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Game Developer Magazine's 15th Annual Front Line Awards 2012

What tools are most essential in game development? In this reprint from Gamasutra sister publication Game Developer magazine, you can read about the best of the best -- with developers who've used them offering insights into why these tools are worth your investment.

January 18, 2013

22 Min Read

Author: by Game Developer Magazine Staff

A reprint from the January 2013 issue of Gamaustra's sister publication Game Developer magazine, this annual feature gives awards to the best tools for developers. You can subscribe to the print or digital edition at GDMag's subscription page, download the Game Developer iOS app to subscribe or buy individual issues from your iOS device, or purchase individual digital issues from our store.

For 15 years, we at Game Developer have continued to honor the best development tools in the business with our Front Line Awards. Here's how it works: We started with an open nomination process where readers and at-large community members could nominate their favorite tools. From there, the Game Developer and Gamasutra editors, with a little help from our respective advisory boards, sorted through those nominations to come up with a list of finalists that we put to a community vote to determine which tools come out on top.

This year's crop of Front Line Award winners includes a few repeat winners and a few new members to the club, which is not so surprising, considering how our industry somehow manages to simultaneously change and yet stay the same. Havok Physics, Pro Tools, and Unreal Engine 3 had repeat wins this year, while Luxology's modo 601 managed to unseat Autodesk 3ds Max for best Art tool, and Bugzilla finally won a much-deserved nod in the Programming category.

Also, we nixed the Networking category in favor of a Best Free Tool category; as more and more game developers start working in small and scrappy indie studios, it becomes ever more important for devs to make sure they can work with tools that don't break their (nonexistent) budgets.

Congratulations to the winners! Here's to another year of great games -- and the tools to build them with.

- Patrick Miller

Hall of Fame

Unity 3D
Unity Technologies

In the late 2000s the game industry planted the seeds of change. High-quality development tools, historically hidden behind high-cost barriers, were being opened up to the masses for free or cheap. Along with this democratization of tools came an increased focus on speed and ease of development. Fast-forward to 2012: Tools across the board are easier to obtain and use, which has enabled the indie sector's rise to prominence, and one of the most important tools to come out of this era is Unity. Out of this storm of experimentation, Unity bubbled to the top, offering an unprecedented mix of power, value, and ease of use that has put new faces in the game development scene while simultaneously offering established developers a compelling tool.

Speed of development is a key factor in making games, and this is arguably Unity's strongest suit. Coding for Unity is simply a nice experience; it has a clean, component-based architecture that is both powerful and flexible. Since it's built on Mono, those who've had run-ins with .NET will be partly familiar with it, while its JavaScript support eases the transition for web developers. The code side of things meshes well with the Unity Editor, which provides many of the commonly used development tools (level editing, asset importing, animation tool, particle designer, and so on).

Unity also has a lot of power in the non-coding tools, and very few barriers to getting your hands dirty when you need coding support; the whole package plays nicely together. This is a powerful combination that allows you to fluidly move between using code-based solutions and tool-based solutions without struggling against Unity. The editor itself can be modified through code, allowing you to tailor your own tools, which is a boon if you need to provide extra support for non-coders that integrates with the rest of Unity. The broad deployment options that Unity provides are also a big time saver if you're interested in cross-platform releases, or if you need to standardize engineers with disparate skills onto one toolset.

Unity's potential for speedy development makes it particularly useful for small studios and indies, especially because it offers a free basic license and reasonable pricing for its pro and platform licenses. I worked at a small iOS independent studio on a game called Grem Legends, and one of the engineers didn't know native code -- but we needed all hands on deck. We were all pretty well-versed in C#, had a little bit of Unity experience, and didn't have time to build a bunch of tools from scratch, so we chose Unity. With Unity we got the game done on a tight schedule, which would have been tough if we had taken a different production path.

Once I got comfortable using Unity, I started using it as my standard tool for game jams as well. I used it at the "What Would Molydeux?" jam, and was able to finish the game coding solo while still going home and getting some sleep each night.

