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Category: product reviews

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.

AtariBox update: who is Feargal Mac?

I learned more today about Feargal Mac, real name Mac Conuladh, one of the guys behind the AtariBox. And what I found out wasn’t so good.

It looks like this guy has been involved in a number of dubious crowd funded tech gizmos before. And by dubious, I mean disastrous. This guy’s LinkedIn profile reads like a character from Silicon Valley: a CEO of various incarnations of rapidly pivoting smoke/mirrors vaporware startups that promise a lot while having nothing.

If you look at Mac’s twitter profile, he still lists his website as gameband.com, one of the crowdfunded gadgets he was involved with. Here’s a screen capture that I took of the page today:

gameband.com screencap

Not quite as exciting as zombo.com, but give it time!

Based on this track record, it’s going to take a LOT of evidence and convincing to get me interested in the AtariBox. Maybe it’ll be different this time, after all people do fail, try again, and succeed, and maybe this time they’ll deliver something worth owning, but until I see some substantial evidence of this, I’m no longer interested in the system.

Game Programming for Artists

Game Programming for Artists by Jarryd Huntley and Hanna Brady

Game Programming For Artists is a new book about to drop by my Cleveland Game Developer colleagues Jarryd Huntley and Hanna Brady.

It’s a book that intends to introduce artists to computer programming for games. Oftentimes artists and programmers come to the problems of game development from a very different set of skills, and it can be a challenge for them to understand each other. As well, often artists have ideas for games that they need help to program, and this book should help them to start to become a little more self sufficient.

I haven’t seen it yet, but I know that they’ve been working hard on it for the past year plus. I’m looking forward to seeing it in print.

Mega Maker

Mega Maker

Mega Maker is to Mega Man what Mario Maker is to Mario. Except, it’s not an officially licensed Capcom product, and it’s free. Built by fans using GameMaker, it’s probably the best thing I’ve ever seen built out of GameMaker.

It’s awesome.

It’s very easy to use, and a lot of fun. Not that you really need it, but there’s a tutorial that explains everything in the editor with great style. Actually, the tutorial is very well done and I recommend using it to understand some of the finer points. But most of the point and click interface is intuitive to anyone who’s used a mouse-driven interface and knows a thing or two about Mega Man.

Mega Maker

I had my first level built and running in about ten minutes.

Unfortunately it only includes a small sample of the Mega Man resources from the first six games on the NES, but even so there’s a lot that you can do with the designer. There doesn’t seem to be any provision for designing your own enemies, bosses, or adding your own sprites or music. On the other hand, there’s zero coding needed, and it’s easy enough to use that an average grade schooler could get up and running designing levels in no time.

There’s an online community for uploading your level designs and downloading and playing the designs of other players.

So much work has gone into this, and it holds so much promise. I hope that Capcom sees fit to muzzle their legal team. If you’ve ever enjoyed a classic MM game, you really need to download this and give it a try.

“Atari” releases new images of upcoming, mysterious AtariBox console

AtariBox

As soon as I found out about it, I signed up for announcements about the AtariBox. Today, the company currently owning the rights to call itself Atari released some new images of what the console will look like. I think they look quite nice, for what it’s worth. It’s tough to say, but I’m not convinced that these are photographs — they could very well be 3D models from the mock-up phase, that have been approved for production.

AtariBox AtariBox AtariBox AtariBox

From the announcement:

Our objective is to create a new product that stays true to our heritage while appealing to both old and new fans of Atari.

Inspired by classic Atari design elements (such as the iconic use of wood, ribbed lines, and raised back); we are creating a smooth design, with ribs that flow seamlessly all around the body of the product, a front panel that can be either wood or glass, a front facing logo, indicator lights that glow through the material, and an array of new ports (HDMI, 4xUSB, SD). We intend to release two editions: a wood edition, and a black/red edition.

We know you are hungry for more details; on specs, games, features, pricing, timing etc. We’re not teasing you intentionally; we want to get this right, so we’ve opted to share things step by step as we bring Ataribox to life, and to listen closely to Atari community feedback as we do so. There are a lot of milestones, challenges and decision points in front of us in the months ahead. We’ll be giving you lots more information and status updates as we progress, and we are thrilled to have you along for the ride!

