Monday, April 23, 2007

Comparing Game Maker with Etoys / Squeak

Game Maker is far more popular than Etoys / Squeak as revealed by a rough and ready Google search:
  • Game Maker 27.7 million hits
  • Etoys 2.5 million hits
  • Squeak 5.7 million hits

More significantly, the Game Maker forum is very active. I just went there and there were 149 current active users. I've recently subscribed to the Squeakland forum and receive one or two messages a day. No comparison.

Why is Game Maker far more popular than Etoys / Squeak? From the following comparisons it seems clear to me that Etoys / Squeak is a superior program which has been poorly promoted and which also has some quirks that slows its uptake.

1) The name. Game Maker makes a direct appeal to the millions who want to make games. This is a significant but achievable challenge, to make a game. To whom does the name Etoys / Squeak appeal to? Hard to say but it doesn't quite cut it.

2) With Game Maker the concept is simple, clean and appealing. It does one sort of thing and does it well.

On the other hand, while Etoys is developed for young people (with its drag and drop features) the concept is not so clear. You can make games with Etoys but that is just one of many things you can do with it. Moreover, this other stuff is not very clear from the website. Initially, there is just vague talk about "multimedia"

Apart from Etoys, Squeak itself is a multifaceted, ambitious program which branches out into Seaside (dynamic web apps), Croquet (collaborative 3D multi-user online applications), Sophie (digital media assembly tool) and others

With Game Maker all the energy goes into developing Game Maker. With Squeak, the energy goes in all sorts of directions, not just Etoys.

3) Mentioning either of the words Education or Learning is potentially a big turn off for young people. The Game Maker website front page does not make this mistake. But the Squeakland website falls straight into it, with it's banner "come play and learn with us"

4) Documentation and Tutorials.
With Game Maker these are clearly presented with comprehensive tutorials available and labelled for different skill levels: Beginner, Intermediate, Advanced.

For Etoys the English website (Squeakland) is a dogs breakfast with bits and pieces scattered more or less at random throughout the site. It took me many visits to put it all together.

5) Platform.
Game Maker is Windows only whilst Etoys / Squeak runs on all platforms

6) License and development community.
Game Maker is Proprietary, Etoys / Squeak is free and open source. The main developer is Mark Overmars and he has been very energetic in bringing out 7 versions in as many years. It is evident that the Etoys / Squeak development process is much more messy, with no benevolent dictator stepping forward (as there is for some other FOSS communities). This 2004 paper by Ned Konz is a frank assessment of some of the problems within the Squeak development community.

7) Drag and drop
Both programs have great drag and drop features to help a beginner make a quick start. I would say the Etoys version is superior because the variables can be seen on the same page as the animation (and even altered while the program is running, due to Squeak's late binding)

8) Multilingual diversity.
Game Maker is available in Dutch and English. Etoys / Squeak is much broader than that and attempts to reach all audiences. The Site Map page of the Squeakland site boasts links to communities in Japan, Germany, Spain, Nepal and Brazil.

9) Philosophical and educational base
Prof Dr Mark Overmars teaches Game Making at Utrecht University in the Netherlands and is clearly an expert in that area.

Alan Kay (the head of the Smalltalk team from which Squeak / Etoys arose) would have to be classified as one of the most original and creative thinkers of our time both for his own inventions and extraordinary breadth and depth of knowledge

10) User Interface
Game maker has a conventional Windows UI

Etoys / Squeak uses the innovative Morphic UI, which most users have not seen before. Morphic is great once you get used to it but it is different from what is currently running on 95% of the world's computers.

11) Web
Game maker games do not run on the web. Etoy projects do.

12) 3D
Both Game Maker and Squeak have 3D but the 3D in Squeak, which looks superior, is not currently part of Etoys.

13) Quirks
Game maker is a specialist but conventional Windows program

Etoys / Squeak has quite a few quirks. eg. on the Windows platform you have to use the middle mouse button to see the morphic haloes

14) OLPC
Unlike Game maker, Etoys / Squeak is being distributed on the One Laptop per Child Project, which might solve some of its current distribution problems :-)


Tony Forster said...

You would have us believe that the main reason for the relative success of Game Maker is better marketing and presentation.

