Tag: YoYoGames

Visual theory of the Z3D Engine

Editor’s note: [I originally wrote this as an Appendix to the documentation for Z3D Engine, but I think it’s interesting enough to deserve a slightly wider audience.]

I have to preface this section by saying that I have no idea what I’m talking about here, but am trying to learn.  I like math, but I didn’t go to school primarily for it, and that was decades ago. I haven’t studied 3D geometry, or optics, or computer graphics in any formal sense. I’m figuring this out more or less by myself, learning as I teach myself.

So if someone who knows more than I do wants to explain this stuff better than I can, I’d love to hear from you. You can send me an email at the Contact page, or tweet at me @csanyk, or just comment on this article

Thanks in advance!

I’ve called Z3D Engine a “Fake 3D” engine and “2.5D” engine, because those are fairly vague terms that I don’t have to worry about being right about. Someone asked me what type of view it is, and I couldn’t tell them. That bothered me, so I started reading a bit. I still don’t really know for sure.

or·tho·graph·ic pro·jec·tion
ˌôrTHəˈɡrafik prəˈjekSHən/
noun

  1. a method of projection in which an object is depicted or a surface mapped using parallel lines to project its shape onto a plane.
    • a drawing or map made using orthographic projection.

I think this is sortof close to what Z3D is… maybe.  What I can tell you about Z3D is this:  You can see the full front side and the full top side of (most) objects.  These do not foreshorten.

fore·short·en
fôrˈSHôrtn,fərˈSHôrtn/
verb
gerund or present participle: foreshortening

  1. portray or show (an object or view) as closer than it is or as having less depth or distance, as an effect of perspective or the angle of vision.
  2. “seen from the road, the mountain is greatly foreshortened”

The blue rectangle that represents the “player” in the demo is intended to show the player as a side view only, with no pixels in the sprite representing the top surface of the player. This is because I’m intending Z3D to be used for games drawn in a visual style similar to the top-down Legend of Zelda games, and in those games, no matter which way Link is facing, you can only see pixels in his sprite that represent his side, and nothing that represents the top of him, even though you’re viewing most of the rest of the terrain in the room from this weird view where you can see both the top and side of things like blocks and chests, and for other things like bushes you can only see the side.

Things in Z3D do not appear to get smaller as they recede into the background, or get bigger as they get closer to the foreground.  As well, the tops of objects (that have tops), the top is drawn 1 visual pixel “deep” (in the Y-dimension) for every pixel of distance.

This doesn’t look correct, strictly speaking; if you’re looking for “correct” visuals this engine likely isn’t for you.  But it is visually easy to understand for the player, and it is very simple.

What I’m doing in Z3D Engine is showing the top of everything (that has a top) as though you’re looking at it’s top from a vantage point that is exactly perpendicular to the top, while at the same time you’re also seeing the side of everything as though you’re looking at the side from a vantage point that is exactly perpendicular to the side.  This is an impossible perspective in real life, but it works in 2D graphics that are trying to create a sort of “fake” 3D look, which is what Z3D does.

Imagine you’re looking at this cube:

Cube

At most, assuming the cube is opaque, you can see only three faces of the cube from any given vantage point outside the cube; the other three faces are occluded on the other side of the cube.

Cube with occluded faces

(That image above is properly called Isometric, by the way. Z3D is not isometric).

If you were looking at the cube from a vantage point where you were perpendicular to one of the faces, you could only see that one face, and it would look like a square:

Square

(Since the faces of this cube are all nondescript, we can’t tell if we’re looking at the side or the top of the cube.)

Now, if it were possible to be at a vantage point that is exactly perpendicular to the both the side and the top of the cube simultaneously, the cube would look like this:

Flattened Bi-perspective cube

This is weird and wrong, but yet it is easy to understand, and it turns out that it is also very easy to compute the position and movement along 3 dimensional axes if you allow this wrong way of drawing.  This is view is (or perhaps is similar to) a method of visualization known as a oblique projection.

More properly, if you were positioned at a vantage point somewhere between the two points that are perfectly perpendicular to the top and side faces, the cube would look like this:

Cube in perspective

Here, obviously, we are looking at the cube mostly from the side, but our eye is slightly above, so we can see the top of the cube as well.  But notice, since we are not viewing the top face of the cube from a perpendicular vantage point, it does not appear to be a square any longer — it foreshortens, so that the far end of the top of the cube appears narrower than the closer end.

This is perhaps obvious, because we’re using to seeing it, because we see it every day, because that’s what real life looks like.  But it’s because we see this every day that we take it for granted, and when we have to explicitly understand what’s going on visually with geometry, we have to unpack a lot of assumptions and intuitions that we don’t normally think consciously about.

If we were to put our eye at the exact middle point between the points that are perpendicular to the side face and the top face, the cube should look to us like this:

Cube at 45°

Notice that both the bottom of the side face and the far edge of the top face are foreshortened due to perspective.

This is how they “should” look in a “correct” 3D graphics system, but Z3D “cheats” to show both the side and top faces without doing any foreshortening, which means that it can draw an instance as it moves through any of the three dimensions using extremely simple math.

