MARCH 26, 2004
Macromedia Director MX 2004
The deposed King of Interactive Authoring Applications returns from the wilderness
Kevin Schmitt

If it weren't for (the outstanding) Flash MX 2004, Macromedia would have been all but dead to me right around the first of this year. Between the messes that were Director MX and Dreamweaver MX 2004, I had become quite down on what was formerly one of my favorite software companies. But times change quickly, and with the recent tandem of Macromedia's Dreamweaver update patch and the release of Director MX 2004, the former MacroMind is very, very quickly getting back into my good graces. But enough with everything else—we're here to talk Director MX 2004, and talk DMX04 we shall.

First of all, I'm really going to try very hard not to sound insulting to you poor souls out there who shelled out hard-earned green for Director MX about a year ago (especially in a tight economy) because, frankly, you got taken. In my opinion, Director MX was one of the biggest non-upgrades I've ever seen, offering very little apart from Mac OS X compatibility. For those of you who feel similarly, I'm sure you're already plenty peeved at the way things have panned out, so I'll leave it at a simple "ya shoulda waited." I'm glad I did, because Director MX 2004 is what Director MX should have been. So while I realize that I may not be filled with the bile and/or raw hatred that some of you may be reserving for Macromedia right now, all I can ultimately say is that Macromedia has made some serious amends with DMX04.

Finding its niche
Director has been around in some form for close to two decades(!), which puts to shame even the "mere" eleven years that I've been using it. Recent Director history, however, has been uncertain at best. As Macromedia began to place its considerable resources squarely behind Flash, many users began to wonder if Director would be left just to wither and die (or, at least assume Authorware-like "cult" status). After all, Flash seemed to be encroaching more and more onto Director's traditional turf with each release, and it appeared for a while there that Macromedia couldn't figure out where Director fit into the picture.

That doesn't seem to be the case anymore. To put it in terms that, say, Alexander de Large could understand, if Flash is milk, Director is "milk plus." Macromedia has made the integration between Flash and Director so tight these days that it's not a stretch to say that Director's main raison d'être is to serve as a "Flash Wrapper" application, picking up where Flash leaves off. But that's not all Director is good for, as Macromedia has made a few major enhancements that have reinvigorated what could have been called a tired product.

What it does
First, let me say that I'm not going to cover features that have been in Director for ages, because as a 10.0 product, Director has been around the block more a few times (and a great many of you have likely been around the block with it). Therefore, I'm going to hit a few of the new and/or notable features in Director MX 2004 pretty much exclusively. That said, however, indulge me for a moment in a quick overview of what Director does in general.

Director, put simply, is an industrial-strength multimedia authoring program, and, for a time, it was pretty much the only game in town. Oh, sure—you had programs like Mtropolis and Quark Immedia and Supercard and Apple Media Tool (and so on) come and go, but Director was the best at what it did. "What it did," and still does, is combine images, text, movies, animation, and interactivity together into multimedia programs. Over the years, Shockwave came along and allowed you to put Director movies on the Web, and then Flash rolled around and more or less shot up the joint. Historically, though, what set Director apart was the sheer power under the hood, which married VideoWorks (the animation program Director started life as) with a scripting language for us mere mortals (Lingo), the result being one of the most entrenched and widely used multimedia programs to date. But ho-hum, lots of programs these days can do at least some of what Director does, and as the perpetrator of "Boobygate" once sang, what have you done for me lately? So let's look at where DMX04 begins to take us, which, I'm happy to report, is in a direction that gives Director fresh legs along with a much-needed shot of extra relevancy.

Cross-platform publishing
In the normal course of events, I would put an unsexy feature like publishing dead last in a review (if I even mention it at all), but I've only been waiting for this one for, oh, seven or eight years now, so it gets bumped to the top of the list. To bring the unfamiliar up to speed, Director went cross-platform circa 1994 (if memory serves, which it often does not these days), and ever since then if you wanted to publish a hybrid CD containing Projectors for both Mac and Windows, you had to buy two complete copies of Director. That meant double the initial outlay, and for every upgrade, you had to multiply the upgrade cost by two just to stay current. A typical Director upgrade would therefore cost up to $800, which ain't exactly chump change for most folks. Frankly, I went looking for other authoring options because of this, well, extortion on Macromedia's part. I needed Mac OS X authoring and Windows playback, and was sick of paying the "Director tax" twice just to do so. Thankfully, Macromedia listened to the outcry, because you can now publish Mac Projectors from Windows, and vice-versa. So the long nightmare is finally over.

The Projector publishing process has been folded into DMX04's new Publish Settings panel (fig. 1), adding Projectors to the HTML and Shockwave options that were already present in previous versions (and, more importantly, eliminating the often-cumbersome "Create Projector" process). You'll notice from the screenshot that you can still save Mac OS 9 "Classic" Projectors, but you can only do this from the Mac version. The Windows version will just let you save OS X Projectors, an omission which I suspect will not cause a huge fuss amongst developers.

Fig. 1: Projector publishing has been incorporated into the Publish Settings box.

But what of Xtras in this brave new cross-platform world? Glad I asked. You can embed both versions of a particular Xtra into a DMX04 movie by utilizing the new Cross Platform Resources folder and the xtrainfo.txt file (fig. 2) to tell Director what's what. It's a bit of a hassle at first, but one you add one or two this way it's not really a big deal. You then embed Xtras into your movie as usual, and when it's time to publish, Director will package up the appropriate version into the relevant Projector automatically. Of course, this new freedom to publish wherever you damn well please doesn't relieve you of your responsibility to test thoroughly on both platforms, as the usual platform-specific "gotchas" (such as path delimiters) will still rear their ugly heads. But what's important is that your Director investment can now be in your single platform of choice, and you can publish where you like. Woo-hoo.

Fig. 2: Cross-platform Xtras go in the Cross Platform Resources folder (top), and are referenced in the xtrainfo.txt file (bottom).

Embracing JavaScript
I remember back to those youthful days when I first started learning ActionScript, and lamenting to my coworkers that it wasn't more like Lingo. It's funny (not funny ha-ha but funny hmmm...) how things turn around sometimes, because once I got decent enough with ActionScript, I was annoyed that I had to revert back to Lingo when working in Director. DMX04 avoids the issue entirely by letting you use both (fig. 3). Old school Lingo person? You're covered. Coming from Flash and want a familiar language? Use JavaScript. You can even mix and match in the same Director movie, although you do have to keep it to one or the other within individual scripts.

Fig. 3: The basic "go to the frame" script, presented as both Lingo and JavaScript. The choice is yours.

One more nicety I'll mention here (though not directly JavaScript-related) is that DMX04 finally features sprite and channel naming (fig. 4), which is LOOOONNNNNGGGG overdue. You're no longer constrained to using hardcoded sprite channels or (member of sprite) Lingo to call sprites. Anyone who has had to move a sprite up or down in the score and having long scripts break on them can certainly agree that the new naming feature is a most welcome one.

Fig. 4: Sprite (left) and channel (right) naming—"better late than never" is the phrase that comes to mind here.

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