramifications

I see developments like this taking place in the world of commercial software, and in response I feel more strongly drawn to Libre software. But I don’t think that Libre software is necessarily the right use model for all software development, and I also don’t think that Libre software can protect all users freedoms.

For example, it’s difficult to see how a libre use model would work for entertainment software or art software. Where the point of the software is to provide a very author-controlled experience for the users to enjoy, certain software freedoms may not work. For example, the right to modify and redistribute modified software would mean, effectively, that companies could prey on indie developers who release an innovative game who assume all the risk of creating a novel experience, only to have it ripped off by a company who does very little innovation or risk taking, but positions themselves to exploit the creative work of others. Certainly, some user freedoms are important to preserve, such as the right to port an experience to other hardware, to create archival backup copies, and so forth, but I don’t necessarily feel that all user freedoms must be granted by a developer who is using software as an artistic medium, where the fact that the product is, contains, or uses software is incidental to the product being sold as an experience. It is fun, and allowable, and good, to enable users to create mods of games, but not a requirement or necessary in order for that software to be considered a work of merit. And playing a modded game is not the same experience of playing the original game.

And Libre software doesn’t protect all freedoms: we’ve all seen Libre software used in ways that abuse users rights. For example, much of the internet runs on a platform of Libre software, but provides a closed service to users which does not respect user freedom. I am only able to use Facebook, under Facebook’s terms; I can’t stand up my own Facebook service, which I might modify and redistribute. This despite Facebook being built on a stack of Libre software such as Linux, Apache, PHP, most of which are licensed under terms that say that users have the right to modify and distribute changes made to them, but that the source code must be distributed if the changes are distributed.

Web sites get around this by never distributing — “serving” the software is not “distributing”. You don’t install the source for Facebook on your computer and manage your own Facebook installation; Facebook is a service that you visit, on Facebook’s computer, and log in to it to use Facebook under Facebook’s terms. I’m not just picking on Facebook, they just happen to be the biggest website in the world right now. But pretty much every website ever has always worked this way: you can consume the service it provides, but you can’t own the software that provides the service, can’t install it on your own computer, can’t modify it to work the way you want/need it to, and are therefore subject to the terms under which it is offered by those who do own the service. And so, users are subject to these terms. And their data is collected, harvested, and used in ways that benefit the harvesters, not necessarily the users, and sometimes in ways which harm the users, or are counter to users’ interests.

The Libre software movement recognized a lot of end-user rights that are important, anticipated a lot of ways which those rights may be attacked, eroded, and compromised, but it failed to adequately safeguard all user rights against all possible attacks.

One could argue that by not doing so, it enabled the commercial internet to flourish into what is has become today. And while that’s true, that’s not an all-good proposition.

Review: No Mario’s Sky/DMCA’s Sky

In my last post, I talked about the recent copyright and trademark infringement takedown actions initiated by Nintendo against No Mario’s Sky and various other games hosted on GameJolt.

Here’s a review of No Mario’s Sky/DMCA’s Sky.

No Mario’s Sky was made in a weekend for Ludum Dare 36. It is a mashup of Hello Games’ No Man’s Sky and Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros. The theme for Ludum Dare 36 was Ancient Technologies. It’s unclear how this game relates to the theme. However, due to the popularity and familiarity of Mario and No Man’s Sky, the game got quite a lot of attention in very little time, and was picked up by websites such as Kotaku and Polygon.

The premise of the game is that Mario is looking for the Princess on an infinite series of procedurally generated 2D Mario worlds. The worlds wrap around a circle, giving them the appearance of planetoids.

Once you’ve satisfied your curiosity on one world, you can summon your spaceship and take off in search of another world. Apart from the color scheme of each world, there’s not all that much to differentiate them, which may be due to the game being developed in just 72 hours, or may be a deliberate commentary on the procedurally generated sameness that many players of No Man’s Sky have complained about.

