Indie Game Development Tools

Recently I was at the Casuality games conference in Seattle, which is a smallish but very fast-growing casual games conference run by the wonderful Jessica Tams. They have a fair number of social events here in the Bay Area as well and is a great place to talk to developers and do business.

I was lucky enough to talk on a panel about Indie Game Development technology and tools. The idea was to have independent game developers give an unbiased view about the tools they have used. While it wasn’t quite as unbiased as hoped (Jay Moore talked about the Torque engine and he works at Garage Games), there was a lot of useful information presented.

We covered two of the most popular tool frameworks (the Torque engine and the Popcap engine) along with an amazing tool called Virtools. The Virtools talk was given by the spunky and hilarious Matthew Wegner. The Virtools engine is amazing. It allows non-programmers to create full games without any programming (ala Unreal Kismet and MindRover). My take was that it was not a great tool to actually ship games on and not great for independent development (with per-seat licenses costing about $10,000 US) but if you’re an established studio that wants the best prototyping tools out there to harness creativity from all your non-programmers, this is powerful stuff. I would kill to get a license for this. DirectX 9.0 level games running in a browser with no programming.

As a follow-up to my post about making a game with the Popcap framework, and for the attendees who told not to take notes, I wanted to include our Powerpoint notes from our panel, just in case they might help some indies out there. Special thanks to Eric Tams for hosting the panel and providing me with these slides after the talk. I hope they make your tool choices easier.

Download slides (Powerpoint)

Want to make a game? Here’s how.

I get a lot of e-mail from people who want to get started in games but don’t know where to start. My usual response has been to make a mod. The problem with making mods these days though is that engine technology has gotten so good that it takes a lot more work and a lot more expertise to make something on a current engine. Making a mod for Doom took a lot less technical and artistic work than it does for Half-life II, and the next-gen will start to force mod authors to make programming-only mods. So what’s a great way to get started on your first game, so that it doesn’t take years and a team of 10+ to accomplish anything?

I think one great answer right now is the Popcap Games model. They’ve made some very fun “casual” games with a very tiny amount of technology. I’ve never gotten excited about casual games but the games Popcap are reaching a very wide audience and are genuinely fun. What gets me even more excited is that they’ve released their technology. For free. Just go to http://developer.popcap.com and you can download their framework and along with Visual Studio Express, you’ll be up in running in minutes with no money down. I’ve done a lot of game development over the past 10 years or so but I haven’t gotten this excited in a long time. You can open up Photoshop, scrawl an image, and 10 seconds later have it drawing on screen. Playing music and sound effects are a snap. Loading bars, options screens, animated sprites, it’s all as easy as possible and it will work on every damned computer out there with no extra downloads. This is game development at its simplest and purest and you will be spending almost all your time on actual creative work, that is, your gameplay, your aesthetic, your art, etc. Suddenly, making a complete game could take you days or weeks, not months or years. It’s a great way and fun way to learn, just make sure not to download Zuma or you’ll get nothing done…

Another great option is the Torque engine. The Torque engine is big step up from the Popcap development framework technology-wise (most notably adding cross-platform support and full-featured 3D and networking technology), but that means more work as a developer before you can get your first product done. It also costs $100 to download. One great aspect of the Torque engine is that much of your game can be written in their scripting language, which reduces the barrier to entry and makes it easier to debug and port your game for release.

One vital feature that both of these engines are missing is some sort of digital rights management (DRM) and/or e-commerce system. If you are making your game for the Windows platform only, the best DRM right now seems to be ActiveMark, though getting them to give you their tools can be quite a feat. There is also RegSoft and Paypal, though integration with your game is a little more difficult.

If you want to make your first game, I would recommend making some sort of puzzle or 2D action game using the Popcap technology. If you’ve done some game development before and want to make a more sophisticated 2D or 3D game, the Torque engine will not do you wrong.

So if you’ve been wanting to make a game, you have no more excuses. Get started today, you won’t regret it!