We would be remiss if we didn't acknowledge that part of what makes Unity special is the community of Unity devs. There are a lot of people using Unity, which means it's easy to share knowledge with and support other devs. The Unity team also provides the community with the Asset Store, which allows developers to distribute plug-ins that they've created. Beyond providing a means for developers to sell their tools, it's a centralized repository of tools, making hunting for what you need not quite as painful.

Unity is still a generalized engine, which means compromises that keep it from being a cutting-edge tool, but for many developers the tradeoff is well worth it. Plus, it abstracts away much of the extremely technical work involved in reasonably efficient rendering, opening the gate of development to those who aren't Direct3D/OpenGL gurus. For studios operating on the bleeding edge, or who need different workflows than what Unity has to offer, it can still be valuable for quickly prototyping, iterating ideas, and tinkering.

Unity reflects the change that has been occurring for the past several years in the industry. It's approachable, both from a financial and technical perspective, and offers excellent results for the amount of effort you put into it. What's more, Unity thrives in the diverse ecosystem of devices that game developers need to address, and with its swift development speed, it can have a place in all manner of studios, from the four-person team at a game jam to the triple-A juggernauts. Unity has opened the doors of game development for many, and we wouldn't have some great games without it.

Elijah O'Rear is a software engineer at Midverse Studios.


modo 601

3D artists in game development often need to use several different software packages to create assets for a modern console game. A video game artist has to adapt to a pipeline of tools and applications that have different user interfaces, workflows, and file formats. As a result, today's game artists are asked to create next-generation art using last-generation tools that are more like a collection of separate ideas rather than a complementary ecosystem. With the release of modo 601, Luxology has created a compelling modeling and rendering tool that seamlessly incorporates easy-to-use character rigging, texturing, and shaders -- which is strangely unique among 3D software packages.

I first encountered modo while looking for ways to improve the quality and speed of character production on Golden Axe in 2007 -- I picked it up to edit the UVs on my character models more easily than I could with comparable applications at that time. I gradually found myself using modo more often for other tasks, such as modeling and texture rendering and cleanup, as many of the tools were the same ones I had used to edit UVs.

Fast-forward to spring 2012 with the rather timely launch of modo 601. With its implementation of Non-Photoreal Rendering (NPR) shaders and character rigging tools, I am able to realize the promise of creating an entire game character from beginning to end, starting from concept art, to real-time content, to a polished high-resolution model and renders that fully represent what I had imagined when I started on a character idea or design.

Typically, a game character requires two models: a real-time mesh, and a more detailed version of the same character that is used as a source for texture maps to be applied to the in-game model. The high-resolution model is often generated in external sculpting applications, and is mostly used only for texture or re-topology reference -- if someone needs a detailed model for a rendered FMV or printed promotional images, the artist will either make a new model or just make do by rendering in-game assets and touching them up in Photoshop. The end result looks different (sometimes dramatically so) from the actual in-game character.

For Sly Cooper Thieves in Time, our goal was to make the in-game assets faithfully represent the original signature style of the classic Sly Cooper characters, while at the same time updating their look for a modern console game. With modo, I was able to create both the in-game and high-res models within a single scene by using its sculpting tools to convert the low-res model to a highly detailed Sub-D model. Since I used modo for the high-res model, I could apply the same textures created for the in-game model, quickly add a skeleton, and then use the PoseTool to position the characters into various poses that show off their personality or provide compositional narrative.

The last step was to render using a combination of cel shaders, material presets, and textures to get a rendered, slightly stylized, painterly look that matches to the overall style of the game. Since I had been reusing the same high-res models used to create the in-game geometry, the rendered images accurately and consistently represent the game characters and their subtle style and form.

Thanks to modo 601's new shader and posing tools, we were able to rapidly provide high-quality images to Sony for their marketing efforts; indeed even our quick lighting and pose tests were sometimes mistaken as final art from time to time.

John Hayes is a senior character artist at Sanzaru Games.