No Mario's Sky

From a Mario standpoint, the game only borrows the titular character, the goomba enemy, and the basic concept of jumping on platforms and enemies, collecting coins, and hitting platforms from below. No sprite artwork is taken from Nintendo’s games, as all sprites and tiles appear to have been re-created by the ASMB development team, and while the Mario and Goomba characters are recognizable, they are not in any way confusable with Nintendo art assets. There is no brick breaking, no super mario mushroom, no star man, no fire flower. Again, this is likely due to the compressed schedule under which the game was created. Each world plays its own variant of the Super Mario Bros theme music, which is again a re-done composition, not the original music ripped from the Nintendo game.

In short, from a copyright infringement standpoint, this game is in a gray area, but pretty safe, in that nothing is actually copied directly from the Nintendo games. This game is about as much a Mario ripoff as KC Munchkin was a Pac Man ripoff. (Atari successfully sued Philips to stop the sale of K.C. Munchkin, even though the game was not Pac Man, but the case was bullshit and probably would not have succeeded were similar suit brought today.)

From a trademark infringement standpoint, of course, the game clearly is using the identity and behavior of the famed Nintendo mascot, without authorization or permission of Nintendo. If this were a commercial product, it would certainly be liable for trademark infringement. However, this is probably closer to a parody, or a “fan game” or homage. Unfortunately, the latter two concepts don’t exist as legal categories. It might be that the creators could have successfully defended the game as a parody, but that would have involved going to court and rolling the dice to find out whether they could persuade a judge of that. There’s simply no way an independent developer has the time or resources to try to defend what amounts to a weekend’s worth of work against a company the size of Nintendo for what would surely be months or years of litigation.

If ASMB had avoided use of the Mario name, perhaps renaming him something recognizable, like “Mustachhio”, say, and if the music had been done in a way that was recognizably Mario-eque without having the exact same melody, probably Nintendo would not have had any copyright leg to stand on, and the game could have remained as-is. From a trademark standpoint, though, it probably does run afoul of Nintendo’s trademark on the Mario Bros. franchise, given that it uses the Mario and Goomba names and likenesses.

While the game is fairly bland as-is, the concept is certainly fun and held promise. Were the game to be developed further, to better incorporate the Mario characters and play mechanics, it could have been a very enjoyable game.

DMCA’s Sky removes the Mario and Goomba artwork, replacing them with a generic space man and alien, and the music has also been replaced, but otherwise the game is much the same. Interestingly, the jump, coin and 1-up pickup sounds remain recognizably Mario-esque, but again do not appear to be direct rips from original sources.

DMCA's Sky

I suppose Hello Games could also make an IP infringement claim if they wanted to, and force the game to remove the procedurally generated planet hopping, at which point the game wouldn’t have much left in it anymore. Notably, so far at least, they haven’t.

It turns out, though, that when you break down just about any video game into its fundamentals, pretty much every game is based on, or borrows from, concepts that came from some other game. And — this is the important thing that must not be lost sight of — concepts are not subject to copyright. Not even play mechanics are copyrightable. Only actual works are copyrightable.

Of course, copyright is only one branch of Intellectual Property law, and there’s also potentially opportunity for patent and trademark lawsuits to shut down a game that borrows “too much” from a well known existing game.

Despite this, much of the charm of No Mario’s Sky was in its mash-up-ness, and this charm is effectively stripped from it by removing the Mario references. So clearly, the game derives some value from referencing the source material that it is based on. I don’t think that can be denied. I have a harder time seeing how this game harms either Nintendo or Hello, however. It was available for free, not for sale. It isn’t reasonably mistake-able for a real Nintendo game, and if that were a risk it could be prominently disclaimed on the title screen that it was not in any way connected to Nintendo, who retains full ownership of the “real” Mario characters. I see little evidence that the existence of this game or the numerous other Nintendo-IP infringing games done by fans over the years (including ROM hacks, homebrew games, de-makes, and homages) has in any way diminished the Nintendo brand or harmed Nintendo as a business.

The takedown of unauthorized fan games isn’t anything new — it’s just the latest in a string of consistent defenses of Nintendo’s IP rights. It’s clear that Nintendo is aggressive in protecting their IP rights, and have always been. This has been in part due to their corporate culture, but also in larger part due to the nature of IP law.

But IP law isn’t immutable. We could as a culture elect to shape law differently, if we could agree to.

