My Decade With GameMaker: About a Ball Turns Ten

As I was furiously working on my Emotional Mecha Jam game Orbital Paladin Melchior Y the other week, the tenth anniversary of my first GameMaker-made release, About a Ball, whizzed by without my notice.

So I’ve now been working in GameMaker and GameMaker Studio for over a decade. Before I purchased a license for GameMaker version 7, I hadn’t touched game design since 2003, when I collaborated with WiL Whitlark on the 24 Hours of ZZT game AdversiTurtle (I’d cut my game-making teeth in ZZT starting in 1997). My intervening six years had been devoted to filmmaking, having worked on over a dozen comedy shorts in some capacity with my collaborators at Bombdotcom Productions. In early 2009, I was wrapping up post-production on the feature film comedy I directed and co-wrote with Enoch Allred, Legends of Minigolf: The Flamingo’s Challenge. Somewhat to my own surprise, when I imagined my next creative project, I found my mind wandering back to video games and thinking I had some ideas about the intersection of narrative and gameplay (perhaps of interest is that one of the first projects I imagined was a Persona 3-influenced, visual novel-style adaptation of my own film Legends of Minigolf: The Flamingo’s Challenge)

I was reading a lot of anna anthropy’s articles about level design and was inspired by both her use of GameMaker in the creation of games like Mighty Jill Off . Not really sure where to start, I found a multi-stage tutorial Derek Yu had written on the TigSource forums walking the reader through the creation of a simple scrolling shoot-‘em-up. I followed along, creating a small shmup starring a space lion fighting black blobs. I improvised some power ups and other features and started to feel comfortable with how things worked under GameMaker’s hood.

My game-making ambitions were vague (outside of some way-beyond-my-scope blockbuster-budgeted pipe dreams), but I knew I had long wanted to develop a game like Zelda II: The Adventure of Link but with a stronger narrative and emotional component. I’d definitely have to learn how to make a platformer.

I downloaded a few sample platformer templates for GameMaker, but the kinds of coding I saw other people using didn’t mesh with what I’d come to understand about object interaction and movement from Yu’s tutorial. I was also still drawing  lot of my programming intuition from my teenage experiences with ZZT. So, instead, I took the GML (GameMaker Language) scripting I’d learned from my lion shmup, and painstakingly fumbled through the basics of jumping and movement (note that half of my ZZT output was made up of various types of platformers).

It’s cliché, of course, for amateur game-makers to hastily draw shapes (especially circles and squares) as the placeholder objects in their experiments, but I happened to add eyes to mine and began to think of it as a little character in its own right. Its enemies naturally became different, more angular shapes with crueler eyes. My experiments with collision, obstacles, and movement led me to crafting a small series of passages for the ball to traverse, and soon I found that I’d created a small network of rooms that folded in on themselves. I was making a game that I thought was actually kind of fun. I started implementing some of the ideas about level design I’d been meditating on, including the idea of the player’s goal being visible from the very first screen of the game.

About a Ball (a more or less meaningless pun on About a Boy, a title befitting an episode of a Saturday morning cartoon) is a brutal game. It took me a couple dozen tries to beat it again this morning, despite its short length. The version I have here is actually an updated and revised edition from 2012. Its original incarnation was even more brutal, with only five lives to lose before it forcibly kicked you out of the game (completely unnecessary, since the only progress that carries over from life to life is tripped switches and blood-stained spikes).

It has a fixed, awkward jump with no gradations and no variability (there’s no sense of gravity, as you fall and jump at the exact same rate in each frame, in much the same way as my old ZZT platformers, and you don’t hover at the peak of your jump). However, the game’s sole stage is designed around this limitation. There’s no real story to speak of here. From the moment your red ball appears in the industrial warehouse-esque environment, the player only knows they have to make their way to the Lemmings-esque portal on the other side of the starting chamber’s wall.

The game has an absolutely opaque, inscrutable scoring system based on time spent and (maybe?) lives lost. My score from my most recent completion was 62,682. I can’t tell you what that means. It would’ve been higher if I’d taken less time.

