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The best worst engine none of you are using

While browsing the XBOX 360 Indie Gaming section looking for anything playable in the sea of shit, I noticed one of the game's box art had a little bit of Japanese at the bottom saying "Action Game Tsukuru", which ignoring a japanese play on words essentially means "Action Game Maker". This intrigued me because I wasn't aware there were any commercial engines, apart from stuff like Torque, that could output to XNA. I was also interested because it was clearly from the same series as Enterbrain's RPG Maker, which is known for being incredibly easy to use if a little restrictive in scope.

A quick google search later and I found Enterbrain had indeed released Action Game Maker in Japan, but on top of that they had also put out an English version called Indie Game Maker. This is probably the kind of thing that would have no appeal to many of you, but I'm a a terrible programmer, I do PHP for a living but hate coding yet somehow find myself always stuck doing it. So I'm always looking for nice tools that will suit the scope of the projects I'm working on and automate a lot of wheel reinvention. For the record my main project right now "Journal" is being written in C# from the ground up but that doesn't mean I don't love an easy engine for the right project.

A whole new world

So at first glance at the feature set Indie Game Maker looks fantastic. With toolsets specifically tailored for making shooters, RPGs and platformers I figured this was going to have enough flexibility for the kind of simple games I'd want to make with it. It's export formats included a Windows EXE, XNA source code and Flash SWF. The flash output interested me as it meant with a projector I'd get a free no-hassle Mac port of the finished game. I tried it with one of their test games and it worked a treat.

Over Christmas I've been working on a game for TIGSource's Assemblee competition (see previous entry for more details) and I figured combination of prebuilt art assets and a really simple engine would be perfect for getting a rough game done really quickly. So I have now spent the last few weeks working quite intensively with Indie Game Maker and I think it's time to share my thoughts on this engine. Put simply: it's both brilliant and completely useless.

A poor workman...

To break this down, I really loved the toolset and workflow up to a point. You create a series of animations from art assets, with lots of control over every aspect of it along with multiple collision boxes. You then create gadgets, which are objects containing a series of states and you assign animations to each state and define what condition takes the gadget from one state to the next. The level editor works with tilesets and allows you to easily define collision boundaries for them. You can also manually place gadgets wherever you like and assign them movement paths. In game text is store separate from the logic, with some great localisation support. With all that I'm only scratching the surface of what the engine can do. During my initial learning phase I was just amazed how logical everything was, most things I wanted to do were already in there in a simple well thought manner and didn't require any coding to pull off.

One minor gripe that I could live with is that the English translation of the engine is clearly a rush job with no real quality control, many of the translated terms are just clearly the wrong interpretations of the Japanese word. The most obvious being that variables are referred to throughout the engine as "memories", however that's not a deal breaker for me as I just learned their esoteric naming conventions.

What really breaks the engine for me is that without any kind of scripting support at all, as soon as you try to do anything outside of the expected usage you're running into brick walls. The biggest problem for me is that making a platformer with dialog seemed to be something they hadn't expected. Doing something simple as having two characters talk required a new state for each line of dialog which is messy and convoluted, and I had to give up on any notion of having branching dialog. You could argue they're uncommon requirement for a platformer but the engine doesn't even support ladders or diagonal surfaces. Finally the logic system is incredibly basic, switching between states has to be "all of these conditions are true" or "one of these conditions is true" offering no more subtle fidelity.

Proof in pudding

So despite running into the walls of the engine's capability I've managed to make it work with my competition entry. As my entry was nearing completion I began looking into the Flash export facility to get it running on my Mac. Now getting the pre-requisities for the Flash exporter up and running is no simple feat but I could live with the hassle were it not for the fact that the Flash export is completely unworkable. A huge chunk of the engine features are not supported in the Flash version including many I've used such as text boxes, stretched backgrounds, and most shockingly the logic model seems to be broken. I've not tried the XNA support yet, but even if that works great the loss of the possibility of a Mac port kills one of the major benefits I figured I was getting.

So where does this leave me? I am never going to use this engine again and neither should you. It's two remaining killer features are XNA export and a really lovely toolset but neither of these seem benefits enough for all the problems I encountered unless you were only making a fairly simple platformer or shooter. For simple game construction I fear my only choice is now to return to the Windows only Game Maker, which is a lovely tool in many ways but I do feel the toolset in IGM is where Game Maker's toolset should be at this point. I can't be the only one who feels like genuine advancement on Game Maker's tools halted many years ago.

So to repeat myself Action Game Maker / Indie Game Maker is both brilliant and completely useless. Knowing Enterbrain's history they might release a new version next year so for all I know they could address these problems but who knows? Right now this is not something I plan to use on any more projects.

Welcome to the home of Locked Door Puzzle, the independent game development studio of Richard Perrin located in Bristol.

My primary focus is on creating expressive games that explore different forms of interactive storytelling.

For contact details check the about page.