From all-in-one indie dev packages to plug-ins for improving player engagement, we bring you a guide to the best mobile game development tools available
UPDATE: We've updated this list for 2015. Find the latest version here.
[This feature was published in the October 2013 edition of Develop magazine, which is available through your browser and on iPad]
You’ve got to be in it to win it. And to win it in today’s market, you’ve got to be on mobile.
Global successes such as Candy Crush Saga, Clash of Clans and Puzzle & Dragons have helped push gaming even further into the mainstream.
To help you reach these lofty heights, Develop has assembled this all-star guide to app and mobile game development tools.
ENGINES AND MOBILE DEV PACKAGES
Marmalade SDK is billed as the fastest way to build cross-platform C++ games. It enables you to open Xcode or Visual Studio projects and compile them for iOS, Android, Windows Phone, BlackBerry 10, Tizen, Mac and Windows desktops from a single Marmalade project file.
In 2013, the firm launched two significant supplements to its flagship SDK, which it feels has helped to serve the needs of Marmalade users better. With Marmalade Juice, a cross-platform SDK for Objective-C, you can open your Objective-C code inside Marmalade, fine tune platform-specific features and then compile it for Android and beyond from a single Marmalade project file.
And a little code goes a long way with Marmalade Quick, an acceleration tool with a fast, flexible and open environment. Quick is a Lua-based 2D RAD tool for cross-platform development, and was used to launch Marmalade’s first in-house game, Signal to the Stars, to four app stores at once. HTML5 is also catered for with Web Marmalade for speeding up web development with native performance.
Marmalade CEO Harvey Elliott says: “By bundling premium partner plug-ins into Marmalade 7 for in-app purchasing, advertising, analytics, monetisation, and other services, we’re providing a package of tools designed to get smaller and indie Marmalade game developers up and running quicker, as well as helping them to generate revenues from their apps by providing the best tools available.”
Used in: Draw Something, Plants vs Zombies, Signal to the Stars, Talisman Prologue, Vector
Marmalade SDK is priced from £379 ($500) per year (Indie licence), and comes with Marmalade C++, Marmalade Quick and Web Marmalade included for free. Marmalade Juice is available upon application.
The powerhouse behind the ambitious Infinity Blade series offers two solutions for mobile game developers. Firstly, its full source Unreal Engine 3, which includes complete access to the integrated Unreal Editor suite, C++ source code and direct support from its engineering team. In addition, it provides the free edition of Unreal Engine 3, the Unreal Development Kit, which has had more than 2.25 million unique installs to date.
Both products come with a set of industry-leading middleware packages and integrations at no additional cost. The elegant upgrade path from UDK to the full source UE3 is a particulaly good strength, allowing you room to grow and stretch your wings without having to learn new technologies. The vibrant Unreal Engine dev community also means that there are plenty of resources availble, whether you’re looking to have a question answered or seeking members for a virtual team.
Epic provides additional information on its developer network and also produces video tutorials to teach you more about making mobile games with UDK on its Twitch TV and YouTube channels online.
Epic Games European territory manager Mike Gamble says: “Unreal Engine technology provides a tried and tested high-quality development environment for mobile development. Teams using Unreal are equipped with tools that help them produce the quality necessary for standout titles to compete in the crowded mobile app space.”
Used in: Infinity Blade series, Batman: Arkham City Lockdown, Borderlands Legends, Injustice
Unreal Engine 3 is available and priced upon application. UDK is free.
Launched in August this year, Maya LT is Autodesk’s bid at opening its floodgates to mobile developers. Maya LT has been designed from the beginning specifically for the needs of start-up and mobile developers. Autodesk tell us that the product went through extensive testing and everything from its feature set down to its UI has been optimised to meet the unique needs of the mobile community.
