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Category: product reviews

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.

GMS2 Impressions: Tilesets and AutoTiling

One of the best new features in GameMaker Studio 2 is the improved tile system.

I never used tiles much in GMS1, because they were such a pain to work with, and did so little. In GMS1, tiles were a type of background resource. In the GMS1 room editor, you had to select your tiles manually, then place them one click at a time, which was very tedious. GMS users developed complicated auto-tiling scripts that would select the correct tile and place it in the room at runtime. This solution worked well, but was complicated to understand, set up, or modify. GMS1 tiles did not support animation, so if you wanted animated backgrounds, you either had to use sprites, or else come up with some sophisticated tile-swapping script that would programmatically animate your background tiles.

If you wanted your tiles to represent some kind of interactive object in the game, you had to also place an invisible object behind the tile, and program it to do whatever behaviors you needed. To me, there wasn’t much point in using tiles when I could just assign a sprite to the object, and use the object directly. If you did work with tiles in GMS1, then you may have to unlearn or relearn a few things before you feel comfortable with the new system.

I’m happy to say that in GMS2 the situation is much better. GMS2 tiles support animation and auto tiling. You can draw tiles in the room by the mouse without having to click each and every time you want to place a tile. This makes working with them much easier than it used to be.

However, there is still a lot of learning to do in order to develop the understanding necessary to set up tilesets and get the full use of them in your projects.

It took me an evening to figure out, about 4-6 hours, which isn’t bad. But after I had figured it out to the point where I have auto tile working, I realized that I could save others a lot of frustration by going a bit further to explain it.

Getting into GMS2 Tiles

First, the help manual article on Tileset Editor is essential reading. There are several articles which you should read first. And maybe a few YouTube videos are also helpful, to see the process of setting up a tileset for use within your project.

It’s actually pretty easy to use once you’ve gone through the process once so you understand it, but until you’ve completed your first working tileset, you’ll probably have a lot of questions and uncertainty about how it all works and what you’re supposed to do.

This article will guide you through that first time, and explain things so that they are easier to understand, and you’ll have an easier time of it than I did.

Before getting into that, there are a few constraints that you need to be aware of when working with tiles.

  1. The tile grid size must be a power of 2. So, for the most part, 8×8, 16×16, 32×32, or 64×64 tiles will be the sizes to work with.
  2. Any tile-based animations must have a number of frames that is a power of 2: 2, 4, 8, 16, etc.
  3. Tile positions in a room are constrained to a grid in GMS2. You can no longer position them at an arbitrary position in the room; they must snap to a grid the size of the tile.

Now that we’ve covered that, let’s look at the Tileset setup and usage workflow.

GMS2 Tileset Workflow

First, let’s take a general overview of the entire workflow, before we dive deeper into each step:

Tileset setup

Before you can use a tileset to decorate a room, you have to set up a Tileset resource. A Tileset resource is a resource that depends on a Sprite resource, and defines how the image in the Sprite is sliced up to create a set of tiles.

  1. Create a sprite that will hold the image data for your tileset.
  2. Create a tileset asset.
  3. Define the tileset.
    1. Add the sprite from Step 1 to the tileset.
    2. Set tile size to split up the image.
    3. (Optional): Create any brushes, animations, and auto tile sets that are needed.
  4. Create additional tilesets, as needed.

Tileset usage:

This is where you put your tiles to work in the game. It’s all about creating and managing Tile Layers in your rooms, using the Room Editor.

  1. Add a tile layer to a room
  2. Select a tileset to use in the layer
  3. Add tiles to the tile layer.
  4. Add additional tile layers to the room, as needed.

Now that we’ve covered the workflow of Tile setup and usage at a high level, let’s go back and look at each step in depth.

Tileset Setup

Create a sprite that will hold the image data for your tileset

The first thing you need to do is create a Sprite resource, and add an image to it containing your tiles.

If you’re drawing this yourself, you’ll need to learn how to lay out this image. The first thing you’ll need to understand is that your tiles need to conform to a grid. You should set up the grid in the Image Editor to the size you’ll need for your tiles. I found that using an Image Editor grid that is half of what I want my actual tile size to be works well, so for a tile image that I wanted to draw that would have 32x32px tiles in it, I set the grid size in the Image Editor to 16×16. Then I drew out my tiles, using chunks that were 2×2 grid cells.

An important thing to realize in drawing your tiles is that your tile images should include some solid pixels as well as negative space surrounding the solid part of the tile. This is difficult to understand, especially at first, and it takes some getting used to the idea. To explain this properly, I need to illustrate.

tile_grid

As you can see here, I have drawn a brown rectangle, representing a solid object in the game room, and overlaid a green grid on top of it, showing how the tile borders should look if they’re done properly. Noticed that each tile (except for the center ones, which are completely solid) shows a certain amount of solid space and some white space.

I think a lot of people probably mistakenly think that their grid of tiles should look like this:

tile grid wrong

I know I did, at first. It’s hard to understand why tiles don’t work the second way — it seems a lot more obvious to position them that way, doesn’t it?. If you’re just thinking about a simple rectangular platform or wall like this, it’s easy to think that it should simply be a 2×4 rectangle of solid brown tiles, all the same. The thing is, if you go back to the first illustration, you can see that in that illustration, we have many different types of tiles, representing edges, corners, and solid areas, working together to create the same rectangular platform, and since they’re not all the same tile, you can re-combine them in many different arrangements, to create other shapes.

