The last time we talked to YoYo Games was in April, one year after the launch of GameMaker Studio 2 (GMS 2), and CEO James Cox told us the firm had “another laundry list of features” that were not public yet.
He certainly wasn’t lying, as in the following six months YoYo Games unveiled its publishing division, launched the Switch license open beta and announced its new Sequences feature.
“Last year was our most successful ever,” senior marketing manager Andrew Turner tells MCV. “GameMaker Studio 2, because it’s an entirely new codebase, allows us to do more things than we were able to do with GameMaker Studio 1. As a consequence we’ve introduced a lot of new things that we weren’t able to previously do.”
The Switch license, which was unveiled as an open beta in early August (the full version released earlier this October) has been very well received and YoYo Games has seen an increase in people signing up for GameMaker since the announcement.
“There’s been a definite interest from the indie community in switching [to GameMaker] now we have all three major consoles. No question at all,” Cox says, with Turner adding: “We’ve heard of people that we approved for the Switch open beta actually having a game running on a Switch device within a couple of hours so it’s been really good. The feedback loop we had seen on social media has been really appreciative of the stability of it and the capability of the export that we have.”
On top of “being able to sell more copies of GameMaker,” Cox sees a lot of opportunities in finally having the Switch license.
“I think one of the big things is the stories that come out of it,” he says. “Developers who’ve been working on their passion projects – many of them are Nintendo fans and they want to get their passion project onto a Nintendo Switch. Stepping into another engine might be too big a step for them or getting someone else to port it might be too big, so now that we’ve completed our side of the bargain so to speak, they can do this so much more easily.
“I think it’s somewhat aspirational as well particularly for those who are using it in schools. We do stuff at universities and colleges but we do stuff at schools as well. So with 11, 12-year olds. A lot of them are still very much in the Nintendo bracket. And so they start using GameMaker at school after they’ve come off Scratch and in the back of their mind it’s like: ‘Oh, maybe one day I can put my game on to a Switch’. I think that’s almost an emotional feeling. It’s obviously business as well, for all of us concerned, but it’s an important feeling as well.”
ARTISTS LEAD THE WAY
We chat a bit more about the work YoYo Games does in schools, which would deserve an article in itself, with Turner saying: “We’re very much about creating game makers.” Which leads us to talk about Sequences, GMS 2’s new feature that will make game creation even easier, allowing artists to manipulate pixel graphics to add motion, without needing any expertise.
CTO Russell Kay takes over to explain the new feature in more details: “This is a technology we’re working on internally that we’re starting to show to our larger developers. In GameMaker traditionally all the graphics and all the things that we see on screen come from pixel art. And that’s great, it’s allowed for so many fantastic games to be made. But it is tricky actually manipulating these things, you need quite skilled people. What we’ve added here is the ability to take graphics and add extra life to them without having to go and change every pixel that you actually want to move around.
“So you can put together motions and animations and you can actually animate anything. And the whole point is it’s an easy to use tool that artists can use. You don’t have to be very technical to actually go and do this. It should be familiar to a lot people, people that we show it to immediately go: ‘Oh yeah it’s like Premiere’. But what you’re actually doing here is manipulating this sort of GamerMaker art data in the background and it gives a very powerful tool for being able to layer different things on top of each other.”
Kay shows us a few example, a ghost moving around, a heart rotating on itself – simple elements but having motion instantly adds a bit of extra life to them.
“We want to be able to layer those on top of each other,” Kay continues. “We’ve added the ability for you to embed each of those and to enlarge the animation so you could start to see how you could put together a game with this. And the next step that we’re doing is allowing you to add logic to all this, so you’ll actually be able to add code. That way if this thing for instance gets triggered here, then this thing will happen, which triggers that thing and animation across layers. You get variations very quickly within levels, very simply.”
Cox is keen to emphasise that no code is needed at its simplest level. He adds that YoYo Games is looking to next year for a full release of Sequences, with Kay saying the team wants to do “a lot of testing with the userbase.” A closed alpha and then a beta are planned before the full release.
