Vision is the easy thing â?? shaping it into a form thatâ??s worth investing your time and money is the difficult thing, reckons Jon Jordan. Time to brush up on prototyping and pre-viz toolâ?¦With ‘risk’ an increasingly dangerous word when it comes to game development, anything that can reduce its hold over creativity should be thoroughly investigated. Of course, the process of prototyping games has been around as long as the industry, but it’s becoming much more sophisticated as different aspects of a game – from the basic logic and mechanics to character, location and colour palette – need to be quickly combined and iterated.
The question of whether such activity should be carried out within game engines remains unanswered, however. For all the bells and whistles they provide, there is a strong feeling that a more iterative and pared down environment will bring core ideas to the surface more quickly. This is particularly the case for smaller studios who are less restricted by console features and those hothousing in a collaborative manner with participants in various geographical locations.
Yet, while there is a vast range of helpful products available, what seems much harder is for the developers of these tools to build a sustainable business. Most recently, UK outfit Antics Technologies shut up shop in November 2008 after failing to make its Antics 3D real-time pre-viz package profitable.
Technology: DarkBASIC v1.21/Pro v7.1/GDK v7.1
Integration with other technologies: PhysX, Dark AI, Dark Shader
Developed by The Game Creators, the various forms of DarkBASIC – which range from the entry level version to the more fully-featured Pro version, with low level access via C++ available using the Dark GDK – are designed to enable users to create complex interactivity using the BASIC programming language. All versions take DirectX as a foundation; DX7 for DarkBASIC and DX9.0c for Pro. The GDK is available as a free download together with Visual Studio Express.
Technology: GameBlender v2.42
Platforms: Various, including Windows, Mac OS X, Linux and Solaris
Integration with other technologies: Bullet physics, Python scripting language
An extension to the open source 3D graphics package Blender, GameBlender has been specifically developed as a fast prototyping tool. It uses a graphical ‘logic brick’ approach, which defines gameplay elements such as sensors, controllers and actuators, enabling you to build up overall behaviour. You can also use it to create standalone products or embedded web apps should you wish to take it further. Handily, it comes bundled with the standard Blender release.
Technology: Virtools v4.1
Integration with other technologies: 3ds Max, Maya, XSI, Collada, PhysX
Cost: Available on request
Contact: +33 1 61 62 61 62
Built around a flexible approach that separates data and behaviours within a visual drag and drop authoring environment, Virtools has become popular in the industrial design sector thanks to the company’s buy-out by Dassault Systèmes. It is still used by game companies however, both for prototyping and occasionally for full production. It comes with its own scripting language (VSL), and there is the option of an SDK for those so inclined.
Platforms: Windows/Mac OS X
Integration with other technologies: TBA
Contact: +44 1223 462 394
Technically a machinima creation tool rather than a specific game-related technology, Moviestorm’s ease of use – not to mention its ability to quickly prototype and iterate cutscenes, dialogue and character sketches – makes it a useful tool for developing plot, as well as creating marketing material and the like. Props and characters can be bought from the website, and future versions will enable the import of custom props and objects via the Modder’s Workshop tool, which is now in beta.
Technology: SketchUp, SketchUp Pro
Platforms: Windows, Mac OS X
Integration with other technologies: Collada
Perhaps the simplest 3D art tool in the world, thanks to its focus on allowing users to effectively work in 2D, Google’s SketchUp is ideal for working on basic blocking designs and spatial development of levels. The package’s growing usefulness also links into its position within the ever-expanding Google portfolio, with links to Google Earth, Maps and 3D Warehouse. The Ruby scripting language also extends SketchUp’s functionality with various tools available.