Today, video games are the leading voice of pop culture. Academics could deny it, film buffs and audiophiles may not accept it, but it’s indeed the case. The highest grossing form of entertainment in the world, the impact of video games on several generations is just the start of what the medium can and eventually become. Rewind over 35 years however and the industry was in complete flux, thanks to the infamous “crash” of 1983. In spite of captivating millions of people worldwide, the business of video games was thought by many to be more a fad than the foundation of a new form f creativity and storytelling it is today. For the thousands that worked in the gaming field, their dreams were all of sudden
under attack.

Garry Kitchen, known already by those in the field and players alike for his ability to enthrall and entertain, thanks to his work on original games the likes of Space Jockey and Keystone Kapers and his wildly successful Atari 2600 port of Nintendo’s arcade smash Donkey Kong, was in a precarious position. A career in gaming was his wildest fantasy come true. In order to continue to support himself and his family through his work, he had to press the reset button and use his skills to create something completely different That new product was GameMaker. Creating the software so gamers could learn how to create their own software, Kitchen’s creation was able to not only educate, but also reignite many people’s love of games. While it’s not the first game creation software, as Broderbund’s The Arcade Machine came out three years prior in 1982, Kitchen’s name recognition and ability as a developer made it an application that affected a plethora of would-be creators and changed the industry forever. The road that eventually led to GameMaker was far from predictable, however.

“As you may know, the video game market (Atari 2600, Intellivision, Colecovision, etc.) crashed in the 1983/1984 timeframe,” Kitchen said. “It crashed badly; essentially, every major retailer refused to buy video games. In reaction to this
disaster, Activision decided to refocus our game development effort from the consoles to the computers – Apple II, Commodore 64, Atari 400/800 and IBM PC. Of those, I decided on the Commodore 64 as my platform of choice.

“As I was just beginning to work on a game on the C-64, further clarification of the Activision product strategy came down from above – rather than traditional video games, think differently about computer software. Management had revised their
strategy by convincing themselves that the market’s rejection of video games applied to computers as well, so just doing the ‘same old’ video games on computers wouldn’t solve the problem. In other words, they overreacted (and the assumption proved to be wrong, of course).”

So, if not being able to develop for home consoles, particularly the Atari 2600, where he had all of his success up until that point wasn’t bad enough, Kitchen was now told that even games on computers were out of the question.
That could have been a huge problem for Kitchen, but he jumped at the challenge. “Based on this new direction, I put aside a game that I was really excited about and started working on this crazy idea that I had percolating in the back of my
brain. I had always wanted to develop a computer ‘toy,’ rather than a game; in other words, a pastime that could be enjoyed on a computer without the constraint of game rules,” Kitchen said. “The idea evolved into a programming ‘toy’
(or sandbox, as it would be referred to 30 years later) in which a user could use a rudimentary programming language to control something on the computer screen. The ‘something to be controlled’ became a pencil, moving around on an initially blank sheet of paper.”

Sounds simple enough, right? Kitchen was just getting started. Like every Kitchen project, this one grew into something that would be considered an initial step towards something that ended up far grander. “I developed this simple computer
language with commands specific to controlling the movement of the pencil; for example, move in a direction so many units, or draw a shape (circle, square, etc.) of a specific size,” Kitchen said. “I eventually added the ability to specify the color of the pencil, as well as the ability to pick the pencil up off of the paper and move it somewhere on the page. As it evolved, I included rudimentary programming concepts, like if/then loops, variables and subroutines. Eventually, I even added some support for sounds. In the end, my goal was to give users a place to fool around with the computer to do cool things without the risk of losing data or crashing their computer. For example, entering and running this simple program…

SET A=5
LOO1
GO RIGHT A
GO DOWN A
GO LEFT A
GO UP A
SET A=A + 005
JUMP TO L001

…displayed the pencil drawing an ever-increasing box that looked something like this:

“Of course, the graphic didn’t just appear,” Kitchen added. “The user got the fun of seeing the pencil move on the paper, leaving the drawn line behind it. This ‘programming toy’ product became The Designer’s Pencil, released by Activision in 1984. The Designer’s Pencil was not a huge commercial success, though it garnered favorable reviews and it had an enthusiastic group of fans who ‘got it.’ For many people, the concept was difficult to understand – was it a graphics program? Was it a
game? What was it?”