With Maya LT on Mac or PC, artists can use the Nex toolset, alongside essential animation features, such as keyframing and rigging tools via Autodesk HumanIK rig and skeleton generation. The product also has advanced material creation and the Turtle tool for texture baking and simulating realistic lighting as well as ShaderFX, a node-based shader editor. Furthermore, Maya LT supports Unity, Unreal Engine and CryEngine. An SDK for Autodesk’s FBX file format is available to let devs adapt environments to the FBX format.
Before the launch of this new package, Autodesk released its Scaleform Mobile SDK and Unity plug-in for iOS, Android and Windows Phone last year. The former enables developers to use the SDK as a standalone Flash runtime to port games to mobile platforms, while the plug-in brings Autodesk’s popular UI tools to Unity developers.
Autodesk director of game solutions Frank Delise says: “We really believe Maya LT combines the best tools for game asset creation at a price that can be as flexible as the developer needs. Budget doesn’t have to cripple the development cycle and with Maya LT, artists can easily create better art using industry standard tools.”
Used in: (Product recently launched)
Autodesk Maya LT £700, Autodesk Scaleform Mobile SDK/Unity (plug-in) £195.
From 2D puzzle games to complex 3D action titles, Unity continues to be a favourite among developers for its accessibility, dependability and cross-platform capabilities. For mobile, Unity’s integrated development environment allows developers to port between all major mobile platforms, and soon Tizen and PlayStation Mobile. Games can also be ported to the web (via Unity Web Player), PC, Mac, Linux and all major consoles, including PS Vita with relative ease, giving you greater potential to reach the widest audience possible.
The fundamental Unity tools are available for free and you can currently use those free tools to publishing games to iOS, Android, BlackBerry 10 and Windows Store for no cost, collection fee or royalties.
However, once you or your company starts to bring in revenues over $100k a year, Unity asks that you upgrade your licences to Unity Pro. The professional version includes extra features designed to add extra value for high-end production, including more advanced lighting, code and editing options. And Unity’s own asset store also means further time and cost-savings can be made.
Unity Technologies CEO David Helgason says: “Unity’s power, efficiency, elegance of design and massive cross-platform capabilities make it the best option for developers looking to create games for any range of mobile devices. With ancillary bonuses such as the Asset Store and recently announce Unity Cloud and sharing services, Unity is by far the most complete package in the market.”
Used in: Bad Piggies, Deus Ex: The Fall, Leviathan Warships, Temple Run 2, The Room
Unity 4 is free, Unity Pro (plus optional iOS, Android, BlackBerry add-ons) priced from £965 approx' ($750).
Havok, the outfit best known for its physics tool, made a splash back in March with the announcement of Project Anarchy, its first specially made package for mobile game developers. This end-to-end mobile games engine allows you to ship games for free on iOS, Android and Tizen.
Incorporating Havok’s Vision Engine, Physics, Animation Studio and AI products, Project Anarchy is packed with features such as an efficient asset management system, LUA scripting and debugging and a full library of sample materials, tutorials and videos to help make development faster and more efficient. The mature feature set should give those familiar with the software much comfort.
Havok head of developer relations Ross O’Dwyer says: “Project Anarchy is really about offering power and versatility to mobile developers. In addition to powerful triple-A game tech that ships with the engine, it provides devs with direct C++ access so they can customise the engine as much as they need. And best of all, this all comes with absolutely no revenue restrictions.”
Used in: (Product recently launched)
Project Anarchy is free, Project Anarchy Pro pricing is available upon contact.
APP GAME KIT
The big boys aren’t all that’s available for mobile devs these days. For those in search of formable development alternatives, App Game Kit is a worthy solution. Games and apps can be built in BASIC or C++, making the tool ideal for beginners or professional developers.
And there’s no need to worry about the complexities of bringing your game to the different mobile platforms it supports, as its creators have built the engine to take care of such tasks. AGK also aims to make testing on mobile devices easier. With its compile and broadcast feature in the BASIC environment you can transmit your games to any of your devices. Version one is available now and supports iOS, Android, and BlackBerry. Meanwhile, version two is well underway, following a successful crowdfunding round.