The HDMI is not a surprise, but it’s good to see that the AtariBox will use standard USB ports and an SD slot. Proprietary ports are all too common on game consoles, in order to lock consumers in to buying officially licensed peripherals at considerable markup.

What the console looks like isn’t all that important, but from what I see so far, this isn’t bad.

We still don’t know what the consoles hardware capabilities will be… but what the console’s specs are isn’t all that important, even.

What matters is what games it’ll play, and if they’re any good.

How can Atari create a unique platform for games that is simultaneously contemporary yet pays good homage to the past? It remains unknown.

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.

Thoughts on the Nintendo Switch now that it’s out

Nintendo Switch is out. I still haven’t bought one. Wasn’t planning to right away, as I’m habitually not an early adopter when it comes to game consoles. Here’s my thoughts anyway.

After reading reviews for Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild I figured I would definitely buy a Switch. Before, I wasn’t entirely sure. I’m very intrigued to give it a play. One thing that worries me is the fact that your equipment wears out and breaks. I think that has potential for an under-utilized play mechanic, but on the other hand I think it’s a design choice that runs the risk of turning the game into a never-ending grind fest to keep up maintenance on your kit, and I don’t necessarily like the feeling of being on a treadmill.

I never bought a Wii U, either, and I still have yet to hear an announcement that Super Mario Maker will be coming to the Switch, which is insane. How can they not bring SMM to the Switch? It has to happen, right? Only, I’ve heard nothing. Since LoZ:BotW is also on the Wii U, maybe I should just buy a Wii U on clearance, save money, and enjoy both games?

But there are a few other interesting new titles that will be coming out on Switch in the near future, like Blaster Master Zero, which looks like a phenomenal remake of the original.

I was at GameStop earlier today, and to my surprise they actually had the Switch and accessories in stock. I looked at them, but didn’t buy. I’m put off by reports that there are reliability issues with the right-JoyCon control. When it comes to game consoles, I am almost never an early adopter, and stuff like this are a chief reason why. But I am also struck by how absolutely tiny the controls are for the Switch. I understand the console needs to be small enough to be portable, and I read that the controls are small, but in person they’re still shockingly small, even forewarned. I haven’t actually held one to see how they feel in the hand, but my initial impression is, “Geez, I sure hope they come out with an adult-sized JoyCon pair.” But I’m doubtful this will come to pass.

I also just heard that game saves aren’t transferable between Switch consoles, which is pretty lame. I hope that Nintendo rectify this, and allow game saves to follow a user’s account, or even be shared between user accounts so that friends can send each other game saves.

Update 3/07/2017

I’m back to undecided on the Switch.

Early reports from users suggest that the Switch hardware has a number of issues that are simply not acceptable. I believe these issues are addressable, but Nintendo really needed a flawless launch if they wanted to have a hope of recapturing the marketshare that they lost due to the unpopularity of the Wii U.

Joy-con connectivity failures, attributable to how the devices were designed and/or assembled. Potentially fixable by re-routing some wires inside the controller, or by using a bit of soldering know-how. But really this is a warranty problem, plain and simple. These are defects that Nintendo should own responsibility for, and fix for free.

Dead pixels on the handheld screen. Maybe I shouldn’t care about this very much, since my main use of Switch would be as a TV console, but Nintendo’s policy is that dead pixels are a normal property of LCD displays, and that they don’t fix them because they don’t consider them to be broken. WTF, Nintendo.

The more I think about it, the more I wish the Switch weren’t trying so hard to be innovative. I think what Nintendo did to make it a viable console/handheld hybrid is amazing, but I think the result of hybridization is compromise. Switch compromises as a console because it lacks the processing power that full consoles like the PS4 and XBox1 have. It compromises as a handheld because of it’s somewhat inconvenient size and relatively short battery life.

That means that the only innovation left is with the joy-con. And while they do have some of the most clever design aspects we’ve seen on a controller to date, such as the HD rumble, their multi-use, multiple configuration design, and being packed with features, here too are compromises. The joy-con are tiny and not necessarily the best in ergonomics. And they have some reliability issues that Nintendo simply must address quickly and completely.

