First impressions: Game Maker 8 1

With the recent surfacing of the Game Maker 8 open beta, I felt duty-bound to download the tool and give it a whirl to see what’s improved over previous versions.

It turns out that there’re quite a lot of tweaks in the new release: some of them are purely aesthetic, while others shake the system to its very core and sprout random slices of chocolate cake when you enter the secret code. It’s quite clear already that Game Maker 8 has made a considerable jump over its predecessors in a way that will benefit just about any user out there.

While the program is still in beta (and carries its fair share of bugs), it’s still very possible to take a look at a few cool things:

New bits and pieces

The first thing that I noticed upon firing up my copy of the beta was the presence of one or two new windows. First of all, there was the snazzy little tutorial tab on the right: a basic walkthrough to help you make your first GM game. Not particularly useful for most converts, but it’s a lovely touch to draw in newbies and, quite frankly, even the best tutorials will pale in comparison to a guide that holds your hand while you’re in the program itself.

Game Maker is also increasing its ties to the online world (a move that was started in GM7) with a news window that updates itself regularly with GM community announcements, competition details, tutorial links and anything else that could possibly interest a user. It’s yet to be seen how comprehensive this service will be – for the beta, it’s mostly been restricted to bug-fix announcements and other test-related malarkey.

Aside from this, the first impressions of version 8 should be quite familiar to GM veterans: your standard dev space on the right, your resource tree on the left and the standard array of options lining the top.

Game Maker 8 sprite editor

Game Maker 8 sprite editor

The sprite editor

Something that I’ve heard about for a while already (and have actually tested prior to this release) is the new sprite editor in GM 8. Most users will recall a very basic – and even frustrating – method of sprite generation supported in older versions of GM, and if you’re anything like me, you’ll be accustomed to firing up the GIMP to get your drawing needs out of the way rather than resorting to the painful pixel-by-pixel process of the built-in editor.

The new sprite editor has improved by a country mile (I’ve never understood exactly what a “country mile” is, but I’m using the term anyway) and it’s truly a pleasure to fiddle about with random drawings now. Sure, it’s still not as sophisticated as most pixel-pushing suites out there, but at least it can now hold its own against MS Paint. That, and it has dropped the infuriatingly roundabout method of text insertion as well as – dun dun duuuuun – “bloody-bottom-left-corner-transparency” syndrome.

For those of you who are unaware: the alpha value of a sprite’s pixels in older versions of GM was always determined by the colour present in the bottom left corner of the sprite (an icky dark green by default). This became a problem if, say, your elected colour turned up inside the sprite itself, or if you somehow wanted to paint over that bottom left pixel with a part of the sprite. Royal pain in the buttocks.

GM’s sprites now have full alpha channel support, a huge leap forward. There’s also a flexible and very useful new system for tweaking with a sprite’s collision mask, based on a variety of parameters.

The code environment

Advanced GM users make very regular use of GML (Game Maker Language) to get their work done. It’s cool, it’s powerful and it’s more comfortable for programmers to use.

At least, it would be if it wasn’t locked inside an absolutely rotten coding environment.

In GM 8, Mark Overmars has finally listened to the pleas of beleaguered coders and given the ubiquitous coding window a much-needed overhaul. Features such as line numbers, real-time syntax checking and the big one – code completion – are all available to the wide-eyed coding enthusiasts who are waiting to sink their jaws into a more user-friendly system.

Although the cursor is now irritatingly independent (scrolling to the end of a line allows it to carry on as opposed to moving down one row), it’s a small price to pay for the luxury of being able to get all your work done in one window rather than flipping to the help file when you need to remember a function, or getting kicked out of your game’s execution because you forgot to run a manual syntax check before playing. A very nice job, there.

Triggers and time lines

Triggers and time lines

Triggers and time lines

Oooh, this is new. One of the most interesting additions to GM 8 is an easy way to generate your own event checking through the use of custom triggers: in short, you define sets of code that execute during every game step and return a non-zero value when your specified conditions are met. This result is treated like any other event — you can use it in your object menu and assign actions to the event trigger as you would for instance creation or key presses.

The most tangible advantage: instead of laboriously shoving all of your frame-by-frame checks into a great big “Step” event, you can dice it up into smaller and more meaningful chunks of code which can be called globally and reduce your bloat!

A not-so-new concept is that of time lines, but those who remained unconvinced by the usefulness of this tool in previous versions may be pleasantly surprised now. Time lines have an enhanced array of options available, including the ability to change speed and even play backwards. There’s not much to say here: either you use time lines or you don’t, but either way I strongly recommend giving them a shot. Just don’t do something horribly cliché by trying to copy Braid or something. Seriously. It’s old now.

Triggers and time lines

The rest

To be honest, I’ve already discovered loads more changes that have been made to Game Maker 8, but the above mentions are the major ones and are most likely to be used by the average dev. Here’s apreliminary features list for those who are interested.

I strongly recommend that interested individuals sign up themselves and try the beta while it’s still out and about. If you’re not sure about upgrading, or are new to Game Maker entirely, then this would be a good (free) way to test-run the system for a limited time.

The additional functionality and user-friendliness is well worth the upgrade, and it’s heartily recommended that you upgrade to GM 8 when it comes out. Sure, GM7 brought the neat YoYo online tie-in, but if you want the tool itself to be easier and more flexible to use, then prepare to gorge yourself on the fine delights of version 8. If you try it, you won’t regret it. If you do regret it … well, screw you. It’s a damn fine tool and I’m looking forward to the final release.

About Nandrew

Rodain Joubert is a South African game developer based in Cape Town, currently working for QCF Design. He likes his job. He likes being opinionated on the Internet. He likes fighting evil with his heat ray vision. And he also likes cats. [Articles]

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