Despite The Designer’s Pencil’s ability to be the hit virtually all of Kitchen’s Atari 2600 games were up until that point, the seed was planted for the developer to continue the journey in the “new” landscape Activision envisioned. While many developers stopped creating games after the crash, Kitchen’s ingenuity gave him the opportunity to develop his craft even further. “Interestingly, after the release of The Designer’s Pencil, the number one question I would get from fans of the product was, ‘since it has a programming language, can I write a game with it?’ It seemed I had opened ‘Pandora’s Box,’ putting a simpleto-use programming language into the hands of average users; why couldn’t they do what they really wanted to do, which was write a video game? Enter GameMaker.”

Essentially a program that allowed players to write their own video games, GameMaker satisfied the need of fans of The Designer’s Pencil to do more with code. It also invited a slew of imaginative and eager creators into a world they would have
never knew existed. They ate it up. That sense of wonder it fostered is what Kitchen believes was the game’s biggest selling point. “I think the essence of a tool like GameMaker was that there was no limit to the amount of time you could spend with it,” Kitchen said. “In other words, in contrast to a traditional game of the time, if you really enjoyed GameMaker, you were only limited by your imagination. You can see this same appeal in the ‘sandbox’ titles of today, like Minecraft, which give the user an unlimited palette to explore, discover and create.”

With the number of new video games scarce at the time of GameMaker’s release, many young gamers got interested in the industry through Kitchen’s creation. In spite of all of his success prior, being the man who inspired countless
creators to get involved in the industry is something he’ll never stop being proud of. “Without a doubt, the single most rewarding part of my career has been when someone tells me that being exposed to GameMaker when they were
younger led them into a career in programming and/or game development,”

Kitchen said. “Of all of the products I’ve developed over the years, GameMaker seems to have the most staying power. To this day, I still get half a dozen emails a year from GameMaker fans, asking me to put out a new version of the title. In
the emails, fans lament that there isn’t another comparable product out there and encourage me to rewrite the title for today’s game platforms.” Post-release, GameMaker’s effect on the industry was an important one and garnered Kitchen even  ore accolades than his previous work. After his great commercial success with Donkey Kong and Keystone Kapers, GameMaker showed Kitchen’s versatility may be his greatest asset. “The product received great reviews from the game press.

Computer Entertainer Magazine gave the product their first rating of ‘10,’ naming me Video Game Designer of the Year,” Kitchen said. “Computer Gaming World called GameMaker “an excellent set of menu-driven tools that help you easily write your own high-quality game.” The Software Publishers Association (SPA) awarded GameMaker a nomination as Best Creativity Product.”

Critical success is one thing, but Kitchen saw first-hand how his product affected the people that created with it. “When GameMaker launched, Activision had a game design contest, inviting people to submit their best game developed with
GameMaker,” Kitchen said. “I was asked, along with the other designers in my office, to judge the contest. While I don’t remember the specifics, the best entry we received was a karate fighting game, in the vein of Karateka or Kung Fu Master.
I remember being very impressed by it, given the limitations of the GameMaker tool and the game platform it was running on.”

Despite its limitations, GameMaker was a lot more than a tool to help consumers to make their own games. Although update packs were added after release to increase the scopes of players’ creations, GameMaker had another application as well. “I think it is common knowledge that my brother Dan used the tool to create a version of David Crane’s Pitfall! In fact, I believe that version was included with the commercial release of GameMaker,” Kitchen said. “What may not be common knowledge is that we also used GameMaker to create a commercial product for the Commodore 64 which we released on our Absolute Entertainment publishing brand – Crossbow, a port of Exidy’s hit arcade game. As a series of single-screen game  challenges, Crossbow was a perfect choice for the GameMaker tool. Of course, what made it even more doable was the ability for us to enhance/modify the GameMaker as necessary. If the game development team building Crossbow needed functionality that didn’t exist in GameMaker, I would just add that feature to the product and give them an updated version.”

Continuing to grow as time went on, GameMaker expanded internally. Make no mistake, while it may have started off as a tool for players, it very much became a device to help Kitchen and his team to create games as well. “For example, standard GameMaker did not have the ability to seamlessly switch between dozens of unique gameplay scenes, but C-64 Crossbow does this, through the magic of ‘GameMaker 2.0,’ with added instructions not available in the commercial product. I believe Crossbow was the only commercial product developed by us in GameMaker. We wanted to develop more GameMaker-based games, as the development cost was so much lower than writing native code, but the Commodore 64 software business  as in its dying days.Too bad.”

