Interactive producer Tim Samoff describes his favorite tools for making interactive games.
The lights are dim and all I can hear are the sporadic giggles of little Stevie playing Mario Cart on the Nintendo 64. His giggles are hindered only by an intense concentration that I've never before seen in a four year-old child. As his virtual go-cart rounds the corner, Stevie sways and tilts with the motion, his entire body possessed by the game. I'm amazed by the captivation achieved with this simple racing game, and can only hope that the next interactive title or game that I produce will seize this same kind of attention. Already one month into our production cycle, I think back to the beginning: the process of writing the Design Doc, the scheduling of future asset creation, and the planning of what tools would be used to bring our new project into reality. We would be stuck with these tools for the next six to twelve months. When speaking of tools in the interactive world, I mean everything from Microsoft Excel to Adobe Photoshop and everything in between! When people ask me what programs I use, I usually just respond, "Everything." There's no easy answer to the question. Being that the Design Doc is written and the schedule has been made, we need to concentrate on the tools that will be used to create the assets that will make an idea reality. I'm talking about the art tools, the animation tools, and yes, the authoring, or programming, tools. The Art The first thing that needs to be started in any visual project is what's going to be seen. We're talking the art, the meat. What's going to keep the end-user looking at the screen?
How is this art going to be created? There are lots of programs out there designed for the creation of digital art, but only a few are particularly useful. These are Adobe Photoshop, Fractal Design Painter, and Debabelizer. Of course, you need to find what you are most comfortable using, but these are my three favorites, and the favorites of most digital artists. Each of these programs have a powerful set of equally useful, but different tools. The trick is to find which one will best suit the needs of your project. Usually all of these programs will find a place in your project, but it's up to you to find your favorite. Here are a few of the benefits of each of these programs: Adobe Photoshop Photoshop is best utilized in the creation of realistic images and is great for photo enhancing/altering. There is a strong set of "paint-like" tools, but nothing too organic. If you want an easy-to-use paint program where you can create almost anything, then Photoshop is for you. Fractal Design Painter If you're into organic, realistic painting and drawing, then Painter is where it's at. With everything from pencils with multiple lead weights and various charcoals, to oil paints and water colors, Painter is the closest to real-life paint program I have ever used. There are even customizable paper textures! Although Painter is a little more complicated to learn than most other paint programs, it is well worth the patience.
Ahhh...the interactive artist's best friend. Debabelizer is the "time-savingest" program ever invented. It's not that this program has any useful "painting" tools, because it doesn't, but when you need to convert 2,000 files to 256-color, 1-inch by 1-inch thumbnails, in BMP format, Debabelizer can't go wrong. This is the coolest thing in batch processing, and will save hours upon hours of potentially tedious work. It may take some time to learn Debabelizer, but it is a must have.
So, most of the artwork is complete, and now you need to make it move. You can't just expect the thing to sit stationary on the screen do you? It's got to have some action. It's got to compel the user to click on things and explore...and have fun.
I think the best program for any kind of digital animation is Macromedia Director. Not only did Director begin as an animation program from the very beginning (something a lot of so-called animation programs cannot boast), but it is the simplest to use, and can export file-types that most authoring environments can handle. Even if you can't use your Director animations in the final production of your project, it is still a great way to test your artwork to see if it's animating correctly.
The Programming (Or How To Make The Thing Work!)
This is the toughest question of all. Hopefully your team consists of a programmer, or programmers, that is comfortable in one authoring system or another, or maybe is most at home in C++. Whatever the case, something has to be done to put all of your artwork and animation together and make it work according to your Design Doc.
There are a number of authoring tools outside of C++, that have been created for people that are not necessarily programmers, but have a knack for figuring out technicalities. Of course, being a programmer and knowing the principles behind traditional programming is a big help.
A couple of these authoring programs include mFactory's mTropolis (pronounced "metropolis") and Macromedia Director. Yes, not only is Director great for animation, but it is also a very powerful interactive authoring tool. I've started to hear a lot of good things about some other authoring tools like Macromedia Authorware, but I've mostly used the aforementioned. This is really one of the most important decisions of a project (taking into account the schedule, what platforms the finished title will run on, what the end-system requirements are, etc.), so this is a decision best left up to your programmers.
mTropolis is a great non-linear authoring system that can be learned (on the surface, at least) by most resourceful people, but can never really be tapped into unless you have a good understanding of traditional programming. mTropolis is great for most interactive projects and some simple games, but could never be used to program high-paced 3D action games like Quake or Tomb Raider. If you're creating an activity center or an interactive kiosk, then this is most likely a good choice for you.
And back to Director... Again, this authoring environment is good for simple games and kiosk-type applications, but it is not the greatest if you're thinking about a full-fledged game. The great thing about this program, is that your animations are right there, ready to use in your interactive title.
Traditional programming. A programmer's fantasy and nightmare. Anything can be done in C++, be it interactive titles, strategy games like Command and Conquer or action shooters like Decent. It is a great paradigm if you're a great programmer.
So there you have it, from the idea to the final stages: art, to animation, to programming. I've left out things like creating the design and the sound effects, music, and video, just to name a few things, but a subject like this could go on for years. Hopefully, this was enough to give an idea of what can be used to create an interesting interactive title or game.
Now, I need to go back in and watch little Stevie finish Mario Cart. See what keeps him intrigued. See what drives his imagination. Learn what I can to make my own cool game.
Tim Samoff is a Producer at Sound Source Interactive, where he has taken part in the creation of over 20 licensed edutainment titles, screen savers, and games including, Babe Interactive MovieBook Free Willy 2 Interactive MovieBook, The Hercules & Xena Learning Adventure, and the Babylon 5 Limited Edition Entertainment Utility. He is currently producing a 3-D adventure game sequel to the James Cameron film, The Abyss.