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GameMaker at 20 – “Sometimes, something small and nameless is way more impressive than one of the big game titles”

GameMaker creator Mark Overmars

Since the first release of GameMaker on November 15 1999, the game creation tool has become an industry stalwart. From inauspicious beginnings, the engine has grown to become the go-to for fledgling game developers, and is even frequently used by more established indie game studios. As a result, GameMaker has become hugely beneficial to the indie game development scene, having been used in the production of titles such as Mossmouth’s Spelunky, Messhof’s Nidhogg and Toby Fox’s Undertale.

The program was originally designed as an educational tool for kids, using its simple drag and drop interface to make game development more accessible for young children. In fact, as GameMaker creator Mark Overmars explains, the program was inspired by a very different educational tool: “I was particularly interested in creating software that was very easy to use and would spark creativity,” says Overmars. “My first product along these lines was Drawing for Children, where my challenge was to create an interface to a drawing program for young children that could not yet read. After that I wrote Drape, which was a programmable drawing program. You composed programs using drag-and-drop that would make drawings, and it has actually been used in many schools. But I realized that kids wanted more than drawing. So I decided to create something with which kids could create games, using my own children as the first target market – though they never used it much.” Thankfully, his brood weren’t to prove typical.

With these humble beginnings, it would have been hard to imagine that GameMaker would go on to be the industry staple that it is today. Overmars himself certainly had no larger ambitions for it at the time. “It was just a hobby project, with no commercial ideas whatsoever. I was really surprised when it started to become so popular. I guess the name helped a lot – people were searching for something to make games with and ended up with GameMaker. Of course, it helped that it was completely free, but it did take a couple of years – and many improved versions – before this popularity started to happen. If I had started with the goal to make something very popular, I would probably have given up at some stage.”

Of course, while the project’s original goal was to encourage creativity in children – in the hopes of inspiring young people to consider studying computer science, GameMaker has since grown far beyond that. While the program has become a vital tool for first-time and independent game developers, GameMaker’s parent YoYo Games has continued its legacy as an educational tool, as YoYo Games general manager Stuart Poole explains: “Education has always been a big part of the heart and soul of GameMaker,” says Poole. “GameMaker is now used in thousands of schools across the globe, teaching children between the ages of 12 to 17 how to code, and in universities as an art medium and a rapid development tool.

“We surveyed 150 of our educators this year, and over 74 per cent found GameMaker to be somewhat effective or better at improving learning engagement. Individual confidence, planning and improving the student/teacher bond all scored over 90 per cent. Our role as a formal product for supporting the teaching of coding, taking students from drag and drop to coding is proving very effective and we are delighted to see the rapid growth that we’ve experienced over recent years.” Of course, GameMaker’s educational capabilities aren’t limited to just the classroom. The program’s simple drag-and-drop features has allowed it to become a stepping stone for would-be game developers of all ages, making game development more accessible than ever before. To further help in this effort, YoYo Games’ website features a number of both video and written tutorials to help first-time developers get started.

YoYo Games general manager Stuart Poole

“Over 1,000 people every single day sign-up to use GameMaker for the first time,” says Poole, “and they are overwhelmingly beginners. We’re really proud to not only have responsibility for cultivating the next generation of game developers, game designers and artists, but to have maintained it for 20 years. The focus in schools on STEM learning has provoked a huge interest in using game design to teach children how to code, and this coincided with the launch of GameMaker Studio 2, over the last three years we have seen annual growth rates of over 50 per cent in our education program. We now have thousands of schools across the globe using GameMaker. Primarily because it’s a fun way to learn for both teachers and students alike.”

YoYo Games isn’t just content to look back at GameMaker’s 20 year history. The tool is continuing to expand and evolve – perhaps their biggest coming change is the introduction of Sequences, which will allow artists to manipulate pixel graphics to add motion, without the need for technical expertise. “We will be launching Sequences soon. It will be in Open Beta by the end of the year and available in Spring, and that is going to be a massive leap forward for supporting creative design in GameMaker. We are putting a lot of effort into the top and bottom of GameMaker, and by that we mean making our advanced functionality easy to use for beginners, while providing our top-end developers with the tools to more quickly make amazing 2D games.”

The company hopes that features like Sequences will help both small and larger developers. By lowering the technical skill required will help first-time developers to produce games, while larger, more experienced teams will benefit from the ensuing autonomy it allows for their team to work on other tasks. Alongside its uses for education, its this democratisation of game development that has made GameMaker the success it is today. Not only has the tool grown beyond what could have been imagined back in 1999, but it has also allowed for an explosion in indie game development. GameMaker has levelled the playing field for a number of first-time developers, introducing artists to a space they might have otherwise been unable to enter.

For all the many indie developers that have made their start in GameMaker though, its creator has stuck to his roots as an educator. When we ask for some of his favourite GameMaker titles, Overmars replies:“It is impossible to point to games I have been most impressed with. Sometimes, something small and nameless, created by an eight year old, is way more impressive than one of the big game titles.”

About Chris Wallace

Chris is MCV/DEVELOP's staff writer, joining the team after graduating from Cardiff University with a Master's degree in Magazine Journalism. He can regrettably be found on Twitter at @wallacec42, where he mostly explores his obsession with the Life is Strange series, for which he refuses to apologise.

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