Mark Bridge writes:
If you want to understand mobile gaming, from the commercial side of game development to the current trends in game design, Sandy Duncan is a great person to talk to.
He spent over 16 years at Microsoft, initially working with PC manufacturers and latterly setting up the company’s Xbox game console business in Europe. He’s an enthusiastic gamer. And, for the last six years, he’s been CEO of YoYo Games.
YoYo Games is involved with a wide variety of gaming platforms, including PCs, consoles and mobile devices. I started my conversation with Sandy by asking him why there was so much interest in mobile gaming when PCs and dedicated consoles were always going to be more powerful than smartphones.
“It's not about power”, explained Sandy. “Gaming is just generally part of our culture. When you introduce a new platform that's capable of providing a gaming experience, people will find ways to get themselves entertained on that. The gaming industry is an entertainment industry.”
YoYo Games currently has three divisions. It offers the GameMaker tool to help people develop games, there’s a community for sharing those games and the company also publishes some games. I asked Sandy to explain more of the company’s background.
“We saw that technology was changing; we saw that we were emerging in a digitally-distributed and not a retail-distributed world. And we saw that as an opportunity for a new generation of people who made games, the first generation of game makers who'd grown up with games as part of their culture and society. Over the last few years, what we foresaw has come true; there's a new generation of people creating games [and] a new bunch of companies as well. Nobody had heard of Rovio in 2007, even though they were around then. The vision mapped onto what was happening with technology at the time.”
“GameMaker has been around since 1999. It was developed by a Dutch university professor, a professor of computer games, and he wanted more people to be able to do what he was teaching without getting into learning C++ or sophisticated low-level or high-level languages. GameMaker has two or three components to it that appeal and make it unique. The first of those is that it has this very easy, ‘I don't need to know any programming’ starting point, which people refer to as ‘Drag and Drop’. So, in other words, you can create relationships between objects and hey presto! By the time you've cut and pasted a few things on the screen, you've actually created a game.”
“People can make very sophisticated games just using Drag and Drop. The limiting factor is that you can only create games with what the guy who created the Drag-and-Drop allows you to do. But we take it a stage further with GameMaker. There's a programming language built into GameMaker called GameMaker Language (GML). It's like a lot of these so-called high-level languages like C, so anybody who's done programming can be familiar with it very quickly. Because it's games-oriented, it does things very quickly that games require you to do, and the very basic of that is something called a collision. If you think of a game like Pac-Man or even something like Halo, everything is about bumping into things. The tech guys cringe when they hear me say that but, to bring it down to a levelling factor, it's about collisions. And the beautiful thing about the GameMaker Language is… people say the Brits have got 47 words for rain, well we've got 47 words for collisions. And so you can get kind of heavy with the game but still do it more quickly than you can in any other language. It's also a really neat way to learn programming, by the way.”
As YoYo Games used GameMaker itself, so it saw more potential. It acquired the rights to GameMaker in 2007, inviting the creator of the software - Professor Mark Overmars of Utrecht University - to join the company’s board of directors.
“We started publishing games through this incubator approach that we described earlier but the ‘secret sauce’ was what we did to the technology. We allowed GameMaker to take one game that this guy has created potentially in his bedroom somewhere and, by literally flicking a programming switch, exactly the same game with no changes can run as a Facebook game and it can also run as an iOS game or an Android game or even a Windows or Mac OS X game.”
“We did that for our own use because we saw that as a ‘secret’ business model. What we realised was actually the business model we'd created wasn't as much publishing games but it was the technology itself. And so we kind of ‘flipped’ a little bit about a year ago when we saw that the games that we were publishing were actually just a great showcase for the technology - and what we needed to do was to make the technology more widely available. And so on 22nd May this year we launched a thing we called GameMaker Studio.”
“Studio is basically a product that's aimed for everybody. We have a free version. We have a stand-alone home version we call Standard and semi-professional & professional versions that start from about $99 upwards. None of this is expensive. But we're giving the technology that we've used to create 25 very successful games ourselves. It downloads as a free version thousands of times every day from our website.”