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The Original Game-Maker

Recreational Software Designs' Game-Maker

Recreational Software Designs' Game-Maker

Long before Mark Overmars’ popular design tool, Recreational Software Designs‘ Game-Maker (note the hyphen) opened the horizons of Shareware-era PC gamers, forged friendships and dial-up communities, and cluttered the upload directories of bulletin boards as far flung as Russia and South America. There were several dedicated BBSes, including the official RSD board in Kennebunkport, Maine. For those outside of calling range, there was always the USPS and 3-1/2″ floppies. And then development ceased, and slowly Game-Maker faded.

Game Maker was first released around 1992, as a set of VGA mode DOS utilities tied together with a text mode selection menu. For every game produced, the main program file, containing all of the important code, was the same. To distinguish one game from the next, the program file would call on a .gam file, in which the user would compile all of his content through a rather elegant system of brainstorming lines and form fields. The rest of the tools — tile editors, character and monster editors, a map editor, a sound editor, and so on — served to develop that content.

In retrospect it was kind of brilliant; from the program’s perspective all of the important information that made a game unique — visuals, sound, controls, rules, design, structure — was simple window dressing, to call in and process like so many documents. And design was nearly that easy.

Let’s say you had two maps, Map1 and Map2. In your .gam file you would click twice to plop down two boxes. Then you would draw a line from the starting point (the title menu, functionally identical in every game) to the first box, a line from the first box to the second box, and a probably a line from the second box to the ending point (the “game over” sequence, if any). In the first box, select your first map file; select a tile set; select a monster, character, and sound set. Define an entry and an exit point on the map. Do similarly for box 2. Click on the starting point, and add a title graphic or animation; change the text at will. Do similarly for the ending point. And then export.

There’s your game. Simple, but functional. The title menu leads to the entry point in Map1; the exit to Map1 leads to the entry to Map2; the exit to Map2 leads to the game over screen. It’s all just data, fed into the generic program file.

Over the years and several versions, Game-Maker grew more sophisticated and polished. The bugs were minimized. It began to support Sound Blaster cards, and .fli animations. It became possible to build bigger, more complex games, and to truss up your old games with nicer wrappers. I believe the final release was version 3.0, which went out on CD — a major, impressive move at the time. This was around 1995 or 1996. Full disclosure, that release was packed with my own demo games.

My involvement with Game-Maker began with an ad in the back of Videogames & Computer Entertainment, a short blurb about creating my own 256-color VGA PC games, and a shot of a rather intriguing box, covered with inscrutable snapshots suggesting all manner of game worlds just beyond my reach, yet as close as my imagination. Looking back, I notice I had no sense of level design. And good lord were my games derivative. Still, what can you do.

I soon developed a relationship with RSD. I was young, incautious, and probably bewildering to all considered, but they tolerated my phone calls and letters. The New Hampshire-based company was comprised of two brothers, Gregory and Oliver Jr., and their father, Oliver Stone. No relation. Gregory was the main programmer, and his brother handled design, music, and some extra programming. Their father ran the business, and was my main contact. All through high school I beta tested upcoming releases, suggested features, shared new ways of subverting the design tools.

After that final release, RSD kind of dissolved. From what I recall, the brothers went off to college. Which in retrospect would suggest that they developed Game-Maker and held down its development cycle while still in high school themselves. Maybe I’m misremembering; they might have been undergrads. The way I remember it, they stopped development when they went off to school, leaving their father to see the business off. Last I heard, they still intended to develop Game-Maker during breaks. I guess that never happened, though. And today, despite the once-thriving design community, you can hardly find a thing about the program. There isn’t even a Wikipedia entry, whereas there is an individual Wiki page for each of Johnny Depp’s toes. [citation needed]

What may have killed Game-Maker in the end was a certain lack of flexibility to the main program on which all the resources hinged. Although by the final release the scrolling had improved tremendously, the screen’s tracking of on-screen avatars was always strange at best. The character never quite stayed centered; the screen would move in fits and jerks. Sprites flickered and disappeared at the edges of screen, and had real problems with bounding boxes.

By 1996, several features also began to sting for their absence. The only supported music format was weird and proprietary; there was no custom music editor, and it was difficult to convert anything to the required format. I kept suggesting they add .mod or .s3m support, though by then I think the brothers had other life concerns. I also kept asking for text fields. If the games could have supported dialog and exposition, there was a whole extra level of complexity just waiting.

The inventory system was very limited, as was control mapping. If you wanted to allow a character to jump up, left, and right, you had to assign each animation a different key. Characters and monsters could only be of a certain size, and the interaction amongst all in-game elements was never quite flexible enough.

There were other issues of professionalism and tidiness. Every Game-Maker game had essentially the same title menu, with the same options in the same typeface. Also, rather than archiving and compressing content, the exporting tool merely dumped resource files into a directory, for end users and hackers to pick over at will. If you had a written epilogue in a text file, it simply copied the text file into the target directory, for anyone to read.

Still, even the big problems and omissions are tiny compared to the improvements that Game-Maker had seen over its short history. And even in its final form — heck, even in its earliest forms — Game-Maker was a welcoming, powerful, and rather brilliant design tool, well deserving a place in indie game history.

Over the next few weeks, I intend to note some of the better games and game designers to arise from the Game-Maker community. For now, you can watch a playthrough of a fairly typical Game-Maker game. Several of the elements (such as the music) are stock, and familiar to anyone who has used the program. Despite the simple visuals, the game’s designer pulled some rather clever technical and conceptual tricks. His inline notes also illustrate a lot of the program’s quirks.