I started making videogames in 2003. I never harboured the same desires of always wanting to make videogames as the traditional “why I make games” stories most people reel out. I never had the slightest desire to actually code. The machines, the workings of them, I still struggle to care. So I started when the technology reached a point where I didn’t have to.
I tried a few of the so called easier things, Blitz 3D, Darkbasic, DIV but they were all a bit too codey, a bit too here is a blank IDE. I tried TGF, the successor to Klik and Play and a bit later, it’s grown uppiest version Multimedia Fusion but I couldn’t wrap my head around how they worked. And then I found a tiny little thing called Gamemaker by Mark Overmars and found that I could make the things I wanted to make in it and I barely had to stress the code. That was great, I found the thing that let me write games and so I did just that. I started writing games in Gamemaker and I got my first lesson in making videogames.
I wasn’t welcome doing this.
Looking back from 2013 and where we are now it seems like a few lifetimes ago, not ten years but there we were. In 2003, there was an obvious hierarchy in videogames and I’d found myself at the bottom of it when it came to finding a game dev home. Of course, I settled somewhere where no fucks were duly given for the most part but out there, I would be constantly reminded that I could never make a game as good as those who coded in a proper grown up language, that I could never be successful making games as those who would code in a grown up proper language and often, that I was just scum and needed to be reminded of this at every turn, the more sneeringly the better.
And yeah, there was a hierarchy to it. You could step back and see it with ease.
People would grumble better in my day eeh when it were all fields and assembler round here and sit atop the pile, then the C/C++ let’s all argue about which is better, which is more efficient, who holds the key to videogame riches sat a bit further down the line. The eeh it were better in my day mob would, obviously, be grudgingly amongst them but if they had their way, it’d all be assembler round here so I don’t have to share a seat with these filthy fuckers. Then, a little further down, the BASIC crew who were sort of still doing it right but these easier languages were all wrong, stop cheating, not that it stopped them then in turn joining in the kicking crew for those of us who just didn’t want to code, the scum that we were.
God, it was fucking oppressive y’know? Finding people who didn’t give a fuck what you wrote videogames in through all the chatter and noise was all too rare then. They were out there, they’re still out there. Often, they’re the faces I still see around today but it’d be awkward to draw too many conclusions from that.
For the most part the message was clear. There was a division between coders and non-coders and the coders will always be the successful ones, the ones who make good games.
That didn’t make any sense. It made even less sense when we weren’t talking commercial games but just fucking around in our homes making stuff we wanted to. That took it all into the realms of the really fucking weird. Surely, I figured, it’s how you make the game that counts? How much care and attention you put into what you make? How considered you are with what you choose to include or exclude? Surely all that matters more than what I write a videogame in?
I didn’t take it all quite that calmly. It used to rile me, fucking annoy me and upset me. From pretty much the moment I’d tried to write games in something that had been designed so people could make games, the chatter on the internet told me I was wrong.
2003 was the year of the first big Retroremakes competition. It was the competition and the support from the guys in the chat channel that convinced me to have a go at making a videogame proper for the first time. I made a version of Kokotoni Wilf that wasn’t very good but it won a prize for effort. I threw everything I could into it over the course of the 3 months and my lack of ability shined through gloriously but I did it, I made the thing I wanted to make. I over reached and fell flat on my face in many ways but just in reaching there, I pushed myself forward massively and that was fine.
And a Gamemaker game walked off with a prize. That mattered. It was a tiny blip on a massive internet but it mattered to me.
The next few years were spent fucking round with different things. Mainly punting out silly little joke games about hamsters rummaging up arses and stuff like that. Because I could. I could spend a day or two banging up something just for a laugh because I had these tools that let me do that. For a while I had ambitions of writing lots more remakes but the way I wanted to approach remakes wasn’t really the way most people wanted their remakes anyway so whilst I tinkered a bit, I didn’t put much of use out to the world.
Then the next Retroremakes competition came along and I got to sit on the other side. The forums were terrible places during competition times. RR was always more of a bunch of vague internet friends kicking around making games for shits amd giggles and the competition brought with it serious business and serious faces. The I’m going to make a game better than you crowd landed. The problem was, none of the regulars gave a fuck about their quest to dominate everyone and take away the (then copious) prizes so they just looked a bit silly, really. Didn’t they know where they were? Man. Anyway. I digress.
In 2004, up against some sterling competition, Legend of Shadow took away first prize. A remake of Legend Of Kage. In Gamemaker. Cat. Meet pidgeons. Pidgeons. Meet internet reply to topic boxes. HOW COULD THIS HAPPEN?