Avid Pro Tools
Avid Technology

When it comes to digital audio, Pro Tools is considered the standard digital audio workstation (DAW). While Pro Tools was a must-have in every major recording studio around the world by the mid-1990s, it took a little longer to find acceptance among game studios due to its high price tag. But these days just about every publisher I'm aware of uses Pro Tools, as well as just about every major game-centric audio studio.

The main edge Pro Tools has over just about every one of its competitors is reliability. When you are faced with linking Pro Tools to your game engine to process hundreds of thousands of lines of dialogue in a complex chain of integration, you can't afford to lose data during a recording session or an export.

For example, I have used Pro Tools in conjunction with both commercial (Gallery Software) and proprietary voiceover software that will automatically trim voice recordings, perform a spectrum analysis, and based on scripting, correctly process and name VO takes. Many DAWs tend to stumble, crash, and hang the system from time to time. If your Pro Tools system is set up properly from the get-go, the chances of it crashing are almost zero -- and when you're recording expensive star voice talent, rock-solid performance is a must.

When it comes to dealing with recording a hundred orchestral players and foley sound sessions, where so many people are working that your hourly rate starts going through the roof, you need a DAW that doesn't let you down. Whether recording down the road or at Abbey Road most likely you'll find a Pro Tools system connected that the engineers "just don't have to worry about." Unless you are recording in the field with a Sound Devices or Nagra system, Pro Tools will be there.

In addition, Pro Tools has made an effort to be reachable to the PC user as well as the budget studio, so if you're looking for something in the same family as the huge studios, opt for Pro Tools Express or Pro Tools SE with an Mbox interface. When you decide your wallet and your needs require the top end, it's a simple matter to upgrade to Pro Tools|HD.

Another thing Pro Tools has going for it are its RTAS and AAX plug-ins, which are widely regarded as the highest quality in the business from amp simulation to compression. There are also a great deal of virtual instruments available.

I'm waiting for the day Pro Tools will directly connect with game hardware and software to create one pipeline from asset creation to integration. Hopefully, that day isn't too far away.

Alexander Brandon is the president of Funky Rustic, an audio outsourcing group, and vice president of the Game Audio Network Guild.


Havok Physics

The Saints Row series has become known for its over-the-top gameplay, and Saints Row: The Third is no exception. It shouldn't be surprising, then, that under the hood there is some unusual code to make it all happen. Fortunately, this isn't a problem for a physics engine like Havok. We've been able to rely on Havok Physics to take the craziness we throw at it and have it produce something realistic. For us, it's not just about the features that the physics engine provides, but also the ways we can customize it and extend it.

Making a world as large and dense as that of Saints Row: The Third inside the memory limits of current consoles is challenging. Although Havok provides multiple options for terrain collision representation, we chose to implement our own by extending one of the provided options with our own storage scheme custom tailored to our usage needs. The result was a fast and very memory-efficient representation of our terrain collision. Havok provided a solid foundation upon which we could then expand.

Vehicles are very important in Saints Row games, so we are constantly striving to provide better vehicle physics. Once again, we used the Havok vehicle physics kit as a foundation and then customized and built on top of it.

We were able to implement our own drifting physics by changing the way vehicle friction is simulated; make our own tank turret physics by combining Havok constraints and motors with our vehicle weapon system; and build all kinds of watercraft, airplanes, helicopters, and hybrid vertical takeoff or land (VTOL) vehicles by building on top of Havok.

Even with everything it already does, Havok Physics is always improving. New features, optimizations, and fixes are constantly being developed, which we were able to take advantage of between Saints Row 2 and Saints Row: The Third. As developers experienced with supporting both PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 can attest, getting good performance across platforms can be difficult and time consuming. Fortunately, Havok continued making improvements to the physics engine's cross-platform support so that we could focus on other details.

