Remembering Game Maker

Posted 2021-12-19.

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"Playing computer games is fun. But it is actually more fun to design your own computer games and let other people play them." - Designing Games with Game Maker (version 5.0), Mark Overmars


I'd say Game Maker needs no introduction because of how long it's been around for, but maybe it's not as well-known as I believe it to be, despite that.

According to its creator Mark Overmars, Game Maker is a program that allows you to make exciting computer games without the need to write a single line of code. It features a drag-and-drop system for actions that allows you to program games in a visual manner, but it also included a very nice C-like scripting language called GML or Game Maker Language, in which the most complex projects are written. Game Maker first appeared in late 1999 and it's been updated every couple years ever since.

But does a product that's current, that's still sold and used right now, need to be remembered? I'd say yes. At least, the "classic versions" before Studio do. Compared to the versions of Game Maker we all used back in the day, you'd be hard-pressed to recognize Game Maker Studio 2 as coming from the same lineage!

A kid who likes old games

In the early to mid 2000s, I liked to play Sega Genesis games in whatever inaccurate emulators were available at the time. I have very vivid memories of the lava in the boss arena of Lava Reef Act 2 (from Sonic & Knuckles) not displaying as anything but a glitchy mess in KGen98, an emulator for DOS. Later, I remember exchanging CDs with thousands of ROMs and better emulators with my classmates. By this time, I knew exactly what a ROM was, and I wanted more. When our household got broadband I could finally browse the internet freely, and most importantly get a lot of ROMs. This would later be the reason I would come up with my name: I wanted to join an emulation forum to download a game, and everyone had japanese-esque names, so mine had to be cidoku.

But I digress. It was before that that I stumbled upon one of those sketchy software download sites that were so popular (I think it was Softonic) and saw a program called "Game Maker". My English was basic back then, so I thought "maker" meant something like "mixer". Either the program's description or screenshots mentioned "rooms", and I thought it was referring to game ROMs. So in my little mind, I believed that Game Maker was a magical ROM mixer program that would create new games for me. Excited, I downloaded Game Maker 5.3a and it looked something like this:

The main screen of Game Maker 5.3a

The first thing I tried to do was to drop a few ROMs in the rooms folder. It didn't work. Did I notice my mistake at that point? Well, I was disappointed, but I kept the program installed anyway, and eventually I would open it again to see what it was about.

Figuring it out

I don't think I understood anything about how it worked until I found a few places that hosted resources related to Sonic fangames (some are even still up!). There were some tutorials for my version of Game Maker and I downloaded them to see what they were about. There was one tutorial I liked over the others, and I would edit it in every way possible until it was unrecognizable.

I spent most of my days with Game Maker editing random tutorials I found online in the same way, rarely doing my own original stuff from scratch. Using the templates I found, I made many incomplete games that entertained me for a while. Platformers, presentations making fun of my teachers, Windows simulators, games featuring Hips Don't Lie by Shakira when it was new, etc. When I got tired of fooling around, I tried to make more original stuff, and then games completely from scratch. The first one was, I think, a platformer game with a ball on a vertically scrolling level in which you couldn't touch the borders. A while later I more-or-less recreated the Warioware engine, and added a few microgames until I had no more ideas left. I think Game Maker 8 was already out when I started working on my Earthbound Engine, around 2011. In 2015 and after a thousand rewrites I finished it and started working on my ill-fated Metro Stardust project for a few years. That was the last thing I did with Game Maker.

I think I skipped version 6 back then. It was somewhat compatible with 5.x, but it broke all my projects, so I didn't like it. It was version 7 that got me to upgrade. It still broke the older 5.x files but I was more patient and willing to fix them, and I was doing newer stuff anyway. I spent a lot of time with GM7, since it actually felt like an upgrade: It added extensions, which allowed people to distribute archives with scripts and DLLs to extend Game Maker, and alpha channel support for graphics (before this Game Maker had 1-bit transparency; the transparent color was the color of the pixel at the top-left of the image). The following had nothing to do with my usage of the program, but it was the first version made in collaboration with a company called Yoyogames, which still does Game Maker to this day (I always hid the Yoyogames banner they added to the IDE).

