I recently spoke with the creator of DS Game Maker James Garner. DS Game Maker is, as the name suggests, an equivalent of Game Maker which can be used to create games playable on the Nintendo DS console.
Written in Visual Basic .NET 2008 the project has been around for a year and a half and is run by just one person – 15 year old James Garner.
Although YoYo Games’ Game Maker and DS Game Maker are entirely separate projects there are similarities between them. The information James Garner was happy to supply me with is probably as close as is possible to get without planning a midnight raid on the currently non-existent YoYo HQ.
Both Game Maker and DS Game Maker are Windows applications that create games playable on a computer (Game Maker as .exe files, and DS Game Maker as .nds files that run in a bundled emulator). DS Game Maker’s games are additionally playable on a real Nintendo DS through James’ new “homebrew kits”, which adapt a MicroSD memory card to the DS’ cart slot.
DS Game Maker works by generating the C/assembler code an embedded systems developer would have written and compiled by hand.
There are currently 111 built-in actions compared to around 1,000 in Game Maker however DS Game Maker supports custom actions written in C, so users with a little programming ability can go a long way.
“I created the very first DS Game Maker when I was 11”, said James. “It was extremely basic; it had just 3 actions, no objects and it could just about print a line of text.”
“Still the homebrew [game making] scene was wild for something that made game making more accessible. Kids loved it. And I was a kid just like them.”
There are far more computers in the world than handheld consoles so creating games for the DS is more specialized and of obviously interest to fewer people. And there are not many alternatives for making DS games that don’t involve understanding the hardware or assembler code.
“It seems like DS Game Maker is pretty niche, but it’s also the way kids are making their first ever games and learning how computers understand logic, or how to draw little graphics and develop storylines and characters. And you can’t take a computer into the playground. So DS Game Maker is pretty unique, even if pretty niche.”
Yet DS Game Maker still has a strong community and forum where people share custom actions, ask questions and share games.
Although YoYo Games are, like James, UK-based, Game Maker began in The Netherlands. Therefore a high proportion of Game Maker users are Dutch or in English speaking countries around the world. 90% of DS Game Maker sales are from the United States and the website is most popular in the USA, Australia and Italy.
James says that the average age of his forum users is 11 which causes a problem YoYo Games also experience.
“Kids themselves can’t buy DS Game Maker legally. You’ve got to be 18 to have a PayPal account or a credit card. But I have still sold over 1000 copies. Mail order has been moderately successful… I’ve received plenty of letters and cheques via International mail. Someone applied to work for me this year and I wasn’t quite sure how to reply. Then a first-time game maker from the Netherlands sent me a caricature and a note from his mum saying how proud she was. That was very surreal. I’ve become a quasi-celebrity in the Nintendo DS scene. No photos please!”
Like GM DS Game Maker has both a free and paid-for version. The limitations imposed on the free version are greater than those in Game Maker with background audio disabled and a maximum of 3 game rooms permitted unless you upgrade. The upgrade cost of $14.99 for life is less than half the price of Game Maker 7 . In August James sold 62 copies against downloads exceeding 6,000.
A download-to-upgrade ratio exceeding 1% appears impressive but James said “you have to remember that users create with the software for months before deciding it is worthwhile to pay to lift the restrictions.”
“I can only track downloads from the official site, yet like Game Maker, the software is distributed all over the web, including the infamous Pirate Bay. I don’t issue DMCA takedowns for torrents because I feel kind-of complimented someone cracked the software through deobfuscating the code and running a local server that verifies the serial codes as genuine. It was a clever hack; anyone who tries that hard to make DS games deserves a free pass.”
Taking the download figures on the YoYo Games Wiki1 if just 1% of the people who downloaded Game Maker in 2006 upgraded their copy revenues of almost $300,000 would have been generated.
Unlike YoYo Games who utilized third-party Softwrap DRM protection, which has proved problematic for some users, the online registration system provided for DS Game Maker is a fairly simple PHP and MySQL system coded by James. “As a big corporation I guess they [went] for what was industry standard. MySQL gives me a simple source-of-truth and analytics on how people activate the software. PayPal calls back DS Game Maker when they’ve bought the software and the server issues a serial code by email. It’s beautifully simple, and that helps me sleep at night.”
James is quick to admit that DS Game Maker has short-comings when it comes to the provision of resources for potential programmers to make use of. There is no formal manual or spec which he says is the “biggest flaw” and the online help pages are brief. Users rely on multi-lingual YouTube tutorial videos and step by step online guides.
“The weird advantage of having little documentation for popular software is that when you have a sense of community, people come together and fill in the gaps. The best tutorials for DS Game Maker aren’t written by me; they’re written by everyone else. When the motivations are right, people help each other and support kind of handles itself. Apart from when there’s a bug with no workaround. Then you’ll catch me awake until 3am because this is ultimately a business that makes money.”
There isn’t yet a DS Game Maker equivalent of YoYoGames.com but there is a games page with a ratings system and a popular forum.
As the software development continues and the community grows the number and quality of resources can only grow.
1 – figures were previously on GameMaker.nl and article has been updated by Mark Overmars