Gooball level being designed.

By Brad Cook

Just as iMovie and Final Cut Pro brought movie creation to the masses, so have four tools enabled anyone with a vision to create their own video games: Sawblade Software’s Power Game Factory, GarageGames’ 2D and 3D Torque Engines, OverTheEdge’s Unity and Phelios’ PTK. As the budgets for large-scale, complex games reach multi-million dollar levels, those four tools are enabling an indie revolution akin to the film one raging outside the Hollywood mainstream.

Power Game Factory

The return of the side-scroller

“As someone who lived for years as a visual artist with no computer programming abilities, I can relate to that unfulfilled desire that people have to create games,” explains Sawblade’s Jesse Simko. Power Game Factory enables gamers to build their own side-scrolling, character-based action games in the vein of the old-school Nintendo and Sega Genesis.

With Power Game Factory at their disposal, users don’t need any programming experience to see their dreams come to life. Much like the way Warcaft III World Editor works, players simply mix and match elements to create their game worlds and insert scripted routines that blow things up, run between-level cutscenes and even initiate scripted dialogue that appears above non-player characters’ (NPCs’) heads.

“Games represent an exciting medium that until recently has remained off-limits to non-programmers,” says Simko, who compares Power Game Factory to GarageBand and other iLife applications. “It’s satisfying to know that kids’ artwork and level designs are being brought to life instead of remaining static on notebook pages.”

“[Indie game developers] have the flexibility to try new things and take risks in game design — differentiating on the fun factor, not just glitz.”

- Mark Frohnmayer, GarageGames

Not only that, but Simko believes his utility is filling a niche that was abandoned as big-time video game creators began working almost exclusively in 3D. “In the hands of skilled artists and designers,” he explains, “Power Game Factory could be used to create a side-scrolling action game as fun and beautiful as any of the more ambitious 3D games that are being released by the large studios.”

Check out what’s under the hood

Torque Game Engine

The team at GarageGames certainly understands the world of big-time video game creation. Founded by some of the team members who worked on Starsiege, Tribes and Tribes 2, GarageGames was created around the 3D Torque Game Engine, which sat under the hood of those best-selling games. Now it’s available at an affordable price to independent developers who want to create games on par with the large studios.

“One of the problems we see with the game industry is the continuation of the ‘graphics arms race,’” notes GarageGames president Mark Frohnmayer. “Where independent developers can really innovate is in gameplay. Indies have the flexibility to try new things and take risks in game design — differentiating on the fun factor, not just glitz.”

Torque Game Builder

The Torque Game Engine and its 2D-based sibling, Torque Game Builder, are available at prices much less than Doom 3, Unreal and the other big-name game engines that command high licensing fees. The Torque Shader Engine and the ever-growing line-up of Torque Development Tools help give small development houses the means to compete in a fast-paced industry.

“With the growth of the Internet and broadband, limitations on indie game developers are becoming a thing of the past,” says GarageGames PR guru Benjamin Bradley. “Independent game developers are now able to directly market their games to the masses from their own websites.”

“The casual games market was valued at around $700 million in 2004,” he adds. “In 2008, it should be worth over $2 billion a year. Most casual games are too much of a risk for AAA studios to go after, which leaves a great opportunity for independent studios to capitalize on the casual opportunities.”

“It’s satisfying to know that kids’ artwork and level designs are being brought to life instead of remaining static on notebook pages.”

- Jesse Simko, Sawblade Software

Blowing open the casual games market

Unity

“I think everyone is starting to realize that casual titles is a business supernova waiting to happen,” agrees David Helgason, co-founder and CEO of OverTheEdge, which used their Unity game development tool to create the Ambrosia Software-published GooBall.

While Unity may seem to be entering a crowded marketplace, Helgason notes: “What sets Unity apart is our flexibility, simplicity of use and quick workflows. Creative people feel empowered by it, instead of alienated by the technology. When we used Unity to create GooBall, we kept asking ourselves: ‘Now I’ve spent 10 hours doing this stupid repetitive task. How could we automate it so that it’ll take less than a second each time?’”

With the development of GooBall serving as Unity’s test run to work out the kinks, OverTheEdge released the tool and asked creators to give it their best shot by initiating the Unity Dashboard Widget Challenge. Helgason was inspired to throw down the gauntlet when he saw the work of WidgetMonkeys.com’s David Janik-Jones, who created a couple of Widget games without even knowing how to write code.

“That validates what we were trying to do,” notes Helgason.

Showcasing proofs of concepts

PTK

Just as OverTheEdge used the development of GooBall to give Unity a dry run, so too has Phelios employed PTK as a lab for creating games that are “live experiments and proofs of concepts,” according to founder Patrice Kryszofiak. The company has released more than 50 so far, with many additional ones published by others.

Kryszofiak explains: “I wanted to introduce an uncomplicated, multi-platform 2D SDK (software development kit) — with some 3D functionality — capable of making a vast variety of games. And I wanted to create a game tool that wasn’t dependent on only one dedicated programming script.”

While PTK does require some upfront programming knowledge from the user, Kryszofiak notes that “you can use it to effortlessly do what you want it to do in a few lines of code, versus 10 times more lines of code for competing products. Since I didn’t want any performance loss, I found a middle ground between the C/C++ language and simplified commands.”

Like his peers, Kryszofiak also sees truth in the parallels between indie filmmaking and indie game creation. “Since it is so easy to use to create games,” he says, “the budget and time factor involved are exponentially reduced, giving the indie game maker using PTK a great advantage. Why should game making be reserved only to a few select geeky geniuses?”

Indeed. Viva la revolución.

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