Since the point of making the tile set is to enable you to create all the different types of edges and corners, you want to make sure that the sprite your tiles are drawn in is laid out in such a fashion.

We really need to create a ring so we can have inner and outer corners represented in our tile. We also need to have a tile representing a completely open space. By convention, GMS2 auto tile sets reserve the top left tile grid for this empty tile. Here’s a better image that shows all the different corner and edges that we’ll need for a complete tile set:

tile template

With this arrangement, we are able to create almost any arrangement of blocks, but we still have a few more tiles to create. We actually have a few duplicates in this tile set, which I’ll color code in the next illustration, as well as number the unique tiles.

tiles-14

As you can see, we have 14 unique tiles in this image, and a few duplicates. There are actually two more tiles that we’ll need to create a universal 16-tile auto tile set. They are:

tiles 15 and 16

We can consolidate space in our earlier image by eliminating some of the redundant tiles and replacing them with the ones we needed, like so:

tiles-16

Really, these tiles could be arranged in any ordering; this is just an example of one such arrangement.

There’s also a 47-tile auto tile but I think now that we’ve walked through the 16-tile auto tile set creation, you should be able to figure out the 47-tile version on your own. The ideas are the same, it’s just more work.

But just to make things convenient, here are two templates that I’ve created for 16×16 and 47×47 auto tiles, matching the order that the GMS2 Tile Set editor uses for its template:

tileset 16 template tileset 47 template

You can right-click, save, and use these for laying out your own tiles. If you need 32×32 sized tiles, or larger, just scale the image up to whatever you need. Then import the image into the GMS2 Sprite Editor, set the grid to the size you need, and draw over the template in a new layer until you’ve built up your tiles!

I will point out here, that this sheet that we’ve created above just gives us a starting point to create a single auto-tile set. Most games will likely need several tilesets, for different areas of the game. Auto-tiling is best for your basic terrain, such as walls, floors, and platforms.

We could also choose to include numerous additional tiles in one sprite image if we desire, for decorative things that do not make sense to do auto-tiling with, or create additional tiles to represent terrain features in the game such tables and chairs, or other furniture, or trees, bushes, you name it. Or we could store each type of terrain, decorative elements, etc. in its own tileset resource.

We could also duplicate this 16-tile layout multiple times, and include in a variety of different terrain types, or different colors, all in a single large tilesheet. Or we could have multiple tile sheets. But be cautious about making the sheet too large. You’ll want to read the Texture Groups section of the manual to understand the limits of how large your sheets can be.

One last thing: If you wanted to create an animated auto-tiling tileset, you would need to create additional copies of our 16-tile auto tile layout, and draw each one as a different frame of animation. We’ll explain how to do this in the section on creating tile animations.

Create a tileset asset

Now that we have a sprite holding the image for our tile set, it’s time to create the tile set asset. To do this, right-click on the Tile Sets section of the resource tree, and select Create. You can name the new Tileset something meaningful, such as grassland, or ocean, or city, or indoors, or whatever suits your game.

Define the tileset

The Tileset editor looks like this:

GMS2 Tileset editorThe first thing to do is to add the sprite from Step 1 to the tileset. Click on Select Sprite, and select the sprite. Next, set tile size to split up the image, by entering the information in the Tile Properties fields at the right, as appropriate. The sprite image will appear sliced up by a grid as you change these values. Once the grid looks how you want it, we’re ready to create any Brushes, Animations, and/or Auto Tiling sets that are needed.

(Optional): Create any brushes, animations, and auto tile sets that are needed

At this point, we could use our Tileset right away, by going to the Room editor, adding a Tile Layer, and drawing in some Tiles from our newly created Tileset. But there’s a few very useful, and powerful, things we can still do to complete the setup, and that’s define Brushes, Animations, and Auto Tile sets. Not every Tileset needs Brushes, Animations, or Auto Tiling to be defined for it, but when you do use these, especially Auto Tiling, it will make creating your rooms much easier and faster.

This is where it really starts to get good.

Brushes

A brush is a selection of tiles, grouped together and added to your tile layer as one. Let’s say you have something in your tile that takes up more than one tile. This could be a large terrain feature, such as a building, or a mountain, or a tree. Without using brushes, every time you wanted to plant one of these multi-tile features in your room, you’d need to select each tile one at a time, place it in your Tile Layer, in the correct order… this is tedious work and easy to screw up. So Tile Brushes make this easier by collecting the related tiles together, so that they can be added to the Tile Layer with just a single click to place the entire Brush.

You can use Brushes not just to place multi-tile graphics, but to place arrangements of platforms. Say you have a particular jumping puzzle that you want to repeat several times in a level; you can create a Brush with the tiles spaced out in just the way you want them, then place them quickly and easily into your Tile Layer.

Animation

Setting up Animation Tiles is pretty easy. Simply add a new Animation, specify the number of frames (which must be a power of 2), and then add the tiles that make up the animation one at a time until you’ve filled out the animation.

It’s worth noting that you don’t have to use Tilesets to do animation. You can place any sprite resource into a room directly, without the need to place an instance of some object to draw the sprite for you. These can be added to asset layers or background layers. Background layers can tile or stretch or both, and can move. So consider whether you need to do your animations in tiles or if you can do them more easily another way.