For what I would personally want out of a next-gen Nintendo console, it would be to be able to play games like Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, at full 1080p, or even 4K resolution, with a good, full-size controller like the Switch’s pro controller. I’m very unlikely to take advantage of the portable/handheld aspect of the Switch, nor am I very likely to use Switch as a party/social game platform. I do think it’s cool that Nintendo are thinking about such use cases, but they are simply not use cases that I see myself doing much, if at all.

I find myself wondering what hackers like Ben Heckendorn will do with the Switch. Ben Heck has made himself into a minor celebrity over the last 10 years or so, by doing ingenious hacks of old gen consoles, minifying and re-building them into portable/handhelds. These are very cool projects, but the Switch already gives us this. Nintendo appeared to have beaten Ben Heck at his own game. Or have they? Perhaps a hacker like Ben will hack the portability out of a Switch, and add hardware to it — a beefier CPU, GPU, more RAM, improved cooling and overclocking, turning it into a more serious current-gen console system, to allow Breath of the Wild to run without slowdown.

That would be an interesting and worthy project.

Nintendo announces Switch launch date, price

Yesterday, Nintendo had their big announcement about their new console, Switch. It will be $299 on March 3, region free, online play will be paid, launch titles have been announced. The Joy-con controllers are more sophisticated than initially shown in the teaser video Nintendo released a few months ago. Joy-con have motion control and “HD” vibration features, and even a camera on the right side. Onboard there’s only 32GB of storage, which is expandable with SDHC the built-in screen is “only” 720p (which to be fair is plenty on a handheld screen, and should help with battery life to a degree) but does support touch.

The new Zelda title looks amazing. New Zeldas always do, but this one really does look very impressive. The new Mario looks a bit weird, like they put Mario in a GTA world, or that Halloween episode of the Simpsons from years ago, where Homer went through some dimensional warp and ended up in the 3D world. But also amazing. It won’t be out until later this year, unfortunately. There will be other sequels — surprised? Splatoon 2 is happening, as expected. Mario Kart 8 is being revised somehow and brought along for the Switch. Surprisingly, no word on whether Super Mario Maker is going to be ported as well. It really should be.

The biggest criticisms of the announced launch titles are how few they are, and that not enough Big Names have been announced. It seems Nintendo may be playing a game to maximize sales by spacing out their major releases so that each gets full attention.

I have some new questions. Because the Switch hardware is so reconfigurable and flexible, how will games adapt to it? Will Switch games be designed with the intent that the Switch be in one particular configuration in order to play them? Or will they have multiple modes, which can be played depending on which configuration you have your Switch in at the moment? I imagine it will probably be a bit of both. Although, if it drives costs up to make the software flexible enough to handle whichever mode the Switch is currently in, that could end up backfiring as developers target one specific mode only per title. How will supporting all of these different modes with one game work for developers?

There’s been a certain amount of WTF and ridicule following the announcement among Nintendo naysayers. Accessories for the Switch seem to be pricey. Over the last few months, since the initial announcement, there’s been a considerable amount of second-guessing among gamers. Initially the Switch seemed very exciting and innovative, a do-it-all, go-anywhere console with loads of innovative features and potential, but that initial impression wore off quickly as gamers wondered just how good the graphics and battery life would be, and what sort of capability the hardware would have relative to the competition.

Does Switch offer enough to get me to buy one? Maybe… Zelda: Breath of the Wild is the most attractive draw to the new console for me, by far. If they had Super Mario Maker, and maybe a new 2D Metroid game, that might be all it takes for me to put it on my want list. Hmm, how about a Super Metroid Maker? Or Mega Man Maker? Or literally any 8-bit franchise maker for that matter? I’d buy Switch in a heartbeat if they had something like that in the works. The small number of titles at launch isn’t that small, although the number of games that actually interest me is.

That’s a concern, but I’ve rarely been an early adopter when it comes to videogame consoles. My first console, the Atari 2600 had been out for several years before I was old enough that my parents bought one. I had no input into that decision, but it was a happy one. I think we got our NES in 1987, after a year of the Atari 7800, maybe we got a SNES the year it came out, the N64 came out when I was in college and my brother had one but I didn’t play it all that much compared to when I had free time.