Nintendo’s takedown of videos on youtube and elsewhere, of people playing their games who do not participate in or follow the rules set forth by Nintendo in the “Nintendo Creator’s Program” is ridiculous — it’s not a copyright infringement for me to play a video game, or to talk about a videogame, or to record me talking about a videogame while playing it, and footage of said videogame that I create should legally be my sole creation (while the characters owned by Nintendo and other IP-holders are still retained by those holders).

If I want to make a video of a videogame for purposes of review, criticism, or parody, I shouldn’t have to obtain the permission of the IP rights holders of the videogame, nor should I have to share revenue with them. They earned their revenue already through sale of the game, and did none of the work to produce the video, so why should they be entitled to a share of revenue generated by the video?

Likewise, if I want to make a videogame that references other videogames, much as a work of literature may reference other works of literature, creators should have some right to do so. Exactly how this should work out so that the original creator’s rights are protected and respected isn’t very clear, however.

Ultimately, the power seems to fall to those who have the deepest pockets with which to pay the most and best lawyers. As as a result, the culture, and the game playing public, is poorer for it.

Mario on iOS, Nintendo copyright takedown

Nintendo announced the first (authorized) appearance of Mario on iPhone a few days ago:

There’s much to be made of this.

Ten ago, while the Wii was selling phenomenally well, there were some wild rumors about Nintendo and Apple teaming up to bring games to the Apple TV device. But, while tantalizing, these rumors never panned out, nor really made sense. While both companies were extremely successful on their own, they didn’t really seem to need each other, or have any reason to cooperate. Nintendo software licensees could have certainly helped put Apple TV in many more homes, but what could Apple have offered Nintendo, who weren’t having any trouble selling the Wii?

Fast forward to 2016, and the successor to the Wii, the Wii U, is widely regarded as a misstep for Nintendo, and now it appears maybe they do need some help. But rather than looking for it in the living room, where they are poised to launch their next-generation NX console in a few months, right now they are going straight for the pocket. Meanwhile, Apple’s huge hit from 2006, the iPhone, has been a juggernaut for much of these last ten years. And here is where Apple and Nintendo can help each other out.

It’s the first time in decades that Nintendo has put software out on a platform that it does not own. This could be seen as a concession that Nintendo is no longer dominant in gaming hardware, or simply an acknowledgment of the vitality of the mobile gaming market. While Nintendo have been hugely dominant in the handheld market since they released the Game Boy in 1989, smartphone and tablet devices have in the last decade created an even bigger market for games. With the massive success of Pokemon Go earlier this year, the writing was on the wall, and Nintendo making this move now only makes sense. In fact, it’s probably overdue.

Entitled Super Mario Run, it appears to be an endless runner type game rather than a typical 2D platformer. Due to the iPhone touch screen being the only controls, and a desire to make the game playable one-handed, this design addresses the constraints imposed by the user interface in about the only way that would work well.

Nintendo also made headlines this week by issuing takedown notices for a large number of unauthorized games that infringe upon Nintendo-owned trademarks, particularly Mario and Pokemon. It is not surprising at all that this should happen, but still disappointing for people who built or enjoyed those games. While many of these games may have been derivative and inferior games done in homage of, some were parodies or innovative or just fun, well done fan homages.

It’s too bad there doesn’t exist a legal framework in which fan-made games can co-exist peacefully with official releases by commercial studios, but licensing is only a solution if the IP-holder embraces it. Nintendo are within their rights to take these actions to protect their trademark and intellectual property rights, of course, and perhaps it is necessary for them to vigorously defend their trademarks or risk losing them entirely, but it’s nevertheless possible to set up a legal framework by which these unofficial games could be allowed. While it’s entirely ridiculous in my opinion for Nintendo to claim copyright and trademarks on speed run, Let’s Play, and review videos featuring their products, something like the Nintendo Creators Program would make a lot of sense for fan-produced games.