Auto Tile

Setting up an auto tile set is pretty easy too, although at first it seems complicated. Taking the sprite that we created, above, we have all the tiles we need to create a 16-tile auto tile set. GMS2 also supports a 47-tile system, but it is much the same to set up.

Create a new Auto Tile set. The auto tile set will present a template which you have to fill in with tiles from your tileset sprite. Simply go through the template by clicking on each tile in the template, then click on a tile from your tileset sprite to connect it to the template. The currently selected tile in the template is red, and as you go through your tileset adding tiles to the auto tile template, it will fill in the tile you selected, then advance to the next tile in the template automatically.

GMS2 auto tile editorThe key to understanding the auto tile template is that the light grey parts of the template are meant to represent the solid parts of your tile, and the dark grey parts are meant to represent the empty space. If you didn’t know this up front, it’s very difficult to read the template correctly, and this was one of the most confusing parts of figuring out the auto tile editor.

Each of auto tiles (remember, there can be more than one in a tileset resource) is called an auto tile library. The image above shows two auto tile libraries about to be created; a 16-tile library, and a 47-tile library, just to show what they both look like.

It’s also important to understand the buttons to the right of the auto tile templates, which look a bit like a yinyang. These control how the tileset treats the borders of the room. Outside the edges of the room, the tileset must make an assumption: either the tiles outside the room count as empty, or as filled. This influences the auto tile system to select the appropriate tile at the room edge, and will result in an edge border around the room if the outside is treated as empty.

Once you’re done setting up the Tile Set resource, when you go to the Room Editor, in the Tile Layer editor, you’ll see a section in your tile palette called Libraries. Here, you can select Brushes, Animations, and Auto Tile sets to draw, rather than selecting individual Tiles from your Tile Set.

Pro Tip: An auto tile library will not work until and unless every tile in the template has been assigned. If you try laying out auto tiles in a tile layer and they just won’t draw, no matter what you do, go back and look at the template. Somewhere in there, some part of the template has not been assigned to a valid tile in your tileset.

The auto-tiling section in the manual illustrates this pretty well, with some nice animations showing how it works.

Animated Auto Tile sets

To create an animated Auto Tile set, simply make sure that each tile in your Auto Tile set is the first tile in an Animation set. In the room editor, the tiles will not animate, but as long as you place animated tiles in the editor using the first image in the animation, they will animate at runtime.

Re-Auto Tiling (Auto Tiling at runtime)

Dynamically re-auto-tiling at runtime is not supported by GMS2 at present, but it is a planned feature according to YYG lead programmer Mike Dailly, albeit with no release date announced yet.

This means that, at least for now, your auto-tiled setup will not automatically update the tiles if something changes during the game, for example if a new platform is created, or an existing one is destroyed, the tiles in the adjacent region will not update. This can cause things to look weird.

Presently the only way to handle this would be through a custom coded solution to evaluate the neighbors and determine an updated arrangement of tiles. This is pretty much the old system from GMS1, when auto-tiling was done at runtime.

There are scripts published on the GMC Forums and available for purchase in the Marketplace that will do auto-tiling for you, and YouTube videos describing how they work. These will need to be updated in order to be compatible with GMS2. At this time I haven’t evaluated these solutions, so I won’t be making a recommendation for any here. Hopefully YYG will provide a built-in solution in the form of GML functions, and there won’t be a need to invest time into developing custom solutions.

Create additional tilesets, as needed.

Your project can have as many tilesets as needed. Create as many as you like, to allow you to create as many different environments as you need for your game. It’s probably best to start simple and just create one at first, and then once you’re happy with it and satisfied that you know how to use the tile system, create additional Tilesets.

You can use multiple Tilesets in the same room, and in different layers, overlapping them. This is how you can develop very nice looking rooms.

Can a tile layer move/scroll?

Short answer: Yes. The functions tilemap_x() and tilemap_y() allow you to move a tile layer around the room. For complete details of all the things you can do with tilemaps, consult the manual.

The individual tiles in the tile layer have to align to their grid. So you can’t offset individual tiles, and make them move. But you can move the entire tilemap. If need be, you could put a few tiles in a layer that moves, and use this to create moving terrain features. For things like crumbling tiles, or tiles that break loose and drop one at a time when the player stands on them, it’s better to handle these with objects rather than tiles; of course, you can just use a sprite that looks the same as the tileset that you’re using, so everything blends together.

Tile Collisions

GMS2 can handle collisions between instances and tiles directly, without the need to use instances of hidden collision object behind the tiles. This is very handy, since you no longer need to lay out a bunch of instances in a room, then tile over them, and as well it offers greater performance, because there’s much less overhead involved with tiles than there is with instances.

Tile Collisions are meant for solid, stationary objects, such as platforms in a side-scrolling game, or walls in a top-down game, not for handling all possible collisions in your game. You will still want to use normal collision events for handling collisions between different objects in the game.

I mention them here so you’re aware of it, but rather than make this article even longer, I recommend you watch the tutorial video by GMWolf, which explains one approach for how to make a tilemap collision system in GMS2. His approach is to create a separate, invisible tile layer for the collision tilemap, which separates collisions from the decorative tile layer, which allows you to have decorative tiles which have rough texture, for surfaces like tall grass or uneven rock. The collision checking is performed by the objects in your game, which check to see if their sprite’s collision mask overlaps the tiles in the collision map.