I wouldn’t have bought myself a GameCube, which came out when I was probably the least interested in videogames that I’ve ever been in my life, but I received one for Christmas one year, 2002 or 03, I think, and didn’t buy a Wii until they stopped instantly selling out of stores…

I still haven’t, and likely won’t, buy a Wii U, ever, despite how much I’d like to play with Mario Maker.

And while I thought the Switch had an exciting design when I saw the trailer video for it a few months ago, I don’t feel all that excited about it. It’s capability as a mobile game platform doesn’t do anything for me — I’ve never been into mobile gaming. Its reconfigurable controllers are clever, but I don’t know that they truly offer anything new. And the multiplayer aspect, which seems to be another big part of Switch’s appeal, doesn’t do much for me, because I’ve always been more of a solitary gamer. For much the same reason, I haven’t been very into network games, either.

I just haven’t found much compelling about AAA games, really, for many years. A few exceptions, to be sure, but probably not even 1/year. I’m pretty deeply rooted in the old school, you might say. These days, I’m much more into retro-styled indie games, like Shovel Knight, Hyper Light Drifter, and Daniel Linssen’s brilliant Ludum Dare platformers, and classic 8- and 16-bit era games.

These days, I find I just don’t care as much for 3D games, analog joysticks, and voice acting and cutscenes in videogames. These things can be done well, but are so hard to do well, and age so poorly, compared to 2D games with low-res graphics, which seem timeless. Truthfully, most modern 3D games either feel crude and lacking in polish, or else cookie-cutter affairs lacking in soul, offering little that their predecessor didn’t also.

As such, I don’t feel that Switch is necessarily aimed at me. That’s fine. I’m pretty niche in my interests, and am served well by my existing library, as well as by the indie market. And I don’t know that that’s a miss on Nintendo’s part. I expect that if the exclusive titles are there, Switch will be a hit. But if Nintendo don’t get a lot of great first-party hits, and attract a strong lineup of 3rd party developers to release games on their platform, it could be a repeat of the Wii U.

I fully admit I know nothing about videogames as a business. I really liked the Ouya, and I still do. Time will tell.

Galaxian is a triumph on the Atari 2600

As a child of the 1970’s, I’ve been attracted to arcade video games since I was tall enough to reach the controls. This was 1981-84, during the heyday of the arcade’s Golden Age, a time when games like Pac Man, Dig Dug, and Galaga were new, hot, and everywhere. Grocery stores, gas stations, seemingly anyplace people might spend time, you’d find a couple of arcade games, ready to suck the quarters out of anyone who passed by.

Just slightly older than these games were the ever-popular Space Invaders, and its evolutionary next step, Galaxian. Although these titles were top shelf games in their day, I found that I didn’t enjoy them very much.

Space Invaders was just frustratingly slow at first, but then sped up to an unfair pace by the end, and I could never manage to destroy that last invader on the first wave. You had to have perfect aim to hit it, and it moved so fast it was seemingly impossible to track, so you had to be lucky. If you missed, the slow-moving missile took forever to disappear at the top of the screen, and you couldn’t fire again until it did. Usually this delay meant your death, as the hyper-paced final invader would reach the ground, ending your game. Plus, it was black and white. It felt old. I respected it — even then I could tell that it was a important game — but grudgingly, I had to say that I just didn’t enjoy it that much, although I wouldn’t have admitted it to anyone back then.

Galaxian, too, was a game I found too slow and frustrating to play at arcades. It seemed like the next step in the vertical space shooter. Graphics were now in color. A formation of aliens marched back and forth across the screen, but this time instead of descending toward the earth, they stayed at the top of the screen, while one by one, or in pairs, individuals would peel off from their formation and dive bomb you. Their bullet patterns and flight paths seemed to make it all but certain that they would hit you if you didn’t hit them first. I could usually survive for a while, maybe clear a screen, but it never failed that if I happened to miss a dive bombing enemy, it would corner me in the side of the screen and crash into me, or hit me with too many bullets to dodge. You could always dodge one, but there’d always be another one following up, and your first dodge would put you right in its path. It seemed unfair, and so, not very fun. I always gravitated toward the games that I could last a bit longer on, so I could get my money’s worth out of my quarters.