“We will wait until it’s ready,” Cox emphasises. “We don’t have any big deadline. The thing that we like about it is for a lot of engines the programmer has to lead the way. With GameMaker, with the drag-and-drop, designers can lead the way as well. Now when we get [Sequences] added, it would mean an artist could be in the engine leading the way. So it gives people the options and the choices. We hope that, down at the lower level, it means more people will be able to make the games they want to make and learn and start, and then at the higher level, it means more autonomy and power to all the people in the teams.”
Outside of GMS 2’s growth and its new features, the other big thing that happened at YoYo Games was the announcement of its publishing arm in May.
“Since we announced the publishing division, we’ve received a lot of submissions and we’ve been going through them and talking to developers,” says publishing manager Chris Trewartha, adding that they don’t have projects to announce just yet, arguing that “this isn’t something for which we set a timeline. We’re starting those discussions just now. You’ve got to remember all these developers are independent and maybe don’t have as clear a schedule.”
Cox takes over, keen to explain how YoYo Games as a publisher will be able to make a difference for developers.
“We think we’re very different from regular indie publishers, certainly from the bigger publishers,” he starts. “We’re only taking GameMaker games for starters so it’s part of our ecosystem. We hope that GameMaker helps people learn to become developers, to become successful. Then the next step is: ‘How could we help some of those, who need it, to be discovered?’ Because that is a real challenge. The golden days of Steam are over. You need to be publicising yourself, getting influencers involved. Whatever it is that’s good about your game and you as a developer, you need to amplify that. And that’s where we think we can really help. We have a huge community we can reach. We have the marketing muscle when we need it as well. We’re backed by a big corporation. So the money is there to invest when we find those great games.”
He adds that they asked themselves whether they wanted a “YoYo Games publishing brand.” But that they ultimately decided against it.
“We felt it was about just helping these individual developers or teams. It’s not about us. [The] real criteria is that each game, big or small, just needs to have something special about it. So no clones. But that special thing could be almost anything.”
We ask Cox if he would consider opening the publishing division to games made using another engine one day: “Currently no, we would not,” he answers. “Because it’s about the GameMaker community and the GameMaker tool, and that positive sort of ecosystem feeding on itself in a good way. You can never say never but I think not.”
THE LUXURY OF PATIENCE
YoYo Games has the expertise and the tools to grow that publishing division, and that definitely sets it apart.
“We’ve got a lot of experience with the hardware. Everyone here has been it in the games industry for a long time,” Cox says, pointing at Kay, Trewartha and Turner around him. “We have all made games as well as making tools. So we’ve got a lot of experience with the game side. And those that either ask for advice, help or feedback, where we think ‘Okay we could offer some’, we can have those very open conversations with them. And we’re not dictating to these developers. We’re trying to explain things that we think will make their games better. Or they might explain to us: ‘Actually I need this feature in GameMaker that will make my game better’,” he laughs. “We can learn from each other. We don’t know everything, they don’t know everything, it’s a two-way process. So we think that puts us in somewhat of a unique position. Within the developer community, nobody else holds that position. And we can use that in a positive way.”
Being an established force in the industry and having contributed to the success of so many games (Minit, Hyper Light Drifter, Undertale, Hotline Miami, Nuclear Throne and many, many more were made on GameMaker) gives YoYo other advantages, Cox continues.
“We have very good contacts with the stores, we can help other people through submission,” he starts. “We have a large community out there. And they love to make games but they also love to play games as well. So that’s also something we can take advantage of. Having good business tools gives us somewhat the luxury of patience. Because we don’t have to have a hit out by like November or we’re bust. We’re trying to get the right games and we’re bringing them out at the right time. And if we have a bit of a quiet time, that’s fine. We’re still going with the GameMaker business.”
He concludes, talking to developers directly with a reassuring smile: “As a publisher, it’s also a big advantage that we are very stable. So if you sign up with us we’ll still be here in 12 months time when you finish your game. Or if you need another three months we’ll still be here. Don’t worry. Don’t panic.”