Thursday, June 16, 2011

RSD GameMaker

Recreational Software Designs GameMaker product was a program that ran on the IBM PC machines around 1991-1995, sold in the USA, UK and Korea. I recently became aware of some efforts by the community at diygamer, specifically Eric-Jon to gather information about the program. He has written 20 or so posts about games that users created, see, and also created a wiki that attempts to capture the history about the community at

I was the creator and major author of the software, and was helped by my father who handled most business issues, my brother who also did some coding, and my mother who did GUI testing and made some games. We also had a friend of my father who graciously spent a few weekends sitting with me giving guidance (Thanks Pete!)

It was basically a toolkit that let you create your own platform-style (of course we did not call it that back then!) games.

As the creator of a very small piece of history (but one that seems to have a major effect on those who used it well, spawning passions and careers around programming, graphics, and games -- Google "RSD GameMaker"), I shall indulge in a very small soapbox so you can hear my thoughts and ramblings on the subject :-).

I think perhaps that in retrospect GameMaker's history may be interesting for a few reasons.

The first Game Creation Engine?

First of all, it obviously was the "diygamer" tool of that time, so it anticipated the thriving community we have today with countless game engines, web sites and indie game companies. I hear that it was preceded by a game maker on the Commodore machine, but I had/still have no knowledge of that software. As far as I knew, we were the first game engine in existence and we allowed games to be built with absolutely no programming (and ran up against the limitations that imposed as well)! But in the interest of complete disclosure, I believe that at that time professional game companies were also buying game engines for major $ to aid in game development. Very little information is available about these professional engines since at that time -- a time of game-feature "brinkmanship" -- the information was closely held.

Anticipating Creative Commons and the Remix Culture

Second, we shipped the software with a bunch of sample games and encouraged users to borrow and reuse our content. We also worked with a BBS owner (bulletin board system -- it was a precursor to the internet) to have an "official" community sharing repository. Also, I deliberately (in fact I remember an argument about it) made no effort to protect a game's content -- anyone could load up anyone else's game in the editors. My feeling was that if you were sophisticated enough to build a game that really needed protection, you could wrap it in your own encrypted .zip file or something. This philosophy emerged from knowledge of shareware licenses, but AFAIK is probably the first adaptation of the philosophy for content, not code. Today, the "creative commons" has standard licenses covering all manner of content.

And a lot of people did reuse our stuff (and other game authors)! In that way it anticipated today's emerging remix culture. If I remember correctly (and I may not), I was the one who decided to share all of the content shipped on our CD and disks while my father should receive credit for encouraging the community, through user letters (yes back then we got HANDWRITTEN letters, I still have a huge stack of them), the community BBS, and the GameMaker Exchange (which was sort of a "mail us your game & we'll mail it to other people" thing). But of course as a family company these decisions were often made around the dinner table. We also decided to buy (and beg) some games from our best users and ship them with the 3.0 version of our product in a "remixable" license.

Teen Hackers!

Third it was really a major piece of software built by teenagers, mostly for teenagers. This probably makes it pretty unique, if not completely unique. It consisted of 16000 lines of "c" code, 2000 lines of hard core x86 assembler, and 1000 lines of C++ (versions 1 & 2 predated the emergence of C++). So about 20000 lines of code total. 'Sloccount' (a Linux software line counting program) puts this at 4.5 man-years of effort with a $600000 price tag (assuming developer salary $50k 2010 dollars). But we did it during high school and college.

Sure we had adult supervision (and funding and support -- I can't overemphasise how supportive my parents were!!!), but at the same time we wrote all the code and essentially came up with the content entirely ourselves (with our user's input of course). If GameMaker somehow fast-forwarded itself to 2010, it likely would have been entirely teenager-driven. However, in the internetless world of the '90's there were countless costs -- lots of expensive advertising, CDs to print (sorry no CD burners), boxes and user manuals made, mailers, and on and on. I remain amazed that my parents put that kind of cash at risk for this effort.

Breathing Life into the DIY Culture

GameMaker was part of the DIY and programming culture of the 90's. I would love to see what my users are doing now. You have to be a certain kind of person to look through a magazine full of ads for instant-gratification twitch games and pick the software that makes you WORK hard. I would guess that we managed to pre-select the most creative individuals; a feat that our educational system has a very hard time doing.

Also I think that it is probably possible to trace a certain (changing) subset of the population throughout US history. Call them tinkerers, creative minds -- just people who like to do their own thing. And I am proud to have been an enabler of this culture in the 90's.

I see it in automobiles and phone systems in the 50s and 60s to the transistor (hi-fi) radio kits (hobbiest electronics), to the early garage build-your-own computers of the mid-70s and early 80s, the software of the mid-80s to mid-90s, all the web software, blogging etc from the mid-90s to sometime in the 2000s, and finally the emerging custom open-source hardware culture of the 2010s (,, and my own I fully expect that 2020 will see ubiquituous desktop manufacturing with communities not focused on building desktop manufacturing machines (as exists today) but focused on what can be made. By 2050 we'll probably be designing our own plants and animals, probably with an incompatible biology for obvious reasons.

Software Archaeology

Finally, it is an interesting piece of computer archaeology as its "heyday" fortuitously happened at the end of the prehistoric times (as people years from now will see these dark ages before the emergence of the global hive mind and recording device we call the internet).

What can be recovered by reaching back across the curtain? This is quite an interesting question and many scholarly articles have considered it (I have read several articles in Scientific American on this subject over the past decade for instance). These articles tend to warn against electronic media for pretty obvious reasons. Quick summary: Your grandkids find a 3.5" floppy (or CDROM) in the attic. Will they even recognise it as electronic media? How will they read it without a disk drive? Even if they manage to get the bits, will modern computers be able to run the programs, read the documents, play the movies?

Well, for GameMaker, it turns out that quite a lot is possible! You can even play the created games in a Java simulator called "DOSbox" in the wiki posted in the first paragraph of this article. For me, it was quite a trip to play games (and see the GameMaker software on Youtube) that I created 15 years ago. You results may vary. Remember, these were games built 15 years ago mostly by teenagers! Please don't go in there expecting amazing stuff -- go in there amazed that these kids could put together this stuff at all! But if you hunt for gems of creativity I promise you'll find some.

Software Obscurity

And what did I do after GameMaker? Have I been washing windows for 20 years? No I've been writing vast quantities of code in various startup companies which have been sold for a sum total of approximately a half billion dollars. But all that code is gone. A company gets sold, the product is either canned or is successful for a few years. Then it is done. Can I get my code for the next project? No.

I have even attempted to purchase some from prior employers. No dice, price does not matter, the company is not in the business of selling its software, so its just not possible to find a manager willing to even consider the proposition. Because what if hidden in that chunk of software is something really important?

So if there ever was an argument for open source software and open source content then this is it! As engineers in corporate America (and elsewhere) we build machines for obscurity. We write novels to be read by no-one. We architect palaces of structured information that shall soon disappear.

Let's try to do that as little as possible.

G. Andrew Stone


The next episodes of this little blog may delve in more detail about RSD and GameMaker's history, etc. Perhaps only interesting to those who actually used it.