At any rate, About a Ball was released to my blog on February 13, 2009. This was before GameJolt and itch.io provided a good place to house free game releases, so it was almost certainly entirely played by people in my social circle. I wouldn’t complete another game until 2010’s Pirate Kart entry Watch Ducks, even though I did attempt a handful of narrative platformer ideas with scopes way beyond what I was ready for. My experience mucking around with the interactions between About a Ball’s platforming mechanics soon led to a half decade of focusing almost entirely on tongue-in-cheek riffs on game clichés like the scoring system in Watch Ducks or wholly mechanical explorations of tweaks on the basic grammar of platforming games like Bulb Boy and ExpandoScape, mostly developed for quickie Glorious Trainwrecks events.

In this time, “narrative” (in its most conventional definition) in my game design work was mostly explored as a humorous framing device or an ironic counterpoint to a game’s mechanics. For my more mechanical experiments I was very into an idea of games inherently possessing narrative so long as they were running—if a player avatar progresses from the starting post to the goal post, a narrative has been expressed, even if it lacks traditional representational ideas. So into this concept was I that in 2012, when I released Caverns of Khron, I left out any contextualizing text within the body of the game itself and when I approached my friend Jane Allred to write a backstory for the game’s manual, I gave it the header of merely “A Story”—its own text fairly vague, but intended to allow the player to project whatever they saw in the adventures of a purple-haired adventurer’s sword-aided descent through increasingly bizarre screens purely derived from the interaction of objects on screen.

Only in the last couple years have I started to get back to exploring the richer narrative concepts that drew me back to game design a decade ago and resulted in the narrative-light About a Ball: Knight Moves, Liz & Laz, Nibblin’, and Monster Hug all have integrated story sequences. Further, while Temple of the Wumpus leaves a lot unsaid, it is a game all about reading and studying hundreds of bits of text to guide your avatar through a spiritual journey to which I want the player to bring a certain amount of their own experience (and, by no mere coincidence, is my most direct riff on Zelda II to date). Orbital Paladin Melchior Y fuses the action shooting genre with a visual novel format. What’s more is that I’m doing all of this in GameMaker Studio, having moved beyond awkward jumps and minor tutorial variations to scripting an entire visual novel system that integrates with a shmup. Having written my first visual novel, I’m eager to continue to explore what can be done at the intersection of my focus on mechanics and level design and the power of story.

Orbital Paladin Melchior Y

It is the year 231 of the Frontier Era.

A nine-year war continues to rage between two mighty powers in the Earth sphere, conducted largely by heavily armed mechanized suits in space battles.

Eighteen-year-old Wick Palmer joins the small crew of the spaceship Nauvoo to take control of the Orbital Federated States’ most advanced mech. Guarding a remote point in the solar system, the quiet the team has enjoyed cannot hold for long.

Guide Wick as he forges relationships with his teammates, fights off enemies, and questions his place in a war that never ends in this visual novel/shooting action space opera game.

Made for the Emotional (Digital) Mecha Jam.

Music credits:

  • Traditional and classical music arranged by Mick Jones, in addition to original compositions, all released by the artist into the public domain
  • Multiple battle tracks and the title theme are by Jonathan So (CC0)
  • “Introduction Remake+” by Spring (CC-BY-4.0)
  • “Contemplation” by Joth (CC0)
  • “Fallen Hero” by Machine (CC-BY-4.0)
  • Chill lofi music by omfgdude (CC0)
  • “My Friends Will Cry” by Christovix Games, as heard in Chapter Five’s combat sequence

Monster Hug

Monsters are rampaging underground! Where heroes have failed in their efforts to respond with violence, someone speaks up: “What if we try hugging the monsters?”

Monster Hug features five unique monsters, each of which has a unique personality and set of behaviors–and each is a unique threat! Figure out when you can get in close and give each monster a hug! An adorable little platformer.

Inspired by a suggestion by Eli Z. McCormick.

Uses the font Magic Forest by anna anthropy and music by pauliuw and Juhani Junkala, under Creative Commons licenses.

Nibblin’

You’re Norvell the Nibbler and you’re here to prove how good you are at nibblin’!

When a nibbler eats a nibblet, they get longer. That’s what nibblin’ is! Slither and nibble your way through twenty stages. Encounter tricky course designs, chat with experienced nibblers, and even face off against them on the field!

My first ZZT game since 2006 and my first non-jam ZZT game since 2002.

I started this game some time between 1999 and 2003. Then it got transferred from hard drive to hard drive with the rest of my old ZZT files. Earlier this year, I thought it might be interesting to go back and figure out how to finish it. I had the basic engine made but didn’t really have any firm aspirations for it besides being a relatively smooth (for ZZT) Snake clone. I came up with a cute little frame story and a few objects/obstacles/NPCs to make the game more interesting. Twenty stages!