Finally, Havok support is top-notch. Whenever our over-the-top physics ran into over-the-top bugs, Havok's support team helped us track down the issue. Their knowledgeable team and excellent support tools, such as the Havok Visual Debugger, made a big difference when we were dealing with difficult bugs. Beyond just helping when asked, they also contacted us to inform us of their future plans for the engine and ask for feedback on what to improve for future versions. On occasion, we even had them on-site for some hands-on attention toward the end of a project.

We've been using Havok Physics for several years, and it just seems to be getting better and better. More and more of the cross-platform differences are handled behind the scenes so that we don't have to worry about them like we used to. Interesting new features are being added, so that we can expand upon them to make crazy new games. When those games run into equally crazy problems, it's comforting to know Havok support is there for us. Saints Row has really benefited from its use of Havok Physics, and we look forward to using them in the future.

Shawn Lindberg is a senior programmer at Volition Inc.


Unreal Engine 3
Epic Games

Whether you're a student trying to get into game development, an indie developer aiming to make a splash in the PC or mobile markets, or a studio looking to develop the next big thing on consoles, one thing that should definitely be high on your radar is Unreal Engine 3.

Available under multiple licenses, starting with the most affordable Unreal Development Kit, you can create high-quality, standalone commercial titles, using the same tools that Epic and its licensees used to create games such as Gears of War, Mass Effect, Borderlands, and Infinity Blade.

I was first introduced to Unreal 3 in 2007 through a university degree that included creating mods for Roboblitz and Unreal Tournament. When a few of us were hired by a large studio in 2008 to work on an unannounced Unreal Engine 3 game, the tools available to us as full licensees were essentially just a more up-to-date version of what we were already familiar with. During pre-production, design specs could be turned into fully fledged prototypes in a matter of days, due to Unreal's mature, efficient toolset.

When I later worked on other games at the company using their own proprietary tech, the tools were a mess. I learned to appreciate the enormous difference between tools that a programmer can use to get the job done, and tools that artists and designers need to use every day to effectively do their jobs.

Good tools can be the difference between a game that gets finished on time and under budget and one that gets stuck in development hell. After seeing the damage that bad tools could do to a project, when I began working on my own games again in early 2009, I went straight back to working with Unreal. With two decades of experience being at the front line of game technology, an expansive portfolio of highly successful triple-A games and a growing list of independent releases via the UDK, new updates every month, and good documentation, it's pretty clear that Epic knows what it's doing when it comes to developing an effective engine.

From a programming perspective, there are a couple of caveats to be aware of. The UDK will only give you access to a higher-level scripting language known as UnrealScript, not the lower-level native C++ code that runs the engine beneath it. UnrealScript is like a user-friendly combination of C++ and Java, with a focus on development simplicity and power over raw execution speed. Don't let that deter you, though.

Using nothing but UnrealScript and the Unreal Editor, I managed to create Antichamber, an award-winning non-Euclidean psychological exploration game, complete with custom physics, obscure spatial navigation rules, and a unique visual style made up of multiple rendering techniques, edge detection, and a custom inverse lighting system. I did all of the programming, design, and art myself, and even won the award for Technical Excellence at the 2012 Independent Games Festival, without ever having to go near any of the lower-level native C++ code.

Several successful independent titles have been developed using the Unreal Development Kit, such as The Ball, Sanctum, and Hawken. Other games, such as Dungeon Defenders, began development using the UDK and then upgraded their license when they made the transition to consoles. One particularly interesting case was QUBE, which was released on Steam at the start of 2012 by a team with no programming experience.

One of the most important aspects of developing games is knowing what your strengths and weaknesses are. Some people like having control over every single detail, but to me, there is nothing more daunting than staring at a blank slate, trying to work out where to start. By using Unreal and leaving the core foundational work in the hands of experts, I can just focus on working on the things I actually care about. I'm interested in exploring the boundaries of game design, but I hate reinventing the wheel.

Alexander Bruce is an independent developer and the creator of Antichamber.


Mozilla Foundation (Open Source)

Bugzilla isn't the sexiest product in the world -- after all, it's bug-tracking software. But it's one of those required tools in our development arsenal, one of those tools that we all rely on during the most critical moments of the development process.

