By Tracey John
As video games become more and more popular, educational programs for aspiring game designers are cropping up across the country. And once a student has decided to get a gaming education, nothing beats the hands-on development experience with some of the best tech tools out there. Here are some of the most popular software kits for students, plus what to look for when choosing a tool so you can get a head start in your gaming studies.
An open-source 3D content creation suite available for all major operating systems, Blender allows creators to do a variety of things: 3D modeling, compositing, UV unwrapping, texturing, rigging, skinning, animating, rendering and video editing, to name a few. It also lets people create their own video games. There’s also Game Blender , a game-specific sub-project that offers interactivity features such as collision detection, dynamics engine and programmable logic. The best part? It’s completely free.
“Its biggest and most obvious strength is its cost because, as a student, your bank account is far too busy balancing out a beer/video game purchase ratio,” says Mike Bithell, a lead game designer at U.K.-based social game-maker Bossa Studios. “Open source lets you get building assets -- without stealing someone else’s hard work.”
The Source software development kit was created by Valve Software, the makers of groundbreaking titles like Half-life 2, Portal and Team Fortress 2 -- all hit games built with Source. The software offers cutting-edge character animation, shader-based rendering, advanced AI and real-world physics, plus it allows wannabe game developers to make their own maps and mods for Valve games. To boot, the Source SDK is available free with the purchase of a Source-based game on the company’s digital distribution service, Steam. It’s been a favorite among the mod community for years.
“The Source engine has powered all of Valve’s latest games, and offers a whole slew of content to work with,” says Chuck Wilson, a designer at id Software. Wilson, who majored in game design at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, used Source to help him learn the ins and outs of game development. “Source’s content pipeline was a lot harder to learn, but had more up-to-date tech to work with.”
Bithell, who also used Source when studying game design at the University of Wales, still extols the use of Source. “The key differentiator for Source engine is the character animation system, and it’s still one of the best out there,” he says. Valve now offers SourceU , which helps schools teach Source engine technology in the classroom, as well as plenty of tips and tricks online .
Unity  is used in more than 400 schools, universities and research programs throughout the world. The authoring tool has an integrated development environment with hierarchical, visual editing, detailed property inspectors, and live game preview. It currently powers games such as Battlestar Galactica Online and Tiger Woods PGA TOUR Online. Over the years, it has gained popularity for being easy to use and able to run on an array of platforms.
“Game design students need to be able to prototype their game in the blink of an eye and show the game on multiple platforms, and Unity offers them an easy tool to visualize their prototype on the fly,” says Joe Santos, a spokesman for Unity Technologies. “With the built-in assets store, game designers have access to different gameplay, script and art assets built from our community to expedite their prototype cycle. In the end, the game designer can switch the prototype elements with final art assets with a mouse click from the asset store and present a final game.”
For Bithell, Unity is his current engine of choice. “It’s brilliantly put together and a pleasure to build games with,” says Bithell, who’s using it to make his own independent game Thomas Was Alone . “It also comes in an impressively feature-packed free version, which is more than enough to make some great games.”
Developed by Epic Games, the makers of Unreal Tournament and Gears of War, the Unreal development kit  lets users create advanced visualizations and detailed 3D simulations on PC and iOS. Though primarily used for first-person shooters, Unreal has also been used to make MMOs and RPGs, and is one of the most widely used engines in video games.
Wilson worked with the Unreal development kit extensively when he was a level designer at Gearbox Software making the Borderlands. “Unreal was an excellent engine to use because it comes packed to the brim with an excellent suite of tools,” he says. “It comes equipped with a powerful scripting system called Kismet that allows a designer to do practically whatever they want inside his or her world; this makes scripted sequences, streaming content and prototyping insanely easy.”
He highly recommends Unreal, which is free for educational and noncommercial use, to anyone looking for a career in games. “Unreal delivered a very clear and extremely easy content pipeline for the students to use,” says Wilson. “Its art pipeline made it a favorite by students because people who had never brought an asset in game were able to create, import and view their art in no time.”
How to Choose the Right Software for You
The best software for students depends on the student, says Bithell. It’s about finding your focus and using the engine that suits you and your goals. “Ask yourself, ‘What kind of game will I be making?’” he says. “‘How long do I have to learn a potentially scary new piece of software?’ ‘Is there any possibility of trying to sell my game?’ And, if the finished game has any dependencies, ‘Will the player or potential employer have what they need?’”
Additionally, Wilson suggests checking to see if the game you like has tool sets available. This may be a good software choice for you. If the game you really love doesn’t have a tool set readily available, he says the software tools listed above are all good choices. “One of these engines should certainly work as a stepping stone on your way to the game industry."
Tracey John has written about video games, technology and comics for Wired, MTV and Time Inc. Her work has also appeared in Electronic Gaming Monthly, The Escapist, Wizard and The New York Post, among other publications. When she’s not writing, she’s probably reading comics and baking cookies in her Brooklyn apartment, where she lives happily with her myriad consoles.