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GDC: Tools Of The Trade For Casual Games

At GDC's Casual Games Summit on Monday, David Fox of iWin took an in-depth look at the tools and technology behind casual games, and found that “it’s not rocket science.”
“The vast majority of the hit casual games are written in C++,” said David Fox of iWin at his talk at GDC's Casual Games Summit on Monday, as attended by Gamasutra. Nonetheless, he took a look at the wide variety of tools, engines, and middleware that can make development of casual games easier and more profitable. Direct X has the advantage of being easy to port to XBLA but Fox advised developers to stick with version 7.0 or 8.0. Flash CS4 is very artist friendly and great for prototyping. “The biggest platform in the world is Flash,” he noted. Director/Shockwave 11 has very rich media features but remains hopelessly stuck in the past according to Fox. Silverlight 3 is Microsoft’s attempt to compete with Adobe but suffers from poor market penetration and remains unproven for games. Torque Game Builder 1.74 supports a wide range of platforms including Mac, Windows, Xbox 360, and Nintendo Wii. Easy to work with, Fox claims that it is possible to get a basic game up and running within a day if developers make use of Torque’s genre specific tools. Unity 2.5 is focused on 3D graphics and is a strong choice for complex, polygon-based games. It has the added advantage of running the game in real-time alongside the code, allowing changes to be implemented immediately. SexyFramework 1.3 from PopCap is free for commercial use but is limited to Windows only. It has seen use in hits like Bejeweled and Zuma. Playground SDK 4.0 from Playfirst is also free as well as being multiplatform. XNA GameStudio 3.0 supports Windows, Xbox, and Zune but requires .NET. BlitzMax uses its own BlitzBasic language with concepts similar to Basic and is a good choice for beginners. However, it has only been used for a few commercial casual games. SDL (Simple DirectMedia Layer) runs on a broad range of hardware but suffers from poor support and documentation. In spite of this, it has been used in the creation of many successful casual games. Casual game developers can also benefit from a variety of server solutions as well. “These days there are a lot of boxed and ready-to-go servers that you can build world class multiplayer games with,” he said. Unity 2 MDK (Multiuser Development Kit) is a low-cost object-oriented development framework for Adobe Flash that runs on Windows, Mac, and Unix. Ready-made chat and avatar apps are also available. Smart Fox 1.65 is a high performance, scalable server package. It also has the Blue Box plug-in that deals with firewalls and proxies as well as the Red Box plug-in that handles streaming media available. “You can get an MMO running in a few weeks,” Fox claimed. ElectroServer 4 claims that it can handle 200,000 concurrent players and makes a good choice for MMOs. Flash Media Interactive Server 3.5 has audio and video as its main focus, enabling YouTube-style media sites. Its downside is that it is “Hella expensive.” Red 5 v0.8 is an open source version of Flash Media but is still early in development and not yet ready for prime time in Fox’s opinion. Project Darkstar 0.9.8 is another free, open source server but has only been used in a few proven projects. Fox also listed off some Middleware packages that casual game developers should consider including Somatone’s CADI interactive music tool, Emergent’s Gamebryo engine, Large Animal’s TOGA platform for social networks, and Freespin; a handy tool that converts 3D models into Flash movie clips. “On the technology side, it’s not rocket science,” Fox reassured developers.

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