One thing that Game-Maker serves to underline is the sheer talent that goes into game design. Especially by 1995 standards, Game-Maker makes it simple to whip up some graphics and sound resources, click a few flags, slap them together, and call it a game. Depending on your tools and the time you invest, you can get your game looking rather snazzy. Depending on the thoroughness with which you read the manual and study the program’s quirks, you can pull some clever tricks with Game-Maker’s engine. Yet a videogame is more than a bunch of sprites and levels and samples.
As Game-Maker’s own structure suggests, to a large extent a game’s content is just window dressing for the main executable to call up and sell itself to its audience. Unless there’s something more fundamental to justify and connect that information, it’s all just data. Facts. It doesn’t have a perspective; it make an argument. It doesn’t communicate a coherent idea.
When Game-Maker appeared, I was in high school. Since at least fifth grade I had obsessed with the idea of game development; in retrospect, I had no clue what I was doing. The whole concept of holistic design was alien to me. I got distracted by my tools, and somehow thought using Deluxe Paint for all the visuals innately made the game look great and feel professional. I thought elaborate sound editors and full-screen animation and morphing tools gave me that extra zing. Not only did I design the whole game myself; I made all these supplementary elements. I began to study music, thinking if I could just write my own soundtracks then I would have all the bases covered and be a renaissance teen. It was a matter of weird pride, and the more I did myself the more I was assured of my cleverness.
I was so distracted and so sure of my mastery that I didn’t notice that my games were just an array of things, poured into a bottle of pre-packaged programming. My whole mentality was wrong. The way I came at design, I tended to do one of three things. Either:
a) I came up with a character, usually something from my own life (a toy, a neighbor) onto which I projected a personality, a backstory, and host of motivations
b) I thought of a game that I had once been very fond of, and so knew better than my multiplication tables
c) or I found a neat engine trick, from which I extrapolated a whole conceit.
Once I had that central object, as far as I was concerned it was all downhill. And I was so very impatient to finish a game. If I had set on a character, I would meticulously draw and animate the sprite; moves and attacks would develop from my idea of the character’s personality and what I could accomplish in Game-Maker. And then, fundamentally, my work was done. I would throw together some background tiles and sketch a few maps. I would design some random monsters to dot around the maps. Maybe while I was doing that I would think of a couple of neat twists to set the game apart.
Basically, though, the game was a canvas for the character to run around. It didn’t matter if the character’s moves were all justified or useful. It barely mattered if a level suited the moves — if platforms were spaced well for jumping, say. It barely mattered if the monsters served a purpose or were placed strategically, or even if the player could hit or avoid them. Case in point: Peach the Lobster.
One of my later highlights was a character game that, in its presentation, borrowed shamelessly from Sonic the Hedgehog. I don’t think there was any rational thought process involved; I just started animating an upright lobster, and then noticed I hadn’t ripped off Sega for a while. So conceptually I was distracted by two separate things: creating and animating the hero, and replicating the tone and furniture of Sega’s original. From there I was further distracted by the practicalities of my paint and sound and animation programs, and just fussing with Game-Maker itself to fit everything together.
Although the surplus of inspiration led to one of my more ambitious projects, the game is perhaps even more muddled than usual. Most of the elements have no reason to be there, and they rarely work together. Never mind why the lobster, and why the Sonic aesthetic, and why the antagonists are all ducks. Why is the character’s only defense a projectile that shoots at chest height, if every single enemy comes up only to the character’s waist? Why is the level structured such that the player can progress only by exploiting unlisted flaws in the game’s engine? The game has no regard for the player, and, never mind expressing an idea, it doesn’t care if it all works or not.
Once I had my basic elements — the character and the background tiles — my only concern was in finishing the game as quickly as I could. This was my basic modus operandi: find an excuse for a game, whip it together, and move on. It’s almost that I cared more about having something to stamp my name on — about the reality of a finished product — than about the actual process of design. Hell, again, I had no idea what design was. To my mind, a game consisted of a character, a premise, and some stuff for the character to do. It was simple. So I kept pumping them out.
I think in my head it was okay to quote from older games because they had been out for years — maybe up to five or ten years at that point — and nobody played them anymore. If anyone noticed, they would probably take it as a tribute — hey, that was cool. They remembered that game too. And here I replicated it for them, except a little bit different. Isn’t that great?
At the time I was so proud of Peach. I had designed it under contract with Game-Maker’s developers, Recreational Software Designs. They were readying a new version of the software, and had asked me to contribute a few sample games. After I mailed in a copy, I sat and waited. And waited, and waited. Eventually they called. For a while they avoided the subject, then, hesitating a bit, they said that the game was good but that what had really impressed them was a throwaway game, The Patchwork Heart. They said they had contemplated ignoring Peach and just raving about the latter game, to see how I reacted, but had decided against it.
At the time I didn’t really understand. I had tossed off Patchwork Heart in an afternoon. Most of the graphical and sound resources were either stock or simple, and heavily reused within the game. The game was short, not particularly difficult, and had no obvious twist or gimmick or charm to it. It was just a simple game based entirely around a set of mechanics.
Not long after, I became annoyed with the limited music support in Game-Maker, and the lack of several other features. I chose to put off any more major developments until the next software revision, which I understood was right around the corner. If I felt the urge for design, I would spend no longer than an afternoon and would generally just whip up a character and a few levels to traverse. At one point I even drew a stick figure.
It’s now clear to me that these tiny, zero-effort games are technically some of my best work. For one thing, my only real concern was with level design. I had a simple character with simple moves, and the bulk of my effort went into simple levels to suit those moves. Freed from the concerns of being clever, or trying to capture some object, all I was left with was the immediate relationship of mechanics with the environment. Ping, pong.
It’s really easy to get distracted by what you think you want.