Bad for a ton of reasons, but mainly for the fact that of what it could have been. Considering how successful Kitchen has been over the course of four decades in the industry, the fact that GameMaker represents one of the only “what ifs” in his career
is a sad thought. However, the impact it could have had on the industry as a whole is just as tough a pill to swallow.

“Oh boy. I’ve been asked this question about a number of my products over the years, and outside of the usual ‘I would have liked to make it better’ answers, I’ve never really felt regret about the product,” Kitchen said. “GameMaker is the one where
I have real regrets. My vision for GameMaker was to create a development environment for games (an IDE in industry terms) which handled the low-level tasks while allowing the designer to focus on the game logic. The low-level code, forming the basis of the game application (graphic and animation handlers, sound and music drivers, input/output controls, etc.) would be written entirely in optimized assembly language by experienced game programmers. The game logic could be written in a  hopefully)simple-to-learn scripting language, with instructions specific to game development. Optimistically, by doing the ‘heavy lifting’ upfront with the difficult-to-learn assembly language.language and by creating a game-specific scripting language,
GameMaker would open up the fun of making video games to a much larger audience.

“After the release of GameMaker, in developing Commodore 64 Crossbow (as discussed earlier), my team and I quickly recognized that the tools, with enhancements, could have significant commercial value,” Kitchen said. “We completed the Crossbow port in record time, and with minimal effort, ending up with a commercially viable product that played well and sold well. But, in an epic case of shortsightedness, when the Commodore 64 market died, our use of GameMaker as a development tool died as well. At that moment, the decision should have been made to spin-off the GameMaker project as a serious professional development tool.

“In fact, the way in which we developed Crossbow using GameMaker was a foreshadowing of where game development would ultimately go, with the use of powerful third-party game engines such as Unity and the Unreal Engine. Why go through the effort of redeveloping all of the lower-level routines (graphics, sound drivers, physics, etc.) for each new game when this code had already been written for previous games? What made more sense, in the long run, was to have a tool that handled all of the low-level code while the game logic was developed using a higher-level scripting language. By removing the significant burden of rewriting the low-level code for the umpteenth time, games could be developed much more cost-effectively, with more time focused on making great gameplay. Today that’s Unity – in 1985 that was GameMaker. I truly believe that at that moment in time we were well ahead in terms of a vision for and execution of, a commercial game engine,” Kitchen said. “But software publishing in 1985 wasn’t like software publishing today, at least at Activision. If GameMaker had been released in another time and another market, I believe it could have evolved into an ongoing and ever-evolving tool to build games. Ce la vie.”

Nevertheless, Kitchen’s creation, in spite of only producing one commercial product, was and will always be considered a success for a simple reason; just like all of Kitchen’s previous projects, it worked extremely well and had an audience that not
only adored it but got a glimpse into what it was like to be a developer. For Kitchen, that was what he initially intended.

“In my mind, the biggest success of GameMaker was its ability to execute the user-created projects fast enough that people were able to successfully write real-time games,” said Kitchen. “Elsewhere in this book, in reference to Keystone Kapers, I talk about the importance of framerate to gameplay. If the code runs too slowly, the game won’t feel right to the player because it won’t respond instantly to user input. A good framerate is a requirement to a having a fun, real-time game. GameMaker’s strength was its ability to execute the designer’s program fast enough to make a professional-quality game experience.”

Perhaps the biggest reason for GameMaker’s success, however, was what it has inside of it – a piece of Kitchen’s heart. As selfless a creation as any piece of software ever created in the history of the industry, it remains his greatest gift to gamers, even if many who play games today probably haven’t heard of it. “In developing a game-making tool, by necessity, every ounce of knowledge I had from my prior experience in the industry went into creating GameMaker. When you spend that amount of time creating something, you get very close to the work, making it very hard to step back and assess what you have done,” Kitchen said. “I was surprised, and greatly humbled, by the praise for the product. It was certainly gratifying. Commercially the product did well, though it was not a major hit. Like my previous ‘creativity’ product, The Designer’s Pencil, I believe that GameMaker may have been a little bit ahead of its time.”

As appeared originally in issue #28 of Old School Gamer (free edition / paid edition (must be logged to view) / Subscribe to Old School Gamer

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