The Game Creators development director Rick Vanner says: “App Game Kit is easy to learn and start coding with. It’s a tool we have used to great success recently when we developed the UK educational number one driving test app on both iOS and Android for Focus Multimedia.”
Used in: Driving Test Success series, Sky Without Sun: Target, Space Connection: Atlas
App Game Kit priced from £40 ($60).
Developing mobile apps that run on all key devices is getting harder, and there is an increasing need to diversify and publish cross-platform content. Corona SDK aims to offer the ability to seamlessly publish apps across multiple platforms with a single code base, giving developers room to focus on creating engaging, high quality games.
Corona Labs COO David Rangel says: “While some developers are looking for quick and nimble solutions to create hits and generate revenue, others are looking for a solution to build apps based on their customers’ specs. Corona SDK is a multifaceted tool that’s ideal for a variety of developers, from indie devs, to game studios building out their own IP.”
Used in: Blast Monkey, Bubble Ball, Fun Run, Major Magnet, Streetfood Tycoon
Corona SDK is free, Corona SDK Pro £368 ($588), Corona Enterprise from £594 ($948).
Its maker claims Ludei offers the fastest HTML5 gaming experience around, while its CocoonJS Launcher App and Cloud compiler is said to simplify the process of testing and building the final applications to upload to the markets. Along with this, Ludei also gives you access to important native features, such as native ad networks, in-app payments and push notifications, through a single API.
Ludei VP of engineering Iker Jamardo says: “HTML5 has many advantages: from cross-platform to all the features of the web, like online update, ease of integration and fast prototyping. Ludei’s technology is the easiest and most effective way to develop, deploy and monetise HTML5-based games and apps. You can finally focus on product and let Ludei take care of the platform details.”
Used in: Dominion, Heroes of Honor, iBasket, Mortar Melon, Scribble Mix
Ludei is free.
ENGAGEMENT AND MONETISATION
Launched in August 2013, Nextpeer is a multiplayer social SDK for mobile games that aims to enable you to easily create multiplayer games, as well as increase retention and engagement for your games. It is said to take less than 15 minutes to integrate with the SDK, and some 2,800 games are already integrated with the Nextpeer SDK on iOS.
Nextpeer founder and CEO Shai Magzimof says: “With Nextpeer, you can increase player engagement, retention and boost discovery. Developers can build a bigger games portfolio in the App Store or Google Play using our product and generate more revenue easily.”
Nextpeer SDK is free.
PlayHaven offers a selection of tools targeted at helping you manage player acquisition, engagement, and monetisation, on iOS and Android, plus Unity, Adobe AIR, Marmalade and Corona via plug-ins.
Flagship tool, Acquire is intended to help you pick up new users through PlayHaven’s ad network. Engage helps you learn more about your users, build loyalty, improve communication and re-engage after they’ve left the app. Finally, Monetize is intended to help grow revenue by creating and deploying in-app purchases and relevant ads to targeted users. Recently, the firm announced a partnership with Corona Labs, integrating it services with the mobile SDK.
PlayHaven VP of publisher development Zach Phillips says: “PlayHaven offers a single solution to help developers address their business needs, so creative developers can do what they do best: create. Our goal is to provide developers with the best, most comprehensive business solution, so they can focus on creating amazing games.”
PlayHaven Acquire, PlayHaven Engage and PlayHaven Monetize are free, but additional costs exist for advertising and other services.
GRAPHICS, LIGHTING AND PERFORMANCE
POWERVR GRAPHICS SDK
Players expect to be able to fire up their mobile games, and pick up right where they left off without a moments pause. Imagination’s PowerVR Graphics SDK aims to help you achieve the lightning-fast performance that today’s players demand. A cross-platform toolkit for iOS, Android and BlackBerry designed to support all aspects of 3D graphics development, the tech is used in over a billion devices today.