Visually moving 1 pixel left or right is always done at a hspeed of -1 or 1, regardless of whether the object is near (at a high y position) or far away (at a low y position).  Likewise, moving near or far is also always done at a rate of one distance pixel per apparent visual pixel. And moving up and down in the z-dimension is also always done at a rate of 1 distance pixel per apparent visual pixel.

If we wanted to draw more convincingly realistic 3D graphics, we need to understand what’s going on with the eye, with perspective, and things at a distance.

Eye viewing the cube at a 45° angle

The same object viewed in Z3D’s perspective is something like this:

Eye looking at Z3D rendering

(We’ve omitted the occluded faces on the back end of the cube relative to the viewer, for simplicity.)

These two “apparent” perspectives are combined at the point where the player’s real eye is, resulting in something like this fake-3D perspective:

Z3D Flattened Orthographic bi-perspective rendering

So, in conclusion I’m not 100% sure that my terminology is correct, but I think we can call this perspective “flattened orthographic bi-perspective” or perhaps “oblique projection”.

(From this, we can begin to see how a corrected view might be possible, using trigonometry to calculate the amount of foreshortening/skew a given position in the Z3D space would need in order to appear correct for a single-POV perspective.  But this is something well beyond what I am planning to do with the engine; if you wanted this, you would be far better off creating your game with a real 3D engine.)

It gets weirder when you realize that for certain objects, such as the player, we’re going to draw only the side view, meaning that the player will be drawn a flat 2D representation in a fake 3D space.  Yet the player’s “footprint” collision box will likely have some y-dimension height to it.

GMS2 alternative skins

So it’s little over a year since YoYoGames released the public beta for GameMaker Studio 2.

For a lot of the past year, I’ve been sticking with GMS1.4 in order to work on a project that isn’t yet ready to migrate to GMS2, but I’m also trying to use GMS2 when I can, to keep up to date with it and to get used to the changes. Overall, GMS2 is definitely better, and from a language standpoint GML is only slightly different, and what differences they’ve made to the language are all improvements.

On the IDE side, though, I constantly find myself wishing that YYG had made a less radical redesign of the user interface. I’ve had a number of issues with the new UI, from the way the new workspaces and chain-view windows work to the fact that saving works differently. But that’s not what I’m here to talk about today. (I’ll probably touch on those in future articles at some point.)

GMS2 Dark theme

The default Dark theme for GMS2.

One of the things that I haven’t been able to get used to with GMS2’s new IDE is the new Dark theme. For years, GameMaker has opted for a default IDE theme that uses light text on a dark background, and with GMS2, YoYoGames took this concept to its logical extreme, opting for a black background and white-on-black icons and white label text everywhere.

GMS1 GMgreen theme

The default theme for GMS1, GMgreen, was likewise dark.

I didn’t mind the dark grey background of the window panes of GMS1.x, and the resource tree’s pane used black text on a white background, and the code editor’s dark grey background with colorful, syntax-highlighted text, and the toolbas with their colored icons. While it’s not the standard Windows theme colors, it’s usable and reasonably attractive, and if you’re the sort of person who prefers to look at light text on a dark background, it’s quite good.

And to be fair, GMS1’s IDE definitely had its failings. Certain windows were “modal“, meaning that you could not switch focus to any other part of the UI when that window is open, when there was no good reason for them to be. And the user interface for the marketplace My Library had terrible performance-killing bugs with large manifests, which makes it all but useless.

But with GMS2, I feel the Dark theme has gone overboard with being too dark, particularly with the toolbar button icons. Being white-on-black only just makes them harder to read and harder to distinguish from one another, and this slows me down when I try to use GMS2, and this is frustrating, since the whole point of the tool is to make me more productive.

There has also always been a light theme that YoYoGames provides “out of the box” with GameMaker, in case you’re the sort of person who prefers to look at dark text on a white background.

GMS2 light theme

The light theme for GMS2, appeals to users who prefer reading dark text on a light background, but I still prefer something with a bit more color and contrast, and sharper outlines so I can easily differentiate between different parts of the IDE UI.

There are certain colors in the syntax highlighting that contrast poorly against a white background. These should be fixed, but YoYo’s attitude about it seems to be “you can fix it, so fix it yourself.” So they provide preferences that allow you to set the colors yourself if you want to. So, great, you can have exactly the color scheme you want in the code editor, isn’t that wonderful?

The problem with this is, if you want to take screen captures of your IDE and share them with others, your non-standard code highlighting will be apparent to your audience, and may hinder in their ability to parse the text. It’s hardly surprising that we become dependent on the syntax highlighting we see all the time, to the point that once we get used to it, someone else’s color scheme will look “wrong” to us and become more of a hindrance than an assist.