I had a cousin who owned an Atari 5200, and played Galaxian on it once or twice while visiting them. The 5200 port was a very faithful reproduction of the arcade experience, not exactly arcade-perfect, but nearly so. I still didn’t care much for it, because it suffered from the same shortcomings. It wasn’t as bad to lose at home, since it cost nothing, but I still preferred to play games that felt fair.

It never entered into my mind that maybe I just wasn’t very good at Space Invaders or Galaxian. But probably, I was. Ok, not probably. I sucked. But in my defense, I was like 6, and just tall enough to reach the stick and see the screen. But back then, I blamed arcade games for being “greedy” in contrast to home consoles, which seemed to reward players with longer games that were still challenging, but more fun because they weren’t so brutally ass-kicking hard.

I never played Galaxian on the Atari 2600 back in the day. I’d played the 5200 version and was impressed with its arcade-quality graphics, and I remember seeing the pictures on the back of the box on the 2600 version, and being unimpressed. Since I never particularly enjoyed the game, I didn’t have any interest in owning it on the 2600, never knew any kids who had it in their collection, and so never played it. At some point, we had an Atari 7800, which had Galaga, the sequel to Galaxian, and one of my very favorite games, so I played a lot of that.

I’m not sure when exactly, but at some point I picked up a copy of the 2600 port of Galaxian, probably a few years ago. I recognized it was a significant title in videogame history, and so I wanted it for my collection, despite not having favorable memories of it from its heyday.

I finally got around to playing it today, and came away very impressed. Here’s a video review so you can see what it’s like:

The 2600 port plays much better than I remember the arcade. The motion is extremely fluid, which, considering the limitations of the Atari 2600 hardware, is nothing short of amazing. Maybe I’m just better at videogames than I was at ages 5-8, but I found that the game felt very fair, with divebombing enemies that are actually dodge-able. I’m sure, the horizontal aspect ratio of the screen plays into this somewhat, as you have more room to dodge, and also your shots that miss take less time to leave the screen, meaning that you can fire follow-up shots that much faster.

I was always a fan of vertical shooters of the Atari 2600, my favorites being Megamania, Phoenix, Threshold, and Tac-Scan, and Space Invaders. Galaxian is every bit as good as the best of these, and is still fun to play even now.

Playing Galaxian tonight, I found that my strategy was different from how I played the arcade original some 35 years ago. My old strategy was to try to shoot the enemies still in formation. They were easier to hit, since they didn’t swoop or shoot at you, and it seemed to me safer to eliminate them before they could turn into a threat. I’d try to shoot the divebombing aliens as they flew over me, and dodge out of the way of them and their shots, but mostly I concentrated on blowing away he ranks of Galaxians in formation, much as I approached Space Invaders.

My new strategy was much more successful, and rewarding: I ignored the galaxians in formation, since they don’t do anything that can hurt me, and focused on the divebombing aliens. It turns out, this has many advantages. First, by focusing on the divebombers, you are focusing on the only thing in the game that can threaten you. Shooting them is a much more reliable way to avoid them than dodging. You will need to dodge sometimes, but if you focus on developing skill in shooting the moving enemies, it gets pretty easy to pick them off before they can collide with you. The green Galaxians are simple, slow moving, and easy to hit. The purple ones are harder to hit, but with a little bit of practice the timing becomes easily mastered.

Hitting divebombing enemies in mid-flight makes you safer in two ways: enemies are destroyed before they’re low enough to collide with you, and they can’y get all their shots off. Typically, you’ll hit them as they cross ahead of you, and so you’ll be moving in the same direction, to track them, and the shots they do get off will fall harmlessly behind you, and by destroying the alien as it passes directly above you, you prevent it from getting ahead of you where it can drop bombs that would be dangerous to you.

Additionally, by hitting them as they’re diving toward you, your shot has less distance to travel, which means that you can get off more shots — since you can have only one shot on the screen at a time, when they hit something low on the screen, the shots don’t have as far to travel, meaning they hit the target sooner, meaning that your bullet is consumed and you can then fire another shot more quickly. If you miss one of the bombers, you might still end up hitting one of the galaxians still in formation, especially early in the stage, which isn’t so bad either. But the lower your shots are when they connect with an enemy, the faster you can shoot.