For me, Bugzilla was particularly convenient while I was working with a bilingual team in China. In this situation, we had a group of about 20 developers of all disciplines working on building a free-to-play online PC game. In our case, Bugzilla was efficient, quick, and easy to learn and use.

Bugzilla has some key features that I found essential in our development process. The ability to mark or update multiple bugs simultaneously was a workflow convenience I could not live without.

I also appreciated the tracking reports, which gave me an up-to-date chart that showed how quickly we were closing bugs off our list, which users were behind in closing their issues, and how many bugs of each priority category were remaining. This was useful for feature tracking as well, because we could earmark requests with their own category, which could then serve to roll up new features for the team to implement.

Bugzilla's tracking features are complemented by a whole host of other features that contribute to its utility and usability. Its email notifications allowed me to immediately react to updates and communicate build-testing results back to the team within shorter timeframes. Its automatic duplicate detection feature (a form of autofill) lets the user find potential bug duplications before they are committed to the database. Time tracking allows the team to set deadlines and test against user time estimate accuracy.

Perhaps the most useful part about Bugzilla, though, is that it's a free, open-source product. This cannot be understated. In an industry that is now party to an enormous host of smaller developers working with lower budgets to make their products, Bugzilla is a welcome respite to the incoming tool costs associated with new cloud subscription models that have become the norm for many development toolsets. Because of my positive experience working with Bugzilla, I now automatically look toward open source solutions to our tool problems before I consider the licensed per-seat solutions that are currently on the market.

To that end, I salute the Bugzilla team, as well as everyone else who is offering their time to make the product even better, and hope that we in the game industry do our part to keep it alive well into the future.

Carey Chico is a game industry veteran and a member of the Game Developer advisory board.

Free Tools

The Blender Foundation (Open Source)

Blender is a free, open-source 3D art suite with a combination of powerful modeling, unwrapping, and rendering tools that is growing in notoriety as its user community demonstrates that you can still make professional-quality movies and game art with free tools.

I first started working with Blender six years ago, while working toward my classical art degree, and felt an affinity with computer graphics that led me to spend the rest of my university years learning to use Softimage XSI and 3D Studio Max. Blender's accessibility remains one of its strong points and is helping artists around the globe to express themselves in new ways.

Our development studio (Nine Dots) was founded on a small budget, so we opted to use Blender instead of paying $5,000 per head for commercial 3D software. As the studio's founder started gathering a team, my previous experience with that software was a strong asset and I was hired. I've used Blender ever since, and new Nine Dots artists are taught to use it when they start out in our company.

After a few weeks of adaptation -- getting used to the interface and customizing our keyboard shortcuts -- the 3D artists at Nine Dots were able to reach the same production speed they had on the software they were used to. In my experience, I have actually found Blender to be far faster than any of Autodesk's products in terms of modeling and unwrapping, at least for the low-poly models required for video games.

I also made good use of my graphics tablet in Blender while working on our first game, Brand. Using the Poly Paint mode, I drew the lights and shadows on the 3D mesh itself before baking the result in the diffuse texture. That single feature I found while exploring the software has helped us obtain a painterly look for our game. Other features use the tablet, such as the newly implemented sculpt mode, which lets the artist manipulate the geometry in a manner similar to ZBrush.

After we released Brand on Xbox 360 and PC, we started work on a more ambitious project with fully detailed characters. Once again, Blender has proven to be a great tool for creating an elegant facial geometry and for animating the bodies and faces of our human (and nonhuman!) characters. We also used Blender to edit some of our trailers and gameplay videos; since the video editing tool is integrated with the rendering software, the production pipeline is streamlined, saving us some precious time!

In short, Blender is an accessible and customizable tool that can be optimized to greatly increase production speed. For video game creation, I can speak from experience that Blender's modeling and unwrapping tools are on par with those of its costly competitors. I'm eager to see it grow as it refines its strengths and irons out its last kinks!

Etienne Vanier is the lead artist at Nine Dots Studio.

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