Invasion Versus

A frantic two-player arcade-style game where Earth faces off against waves of invading aliens.

In the game’s two-player Versus Mode, choose to be the Earth team, fending off the invasion by blasting aliens out of the sky, or the Invaders’ team, slowly descending to Earth’s surface, dodging bullets, and picking off Earth’s defenses.

The game also has a score-attack Arcade Mode for solo players and a local high score leaderboard.

____________________________
I began this game in the spring of 2016 and finally returned to finish it up this month.

Aaargh! Condor

 

An unofficial remake of the amazingly-title 1983 Commodore 64 classic AAARGH! CONDOR, my 2018 update seeks to capture the frantic and frenzied spirit of the original game by Alan G. Osborne.

With three heroes, try to save as many would-be sacrifices to the titular giant bird by hurling a spear into its chest. As the game progresses, you’ll face more enemies and obstacles, all seeming to get in the way of your heroic feats.

I strongly recommend you also play the original Commodore 64 game and read about it in this article on the Obscuritory by Phil Shadsy, which introduced me to the game.

My AAARGH! CONDOR remake uses the font Crypt of Tomorrow by anna anthropy.

Explobers at SAAM Arcade 2018

Photo credit: Daniel Schwartz

I’m very pleased to announce that my game Explobers will be featured as one of fifteen games in the indie game showcase at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s fourth annual SAAM Arcade event in Washington, DC, on Sunday, July 22, 2018! I’ll be there with the game with two computers running a special abbreviated edition of the game built for this exhibition. If you can be there, please stop by and say hi!

You can read more about the event on SAAM’s website. Admission to the museum is free. The theme of this year’s event is game spaces.

In addition to Explobers and the other indie games, there will be classic arcade and console games be presented by MAGFest and Arcades4Home, while Boolean Girl will be doing coding workshops. Artist Saya Woolfalk will also be giving a talk at 4pm.

Explobers is available for free download at itch.io and GameJolt. Please consider donating if you like it!

_______________________

The Explobers press kit is available here.

Temple of the Wumpus

 

You have arrived at the Temple of the Wumpus, a holy shrine said to house the incorporeal body of the divinity known as the Wumpus.  Pilgrims come to this massive temple in order to pray in the presence of the Wumpus’s incorporeal body.

Explore over 100 rooms filled with hints, lore, and secrets. Kneel in prayer and see if you can find the slow-moving, divine Wumpus.

This game is a reinterpretation of Gregory Yob’s 1973 BASIC classic Hunt the Wumpus. It was made for the month-long 2018 Wumpus Jam (which I also hosted at itch).

Temple of the Wumpus was born of my desire to explore the seeking mechanics of Hunt the Wumpus, but reframed in a nonviolent way. Other than jumping, your main actions in-game consist of praying and reading scripture. It is a game in which I let my messy thoughts about religion and spirituality run wild with thousands of words of text. Rather than single-mindedly seeking the a win by finding the Wumpus, I hope players take time to explore and get to know the temple itself.

The game uses the font Magic Forest by anna anthropy. It features music by Ryan YunckSyncopika, and The Cynic Project(cynicmusic.com/pixelsphere.org) and contains sound effects recordings by Michael VeloNatureNotesUK, and remaxim.

Instructions: Z: Pray, X: Jump, C: Light candle (while in prayer), Enter: Pause/select, Up arrow: Interact/talk/read, Down arrow: Advance text, Left and right arrows: Walk

Ninety Games in Two Decades

~In which I celebrate a game-making milestone by indulging in some navel-gazing bullshit~

This website is now home to a full ninety (90) free games! The earliest game on the site dates back to September 1, 1997’s truly embarrassing ZZT game Bob: The Adventure and runs up to June 7, 2018’s Liz & Laz: Episode 1: The Control Cubes. This isn’t as interesting a number as 100 will be–I expect I’ll hit that some time next year–but if you’ll forgive me, dear reader, I’m gonna get all retrospective for a bit anyway.

Relatedly, the release of my 90th game coincides roughly with the twenty-year anniversary of the launch of my first website, Newt’s Pond, which first went up on Geocities on June 10, 1998. It was a true Geocities site, and you can see a facsimile of what it looked like at launch archived at Neocities. The site would change over the years, but it was initially home to two webpages, ZZT Planet (a place to download my (Newt’s) games) and Moo@You, a page that advocated role-playing as an obnoxious cow in random chat rooms. Before the launch of Newt’s Pond, my handful of ZZT games had been released on my cousin Glynth’s site.