This in turn sets up a rapid flow of firing, hitting a dive bomber, then hitting the next dive bomber with a rapid follow-up shot. Once mastered, you can mow through the entire formation in quick succession in this manner. This turns out to be very enjoyable. You feel more skillful, since you’re targeting the fast-moving enemies, getting more points for them, and it looks more risky, since you’re often hitting the enemies pretty low on the screen, when it looks like they’re most dangerous — but at the same time you’re actually playing the least risky style of play. Of course, that’s what skill is — finding the right pattern of actions to minimize your risk, while doing what looks the most daring.

It’s clever, because the more intuitive way to avoid risk would be to try to avoid the dangerous enemies and attack the enemies that aren’t a threat. But counter-intuitively, when you focus on the dangerous enemies, and take the aggressive approach of destroying them rather than running from them, it minimizes the risk they pose to you, while the enemies that aren’t a threat remain a non-threat.

At this point, I recognized what a truly well-designed game Galaxian for the Atari 2600 is. I’m curious to see whether this strategy applies to arcade Galaxian. Since I don’t have ready access to an arcade with Galaxian in it, the next best thing is to watch a YouTube video of a skilled player.

And it looks like this is indeed the strategy to employ, although this player also has enough time to target plenty of enemies still in formation. I think the 2600 and arcade versions are different enough in their game play that they feel like different enough that while the basic strategies are more or less the same, the specifics are different. In the arcade, there’s much more space between the bottom of the screen, where you are, and the top of the screen, where the enemy formation is. But ultimately, I think the Atari port gives you less time to target the enemies in formation, forcing you to spend most of your time focusing on the swooping divebombing enemies.

In any case, Atari 2600 Galaxian is a fantastic game, and if you’re into vertical shooters is a must have, being one of the finest examples of the genre on the Atari, as well as an outstanding port of a historic and classic game.

GameMaker Studio 2 impressions: Object editor

The most notable change in the Object Editor is that sub-windows are “chained” to the main form, in what YoYoGames is calling “Chain view”.

GMS2 Object Editor

The idea is that different parts of the Object editor should all be visible, not overlap each other, connected visually.

The main Object window shows the object’s basic properties: the Name, Sprite, Collision mask, and Visible/Solid/Persistent/Physics properties, as you can see. Chained to it are the object’s Events, and the Code Editor (or DnD Editor) will be chained off of the Events sub-panel. If your object happens to be a Physics object, or has Parents or is a Parent, then the Parent and Physics sub-panels will also chain themselves to the main Object editor form.

GMS2 Object Editor chain

This takes some getting used to, and occupies quite a lot of space on screen, which for users with smaller displays can make it a problem to work with Objects inside of a Workspace.

Fortunately, Object Editor windows, like any other window, can be broken out of the main GMS2 window and maximized, to fill up the entire screen if desired. Users will either love or hate Workspaces and Chain View windows, and if you’re one of the ones who hates them, you’ll need to get used to breaking the editor out into its own window and maximizing it, as this seems to be your only recourse for now. There’s a few Preferences in the Text Editors section that will make this easier for you, should you want to configure them:

GMS2 Text Editor Preferences

The GameMaker Community Forums have been very active in discussing the UX issues created by the new UI, though, so don’t be surprised if YYG do make a few changes in future updates.

DnD or GML?

The Object Editor comes in two flavors: Drag-n-Drop (DnD) and Code Editor (GML). Which variant you get is currently determined when you create a new Project, but you can switch at any time. Most users will probably prefer to create GML projects and work in the code editor, but beginners, younger users, and non-programmers may prefer the DnD option.

Probably the most important feature of either variant is its interface for defining actions in your Object’s events.

I’ll be focusing mainly on the GML version, since that’s what advanced users will use. But briefly, Drag-n-Drop has been completely overhauled in GMS2.