But what about the steepness of the initiial learning curve? Within the first half hour with GM I had made a game. After two abortive one hour sessions with etoys, I am still fumbling with mouse buttons and yet to find the games editable source.

The entry level is crucial for young learners. If I can't make it work for me, how will I make it work for kids? What am I missing? Are you sure kids won't miss it too?

Bill Kerr said...

hi tony,

I think for developed country users the initial learning curve for Etoys is steeper. I didn't have a specific section on that but it was implied I think in:
point 2 - the purpose of Etoys is initially a bit vague

point 4 - poor organisation of tutorials on the Squeakland site

especially point 11 and 13 - the big difference in the morphic haloes and the quirks with the mouse buttons are very significant for those brought up on conventional windows programs

I could with more time write a better piece comparing the two programs. I was just trying to quickly cover the ground involved in comparing two programs whose strategic aims are quite different. Please treat it as a rough draft overview. I would say that Game Maker has short term tactical advantages and Etoys / Squeak has longer term strategic benefits.

Game Maker is about grabbing a new, hot niche market, Squeak is about changing the world in more significant ways - eg. introducting a new UI (which is part of the OLPC) and in other ways which are hard to express briefly and which have only gradually emerged for me as I have dug into the history and underlying philosophy of Alan Kay

So, one issue with Etoys/Squeak is that the initiators have a great vision but poor nitty gritty detailed implementation of that vision. Alan Kay once described himself as an good ideas man who was a "poor finisher" - and it shows in the community I think

Tony Forster said...

Thanks Bill
Good reply.

How could the "short term tactical advantages" of GM and the "longer term strategic benefits" of Etoys / Squeak be merged?

With the OLPC coming, now is the time to get it right. To give the OLPC developers a perspective on what best practice in a programming environment could look like.

Wara said...

Thanks Bill. Very useful.

Rob said...

great post with lots of interesting stuff to follow up.

i would take issue, though, with your google searches to prove popularity. By September, searching for Game Maker now returns 65 million hits (as against 27 million when the post was written 6 months ago).

Squeak now has 8.3 million (up from 5.7) - Etoys stable at 2.4 million.

So ... are there 38 million new game maker pages in the last 6 months?

or is it so rough as to be meaningless?

searching for "game maker" in quotations would be a little fairer - and it comes in last (2 million hits). (Gamemaker as one word comes in at 1.1 million.)

is it three times less popular than squeak?

of course google is returning every page with the word "squeak" -

even if the tech usage is over represented on the web (and has higher page rank due to more cross referencing by the tech users) one hardly imagines it will dominate all listings.

Its like comparing "keyboard" with "mouse" - the warm rodent will come out somewhere - and so will the sound (squeak) it makes.

still some great stuff to follow up - my pedantic mind just stumbled over the lead in

also, in discussing GameMaker, unless i'm mistaken, GM does not show you a code translation of the the visual elements you drag into place.

that leaves a rather big gap to cross when moving from visual drag and drop, into the coding side.

i would love to see it give you the code view of the loops and conditions you drag in. Would scaffold students into the syntax with relevant examples.

i'm off to check squeak - thanks

Bill Kerr said...

hi rob,

yes I agree that the google stats are fairly meaningless

sylvia martinez took me to task on that too, suggesting that if someone named a new program "Britney" then it would be an instant hit :-)

at any rate, the forum visits indicate that programs like scratch and game maker remain far more popular than etoys

I raised this on the squeakland list more recently ( August 20th ), citing these figures:

Other programs have developed or are in the process of developing large, very communities of young people

Currently 8 guests on line, no registered users

150 pages of projects, 10 projects per page

230 users active in the past 15 minutes
40 pages of beta games, 20 projects per page
52 pages of games in progress, 20 projects per page

I don't see anything equivalent to this activity for etoys / squeak

etoys has a feature where you can read (but not alter) the text code from the visual drag and drop interface - which I agree is important to smooth the transition

Anonymous said...

Instead of relying on your own intuition you can actually find research papers indicating that Squeak/Etoys really does not work well with students at all. This has nothing to do with marketing.

Bill Kerr said...

hi anonymous,

Please supply some urls for the alleged "research papers indicating that Squeak/Etoys really does not work well with students at all" - would love to see them