In 2006, up against some sterling competition, The Pyramid took away first prize. A remake of Bob Hamilton’s old Fantasy title for the Zx Spectrum. Made in Gamemaker. Here we fucking go again. HOW COULD THIS HAPPEN?
It sort of turned out, and you honestly wouldn’t expect this ever in a million years, that if you give people 3 months to write a game then the ones who have access to tools that enable them to make games faster without having to build from the ground up spend more time working on making the videogame better. It’s not a hard and fast rule, obviously. As the competition shown (and in coming years people proved heartily) lots of people could do wonders in that time scale, amazing fucking games got made in all manner of ways. But still, the tide was turning. People were showing what these things could do. Forget the prizes and stuff for a minute, people were writing these full games in these easy games creation tools and they were bloody good and often scrappy and expressive in ways that having to concern yourself with the nuts and bolts would just get in the way of. Games just kept getting made.
It just went on. And on. And on. It didn’t stop. It didn’t stop to the point that the BASICs got tucked into a corner. Why bother making a BASIC your first port of call when you can just skip all that shit and go straight to making videogames quickly? Flash grew up then Flixel and Flashpunk and other Flash-made-easier tools filled the BASIC gap nicely. MMF2 happened and Unity happened and Construct happened and all these things happened and just look at a Ludum Dare now, far from the arguments over whether Gamemaker games should even be allowed, all this stuff is normal now. I’m buying Gamemaker games on Steam, side by side with Unity games and MMF games, side by side with games made in far more traditional methods and I couldn’t tell you which is which on play alone. I could only tell you because I know that they’re wrote in these things because I sit knee deep in game development stuff and people talk.
Ten fucking years later and that bullshit over proper coding being the only and the one true way is a fuzzy noise in the background, the sound of old men and idiots left behind. Lots of us forced their hand, proved them wrong, shown that accessible tools can lead to fantastic fucking games and these tools blew open the doors to loads more people who wanted to write videogames and it was fucking fantastic. It was fantastic because rather than hurt or offend anyone as all the oppressive chatter would have had me believe, we just got more people writing more videogames and more good videogames to play. All those who want to code in C/C++ still can and do. All those who don’t want to or can’t don’t have to but can start making games anyway. The market didn’t collapse under a weight of crap or any of the other “end is nigh” stories that got thrown around. That was a pretty good result.
Now there’s Twine and a growing number of people adopting similar tools to express themselves in ways they feel comfortable. There’s the people making games that don’t fit into these models we’ve concreted over the past 20 years expressing themselves in ways they feel comfortable, making things outside the boundaries of what we’ve come to class as normal videogames. And they’ve thrown their works into the ring and they’re here with us now too.
The biggest lesson I’ve learned from all these years making videogames, out of all the lessons I’ve learned, is that people given tools and space to make things do wonders.
Actually, no, that’s not true. The biggest lesson I’ve learned from all these years making videogames is that there’s always someone who thinks that their way is the best way, who thinks that the way they believe videogames should be made is the better, betterer, best way and I’ve learned that these people are invariably going to be sitting on the wrong side of history because they only speak for their ways, not the ways other people want to do things and will go off and do anyway because that’s the way it’s going to work no matter now.
I’ve learned that all these people will make brilliant things but other people will make brilliant things too and there isn’t a right way to brilliant things, there isn’t what the market needs or wants because that changes and shifts over time.
We all shape what videogames are. We all shape how videogames get made. We all shape what videogames get sold. And all that changes over time. It’s constantly changing and shifting and what we take for granted now may not be a thing tomorrow. Whatever I know now might be useless tomorrow. People can be right today but wrong tomorrow, I’ve seen it happen so many times now. For at least five years out of the ten I’ve been making videogames in my pants I was told you couldn’t dream of charging for the sort of stuff I write at all. People won’t buy this sort of thing, it’s not professional enough. It’s unpossible! Well, yeah. About that, guys…
Over the past ten years the way we make and sell games has changed so drastically, so massively from when I began I barely recognise the world out there as being the one I started out in. I have no idea where we’ll be in another ten either. I genuinely have no clue. I kinda like that.
After ten years and all that’s happened, you’d think we’d all be better at realising that things are forever changing and we know so little but we’ve such a long way to go. We’re still human so here’s to another ten years of this shit.
Also, ten years. Go me. The fuck am I doing again?