If you want a full makeover for your IDE, you have to go beyond the syntax highlighting colors, and create your own IDE theme. Doing so will give you full control over the appearance of the entire IDE. The downside is that YYG doesn’t support anything but their own themes, so if their themeing templates ever change, breaking your custom theme, you’ll have to fix it. Also, it’s possible that installing updates can either a) overwrite the theme directory, so keep a backup of your theme files. Fun! So instead of spending all your time doing game development, you can take a slice of your time hacking the IDE to do things that arguably the vendor should have gotten right, or at least implemented better so that you wouldn’t have such a temptation. Hopefully this doesn’t happen regularly.

While I like tools that can be customized, I prefer to focus on developing games, not customizing the tools that make games. Too much customizing turns me from a game developer into a game development tool developer. While the skillsets overlap, I really want to maximize the time I put into being a game developer.

Naturally, this has head to some third parties releasing their themes, sharing them with the user community, thus saving you from having to do all the work yourself.

GMS2 VS blue custom theme

Based on the default Windows theme colors and Microsoft VisualStudio, this custom theme called VS blue, is excellent. Very readable, and easy on the eyes.

I really like this Visual Studio-inspired theme. The missing option that YYG did not provide in addition to their Light and Dark themes was a “native Windows” theme, and this is pretty much that. In fact, I would love it if YoYo would embrace this theme, give the developer who created it, iluvfuz, a reward, and make it an officially supported theme. This would erase 100% of the snarkiness in this article.

It’s very similar to the GM8 theme for GMS1.x, in that it uses mostly system colors for the window chrome. The GM8 theme was my favorite on GMS1.x, so of course the VS blue custom theme is my favorite for GMS2.

GMS1 GM8 theme

The GM8 theme for GMS1.x was my preferred way to theme my IDE, because it mostly followed the Windows standard theme colors.

 

12-month license moves GameMaker Studio toward SaaS business model

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

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

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

YoYoGames: GameMaker Studio 1.4 sunset annonced for 2018

Today, YoYoGames announced that GameMakerStudio 1.4 support will sunset in 2018.

Over the next 14 months, until 31 July 2018, we will continue to mend major issues and support platform updates for Studio 1.4. After the 14-month period, Studio 1.4 will still function normally however, we cannot guarantee it will remain compatible with every platform’s future updates.

While this day has been expected to come since the release of the 2.0 beta back in November 2016, this is quite a bit sooner than expected. YoYoGames support for the 8.x version of GameMaker continued for years after GameMakerStudio 1.0 was released, only ceasing very recently.

It’s not entirely bad for the company to focus itself on development and support for the latest version of their product, but it’s unfortunate for users who for whatever reason are not able to move to the new version so quickly. This also makes it all the more important that GMS2 be as good as it can be. Hopefully, by focusing on the latest version exclusively, this will enable YYG to develop it even faster, adding new features, fixing bugs, and addressing UX issues with the brand new IDE.

YoYoGames: Major GameMaker roadmap announcement

YoYoGames posted a major, detailed update to their roadmap for GameMaker Studio 2 this morning. Seemingly not an April Fool’s joke.

The announcement contains lots of exciting, long-awaited new features and improvements, but not much detail as yet about when most of these might be forthcoming. And the usual disclaimers that these are plans, not promises.

There’s even more at the link above, but here’s what I think about these in particular: (more…)

GameMaker Studio 2.0 officially released, no longer in Beta

Yesterday, YoYoGames announced that GameMaker Studio 2.0 is out of beta.

Perhaps not coincidentally, I’ve noticed a bit of an uptick in purchases of my assets on the GameMaker Marketplace in recent days.

I have not yet updated any of my Marketplace assets for GMS2, but I believe that most of them should still work, although they may require the use of compatibility scripts generated by GMS2 on import in order to run in GMS2.

If you happen to have downloaded any of my assets, and find an issue with it, I am easy to reach for technical support.

The best way to reach me would be to send a message through the asset page on the GameMaker Marketplace. My email address is also in the documentation for the asset. And you can also reach me via the Contact page on this website.

YoYoGames announces license portability for GMS2

YoYoGames have announced in an update to their GameMaker Studio 2 FAQ that the beta for GMS2 for Mac OS X will be coming out in the near future. No exact date has been given yet. But their announcement also mentions that the Mac edition will be available to users of GMS2 who have already purchased a license for the Windows edition, at no extra charge. In other words, purchasing a license will entitle you to run GMS2 on whichever platform you prefer, and you don’t need to decide that at purchase time, and you can change your mind at any time, or even switch between OS X and Windows boxes.

GMS2: License FAQ

This seems to align with the GMS2 license model, which ties your GMS2 license to your YoYo Account, not your computer.

I think this is great for longtime users who wish to get off of Windows PCs, and are willing to switch to Mac. I only wish that YoYoGames had plans to port GMS2 to Linux, as had briefly been floated back in 2014.

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.

GameMaker Studio 2 licensing is de facto subscription-based

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

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

GMS2: license expired

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

GMS2 authentication failed

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

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

All’s well that ends well, right?

Implications

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Subscription-based GameMaker: someday

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

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

GMS2 time in IDE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evolution of the status quo?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wider ramifications

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

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

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

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

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

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