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Anna Anthropy on Game Maker and game making: Who gets to make videogames?

Anna Anthropy on Game Maker and game making: Who gets to make videogames?

August 17, 2011

From Rise of the Videogame Zinesters author Anna Anthropy:

The important people in the world of videogames right now are the hobbyists and dabblers: the kids and adults who will never be professional game developers, but who, if given the means, will gladly make games. They contribute their voices to an artform that’s desperately in need of new voices: the voice of commercial games is the homogeneous voice of marketers trying to peddle the same game about space marines to the same audience.

Since the first computers took their place in engineering schools, only programmers have had the technical training and knowledge needed to create digital games – videogames. But in the past decade, this has changed: a variety of game-making tools intended for people without programming and professional game-making experience have opened this art form up to everyone. One of the most instrumental among these is called Game Maker.

Game Maker was created by Dutch professor Mark Overmars for his game-making class at Utrecht University. Soon afterward, he realized his game-making tool might be valuable to people outside his classroom and released it on the Internet. He was right: many people who might never otherwise have the means to make games found Game Maker to be a gateway. I make my living making games, and Game Maker was my first stepping stone. Other game artists like Mark “messhof” Essen and Jonatan “cactus” Soderstrom got their start in Game Maker too, and overall, Game Maker has given the hobbyists and dabblers on which the future of games depend a voice they wouldn’t otherwise have.

Unfortunately, in 2007 Mark Overmars sold Game Maker to a Scottish corporation called YoYo Games that has steadily mismanaged one of the most liberating creative tools of our time. Each new release of Game Maker seems to carry fewer and fewer practical improvements – in its eighth iteration, Game Maker still requires its users to navigate a pile of windows and subwindows that all have to be closed before doing anything else – and a higher and higher price tag.

There are two versions of Game Maker: the free (“Lite”) version and the pay (“Pro”) version. The pay version has a few extra features, but the major difference is that the free version puts a “made in Game Maker” banner on the loading screen. That’s it. Hobbyists can still make and distribute their creations for free. A fee of USD25 (20 when I first registered Game Maker) removes the banner. This is a good compromise, I think.

But access to the world’s most accessible game creation tool is about to change. To coincide with a price jump to USD40 for the Pro version, YoYo Games is planning to brand every game made in the free version with an obnoxious “made in Game Maker” watermark. On every single screen. Imagine if every drawing you did had a “made with Faber pencils” or a “made in Crayola” emblem stamped garishly over it before you could show it to friends or put it on the refrigerator.

What bigger deterrent to a budding non-professional game maker – a kid or hobbyist – could there be than a choice between paying forty bucks and having her game-making software deliberately make her very first game ugly?

My friend Allen O. said of the “Game Maker pricing racket”: “I am at present working for a camp that’s helping ‘at risk’ (actually, read ‘neglected, or poor’) kids learn to make games. The program exists to fulfill a government requirement that failing middle-school kids are required to pass a supplement in order to graduate to high school. These kids who are seen as ‘problem students’ are of course excited by the opportunity to express themselves making games, and are incredibly attentive and motivated. Telling each group that the tool we’ve been using now costs $40 if they’d like to continue at home is goddamn heartbreaking.”

Alternatives like Stencyl are slowly emerging, but meanwhile what could still be the most valuable tool for transforming videogame creation from the exclusive province of major corporations is being held hostage by a corporation whose only interest is the bottom line. YoYo Games has the opportunity to act as stewards for a piece of software that can change the boundaries of who’s allowed to make videogames. Instead, they’re merely trying to gouge hobbyists and dabblers for as much as they can. The owners of Game Maker seem to have chosen pocket change over real change.

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