It’s a very good approach, but it is just one way to do it. In GMWolf’s demo, a player object is prevented from entering into the region covered by the collision map. But there may be other types of collision checking, for example to determine if the player has entered a region that does damage, or is overlapping a ladder tile. Each of these situations can be handled by some variation of this basic approach, using additional collision tilemaps for different types of collisions. For example, you could have a collision tilemap for solid platforms, another tilemap for ladders, one for water, one for slippery platforms, one for danger zones, etc., as many as needed. You can even use a collision tilemap to trigger events, such as to spawn or activate enemies when the player reaches a certain region of the game. There are many possibilities, so use your imagination.

Isometric and Hexagon tiling?

Because of GMS2’s requirement that tiles align to grid, you can’t lay out isometric or hexagonal tiles in a single tile layer. You’ll need to use a two layer approach, with the second layer offset horizontally and vertically, so that the two layers blend together.

This approach has its downsides. Having to switch back and forth between the two layers when laying them out in the room editor is a pain. And checking both layers for collisions doubles the amount of work the game needs to do at runtime for handling tile-based collisions.

I hope that something is done about these problems, I would like to see an “isometric grid” checkbox in the layer editor that allows aligning to a half-sized grid, or perhaps a new tile layer type for isometric tiles. But for now a two layer solution seems to be the best approach.

Update: YYG lead developer Mike Dailly recommends that we refer to the Isometric demo in GMS1.x for the recommended how to do Isometric games. (Hopefully a 2.x Isometric demo will be happening eventually).

GML move functions and Tiles

If you use the GML functions

move_bounce_all() move_bounce_solid()

move_contact_all() move_contact_solid()

move_outside_all() move_outside_solid()

these work with the collision mask of objects, not tiles. So they will not be helpful to you if you’re implementing a tile-based collision system.

However, you can write your own version of these functions to work with tiles; to do so you just need to understand how the built-in functions work, and how to detect collisions with tiles.

The function move_bounce simply reverses the hspeed and vspeed of the bouncing object:

So, first determine whether the tile collision is horizontal or vertical, then use:

<code>hspeed *= -1;
vspeed *= -1;</code>

to reverse the appropriate speed variable.

If the bbox_left or bbox_right is in collision, set hspeed *= -1. If the bbox_top or bbox_bottom is in collision, set vspeed *= -1.

The move_bounce functions also take a boolean argument to turn on “advanced” collisions, which use the collision mask to do precise checking. These are slower to calculate, and the manual recommends not to use advanced unless it’s necessary, but they otherwise work the same. If you wanted to, you could come up with a tile collision check that uses the sprite’s collision mask to check for collisions with tiles, and use that.

The move_contact and move_outside functions work by using a while loop to check for collisions with the calling object, moving it one pixel at a time until the while condition is satisfied. This is easy enough to implement in a tile-based system as well.

Further Reading/Videos

GameMaker Studio 2 impressions: importing from GMS1.4

YoYoGames announced a game jam to celebrate the GMS2 Beta a couple weeks ago, and I’ve decided to try to participate. I don’t have a lot of time to work on my project, but I wanted to do something to warm up for Ludum Dare 37 anyway, so this was just the excuse I needed.

Since I’m short on time, and am very interested to see how well the GMS1.4->2.0 import feature is, I decided to work on an update to my LD35 entry, Shape Struggle.

Import and Compatibility Report

First, I made a copy of my source code. Then I imported it into GMS2, which was easy. A few seconds later, the project had been converted.

Immediately, GMS2 presented me with a Compatibility Report which details all the conversions it had to make, and the report itself appears as a file in my project resource tree under Notes.

Mostly, the conversion report details involves replacing calls to obsolete functions with compatibility scripts that do the equivalent thing. In my case, the game converted nicely, and I was able to build and run it without any problems. But, I expect that if the conversion process ran into problems, perhaps a function call that it could not convert to GMS2, the Compatibility Report would make mention of this, and I might have some additional work to do before the project would run.

YYG’s documentation says that the compatibility scripts should NOT be messed with, they are not intended to be human editable, so I haven’t tried messing around with them, but it leaves me curious about what might happen if I did. Not being able to go into these functions and make changes makes me question how maintainable an imported project is; and if it is not very maintainable, it mostly defeats the purpose of importing and converting an old project.

I haven’t done enough yet to know whether this is a legitimate concern or not, but it’s a worry for now until I know more. It seems to me that in order to have complete control over your project code, you’ll eventually need to go through and re-write any code that makes calls to compatibility scripts, to do the equivalent thing in a manner which is completely native to the way GMS2 wants things done. In many cases, this could be a simple and straightforward transliteration of the old code into new code which eliminates deprecated functions. Depending on the project size, though, this could get very tedious.

Update: Reading the Help documentation more carefully, I misread. Only compatibility scripts starting with a double underscore should be left alone. From looking at the compatibility scripts that I have reviewed so far, it seems like a fairly straightforward wrapping — the old, deprecated function call is used to create a script of the same name, and the script calls the equivalent GMS2 GML function(s) needed to achieve the equivalent results. It should (in principle) be possible to replace the call to the compatibilty script with the code inside of the compatibility script, and thereby convert the project to pure GML2. This does not apply to __compatibility scripts, however. If your project converts with these, it may be necessary to rewrite your project a different way to make it pure GML2. Or you may be able to leave it alone and hope that you don’t need to maintain that part of the project.