What might such a program look like? I would propose something like the following…

  1. The fangame creator would acknowledge that Nintendo created and owned whatever they owned.
  2. The fangame creator disclaims that Nintendo do not have any responsibility for content the fangame, and that the fangame is not an official Nintendo release.
  3. Any revenue derived from the fangame would need to be disclosed and shared with Nintendo.
  4. The fangame could be nixed by Nintendo (pulled from release) at their sole discretion at any time.

I very much doubt that a company like Nintendo would ever agree to such terms, but it’s too bad. Apart from perhaps Nintendo, everyone is worse off because of it.

The irony of this situation is that Nintendo can copyright and trademark its characters, but not the mechanics or genre of game. (Nor should it.) Someone can invent the infinite runner, and Nintendo can decide to do a Mario infinite runner game, and not owe anything to the inventor of the infinite runner game. So can anyone else. And Nintendo can make a running and jumping platform game, and anyone else can too, duplicating the Mario mechanics and rules system entirely if they should wish to, but simply can’t use the name Mario or the likeness of any of Nintendo’s graphical or audio assets.

GameMaker Marketplace new checkout system now allows direct downloads!

Yesterday, 9/7, I noticed a big spike in downloads of my GameMaker Marketplace assets. I also happened to notice when looking around on the Marketplace that they’ve changed the checkout so that you can download the .gmex files directly through your web browser, bypassing the My Library interface in the IDE.

As I’ve remarked several times in the past year, My Library is crippled by terrible performance when the user’s purchase manifest exceeds some number that is far too low. Allowing purchases to be downloaded directly through the browser makes a lot of sense, and is probably the simplest solution to the performance issues, which still plague GM:S as of 1.4.1760.

It remains to be seen whether this spike in downloads will be sustained as the new normal, or represents pent-up demand for users who were reluctant to buy due to the poor performance of My Library. Despite the seeming smallness of this change, I’m really excited that YoYoGames have made it, as it alleviates a significant pain point that I’ve been complaining about for well over a year, and means that I’ll likely be making more use of extensions in my projects.

Graph showing sales spike on 9/7/16. Could this be due to the change in delivery method?

On 9/7, 18 downloads. The other spike earlier in August was due to my Ludum Dare 36 sale, when I put my paid assets on sale for $FREE

Update: 9/8 saw another 18 download day.

The Case for GameMaker, and a defense of criticism

In recent weeks, I’ve been fairly outspoken and critical about the velocity with which YoYoGames have been delivering change in their core product, GameMaker: Studio, since being acquired by PlayTech.

In response to this, Twitter user and fellow GameMaker developer @doppp pointed out that my remarks about YoYoGames’ failings with GameMaker of late serve as an anti-sales pitch for my GameMaker assets:

Well, I suppose that’s a fair point to make.

I gave @doppp my short answer: if you’re already using #GameMaker and are happy with it, there’s no reason not to purchase assets that look useful.

A long answer demanded more space than I can put into a tweet, or a series of tweets.

So how can I simultaneously ask people to pay money for the assets I’ve created while criticizing YoyoGames?

Criticizing isn’t bashing. Or negative.

When a problem is real, pointing out that it exists and that something needs to be done about it is NOT being negative. People like to say that it is, but it isn’t! Ignoring problems and acting like they don’t exist is worse.

As a user, I’m entitled to criticize the product, to say what I like about it as well as point out problems and ask the developer for remedy. Why? Because I’m a user! These are my experiences! That’s why.

Also, GameMaker is closed source, so I can’t freely modify it to better suit my needs. That’s why.

And because I paid for a license. That’s why. I paid for a Master Collection license, which costs around $800.

To be sure, even a user who’s never spent a dime on GameMaker can have a valid opinion about it. And the fact that I’ve spent money on a license doesn’t make my opinions more valid. But it does show that I have a larger stake in the product than does someone who hasn’t.

My time is valuable, I’ve sunk quite a bit of it into GameMaker, and I want GameMaker to continue to improve and be successful.

I’ve been using GameMaker since version 8.1, for a good six years now. I was an early adopter of the GameMaker: HTML, and GameMaker: Studio. I purchased a Master Collection license for Studio in order to have full access to every feature the product offered or would offer. I’ve contributed technical review to two published books on GameMaker.

