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.


  1. Nice to see the guy who made a lot of my teenage projects turn real showing up. RSD Game-Maker hit Europe, but there we had additional problems for purchasing, so we never really "kick-started" into shareware ...

    As for DIY tools on the C64, I once tried SEUCK (Shoot-em-up Construction Kit), that was efficient for toy shoot-em-ups, but that made no effort to allow creativity in the game genre.

    I have always liked the way RSD Game-Maker did not tied the creator to a single game genre but allowed to try eagle-eye shooters, labyrinth/quests, platforming action ... virtually most of the early '90 game genres, storytelling and sport simulation put aside.

    I hope I'll be able to do something similar for the NintendoDS platform.

  2. Hi! Great to hear from you and see the RSD Gamemaker helped you find your avocation! I read your posts on the DS and that is a pretty good idea; it would be great to have sort of a hackers handheld gaming platform!

  3. Thanks. Maybe "find my vocation" might not be what RSD brought me (I was already a BASIC programmer for ~7 years when I purchased my RSD copy), but it sure taught me the hard way to calibrate a game project and was a great medium for expressing my creativity rather than just dreaming it.

    Live long and prosper.

  4. Hi Sylvain,
    I didn't say "find your vocation" which means find what you do for a living -- writing programs. I said "find your avocation" (note the "a") which means to find what you do as a hobby. But maybe it did not do that either as from your posts you seemed to be well on the path of creating games and RSD GM was simply more of a facilitator :-). Regardless thanks for posting about your RSD GM work it was a fun read!

  5. Hi! I was pretty obsessed with RSD Game-Maker as a teenager back in the mid 90's. I'd like to say thanks for years of enjoyment from that program! Here's just a few of the games I made: By the time that new computers stopped supporting MS-DOS programs, I was pretty crushed. Since I couldn't use Game-Maker anymore, I kept looking for something like it but couldn't find anything. I really would love to spend my time making games like that again, but I don't really know how. I've tried learning to make Flash games with limited success. Mostly point and click type stuff. I've put a few short games on Kongregate and I've earned about $100, which is not bad for someone who can't program. Here's some of the Flash games I've done: As you can see, they're not that great. I guess what I'd love to see is something like Game-Maker which could export to an .swf file that could be uploaded to sites like Kongregate. If anyone knows of anything like that, I'd love to know about it! Anyway, thanks again for creating a program that I was pretty obsessed with for most of my teenage years!

  6. Just a thought ... I've released a first version of my Level editor for Nintendo DS. Would you like me to convert some Pipemare tiles & sprite sheets to the expected format so that we can propose Pipemare DS to the grown-up RSD fans ?

  7. I had the MicroForum version of RSD GameMaker and I used to carry around the little instruction booklet everywhere I went trying to figure out a way past its limitations.

    I wanted monsters that could shoot while still being moveable and killable and a way to make big boss monsters and a few other things.

    I loved RSD GameMaker! It was like a game in itself trying to find a way to defeat its limitations. If only I had found a way past those limitations, this very day it would still be the best no programming game creator to use for 2d games. I'm certain of it. It remains the most fun of everything I've used and I've used a lot of them. (klik n' play, the games factory, multimedia fusion 1 and 2, Stencyl, "gamemaker" by YoYo games, and several others that I can't even remember)

    All it needs is a few modifications and the ability to port games made with it to outside filetypes (.exe, html5, flash, ios, android). Or if it was possible to convert the .gam into actionscript 3 that'd work as well cause programs like Stencyl you can load as3 into and edit the game the rest of the way. Your RSD GameMaker is the perfect prototyper for 2d games.

    Btw, I somehow lost my booklet over the years and it makes me very sad. :(
    It was blue and had a white plastic binding that started falling apart cause I carried it everywhere.

    I'm gonna have to download that DosBox thing so I can use your program again. I don't know where the booklet went but I do still have the original disk and the box it came in.

    Btw, In the unlikely event that you make a modern version of RSD GameMaker, I have a few creative ideas in mind if you want them.

  8. Actually, it may have been red binding ... my memory is fuzzy on that ... but I know it was blue and I believe it said Create Your Own Games or something like that on the cover. (sorry for the doublepost but I couldn't edit)

    Any idea where I could buy just the instruction booklet for a reasonable price? I've found the full product at the full purchase price of $50, but my copy is still in perfect condition, I just need the little instruction booklet.

  9. I'm glad you loved it! I had a lot of fun writing it as well! I don't remember what the MicroForum booklet looked like but the RSD one was white with blue writing on the cover. I'll dig around in my basement to see if I can find one, but I think I threw them all away... I may have a digital copy.

  10. Matt, Alan Caudel posted a scan of the MicroForum manual cover here for reference:

    It was spiral-bound! That must have been super convenient for reference, while tooling around with the software.

    I have been meaning to scan or transcribe parts of the original manual for a while, for my own purposes (so I can selectively quote without pulling the thing out all the time). One of those things I keep putting off, though.

  11. HI!, I hope you are still around here.

    I recently started making games for game boy, (with the help of a little game engine created by zalo). A few days ago I wondered if there was an engine for MS-DOS based on tiles and maps, to test my GB game, and RSD Game Maker was the only I found.

    The engine works great in dosbox, and using the minimun requirements (286, etc) is still working well.

    I Love the way it looks, and I could "port" a test level of my game, looking awesome in 256 colors!.

    This is the Game Boy version:

    And this is the MS-DOS version:

    I just was wondering if the engine included some sort of simple scrolling one pixel every time, without using any character. I mean, to make some movie style credits or similar.

    I could edit playgame.c and compile it, But I just made the scrolling to go crazy :).

    Thanks a lot!.