Serious business

Before Game Maker 5, the program was free and funded by donations. Then 5.x asked for an optional registration fee, and by version 6 it already felt like Mark Overmars was trying to make Game Maker a SUPER SERIOUS tool, that being the reason why he sought for Yoyogames' help for GM7. GM7 was the first version that added actual DRM to the registration process with a thing called Softwrap; everyone hated it because it was so unstable it was easier to crack the damn thing! In fact, I cracked it.

Yoyogames did a lot of cool things for Game Maker. For example, they made a plugin that let you play Game Maker games in your browser that worked alongside their game store where everyone could upload games for others to play and download. I don't remember when it was discontinued, but I don't think anyone disliked it. The plugin was not the most stable thing in the world though.

Anyway. Before the release of version 8 Yoyogames wanted to commit to the thought of Game Maker having evolved and become more advanced and professional and they ran a contest to design a logo with a new, "more modern" design. For some reason the classic hammer on a ball was starting to look "tired" to them:

The logo of Game Maker versions 5 to 7, a red ball with a sideways hammer on it

Two months later, in an incredible display of universally agreed upon bad taste, this was the winner:

A big smiley face with its mouth open and looking up inside a gear

Nobody in the community could believe it. Some were so against it they even made a petition just for Yoyogames to reconsider their crimes against good design. In an equally incredible change of heart, they did ANOTHER vote (they really needed to release GM8 soon!) with 19 variations of the "winner" and eventually version 8 shipped with a relatively nicer new logo. It didn't really show that Game Maker was used to build things as explicitly as a literal hammer, but at least it wasn't offensively bad. The author of the smiley logo kept the prize money anyway, I bet!

The final logo of Game Maker 8 looks like Pacman.

Why classic Game Maker was great

With all this in mind, it feels in retrospect that Mark Overmars had achieved his goal. However, we can't look at everything with the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia:

Why Game Maker is awful

None of this stopped the developers of lots of well known big games that were done in Game Maker. Hotline Miami and the original version of Spelunky come to mind and were done in classic Game Maker. Undertale was done in Studio 1, and I don't even want to think about how much Toby Fox must have struggled with that. Hyper Princess Pitch is a little known game made in Game Maker 5 (which didn't even have tab completion in the code editor) in 2011 WAY into the 8.x era.

In memoriam

More than once in my life I got pissed off at how stupid some things were with Game Maker and felt like it needed to be thrown off a cliff (more with Studio than the others though...). I distinctly remember the awful time I had when I shared a very early version of my Earthbound Engine with someone else so they could use it on their project and it didn't work on their computer, though it was perfectly functional on mine. I eventually found out it was a quirk of Game Maker and fixed it, but, man, was it embarrassing! Perhaps it was because of the aforementioned "suppress all errors" option or something of the sort. Eventually, it was the slowness of Studio 1 made me look for something else. In this case, I switched to Godot, although I rarely do games these days and haven't done anything of substance with it yet, and I don't know if I ever will.

But, thinking back... well, I think classic Game Maker was enjoyable. And if so many games were made by it, then it couldn't have been so awful. To put it some way, Game Maker meant to me what Flash meant to others 2. As a creator, that is. I didn't play too many Game Maker games made by others (to be honest it's not obvious when a game is made in Game Maker); I played more Flash games by far!

Speaking of Flash games and Game Maker games I didn't play, I'd like to end this retrospective with a nice project by the same guys that do the Flashpoint archive. instance_archive(); is an archive of classic Game Maker games, some patched to run on modern systems. Game Maker was never taken very seriously by too many people, so isn't it nice that there's at least one group willing to archive what it was able to create?

Did you ever use Game Maker in the 2000s? If so, why not reinstall it and relive it? Make a short game, like in the good old days. Maybe I'll do the same with 5.3a, one of these mornings. Game Maker is dead, long live Game Maker.

Comments? Tell me what you think in the guestbook.

1Of course, I'm aware that it's the norm in development for compiling to take longer as the project grows. However, Game Maker Studio 1 likes to save and backup your files every time you try to run your game. This process can take a very long time as Game Maker verifies and writes every single file in the project and THEN it starts the compilation procedure.

2Although I think that if I could go back in time and talk to my ten-year-old self, I would convince him to download Flash and not Game Maker...