The new Drag-n-Drop system

Vastly expanded in GMS2, there are now DnD equivalents to just about every function in GML. Unfortunately, this means that there are vastly more icons needed to represent all of these new DnD actions, making them harder to learn. Similar to Chinese or Japanese, where every written word has its own symbol, there’s a DnD icon for every GML function. While it’s reasonably easy to pick up a DnD library with a small number of actions, this quickly becomes unwieldy as the number of actions grows. Unfortunately I expect this will have the undesired effect of making DnD too complex to use for beginners and non-programmers, making it questionable how valuable the DnD system will be in the future. Learning to code by typing out instructions isn’t that hard, and is arguably the better way to learn in the first place. But it’s nevertheless true that for certain people, they feel intimidated by programming or typing, and an intermediary step of using DnD like “training wheels” until the new user has an understanding of GameMaker’s fundamentals and is ready to move on to GML, has been one of GameMaker’s defining features.

In GMS1.x and earlier, DnD Actions were iconographic representations of special GML functions that started with action_ for example, action_set_hspeed(number). These functions were mostly redundant, being equivalent to other GML functions and expressions, for example hspeed = number;

The action_ GML functions are obsolete in GMS2, and are no longer needed. DnD Actions can convert directly into GML with a single menu command. This is a one-way conversion, and should help users who want to “graduate” from DnD programming to GML programming. Formerly, in previous versions of GameMaker, there was no way to convert DnD to GML code, other than to manually re-write everything. If you try to convert GML into DnD, rather than a sequence of DnD actions, you’ll get your GML code wrapped up in an Execute Code DnD Action, and the Object Editor will switch to DnD mode, allowing you to continue programming with DnD actions. While not particularly useful for advanced GMS users who are already familiar with programming in GML, it’s a nice improvement to the way the DnD system works.

GML Code Editor

The new GML code editor is still somewhat rough, but shows promise of numerous improvements. Indenting is standardized, to 4 spaces per tab by default, although this is configurable, and there are subtle guidelines showing where tabs will align to in the background. Row lines are numbered, again configurable if you don’t want to see them.

GMS2 Code Editor

The most obvious difference is the new color coding for syntax. This may take a bit of getting used to, but at first I found that my code looked very rainbow-y, and I found this to be somewhat of a distraction at first, but after a few days I found that I had adjusted. Every color is customizable, if you want to bother with that.

Auto-completion and hinting is improved in the new editor. All project variables, macros, etc. are included, not just the built-in GML keywords.

GMS2 Code Editor AutoSuggest

The completion hints at the bottom of the Code Editor window are very helpful to remember all the arguments that must be provided to a function, in the right order. And for any scripts which you author, if you use JSDoc commenting, you can provide hints for your own functions as well.

GMS2 Code Editor Completion Hint

Rough Edges

Cursor navigation keys are either different from standard Windows text editors, or else not yet fully implemented. I’m accustomed to, and very reliant upon, using Home|End|Page Up|Page Down|Shift|Control|Arrows to move the cursor about the window, to select text, and for copy/pasting. In the GMS2 code editor, these keyboard shortcuts do not all work as expected, which can be pretty annoying.

In most text editors, Home and End keys will make the cursor jump to the 0th or last position in a row, or if Ctrl+Home|End is pressed, the 0th or last position in the file. Presently, Home and End do not appear to be supported at all in GMS2.

The Arrow keys move the cursor around the document one character at a time, and if Shift is held down, the characters that the cursor passes over are then selected. Holding Ctrl down will speed the cursor up, moving it a word or a paragraph at a time.

For some reason when selecting text using Ctrl+Shift+Arrow, with the horizontal arrows, the selection gets “stuck” at the beginning/end of a row, and will not advance beyond that unless Ctrl is briefly released. This is a relatively minor annoyance, but should nonetheless be corrected. Normally, Ctrl+Shift and the Left or Right Arrow key will select to the next word, and will wrap lines if it reaches the end of a line.

Up or Down Arrow will move the cursor up or down a row, and with Ctrl+Shift held down, should move up/down to the next blank line. This is standard behavior in pretty much every text editor I’ve used in Windows, or Mac OS for that matter, but it is not the behavior in GMS2 at the time of this writing. I am hopeful that this will be addressed before the end of the Beta.

But by far the biggest thing that users are complaining about in the Community Forums has been the way the IDE wastes space in its default configuration, due to the way Workspaces and the Chain View UI work. Fortunately, breaking out the Code Editor into its own, maximized window is an easy workaround to this problem, and largely addresses it to my satisfaction.

Apart from these issues, I like the new UI for the Object Editor, and the Code Editor very much.

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