Collision Mask problems

Although my project would build and run, the conversion process was not 100% perfect. I noticed that some objects seemed to be colliding in a way that indicated that there was a problem with their collision masks. Sure enough, when I went into the Sprite Editor to have a look, I found that the collision masks were all wrong.

Upon further investigation, I determined that the only type of collision mask that currently works in GMS2 is a rectangle mask. Diamond, Ellipse, Precise, and Precise Per Frame masks are available options, but when I use them none of them work — collisions do not register and no event happens.

Moreover, I found that the collision mask editor does not seem to draw the mask shapes very well. When I tried to draw an ellipse mask, the right and bottom edges of the ellipse were flattened. I spent a lot of time trying to re-draw them to fix this problem, but the editor just overrides what I try to draw, and there’s no way to override it.

What’s more, if I tried to adjust the Alpha Tolerance on the mask, it would reset the mask to fill the entire sprite.

Very likely these are bugs due to the software still being in Beta status, and will not be long-term issues with the import process once GMS2 is officially released from Beta. So, clearly, the Sprite Editor has some issues and a long way to go before it is ready for release, including features which apparently have yet to be implemented.

Image Editor WTFs (Woes To Fix)

I also had a lot of problems with getting used to the new Image Editor. Most of this is a matter of UI polish, but there’s so much that is familiar, yet different, in the Image Editor UI that it’s giving me a lot of frustration. I fully understand the need for a user interface to change over time, but I do not understand many of the changes that have been made with the Image Editor. It’s tough to even know how to formulate my questions about them.

I find that Select and Copy operations don’t behave like I’d expect them to — copy creates a new Brush in m brushes palette. I can’t simply paste the pixels I’ve selected, and expect them to appear in the image at the position where I copied them from. This makes aligning static elements appearing in different frames in an animation a huge pain. Unless I’m missing something. Yes, there’s onion skinning, which is a great feature to have, but I don’t want to have to do painstaking image placement, I want to simply paste and see the content draw in where it was in the frame where I copied it from.

There’s also no replace color tool in the new Image Editor. In the GMS1.x Image Editor, there used to be a handy tool that would replace all pixels in the image matching the color you clicked on with the color set in the tool. For example, you could turn all red pixels green, with a single click. This was a useful tool, and I miss it.

I find the Text Tool in the Image Editor to be in need of a great deal of additional refinement. Currently, it is not very usable. I need to be able to reposition the text after I’ve typed it, but before committing. Most modern graphics editors allow this, but in GMS2’s Image Editor, once you click, there doesn’t appear to be any way to move the text that you’ve started typing, which makes positioning it correctly largely a matter of guesswork. There’s also no font preview, so when you select from the list of font names, unless you’re already familiar with the font in question, you won’t know what it looks like until you start using it. Currently it’s a huge pain to use the Text Toolf.

Summing up

Still, overall I’m very pleased that the code conversion process resulted in a project that could compile and run without throwing errors. There are still issues that need to be resolved, namely problems with sprite collision masks not coming through correctly in the conversion. And a lingering question about how maintainable an imported project is, if we cannot touch the compatibility scripts. I expect in time, with some more experience with converting projects, it will become apparent what the best approach to take is with modifying a game after importing it from 1.4.

GameMaker Studio 2 impressions: Preferences

Looking at the Preferences in GameMaker Studio 2 for the IDE, we have a lot of them, and they are logically grouped, and well-organized. Most of the preferences allow customization of cosmetic look-and-feel and UI behavior options.

GMS2 Preferences

The IDE is very customizable. Most of the configurable preferences come pre-set to defaults that make sense, and I don’t see much need to change them, but it is good that you have the control to change them if it suits you. I’m sure YYG anticipated that users would have countless nitpicky complaints about anything in the IDE that they couldn’t configure, and so wisely saw fit to give us the option to make ourselves comfortable. These options are by and large very straightforward and fairly dry to drill through, so I don’t see the need to go through them in depth here. The online manual has all the detail you need.

One very notable change from 1.x does merit mention, however:

  • There is no longer a backup folder. The old “save the n most recent backups” method of source control that was the only option available in GM8.x dsays, and carried over to GMS1.x, is gone completely from GMS2. Using a real version control system, such as git, has long been available, and is what everyone should use, but this does make version backups a bit more advanced for complete newbies. Nevertheless, it is now the only way to go.
  • Source-control integration doesn’t appear to be enabled yet in the GMS2 beta, or if it is I haven’t found it, so if you do want to use version control during the beta, you will have to manage the repository management and file check-in externally to the IDE.

With regard to GMS2’s default preferences, I found very few things that I wanted to change. But there were a few that were important to me:

  • One of the changes that I made was to set “Disable IDE transition animations” to true. While the IDE transitions are nice eye candy, I prefer things to be as fast as possible, and watching the Object editor open up and seeing the Workspace scroll to its location is time wasted, to me. Others might find it helps them to remain visually oriented to leave the animations on.
  • Another was to enable “Automatically Reload Changed Files”. If I work on an sprite sheet using an outside editor, or edit a code file in notepad for some reason, I want those changes to be reflected in GMS2 automatically.
  • The other thing I did was disable showing the background image in workspaces. While pretty, I prefer a plain, uncluttered background of solid grey. You can also set a different background image if you so desire.