I have the experience to offer valid opinions on it. Does that mean I know everything, or am right about everything? Of course not. But it does mean that my opinions are not uninformed.

Software development doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Developers depend on users to make it known what their needs are and what their pain points are. Providing this feedback in a useful and productive manner is a valuable service, and developers ignore stakeholder input at the peril of the product they’re producing.

Obviously, any company has limited resources and can’t do everything that every customer wants, and YoYoGames is no exception. But it’s still necessary and important for their customers to provide feedback. I haven’t once felt that the employees of YoYoGames resented my feedback. They may not always agree with it, and that’s fine. I respect them, while at the same time striving to make the best case for the validity and importance of the feedback that I offer to them.

Let’s be clear: We all know that there are pros and cons to any product. The cons are negative. Acknowledging that they exist, pointing them out, and discussing them isn’t negative.

OK but it’s not fair to slam YoYo in public. You’re hurting their reputation and their sales. Therefore, you cannot say you like them.

First, I would dispute that my public comments re: YoYo are “slamming” them. I do my best to offer fair and valid criticism. And doing so publicly is actually my last resort, something I do sparingly and reluctantly.

I’ve actually provided feedback to YoYoGames in a number of ways over the years. I submit bug reports. I engage with YoYoGames support. I post suggestions on the official community forums. All of this gets read. Generally speaking, the bug reports and support requests are handled well. Bugs that turn out to be real issues get prioritized and fixed.

The situation with the My Library bug that I’ve been publicly vocal about, has not been handled well. After submitting a support request and opening up a bug report for this issue, I’ve waited well over a year, and seen no remedy to the problem, other than a suggested workaround to deactivate some of the Marketplace assets that I own, until the performance My Library becomes reasonable. This is not a solution, and even as a workaround it’s not very good. YoYo needed to address this issue as soon as it came to light, and they didn’t.

Fortunately, subsequent to my article appearing in public and getting some significant exposure, YoYo Community Manager Shaun Spalding started a discussion in the new Forums asking people for what they’d like to see done with My Library. I take this as a sign that they’re listening and starting to take steps in the right direction. Would that it were sooner, but at least it’s happening now. Maybe that discussion wouldn’t be happening if I hadn’t sounded off about my frustrations. Sometimes you need to speak out.

The other situation I’ve been vocal about was the poorly handled migration to the new community forums. Here, YoYo should have done a better job of explaining to its users what was going on. They didn’t, and after two months of waiting with no official word about what was happening, I felt it was necessary to state the reasons that this was unacceptable. The only place I had available to do this was in public.

Brand management, community relations, and customer service are extremely important, and it was very distressing to see YoYo failing so badly at it. It was entirely appropriate to express serious concerns over the future of the product.

Bottom line, YoYoGames exists in public. It’s fair to talk about public things in public. Whether or not YYG’s hands are tied to talk about their product in public, the public is going to talk about their product. The best way to get people to say good things about you is to be good, and to fix things when you are not good.

Overall, YoYoGames have been very good owners of GameMaker. I’ve yet to see reason to believe that PlayTech is a good owner of YoYoGames. I don’t know what goes on behind the scenes, so I can’t say for sure, but it feels to me like YoYo was doing more, better, sooner before they got acquired. That may or may not be true, but that’s how it appears to me.

OK but if your criticism of YoYoGames is true, then why should I sink any money into GameMaker development when it has these problems?

Well, that’s something everyone has to decide for theirself, but of course that answer won’t suffice here.

Ultimately it’s YoYoGame’s job to persuade you that their product is worth your time and money. But definitely, customer testimonials are strong persuasion.

Look, every product has flaws. People who are enthusiastic about products tend to talk a lot about ways they could be improved. That doesn’t mean they don’t like the thing they’re talking about. Far from it!

I used to recommend GameMaker perhaps more enthusiastically, but always conditionally. I still do, actually, but now it’s with a bit more conditions. It’s a fine tool, that doesn’t mean it’s right for everyone.