Imagination Technologies senior manager of ecosystems Bryce Johnstone says: “At Imagination, we are focusing our efforts on providing the best cross-platform profiling and debugging utilities for developers looking to create applications targeting our PowerVR GPUs. The functionality, examples and documentation in our PowerVR Graphics SDK provide unique, valuable resources that make our graphics development environment the leading solution for graphics development in mobile. Importantly, using our SDK and support resources can save developers countless hours of precious time, and enable them to develop better, faster apps.”
PowerVR Graphics SDK is free.
The firm behind several microprocessors that power today’s pocket-sized computers, also offers a selection of software development tools to ensure that you are able to extract every ounce of performance from the ARM Mali platform, understand graphical issues and play around with its leading-edge technologies early.
ARM offers its OpenGL ES Emulator that supports new APIs (OpenGL ES 3.0) and tech (ASTC texture compression) to ensure you can begin working on these technologies and reduce time-to-market for your gaming content. Furthermore, its Mali GPUs are found in 20 per cent of Android smartphones and 50 per cent of Android tablets.
ARM’s product manager of Mali development tools Anand Patel says: “Developers should use our tools to ensure their games run well on mobile and consumer devices. And to take the guesswork out of performance analysis and debug, allowing the them to reach the market quicker. Our tools offer leading edge features and visibility not found in other dev tools.”
ARM Mali GPU Software Development Tools are free.
A heavy lifter when it comes to lighting, Geomerics’ chief tool has been ported to mobile in the last two years. The rapid improvements of mobile devices have brought console-quality techniques to mobile and Enlighten is a particularly compelling offering, with its ability to scale naturally to a platform’s capabilities, be it iOS, Android or PS Vita.
The tool supports all lighting styles, from fully dynamic to totally baked, and can mix and match these throughout the game. Its workflow has also been designed with time-saving in mind, making it easier to build for mobile.
Geomerics founder Chris Doran says: “Players expectations for mobile games are increasing rapidly, particularly for games that offer a 3D experience. Developers are looking to offer an experience that is much closer to console quality to make their title stand out or, in some cases, to offer a companion experience to a console title. Technologies like Enlighten, which scales from mobile to next-gen consoles, are crucial to developing these experiences.”
Enlighten prices are available upon contact or request.
Wwise is one of the leading audio tools for console development. Audiokinetic believes that mobile developers require the same productivity and quality as the big dev houses, which why it grants them access to the full package, instead of a striped down version, for an affordable licensing price. The smaller your budget, the cheaper Wwise gets.
And better yet, Wwise is free to use for non-commercial and academic games. Audiokinetic aims to empower sound designers and audio programmers with a comprehensive authoring tool for creating exceptional game experiences. The tool is compatible with Android, iOS, Windows Phone, Nintendo 3DS and PS Vita. Hundreds of titles have used the toolset, including Limbo, Plants vs Zombies 2 and Solitaire Blitz.
Audiokinetic VP of products Simon Ashby says: “Wwise increases game quality and reduces production costs. It also reduces the risk related to game production and that’s one of the reasons publishers prefer working with Audiokinetic: They know the game will ship without audio problems.”
Wwise is available at a variety of licensing prices, and free for non-commercial use.
Its ability to manage not just source code, but all the different media assets involved in modern game development, including art, textures, audio and video, has made Perforce a prized technology in games dev.
To give you an idea of its versatility, 22Cans recently used the technology in the creation of its mobile title, Godus.
Grimm Bros CEO and Perforce user Ash Monif says: “As an indie developer, there is a strong temptation to cut corners and reduce costs, however we will not compromise creating a great game. It’s a tremendous help to have free use of all the full-featured Perforce products. Grimm Bros can now perform with the same toolset as the biggest and most successful studios.”
Perforce EMEA marketing director Mark Warren adds: “Version management is a critical platform element to support the entire development pipeline from requirements to release. It’s one of the foundational capabilities that you should get right early on so you can concentrate on delivering your next great product.”
Perforce Enterprise Version Management starts from £187 ($300).