Skins

There are two IDE skins, Dark and Light. Dark is the default, and I find that I do prefer it. Light is a bit too light for me, as it has a pure white background, rather than a light grey.

If it were light grey, I might prefer it over the Dark skin. One thing I did like about the Light skin is the code editor’s colors for syntax highlighting, which feels a bit more muted than the bright, rainbow-y colors in the Dark theme.

Fortunately, these colors are all customizable individually, if you want to tune them.

Will we have the capability to author our own skins, or add additional skins? I don’t normally want to spend a lot of time on cosmetic customization, but it might be nice for some to have the capability.

Room for improvement

It would be nice if the code editor settings could be saved collectively, to a profile document, and then loaded, so that you could export them and share with other users, and so you could avoid having to carefully re-set every setting one at a time if you need to reinstall or something.

Indeed, it would be nice to save the entire IDE’s configuration options as a profile, so that I could then switch between different IDE profiles as desired, allowing me to rapidly reconfigure GMS2 for different types of projects, for example I might find that if I’m doing a game that uses 3D graphics, I would want different settings for the Room Editor than I would want to use in a 2D Isometric game, and so on. I can see myself wanting to set up specific settings for grid sizing and snapping in both the Room Editor and in the Image Editor for different types of projects. If I’m maintaining multiple projects, switching back and forth between them, this would be a must-have.

The preferences you set are stored in %appdata%\GameMakerStudio2\[user id]\local_settings.json — this file is human readable, easy to backup, edit, share, and swap if you so desire. This has to be done manually, for now, but it’s my hope that YYG would give us some UI in the GMS2 IDE to save/import/manage preferences as a profile.

Game Options and Configurations

Outside of the File>Preferences dialog, we also have Game Options and Configurations, which is where we find settings that are project-specific. If you’re not sure where to look for some setting, ask yourself: Am I trying to change something in the IDE, or in the game I’m building? If it’s the IDE that you need to change, look in File>Preferences. If it’s some game setting, look at the Options or Configurations branches of the project resources explorer.

A few important things to point out with the project specific Options and Configurations, especially for users coming from GMS1.x:

  1. Room_speed is no longer a thing in GMS2. Instead, there is a setting under Main Options – General, for Game Frames Per Second, which is a global replacement for the old per-room speed. The default is 30.
  2. The default draw color for the project is also configurable here. I’m used to setting this in GML using the function draw_set_color(). To be honest I don’t know why YYG decided to make this a setting, perhaps just to make it simple for Drag and Drop users to find it, but whatever the reason, it’s here.
  3. Interestingly, there are some timekeeping settings here, as well, that allow you to automatically keep track of the Project Start date, Project Use Time, and the DateTime when the Project Last Changed. Potentially, this could be used for billing users for the use of GMS2, if YYG decided to change their business model to something subscription-based, or metered. It’s also neat for if you are trying to track how many hours you have put into a project — although, the time tracked is simply how long GMS2 has been running, not necessarily how long you’ve been actively using it — if you went away for a break and left it up and running, the meter is still counting.
  4. You can find settings for project GUID and author here as well.

In addition to General options, there are also platform-specific options for your game project. In the GMS2 beta, we only get to see the ones for Windows, but I expect users who have purchased additional build targets will find options for each of them here.

For Windows, we can set our display name, project name, version number, company, copyright statement, Graphics options for interpolation, fullscreen, window and mouse cursor, and a few other options. These are much as they were in GMS1.x.

GameMaker Studio 2 impressions: IDE/UI

The biggest change in GMS2 is the new IDE. Completely re-coded and largely re-designed, it has some things in common with the old IDE, but overall it has been re-organized and updated in many ways.

GMS2 IDE

Every form in the UI is dockable, and can be moved around into whatever layout works best for you. This is great. Even better, you can pop out any part of the IDE into its own window, which means that you can spread your IDE out over a few display screens if your computer is set up this way. GMS1.x didn’t play nearly so well on multiple displays.

The resource tree is probably the most familiar element of the new IDE. By default, YYG have positioned it at the right side of the screen, presumably to follow other development environments such as Microsoft Visual Studio. It’s a simple matter to drag it and dock it to the left side of the window if you prefer the GMS1.x way.

Workspaces

Probably the biggest change to the IDE is the introduction of Workspaces. These are tabbed regions where you can dock different forms, so you can organize your project in a way that makes sense to you. For example, if you have a set of objects that are related to each other, you may want to set up a workspace where those objects can be arranged together. You can have as many workspaces as you wish, and you can name them something meaningful. This helps greatly to reduce clutter, and should improve productivity as you can leave workspaces set up and switch between them at will, without having to re-arrange windows and forms all the time.

I love the idea, but after using them for a few weeks, I’m convinced they have some serious issues that need to be addressed.

Workspaces can get very spread out, and this implies scrolling a lot. There is a new shortcut, ctrl+T, which will help you navigate the project more quickly than scrolling:

Another navigational shortcut is to middle-click on a resource name in the code editor. Doing this will take you to the resource’s editor window.

