No Such Thing As “Easy” Software

Quick update on “Drew and the Floating Labyrinth:” my hand-drawn 3d indie game is seeking voice actors and music, two things that I can’t do on my own (well, I could, but it would be embarrassingly bad, and having it at decent quality does wonders for the final game). I admit that I should have contacted people I have in mind sooner… now hoping to get these things finished in the next couple of weeks, I realize most of my contacts are either not available during the summer or busy with other things. If only I started contacting a few weeks ago… but I haven’t gone through all of my contacts yet. And surprisingly, a lot of existing sources for both of these things exist to hire people/content on short notice, and I did expect to pay something anyway…

Now, the point of this article. Some months ago, I volunteered to help a session of high school students experiment with “Kodu Game Lab” on the Xbox 360. I had a conversation with another student about the software: it was meant as a simplistic visual interface to make games, cute and colorful, sort of like “Little Big Planet” on PS3, but with a greater focus on the actual programming and design of games. My point of view was that Kodu wasn’t that easy to pick up. Well, perhaps for a newcomer it may have been more inviting, and certain concepts would have come through. But in my mind, having learned programming in another class years prior, I felt programming in general was really easy to pickup. And so, I felt that Kodu was redundant, since you couldn’t actually do much with it, and any time spent learning to use Kodu could probably have been spent on learning a real programming language, and in the same amount of time.

Similarly, there’s a misconception that “Unity3D,” a now very common game engine used amongst indie game developers, is a easy tool to quickly make games. Well, yes, in a way it is. When I first picked it up, I was able to make a simple 3d platformer in under an hour, with no prior experience with the engine, something that would have taken me days to make in pure C++, C# or Java with an editor like Visual Studio or Eclipse. But it isn’t without it’s own learning curve: I’ve seen other students thrown into using the engine told to complete an existing project, only to come out frustrated and shaking their fists at the software. If not for my interest to learn Unity myself and for my general programming knowledge and 3d modeling knowledge, I would have had a lot of trouble. And that’s what Unity does best: it combines the general layout design of 3d tools like Maya or Blender, allows customization and coding with full C# or JavaScript, and combines it in a efficient interface, but past knowledge in those fields it relates to is absolutely required to use it properly.

Speaking of Maya and Blender: Blender has a terrible learning curve, whereas Maya seemed much more intuitive to me. And yet, 3D modeling in general is far from intuitive, and both take time to practice. With enough practice, Blender would be preferred by most people, especially given it’s price point.

And take other game engine solutions: with the Valve source engine, Crytek engine and Unreal engine, it seems Unity3D’s general interface has been common with industry professionals to quickly shape their product. I used to look at RPGMaker and GameMaker with disdain, thinking it was the poor man’s solution who didn’t know how to code. But having tried those out, I firmly decided I would much prefer to code a game from scratch then use them, and have respect for people who made full games using the software.

Basically, what I’m saying is this: there is a lot of software out there. A lot of it claims to be easier to use. Ultimately, it probably isn’t much easier than the original thing it’s based on. The only way to be sure is to practice, and practice a lot. Use many different software solutions, spend at least a few days with them, and decide what features are important to you and which solutions come closest to meeting your needs. But if you think there’s a all-in-one option that everyone will love and be able to use right away, you got another thing coming…