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Designing 3D Games That Sell!

John Edgar Park reviews a new book, which discusses game proposals, budgets, marketing, scheduling and meeting with publishers, as well as touching on actual game creation.

Designing 3D Games That Sell! is an interesting overview of both the business of getting a game published and some aspects of game development, but don't expect it to teach you many specifics about game design. The first half of this book discusses game proposals, budgets, marketing, scheduling and meeting with publishers; while only a lean 15-page chapter on design documents makes mention of game design. While the title is intended to attract your attention at the bookstore, it is a bit inaccurate. Selling 3D Games That You've Designed! would have been a more honest title.

The second half of the book consists mainly of tutorials for using the excellent Genesis 3D game engine, as well as a reprint of a Paul Steed (formerly a Quake character builder from id software) article on low-polygon modeling and a sample game design document. While I found this to be a good overview of level building tools and low-poly creation methods, it doesn't discuss how to design compelling gameplay.

Part I

The author, Luke Ahearn, has worked on a number of successful game development projects and is very knowledgeable about going out and getting a publisher. His clear writing style and wealth of experience allows him to present a very informative breakdown of the game industry, from developer to publisher to retailer to consumer. Everything from writing and submitting a proposal to negotiating a deal is covered. Here you will find many case studies and examples of competitive analysis, how to focus on the end-users' needs and good advice on creating a game proposal. Since the retail market likes to pigeonhole things, there are also some definitions of the major game genres to help you see where your game design fits into the grand scheme.

If you already have a game design in mind this first part of the book may help you determine your next steps. There is no such thing as a "garage" game developer anymore $1 to $5 million dollars is a pretty realistic game budget these days so finding a publisher to fund your development is a must. In addition to the excellent advice on getting your game published, Ahearn also provides information on how to secure alternate methods of funding. Is it possible to get this kind of funding if you are an inexperienced developer? Not too likely. So what do you do now? Ahearn offers some good advice get a job in the game industry in order to gain experience without the financial risk of funding your own game. Here he adds some pointers on breaking into the industry including creating demo reels and targeting your search toward the right specialty within a game company.

Part II

Designing a 3D game hinges on one important piece of technology: the 3D game engine. If you are already on your way to programming your own 3D engine you probably aren't reading this. For the rest of us, the only realistic way to do a proof-of-concept for a 3D game is with a pre-existing engine. There are a few of them out there that are commonly licensed for big releases, namely Quake, Unreal and LithTech. For example, Disney Interactive licensed the Unreal engine for its upcoming Atlantis game. The cost of licensing these high-profile engines can be anywhere from $100,000 to $500,000 per title, so many small development shops are forced to write their own or look elsewhere for a low-cost or free engine.

One such engine is Genesis 3D. It's free, high quality and can be found on the book's included CD-ROM. So in Part II, the author takes you through the installation and use of the Genesis 3D level editor. The editor is very similar to the tools used for level design in commercial game engines. Most of Part II of this book is spent teaching you how to design and build a simple level, including animated doors and effects, sound and A.I. Using 3D Studio Max or the freeware modeler MilkShape 3D, it is possible to import your own characters and props into the levels you build. For the more advanced features you may want to install Rabid Games' Reality Factory, which is also included.

Of course, not all games are first-person shooters. This is the only type of game the lessons in this book cover. It would have been nice to see info on game design within other genres such as third-person adventure and platforming or role-playing games.

Therefore...

As evidenced by all of the excellent "mods" and total conversions being made as free add-ons to commercial games, such as Counter-Strike for Sierra's Half-Life, there is no reason an ambitious crew of game designers can't make a great game proposal in their free time. This is a great way to get your feet wet in the game industry. This book helps fill in the blanks about the business end of turning your free mod into a money-making product.

If you are interested in pure game design theory and advice Mark Louis Rybczyk's Game Design: Theory and Practice, Chris Crawford's The Art of Computer Game Design and his other work Understanding Interactivity may be more up your alley. But if you really want to learn about the business of getting a game developed and published, with a little level design thrown in, then grab a copy of Designing 3D Games That Sell!

Designing 3D Games That Sell! by Luke Ahearn. Hingham, MA: Charles River Media, 2001. 550 pages. ISBN: 1-58450-043-3. (Paperback and CD-Rom, $49.95)

John Edgar Park is a 3D animator, instructor and writer based in Los Angeles. He received his B.A. in Drama from the University of Virginia.

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