A major problem with Workspaces is that the Workspace region only fills a small section of the GMS2 window. Dockable regions at left, right, and bottom make the Workspaces area relatively small compared to the size of a maximized window.

Inside the Workspace area, you have (potentially) multiple Editors open. Certain Editors use Chain View (see below) which spreads out the sub-editors visually, in a way that takes up quite a bit of space, and will all but certainly require you to scroll, both vertically and horizontally, in order to see the whole thing. Vertical scrolling can be done by mouse wheel, but horizontal scrolling is done by CTRL+Clicking in an empty region of the workspace and dragging, which is slow and awkward.

Another problem is the Dockable areas in the GMS2 window. These do not update contextually according to which Workspace you’re in, or what Editor you’re in. If you open the Room Editor in one workspace, the Room Properties will appear in the Dockable area at the left side of the GMS2 window. Switching to another workspace and opening up a Sprite, the Room Properties are still there in the left Dock, where they are useless for the current context, and serve only to distract and confuse, and take up valuable screen real estate that could have been used to present the Sprite Editor UI and/or provide a larger portion of the screen to display the sprite canvas. Fixing this should be a simple matter of showing/hiding the appropriate panels in the Docks for the current context you’re working in. Whichever editor has focus, its Dockable panels should be the only UI visible (apart from the Menu bar and Resource tree).

Maximizing an Editor should make it fill out the entire visible area of the Workspace. And whenever an editor has focus, its entire form should fit on one screen/workspace area without the need to scroll the workspace. I’m fine with a scroll bar within an Editor, for example if I’m in a really long code file in the Code Editor, or if I’m zoomed way in on an Image in the Image Editor. But I don’t want to have to scroll about the Workspace just so I can see from one end of an Editor to the other. I really don’t want to scroll around looking for different editors that are floating about in the Workspace. I would much prefer a tabbed interface where I can easily switch between tabs. Workspaces could be better implemented as groups of related tabs.

The worst part is when you go to open a code editor. The code editor is used in three situations: 1) when working on a Script resource; 2) when coding Events in the Object Editor, and 3) when editing Room Creation code in the Room editor. In the Object and Room Editor use cases, the Code Editor is chained to its parent editor. The code editor is almost never entirely visible in the visible area of the Workspace pane, meaning that very often the right and bottom of the Code Editor will be out of frame, and necessitate scrolling to see. So you’ll often be unable to see the ends of your longer lines of code, and the helpful code tips that appear at the status bar area in the bottom of the Code Editor will also be out of view. This is awful, and needs to be addressed. Code Editing is a primary activity in GMS2, and when doing it, the Code Editor deserves a maximized view, with minimal distractions surrounding it.

I believe the issues with Workspaces are fixable, but as they are now, they’re a bit of a disaster. I find that they make it easier to get lost, and I spend a lot of time flipping between them and scrolling, hoping to find what I’m looking for. They navigational shortcuts may be helpful, but they don’t come second nature to me, and so far I find that they’re so unfamiliar that I have to shift my mental focus form the programming task I’m working on to “how do I navigate to the bloody resource I need to look at?” which takes me out of “The Zone.” They make a 2048×1152 screen seem small and cramped.

Chain view

Another major new feature is called “chain view”. This is a new view for forms that have several sub-forms. For example, the Object editor has a main form that allows you to set the Object’s properties, and then if you add Events to an Object, these are managed in a sub-form that is chained to the main form. From there, Actions are in a sub-form that chains off of the Events sub-form, with a separate tab for each Event’s actions. This keeps related forms together, making it easier to see relationships between different open windows, and reduces clutter. They do spread out more, since the sub-forms do not overlap each other, and this takes some getting used to.

Menu and Tool bar

One thing that can be a little weird, and takes some getting used to, is the Menu bar. Depending on what form you have focus on, the Menus that appear in the main window’s menu bar will change.

For example, if you’re in the Image Editor, the main window will receive some Image Editor menus, to the right of the Help menu, and not in the Image Editor form.

Open the Image Editor, and some additional menus will appear in the menu bar.

Open the Image Editor, and some additional menus will appear in the menu bar.

This felt weird to me, at first, when the Image Editor is sharing the main window with whatever other forms you have open — I expected all controls specific to the Image Editor to be contained within the Image Editor’s form. However, if you break the Image Editor out of the main window and into its own window, it feels right.

Quick import your Asset files

Importing sound and image files into GMS2 is easier than ever. Just drag a file icon, or even a folder, into the resource tree, and the file will automatically be imported into the project, and a resource created for it.

Nice!

There is a lot more to cover in the IDE, but rather than make this article too long, I will be covering them separately in future articles focusing on the various Editors: Sprite, Image, Object, Room, etc.

Keyboard shortcuts

I won’t list them all (look in the manual, under Quick Start) but these are some of the most important/useful shortcuts, which everyone should know and use.

  • F5 – build and run the project.
  • Ctrl+T – Opens the Goto window to search the workspaces.
  • F2 – In the resource tree, rename the selected resource.
  • Ctrl+K – In the code editor, comments out the selected text. (Ctrl+Shift+K to un-comment.)
  • F2 – In the code editor, opens the code snippets menu.

GameMaker Studio 2 impressions: Pricing

[Rather than posting a long article that takes days to organize, I’m opting to do short-form posts that focus on a narrow aspect of the new GameMaker. This means more frequent, smaller posts, which will hopefully be more timely and more digestable for readers. For more articles in this series, just follow the GameMaker Studio 2 tag.]