Why buy into GameMaker? Whether in terms of time or money, GameMaker is great if:

  • You want to do rapid prototyping and get something up and running quickly.
  • You want to do 2D game development of relatively small, simple games. (Sure, GM:S can handle larger projects, but there are other tools to consider when your project scales above a certain size.)
  • You want a simplified developer experience without all the headaches of more complicated tools.
  • You have no experience developing software and want to express your creativity with a tool that won’t overwhelm you with its complexity.
  • You need or want access to the features that a paid license unlocks.
  • You feel appreciation for the work YYG have done so far and want to contribute to that success financially.

I used to say that GameMaker is worth considering for game developers with professional aspirations, because since I started working with the product at version 8.1, I saw consistent, rapid releases of impressive new features that expanded the capability of the tool, year after year.

I’m not saying that now, because in the last year I can’t think of anything new that they’ve introduced since the PlayTech acquisition, and professional developers depend on their tools to continuously improve. Here’s a timeline showing what YYG have delivered during the life of GM:S so far:

Late 2010/2011:

  • GameMaker HTML5 (essentially a beta of GM:S that built only to HTML5)

2012:

  • GameMaker Studio launches.
  • Windows 8, OS X, iOS, and Android build target
  • GM:S available through Steam
  • Publish games to Steam Workshop

2013

  • Tizen build target
  • Ubuntu build target
  • YoYo Compiler
  • Networking
  • Shaders

2014

  • Physics
  • GameMaker: Marketplace
  • GameMaker: Player

2015:

  • PlayTech acquisition (February)
  • Then-CEO Sandy Duncan says they expect to release GM:S 2.0 “sometime in 2015”
  • Universal Windows Platform (UWP) build target (November)
  • Roadmap goes dark.

GM:S 2.0: originally planned a release sometime in 2015; as of August 2016 it’s still in closed beta. Delays happen, and often for good reason. It’s plausible that the delay in this case has to do with the acquisition by PlayTech, as being acquired is often disruptive to operations, but I don’t know what the reason is.

2016:

  • New forum software goes live (after nearly 3 months delay while old forum in read-only archive state).

So, unless I’m missing something, apart from UWP, basically nothing new/major in the last 2 years, coinciding with their acquisition by PlayTech. Just bugfixes. That’s not nothing, but that’s not major, either.

That could be a coincidence, I suppose. It could be that not much was delivered in 2015 due in part to the transition of ownership, but also due to so many new features being part of the new codebase that makes up 2.0, and 2.0 being delayed. But it does seem like their velocity of delivering major new features has slowed, especially compared with 2012-13.

My point in saying all that is not to be negative, but to present evidence. If YYG were delivering with the same velocity they were in 2012-13, I’d be very happy and recommend them without reservation. They don’t seem to be, and that’s a concern. They’re no longer talking about what their future plans for the product are, and that’s a concern. They had a very visible failure to deliver the new forums, and didn’t handle the community relations around that well, and that’s a concern.

The product is as good as it’s ever been, and it’s never been better. Can I use it now? Absolutely. Do I like using it now? Apart from My Library, yes.

But does it have a bright future? Is it going to be what I’m going to want in three or five years? I have no idea. They stopped publishing their Roadmap, so I literally have no idea. I presume they’ll continue to be around, but I don’t know what new features they’re planning, or approximately when to expect them. I don’t know that they’ll continue maintaining what they’ve built so far, or if they’ll neglect features as they’ve neglected the My Library feature. It does raise cause for concern.

Let me be clear: I fully expect that GameMaker will still exist 5 years from now. But I don’t know how much better it will be from today. And I think there’s some reason to be concerned that it won’t be as improved from 2015 in 2020 as it was from 2010 to 2015.

So, bottom line, if you have GM:S now, and use it, and like it, there’s no reason not to spend a small amount of money on extensions or other assets that look like they’d be interesting or useful to you. Just watch how many assets you keep active if you own a lot of assets.

If you’re new to Game Development and considering purchasing GM:S, or one of its competing alternatives, I don’t know what to tell you. GM:S is still great for beginners, and the Free edition is a great tool to start learning with. The free edition certainly is worth checking out. But as far as purchasing, you’ll have to decide for yourself based on how well you like it, and what your own impression is of the product’s future.

