The Making and Unmaking of a Game-Maker Maker

  • Reading time:2 mins read

The decade between 1995 and 2005 was a dark time for the bedroom developer. With the introduction of the Web and the death of dial-up boards, the Shareware scene had crashed. With the introduction of 3D cards and the growing popularity of the home PC, development became complex and expensive. There was never a harder time for an amateur game designer to get started and build an audience.

That silent decade need not have happened. In 1991, a company called Recreational Software Designs released its own game design suite for MS-DOS. RSD’s Game-Maker supported VGA graphics, four-way scrolling, Sound Blaster music and effects, full-screen animations, large maps, and fully animated characters and monsters. Its editing tools were powerful and intuitive, allowing quick turnaround of sprites and background tiles and easy assembly into full games.

RSD ceased development just before the Web caught on, and right on the verge of a radical reinvention. The company never built an online presence, and Game-Maker failed to make much of an impression on the Web – leaving a big void for Mark Overmars to fill.

We caught up with lead programmer G. Andrew Stone, to talk about Game-Maker and the place that it holds in indie game history.

( Read the original post at Gamasutra )

Dan Froelich and his Yamaha FM chip

  • Reading time:1 mins read

If I were smart, years ago I would have tracked down Dan Froelich and asked him what he used to write his funky CMF soundtracks for Jill of the Jungle, Solar Winds, Xargon, and other early Epic MegaGames stuff. Turns out I no longer need to, as he has written about his experience on his website. It seems he tracked his early game music in AdLib Visual Composer, a program that spoke to AdLib’s Yamaha FM chip (not dissimilar from the Sega Genesis chip) using a combination of piano rolls and FM instrument banks. Those elements were later crunched together into .CMF files for use with early Sound Blaster cards. To give a rare peek at the raw AdLib sound, Froelich has included clips of his Jill of the Jungle score, exported into ProTools. Cool beans!

So for anyone who wants to write early 1990s shareware music, that’s how the experts do it. Or rather, how an expert did it. I’m sure there are other methods.

( Read the original post at insert credit )

The Hands of Time

  • Reading time:4 mins read

by Eric-Jon Rössel Tairne

I keep noticing the parallels between the modern indie scene and the old shareware boom from the early 1990s. For those who missed that train, in the period after the Great Crash of 1984 and before the PC was powerful enough to run much more than King’s Quest, there was a sort of DIY phase in the Western game industry. Even the biggest PC developers, like Sierra and Origin, were a bit provincial, and in the arcades Atari Games and Midway were struggling just to be noticed amongst the flood of Japanese imports — so from a mainstream perspective there was slim opportunity for a young designer.

Much as with modern indie games, the answer was to skirt the mainstream, and distribute games through dial-up bulletin boards and word-of-mouth. There are a few differences, though. For one, the shareware boom happened in an era when one or two or a small handful of people could still produce a major, mainstream game. It was getting rarer, but for context the average Sega Genesis game had only half a dozen key staff. So for aspiring game designers, it was not unreasonable to look at shareware as a sort of a potential back door into the industry. Indeed, that’s where we get id Software and Epic Games.

Another thing is that around the turn of the ’90s the PC was sort of a blank slate. 256-color VGA was still fairly new, and Sound Blaster digital sound was a revelation. A 33-Mhz processor was a firecracker, and extended RAM was a luxury. So suiting the geography, most PC games were either simulations or slow-paced adventure games. When Carmack and Romero found a technique for smooth scrolling, it was a breakthrough worth pitching to Nintendo. Yet much as Atari was uninterested in Nintendo’s hardware, Nintendo saw little potential in the PC game market.

With mainstream developers slow to take advantage of the platform, it was also not unfathomable for a handful of clever young coders to be at the forefront of technology and design. So it is that within about five to seven years a bunch of industry outsider nobodies dragged the platform, and along with it the entire medium, up by its bootstraps. The explosion in graphical accelerators comes entirely out of do-it-yourself designers trying to make a name for themselves, trying to be just like the big guys who they admired in the 1980s.

This, of course, created a culture clash. The PC gamers who had been there the whole time reacted poorly to the insolence and the brashness and the overall style of these upstarts. They liked PC games just fine the way they are. The PC wasn’t just an open-platform game console; it naturally lent itself to a different, slower and deeper, psychological space. And the aesthetic that these newcomers were injecting — sure, it was making the PC more popular for gaming. Yet in its Miyamoto-fueled reverie it was also drowning out demand for the kinds of games that attracted PC gamers to the platform.

There are exceptions, of course, but broadly the shareware boom was an attempt by North American designers to answer the mainstream success of Nintendo and Sega using the only available tools — which meant bending the tools to make them work more like the game consoles of the day, and using those tools to mimic Japanese design aesthetics. Though the movement started small, the best efforts were so revolutionary and so popular that they attracted competition like a four-star restaurant in the bad part of town, gentrifying the PC, driving up development costs, and making the platform much bigger than Shareware’s original form of distribution.

