The annual Game Developers Conference is a huge event, and the expo floor is a great place to learn about many new tools and pieces of software from major companies that can help you speed up your development and accomplish things that were previously much harder, or even impossible. In this article I'll tell you about five tools which I saw at GDC 2013 that I think will have a big impact on game development over the next year or so.
You may remember that I mentioned dDo in my 3D Primer for Game Developers. Now that I have actually sat down with the tool I think it is safe to say that the team at Quixel has done just as good a job with dDo as they did with their previous tool NDo 2.
It's a tool you can use with Photoshop that allows you to quickly and easily develop complex texture maps. Essentially, dDo has a number of pre-built materials which you can use as a starting point for the development of your texture. By using these pre-built materials you can get into the texture development phase very quickly and start iterating on your design in no time.
Once you've defined all of the materials the different parts of your texture will be using, you can then start modifying how those preset materials look with a number of different settings and attributes including color, intensity, specularity, and how they affect the other maps used in the final model.
Finally, you can take those materials and start applying effects to them so that they will gain even more detail. For example, you can apply wear and tear to the edges of a material so that it looks as if the object has been used a lot, or you can apply dirt and grime to make the object seem older. This may not sound too incredible at first if you are an experienced texture artist, but I highly suggest you watch the trailer Quixel put together to get an idea of how it works:
It's somewhat similar in nature to tools like Unity in that it allows you to get started much more quickly. By giving you a number of pre-built tools and materials, as well as a load of different ways to modify them, it prevents you from having to spend lots of time in the beginning of the process doing things you've already done many times before.
On top of that, though, it also allows you to save your own presets - so if you have an entirely custom look in your game, you can easily bring it into all of the objects and textures you use.
Masa Life allows designers to develop complex AI behavior trees without having to do any actual programming. This means that people who previously were unable to develop AI simply because they didn't have a strong enough grasp of the code can use this tool to successfully iterate on, and test, AI within their game or simulation - without having to have a programmer make the changes for them.
Masa Life uses a visual representation of the AI tree so that making changes is as simple as adding and rearranging nodes to cause the behaviors to be prioritized or understood in a new way.
Technically Masa Life will not be available until mid-April of this year - no word on an exact release date - but once it becomes available I can see it having a huge impact on the accessibility of development, both for RTS games and for open-world games or RPGs which often require complex enemy AI and event scripting to make all of the systems work. By opening up these aspects of development to non-programmers it will make development much easier for these types of projects, and will allow for a much more efficient work environment.
Masa Life is also interesting because it's part of a new wave of tools (alongside Construct 2 and Filter Forge) that focus on visual scripting and development-through-design, rather than forcing the user to learn incredibly complex programming languages or art tools. Tools like this, while not exactly a brand new idea, are becoming much more popular, and seem to be having a huge impact on the accessibility of game development as a whole.
Leadwerks 3 is a 3D game creation tool similar to Unity which can publish to Windows, OS X, and mobile. The advantage Leadwerks has over Unity is that it uses what is known as native code, whereas Unity uses managed code: native code means that the code is purposefully designed to work with a particular device, whereas managed code is designed to be more easily adapted to multiple devices.
This means that Leadwerks is incredibly powerful for mobile because it gives you the ability to create mobile apps with C++ and Lua which will be tailor-made for the devices they end up on, and will thus be more powerful because of it.
Leadwerks 3 also has something similar to the Unity Asset Store where you can go online and find tools and software developed by people in the Leadwerks community which can speed up your development times and processes. Unlike Unity's marketplace, there does not seem to be any way to sell the tools you make, but this also means you won't have to pay for the tools you use that others have made.
Another thing to note is that Leadwerks 3 is not quite as popular as Unity yet and thus getting help with specific issues may be slightly harder.
While there are some advantages to sticking with Unity, Leadwerks 3 still seems like it will be an incredibly good tool, and there definitely seem to be some advantages. If you are more familiar with C++ or Lua, or you prefer the control that native code will give you, then Leadwerks 3 is definitely worth looking into. On top of that, while Leadwerks 3 is still in development, the documentation seems very strong and picking it up probably won't be too hard if you've worked with similar tools in the past.
The Intel XDK is a development environment that you can use to turn HTML5 and web applications into native applications for iOS, Facebook, Android, and many other environments. What makes this tool truly unique though, is that it is not just a conversion tool, but is also a full emulation tool which allows you to emulate many different development environments and scenarios to test every possible situation and device your app will have to deal with.
Intel has taken things a step further and is also currently working on the Intel App Porter (go to the 'Tools' tab on this page to find the App Porter download), a tool that allows you to take an existing iOS app and turn it into an HTML5- and XDK-compatible app. This means that if you already have a successful iOS app and need to bring it into a number of other platforms, all you have to do is use the App Porter to get it into the XDK, and then use the XDK to bring it everywhere else.
These two tools combined are pretty fantastic and seem like they will be a huge help to mobile developers who don't have the time or resources to commit to developing entirely separate versions of their app for each intended platform.
I think it is important to note here how big HTML5 is becoming. Tools like the XDK are becoming much more common and even companies like Nintendo are announcing tools to allow web developers to get onto their platforms and expand beyond the browser. That said, Nintendo's efforts are slightly tainted by the fact that you still need a Wii U Development Kit to work with these new tools and launch onto their platform. Thankfully the XDK doesn't have this issue, and can even be downloaded through the Chrome Web Store.
FxStudio allows you to easily create and iterate on particle systems for your game. What separates FxStudio from other similar tools is that it also allows you to edit almost any time-based sequence or event for your game, and is not restricted to just particle systems.
The reason FxStudio is so versatile is that it uses a timeline which functions similarly to ones found in audio or video editing tools. Most particle system editors, such as the Cascade Editor from UDK, don't actually give you access to the timeline, so you are forced to work with the timing of things in a purely non-visual fashion, and keep these details in your head, or go back and forth regularly between different parts of the system to make sure you have remembered the timing correctly. By making it possible for you to move things around the timeline and see a full representation of your particle system's timing, FxStudio makes editing much more intuitive and substantially easier to iterate upon.
The Expo floor of GDC 2013 had a lot of great things to see, but of the tools I saw, I found the ones above to be the most interesting and the most useful.
Overall it seems like the trends in the industry are shifting towards a few different places, including:
- more tools that lower the barrier to entry for development as a whole, or simply for asset creation,
- tools that allow you to launch to many platforms with a single code-base, and
- tools which are focused on HTML5 development.
In the next year I expect to see a number of tools similar to Unity and Leadwerks 3 such as the recently announced Project Anarchy from Havok, and I also expect to see the development scene broadening with the introduction of tools which allow you to bring HTML5 to so many more platforms in such a powerful way.
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