I like GM:S for a lot of reasons, but there’s good reasons to consider other tools: Unity3D, or Construct2, or Godot Engine, or something else. As for spending money on the Professional edition, it’s a maybe, downgraded from a recommended.

What could turn that recommendation downgrade around?

Well, right now it’s a wait and see game to see what happens with 2.0. If you haven’t paid for 1.x yet, it may be smart to hold off until we find out whether 2.0 delivers the greatly improved experience with the IDE, or if the IDE rewrite turns out to be a bust. I have high hopes, and I’m eager to find out.

On the other hand, there are plenty of risks? Will 2.0 drastically change GML, such that Marketplace assets all break and need to be rewritten? Will the improved room editor be a dream to work with, or minimally improved? What new features will be coming with 2.0? It’s worth waiting and seeing.

On the other hand, if you’re already invested in 1.x, and are using it, then sure, you know what you have and that it’s good enough for you right now. Go ahead and spend some money on extensions that other GM:S users have developed.

The Math: doing business on itch.io vs. GameMaker Marketplace

Following up on my previous post comparing itch.io vs. the GameMaker:Marketplace, here’s some math that explains the difference in costs for selling an asset through each store.

YoYo Marketplace Itchi.io
base price  $1.99  $1.99
store’s cut  $0.60  $0.20
paypal’s cut  $0.36
net income  $1.39  $1.43
net income % of gross 70% 72%

As can be seen, the transaction fees are not included in itch.io’s cut, while they are included in YoYoGame’s cut.

For low-cost assets, this eats up much of the 20% difference between YYG’s 30% cut and itch.io’s 10%, resulting in just a 2% difference after the per-payment transaction fees are factored in on a $1.99 asset. A difference of 2% may not sound like much, but in business that’s actually huge.

The gap only widens with more expensive assets:

YoYo Marketplace Itchi.io
base price $19.99 $19.99
store’s cut  $6.00  $2.00
paypal’s cut  $0.88
net income  $13.99  $17.11
net income % of gross 70% 86%

For assets that are priced higher, the cost of transaction fees will be less of a factor, meaning the advantage of itch’s service model will only grow as the sale price increases.

In the end, it will come down to which marketplace is more effective at generating a volume of sales that makes publishing there worthwhile in the first place. With the current glitch affecting the performance of My Library, causing “large” purchase manifests to take several minutes to display in GM:S, it seems to punish GM:S users for purchasing a lot of assets, and this would seem to concede the edge to itch for now. I keep hoping that YYG will fix this bug, but I’ve been waiting over a year since I first reported it.

But clearly, there’s a need for transaction costs to go lower in order for low-cost items to be worth selling. I’ve been waiting for a viable micropayment system for going on two decades now, though, and nothing seems to be going on in that realm. (PayPal does offer a micropayments option to merchants, at $0.05 + 5% per transaction, but it does not appear that this is an option through either itch.io or the GameMaker Marketplace, and this fee schedule replaces ALL transactions paid to the account in question, not just microtransactions, so it’s not really an ideal solution.)

Of course, you can also adjust the cut that itch.io takes from you to as low as 0% if you want, but it seems fair to allow them to have something for the benefit they provide you, so they can keep operating. Bottom line, a 10% cut for the services that itch provides is a very good deal compared to what you can get elsewhere.

Itch.io also offers greater flexibility with payouts, allowing sellers to have access to their money immediately after every transaction if they wish, or to receive a periodic payout. YoYoGames holds seller’s income until it reaches a minimum amount of $100 before you can get paid, so essentially you get paid in $100 chunks, and YYG may end up holding up to $99.99 of your earnings indefinitely. Two years on, and I’m still waiting to collect my first payday from YYG — I’m a little over 3/4 of the way there now.

A great feature that itch.io offers but the GameMaker Marketplace currently doesn’t is bundle sales. Bundle sales can help by cutting many payment transactions for multiple assets down to one. I offered my four paid assets in a bundle at a 33% discount, and so far all of my sales through itch.io have come this way. Such an option would be a welcome improvement to the GameMaker: Marketplace.

csanyk.com © 2016
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