Tag: PlayTech

YoYoGames: “No roadmap for GM:S. Our Hands Are Tied!”

For a long time, YoYoGames used to publish a roadmap, showing their plan for the future of GameMaker: Studio. Interested parties could look and see what new features were in the works.

Since PlayTech took them over, they’ve taken this information offline.

In a recent Forum conversation, YoYoGames employees Shaun Spalding and Mike Dailly explained that while they wish they could communicate the future of the product, their hands are tied, and when they can talk about things like upcoming release dates and new features, they will.

This is very disappointing to serious GameMaker Studio users. A roadmap is an important document for developers. Software development is all about maintainability. In order to write software that is maintainable, it’s important to know how the tools you are using will be changing over time. Knowing the future plans of the tools can help developers avoid wasting time using features that will be deprecated and removed in the future, or avoid wasting time writing their own implementation of a feature that is planned in an upcoming version. A roadmap also prevents the repeated asking of the same questions, “when is [X] coming out?” or “I suggest you implement [already planned feature].” A roadmap is part of the conversation that happens between a software developer and the users, and not having one harms both the company and its customers.

Most software engineering projects intended to be consumed by other developers have a roadmap. Other game engine developers such as Unity3D and Godot Engine have public roadmaps.

It is my hope that PlayTech will change their policies surrounding information of their products, and allow their employees to engage in open conversation about their products. In the meantime, concerned GameMaker users should speak out and make their voices heard.

Follow Up to GameMaker: Exodus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

GameMaker: Exodus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hamstrung by legacy cruft

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

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

Promises undelivered and unfulfilled

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

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

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

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

Acquisition: What is it good for? Absolutely Nothing!

Say it again!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another door opens

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

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

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

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