( Continue reading at DIYGamer )

Five That Didn’t Fall

  • Reading time:52 mins read

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

Part nine of my ongoing culture column for Next Generation. After the popularity of my earlier article, I pitched a companion piece about companies that had lived past their remit, yet technically were still with us. On publication we lost the framing conceit and the article was split into five pieces, each spun as a simple bottled history. In turn, some of those were picked up by BusinessWeek Online. Here’s the whole thing, in context.

A few weeks ago we published a list of five developers that made a difference, helped to shape the game industry, then, one way or another (usually at the hands of their parent companies), ceased to exist. One theme I touched on there, that I got called on by a few readers, is that although in practical terms all the listed companies were indeed defunct, several continued on in name (Atari, Sierra, and Origin), living a sort of strange afterlife as a brand detached from its body.

This was an deliberate choice; although Infogrames has been going around lately with a nametag saying “HELLO my name is Atari” – and hey, why not; it’s a good name – that doesn’t make Infogrames the historical Atari any more than the creep in the purple spandex with the bowling ball is the historical Jesus. (Not that I’m relating Infogrames to a fictional sex offender – though he is a pretty cool character.) The question arises, though – what about those companies which live on in both name and body, yet which we don’t really recognize anymore? You know who I’m talking about; the cool rebels you used to know in high school, who you see ten years later working a desk job, or in charge of a bank. You try to joke with them, and they don’t get a word you’re saying. You leave, feeling a mix of fear and relief that (as far as you know) you managed to come out of society with your personality intact.

The same thing happens in the videogame world – hey, videogames are people; all our sins are handed down. This article is a document of five great companies – that started off so well, ready to change the world – that… somehow we’ve lost, even as they trundle on through the successful afterlife of our corporate culture. And somehow that just makes us miss them all the more.

NextGen’s Top Ten Years In Gaming History

  • Reading time:30 mins read

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

Originally published in some form by Next Generation. I was asked not to include 1999 or 2000, because the Dreamcast was perceived as a low mark in the industry rather than a high one. I was also asked to include the previous year, to suggest that we were in the middle of an upswing. So… that explains some of the selections.

In videogames, as in life, we tend to get things right about a third of the time. There’s one decent Sonic game for every two disasters; one out of every three consoles can be considered an unqualified success; the Game Boy remake of Mother 1 + 2 was released in one out of three major territories. With the same level of scientific accuracy, one can easily say that, out of the thirty years that videogames have acted as a consumer product, there are maybe ten really excellent milestones, spaced out by your 1984s and your 1994s – years maybe we were all better off doing something out-of-doors.

It kind of makes sense, intuitively: you’ve got the new-hardware years and the innovative-software years, spaced out by years of futzing around with the new hardware introduced a few months back, or copying that amazing new game that was released last summer. We grow enthusiastic, we get bored. Just as we’re about to write off videogames forever, we get slapped in the face with a Wii, or a Sega Genesis – and then the magic starts up all over again, allowing us to coast until the next checkpoint.

This Fortnight’s Releases (May 1-12, 2006)

  • Reading time:8 mins read

by Eric-Jon Rössel Waugh

Weeks thirty-eight-and-nine of my ongoing, irreverent news column; originally posted at Next Generation

Game of Early May:

SiN Episodes: Emergence – Episode 1

It’s kind of weird; back in mid-1998, everyone was waiting for SiN – then the very day it arrived, Half-Life sprang out of nowhere, and took all the attention. That didn’t stop SiN from becoming a cult hit; it’s just hard to escape such a poor case of timing. Over the past eight years, the game has built up a reputation as perhaps the pinnacle of the old “Duke Nukem“-style FPS, before Half-Life changed everything. Traditional genre fans, who just like to charge forward and shoot stuff, have been waiting a long time for a sequel – and here it comes, via the Half-Life 2 engine, via Steam, and via the episodic template that Valve has set out.

This first episode brings back all the major characters from the 1998 original, to do much the same business as before: run forward and shoot. The difference is in the method; aside from the obvious enhancements in physics and envionmental interaction allowed by the Source engine (and the consequences thereof), the game now automatically adjusts itself to the player’s skill level and playing tendencies. If you get good at head shots, apparently, enemies might start wearing helmets. According to Ritual, the game will take experts about as long as new players to play through.

Emergence, being only one of at least nine planned episodes, will only last about six to eight hours; on the other hand, it only costs about eighteen bucks. Something tells me this episodic download thing is going to take off. It’s almost like a revised take on the early-’90s Shareware scene. The difference with shareware was that people got a whole episode for free, then typically had to pay full price for another several episodes. Now you pay pocket cash up-front for each episode. Same thing; just reorganized for efficiency on both ends. Tie in Steam, and you’ve even got the return of online distribution. It’s obvious, in retrospect.

Now if only we’d come up with this ten years ago – if we’d just adapted and kept up with the Internet – just imagine where the PC development scene would be today.