Making games is easier than ever — even if it’s still difficult to make good games. One of the tools that tries to enable creators to craft modern 2D games with relative ease, however, is GameMaker Studio from software firm YoYo Games. That software kit is now 17 years old, and the folks at YoYo are ready to look back over their accomplishments even as the company continues work on GameMaker Studio 2.
YoYo created GameMaker Studio in 1999. At that time, YoYo called it Animo, and it pitched it as a a way for developers to easily create 2D animations. Since then, a number of developers have used the toolkit to build their games. Highlights include the gravitational physics puzzler Orbit and the gorgeous action adventure Hyper Light Drifter. Since anyone can download GameMaker, Unreal, Unity, and a number of other engines and tools, I asked YoYo general manager James Cox about how his company’s software fits into the democratization of game development.
“Being the creators of GamerMaker: Studio, it’s easy to feel that we’re obligated to speak high praise of the engine’s history,” said Cox. “But, frankly, we feel the engine’s rich past basically speaks for itself.”
Cox points to how so many indie creators have embraced the tool. He points to recent hits like Undertale, Spelunky, Nuclear Throne, and Hotline Miami. Undertale is a beloved deconstruction of the RPG genre and fandom. Spelunky is, for many, the ideal roguelike platformer. Nuclear Throne is a popular roguelike top-down shooter. And Hotline Miami is a stylish puzzle shooter. And each of those games are more than just fine examples of how developers can use GameMaker Studio — they’re crucial texts to the indie canon.
“GameMaker has always been a staple among the indie community,” said Cox. “It has helped to produce some of the movement’s most defining moments.”
Serving a master or two
YoYo has always positioned GameMaker Studio as an entry-level tool for anyone who wants to make their first game. At the same time, it has made it clear that it capable and robust enough to support a seasoned studio making its third or fourth release on Steam. But that dynamic pulls YoYo toward simplicity on the one side and power on the other, and Cox says that is something his team is always mindful of.
“We’re really in a constant state of balancing acts when it comes to keeping our engine up-to-date,” he said. “There’s only so much time in a day, you know? Deciding between adding new features, basic maintenance and upkeep, and adjusting to our customers’ feedback can definitely be tough, but it’s all a matter of prioritization.”
Cox explained that YoYo typically chooses what to work on by keeping developers in the loop. But the team also pays attention to what its developers are doing through its extension marketplace that enables creators to make and sell add-ons for the engine. YoYo can respond to those needs or provide support for a specifically popular extension if it needs to.
But no matter what the overseers of GameMaker Studio decide to do, they have to keep two kinds of developers in mind at all times.
“Whenever we add new features to our engines, we try to assess how each will affect workflow for both experts and novices,” said Cox. “An example of this is our Drag and Drop — or DnD — system that allows developers to quickly translate desired actions into functional code. There’s hardly an easier way for people to pick-up-and-create and, while this may seem like an oversimplification of game development, users can actually see what code was written to achieve an action.”
To ensure something like DnD is simultaneously simple and powerful, YoYo developed the GameMaker Language (GML) to keep full control over how the each drag-and-drop action interfaces with the code.
“It is definitely a balancing act though,” said Cox. “We don’t want to alienate professionals with oversimplification. Instead, for them, we just focus on improving workflow and project management by allowing for real-time updates, easy cross-platform development, etc.”
YoYo’s goal for GameMaker Studio
YoYo spends a lot of energy and effort on keeping GameMaker Studio accessible, and Cox says that reputation is at least getting would-be developers interested enough to at least download the software.
“Anecdotally, we do have quite a large segment of the community that comes into GameMaker: Studio with nothing but a guided interest in making a game,” said Cox. “This is why we do our best to provide support – one of the biggest hurdles of game development is finding comprehensible help – and assist novice devs on a path to making their first game.”
And while YoYo isn’t sure how many first-time developers end up making and releasing a playable game, he says that the toolkit — especially in its latest form — is helping people learn about making video games.
“GameMaker Studio 2 has absolutely achieved this goal, “said Cox. “We spent years compiling feedback from a mix of experts and novice developers to help build the tools necessary to support all levels of experience. Many of our engine’s unique features ensure it’s a viable tool for those just learning the basics of game development. Its cheap cost removes many people’s financial barrier-to-entry, too.”
GameMaker Studio 2 is free to try, but then developers can pay for the licenses to render games for different platforms at different price levels. Those packages range from targeting Windows, Mac, and Linux for a $100 one-time fee to targeting PS4 or Xbox One at $800 for 12 months.. You can also get an all-platforms Ultimate version for $1,500 for 12 months.
Those that move on
Finally, YoYo does recognize that it can’t be the only engine for a lot of creators.
“While we do have plenty of developers that solely use GameMaker: Studio for their second or third games, Vlambeer and Messhof are great examples of this, plenty also move on,” said Cox. “Because we’re completely focused on 2D games, anyone aspiring to make something in three-dimensions is essentially forced to leave.”
And Cox says that his team is OK with that … mostly.
“On one hand, we’re just happy to have a part in a game developer’s journey,” he explained. “Seriously, assisting these devs in any way, no matter how small or large, is a huge honor. On the other hand, of course we want people to keep using GameMaker: Studio. And while we’re always sad to see community members move on to other engines, we’re still just ecstatic to be a part of their story – it’s a bittersweet moment.”
GameMaker Studio is likely going to continue making more moments — bittersweet or otherwise — for the foreseeable future. As games like Undertale and Hotline Miami inspire more developers to start making games, the next breakout hit could hit at anytime. Just don’t look to Cox for a hint on what’s the next Nuclear Throne.
“Oh man, that’s a tough one,” he said. “Part of GameMaker’s beauty is that developers often make games that come from seemingly nowhere. These small, scrappy projects often have no marketing or PR budgets, which makes their sudden emergence even more exciting. Who the hell could have predicted Undertale would garner so much attention and praise? Or that Nidhogg would completely dominate everyone’s local multiplayer fantasies? Basically, there’s no way we even want to predict the next breakout hit — we’d much rather be surprised.”