Choosing Tools

So, you want to be like the professional game developers, do you? You’re a hot-shot hobby game developer with a great idea for the world’s next killer MMO, and to make damn sure you build the best game you can you want to make damn sure you use the best tools available. Engines, IDEs, 3D modelling tools, audio mixers, composition software, version control and project management suites, content creation programs — you want to use the best of the best.

Well, that’s a waste of your time — and in many cases, a waste of quite a lot of your money, too.

Amateur game developers often have this sort of hero-worship attitude towards professional developers, their tools, and their products. But as I’ve touched on before, that’s not neccessarily a very productive stance to take. When it comes to tools in particular, reasoning behind the argument tends to be one of

  • you’re considering a career in the industry and want to learn the “correct” tools, or
  • you want to use “the tools” that professionals use because you believe it will give what you produce with those tools an edge over what you might produce with some other tool.

Both of these are bad reasons.

Argument The First

Consider the first argument. This is the stance that shady trade schools would like you to take, because it’s the based on the same core principle that they usually base their (usually rather weak) curriculum on. That is, the idea that game development is a tool-centric process that requires particular applications of specific tools and technology. The idea that there is, for any given problem domain for which a tool can be constructed (such as creating 3D models, or building game levels), a single tool that is the ‘best’ tool for that job. The One True Tool that all game developers are using for that task.

Now, if that assumption were true, there might be a valid argument there. But it’s not true. There is no such thing as the ‘best’ tool for a given problem (in general); while there are usually a handful of apps that are considered to be among the best, each of these will have strengths and weaknesses that need to be considered.

This is important: the criteria professionals use to evaluate tools are very different from the criteria you should use. The tools that do get used by professionals are a result of a selection process based on that criteria, so it should be clear that you, using a different set of criteria, may arrive at a different ideal tool. As for what your criteria should be? I can’t tell you — every problem is different, and you know yours the best. The only advice I can reasonably offer you is to try to get the biggest bang (in terms of increase in your productivity) for your buck.

Argument The Second

The second argument is built around an assumption that is similar to the first. Where the first assumption was that the craft requires the crafter to employ specific tools, the second assumption is that the tools imbue the crafter with the ability to perform the craft. This is equally false; the tools don’t make the games. Sure, Maya provides orders of magnitude more features, controls, and options than Milkshape 3D does — but those features don’t do anything without the artists skillful hands at the controls.

The skill that artist has is a core talent that comes from an understanding of the process of 3D modelling that is fundamental and application-agnostic. The understanding of how muscles interact with the skeletal structure of a bipedal humanoid to shape its movement, and how that interaction can be extroplated to create natural looking motion on a more bizzare, six-legged alien form — that doesn’t come from knowing where the Create Biped button is in the UI of a specific tool.

You can pick up a lot of the basic, fundamental important bits of working with a specific genre of tools by using free and/or inexpensive tools in that genre. Those skills will carry over as you migrate to other tools, even those big-name brands that you see advertised in your latest issue of Game Developer. In some cases you may even be able to produce more content at higher quality with simple tools, especially if you’re new to working with that specific type of content. Often the complexity of heavy-duty tools can be overwhelming.

Takeaway

What you should take away from this post is quite simple: you don’t need to emulate a professional game development studio, not in general, and not in terms of tool selection. Your goal is to make a killer game, right? Then focus on making a killer game. If you’re able to make your game without additional tools now, great, keep doing that. If you think you need to start using some external tools, grab some evaluation copies and give them a spin. If you can’t get an eval copy of something that you know (or think) professionals use, don’t sweat it — I assure you there is an alternative.

Above all, a tool is supposed to optimize the development process in some way, and this should be among your key requirements (and one of the only ones I can recommend in general, as I noted earlier). In order to be useful, a tool must make you more productive in some fashion. It should, ideally, do this as cheaply as possible. There are free tools out there for doing just about everything, most of which range from passable to excellent, so don’t be fooled into thinking that a $2,000 price tag is really getting you something.

Now, all of that said, you can usually get your hands on lightweight versions of some of the so-called ‘industry-standard’ tools for free. Microsoft publishes Express editions of Visual Studio, Softimage offers a ‘mod tool’ version of XSI, for example. As long as these tools meet your requirements, and you can work them competently, there’s no real reason not to use them. But if they don’t meet your requirements or you can’t work them well enough to be productive, don’t use them just because they’re what you heard [insert game studio here] used to make [insert popular title here].

You’re not in Rome, so who cares what the Romans are doing?