Liz & Laz is a fitting milestone for a personal game-making history that starts in ZZT. I was inspired to create it when revisiting some old ZZT “engine games,” particularly platformers. Engine games were ZZT worlds that used ZZT’s standard, uneditable four-direction player character to touch other objects that would manipulate a scripted player object. Playing some other vintage platformers led me back to thinking about some of my own. This dual player mechanic is actually pretty interesting!

My first engine game was Punctuation People, made in the summer of 1998, a game that began its life as an attempt to make a Super Mario Bros. game in ZZT (all the game’s enemies are modeled on Mario enemies, a fact somewhat obscured by the ASCII character set). It was my first game that wasn’t a sloppy “comedy” adventure game. I was thinking of Punctuation People with its awkward occupation of a sizable portion of screen real estate. Like a lot of engine platformers, it surrounded the player on all sides with control objects. I was also thinking of my 1999 Lemmings clone Zem! 2 in which the player instead has indirect control over Zem, who marches forward mindlessly, but the player can have Zem perform actions by moving themselves along a row of buttons and touching them. The additional movement the main player object is required to perform impacts the rhythm of the game significantly.

 

Liz & Laz started out from this observation about a ZZT genre as something intended as a kind of intentionally frustrating homage; I thought I’d make it a brief sketch of a game that I’d tinker with for a couple nights and then release half as a joke. I was surprised at how compelling I found the mechanic to play when testing it, though. Soon I was polishing up animations and fine-tuning level design (I was also inspired visually by the glorious platformer games by Kabusoft which I’m in the middle of writing up for my new review blog Jots on Dots). I reinterpreted the ZZT command objects to a human-sized gamepad and decided I’d make it a two-tiered platformer, in which Liz in the control console jumps on gamepad buttons to make her unseeing partner Laz walk, jump, and shoot.

I’m pretty happy with how it turned out and when I counted up how many games I had on the site, I was delighted that my 90th game had so many connections to places I’d been before.

It is perhaps unsuprising that at this phase in my game-making I’m reflecting on my past work a lot. The 90 games housed here are spotty in quality and it’s sometimes a little weird to me that unfunny “comedy” games I made when I was 14 sit presented here with almost equal weight as games I’ve spent three months polishing. But I like that uncurated retrospective of my own work. And I’ve been taking surprising inspiration from it, as well as revisiting and rethinking the scenes I was a part of.

My output has been spotty, with long lulls. In 2012 alone, I released 38 games, including Caverns of Khron, which I worked on for 11 months–all while attending school full-time, working part-time, and relocating to Japan for a year of study abroad (I should note that 25 of these were made in the span of two weeks for Pirate Kart V)! This was a giddy period of experimentation and exploration, when I was getting good enough at Game Maker to make more complex games quickly, was standardizing and streamlining my bag of programming tricks, and was brimming with mechanical and aesthetic ideas I hadn’t tried yet, all drawing off the infectious creative energy at Glorious Trainwrecks. Between 2013 and 2015, I released no games for almost two full years, occupied by other interests, life events, and the beginning of grad school. Most importantly, making games didn’t sound all that fun for a little while.

My creative impulses ebb and flow. Since ending my game-making hiatus in the spring of 2015 with one of my personal favorites among my games, Shadow Wrangler (like Laz & Liz another Lemmings-inspired game that could be defined as “platforming by proxy”), I’ve been making a few games a year and tending toward larger, more polished projects. It’s harder for me to sit down and make a game in four hours like I used to six years ago; I’ve become increasingly interested in stronger game cohesion and narratives, accessible player experiences, and more careful, focused development in my practice.

I have some very exciting plans yet on the horizon in 2018, and some of it is going to involve revisiting unfinished projects and a return to old titles and ideas (a return to Zem! might even be on the table). At the same time, I’m really not sure where things go from here. Liz & Laz, like a lot of my games, started as a lark that spun into something else entirely (and a 1,000-word, self-obsessed ramble). I’m about to head deep into developing a game for the Wumpus Jam I’m hosting (please join!) and I only have a vague sense of what that’s going to look like. Thanks for playing!

(And thanks Alexis JAnson for STK!)