This is all very early to talk about, and I recognize this, but a lot of people are talking about how much GameMaker Studio 2 will cost.

YoYoGames have put out their “prospective” pricing out on their website:

Currently, it looks like this:

GMS2 pricing GMS2 upgrade pricing

Analysis

First, I am very happy that YYG did not try to go with a subscription-based model with their pricing. This shows that they have listened to their users, nearly all of whom despise the idea of paying a subscription on an ongoing basis for software. For hobbyists and occasional users, it’s not a good deal to pay for a subscription if they’re not going to use it all the time and really get the value out of it.

I find that the costs are basically in line with what I was expecting. Sure, Master Collection is a few more dollars than it was when they released it 6 years ago, but guess what, that was 6 years ago. Stuff gets more expensive as time goes on. That’s how it’s always been

The upgrade discounts are reasonable. 40%-50% off is not bad for an upgrade.

I do question why certain modules are so much more expensive than others. I would rather see the Android/iOS bundle and HTML5 bundle cost the same as the Desktop bundle. The UWP an Console bundles, I can understand somewhat more, as those build targets are of prime interest to commercial game developers who, it’s understood, make money from the games they produce, and it makes sense that they should be willing to pay more for those tools, and if by paying more for them, it helps subsidize the other users, then great.

I’m sad to see no free edition, apart from the Trial edition. Depending on the limits of Trial edition, it could still be viable for hobbyist developers, but it sounds like it’s more intended as an evaluation edition to allow people to decide whether they want to pay for a real edition that can actually build games.

Community Chatter

So, predictably, most people who are talking about it are complaining that the cost is too much. That’s a subjective judgement, and of course everyone wants to pay as little as possible, and get everything for free if that were possible somehow.

Some people think that all software should be free (as in beer). Mostly, these people just don’t have enough money to afford to pay for software. They spend as much money as they have on just getting a new computer, and then they can’t believe that the cost of the software they need to run can more than double the price of the system. I sympathize, because when I was younger I was definitely one of those people, and if it wasn’t for deep discounts on student licenses, bundles that came with new hardware, and so on, I couldn’t have afforded to buy much software.

Fortunately there has always been a lot of good quality, low-cost or free software available, as well. Different products are aimed at different markets. Companies that sell to big businesses charge a lot of money for their software, in part because they can, but also because they need to, because in order to develop they need big budgets and a lot of employees. But some software is the product of a single developer, who doesn’t have all the overhead that a large company has, and they can afford to sell for a cheaper price, or even give away if they feel like it. Additionally, there are developers who feel that they get paid to program, not to sell copies of software, and they can get funded to do a project that someone who has money needs, but then turn around and give away the software as a public good, and as long as the cost of development is met by a few, everyone benefits from it.

GameMaker’s history started out with a single developer, who sold the software very cheaply at first, and always had a free edition, and a paid edition that cost $20-25. Later, as GameMaker grew, it became too much for one person to maintain, and he sold it to YoYoGames, who are a larger company, and who therefore have more overhead and need to charge more in order to cover their costs, pay salaries, continue R&D and support, and turn a profit.

YoYoGames initially raised prices, from $25 to $40, around the time of GM8, and users howled that it was too much. And we can see in retrospect what a bargain it was, and how childish people who complained back then were. GM:S has been considerably more expensive, anywhere from $70-200, although they have continued to provide a free edition. YoYoGames can’t continue to exist if they just give away software for nothing.

And YYG charge more for extra GM:S features, up to $800 for their “Master Collection” bundle which includes everything, including stuff they haven’t come up with yet, later for no additional cost. $800 is very expensive for most people, and unless you’re making money with the software, or are wealthy enough not to care, it’s probably not for you. It’s aimed at companies that can look at the purchase of software as a capital investment that is part of the cost of doing business. And if by charging more to these customers, it enables YoYo to keep costs lower for individuals, students, and hobbyists who otherwise couldn’t afford to buy what YoYo would have to sell it for, I think it benefits everyone.

Maybe low-budget amateurs will gripe about not being able to get all the features, but they do get something.

You also have to compare GameMaker against what else is out there. And there’s a lot else out there. There’s stuff that’s completely free, like vi + gcc, which is very high quality and extremely powerful, but that isn’t necessarily the best option for everyone, because it requires a huge amount of learning and knowledge and work to create games with. In more direct competition are tools that are geared specifically toward game development, such as Unity3D (which is more expensive, and uses a subscription model now) and Construct2, and free tools such as Godot, Love, and Defold, which may not be as well supported, well documented, or easy to use. And many others besides these. The bottom line is, if you don’t like GameMaker because of what it costs, you have plenty of options to choose from, many of which are very good.

So for people who are complaining that it’s too much, I don’t have much sympathy for you. It’s very likely that at various points YYG will have sale events, as they’ve had in the past. If you don’t want to pay the release day price, you can probably wait a year or two and hit a Steam sale or a Humble Store sale and get it at a pretty good discount then. By that time, it will be even better, with more polish and more features. In the meantime, if you have GM:S1.x you can continue use it, it will continue to receive support and bugfixes, and 2.x will be ready for you when you decide you can afford it.

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