Game design software advice needed
January 12, 2007 2:37 PM   Subscribe

Help me help my students design video games.

I am a high school communications technology teacher. I would like to give my students the opportunity to design their own video games. I am not quite as interested in the actual programming aspect as I am with giving them the chance to develop 3d environments and characters that they can run around shooting stuff in.

I downloaded the “Torque Game Engine” demo from, and it seems like it would do what I want it to. Would this allow my students start from a blank environment and add graphics, characters and gameplay elements in order to create their own playable games? Is there some other software package I should be looking at?

I’d like to see a few options (price and feature wise)

If you have any sort of experience in this field, I would love to hear your input.

We are PC based with no chance of going to Macs (at all, ever)
posted by davey_darling to Education (13 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
... i am pretty sure this will take an incredible amount of time/energy/understanding for anyone who wants to learn how to make their own video games. How long do you plan to spend teaching this specific part of the curriculum?

Although there may definitely be some good options available out there I'm not aware of, I'm guessing 99/100 things you will find will just let you put graphics and objects in a 3d environment but not let you easily build complex objectives.
posted by ZackTM at 2:41 PM on January 12, 2007

Response by poster: ZackTM asked: "How long do you plan to spend teaching this specific part of the curriculum?"

I'd be happy to let a motivated student spend a whole semester on a project if they wanted to. My curriculum is extremely flexible, and it wouldn't necessarily be an entire class of students working on the projects (just interested ones).
posted by davey_darling at 2:46 PM on January 12, 2007

Ask me again in one semster. I am signed up to take a game dev class starting this spring (tuesday) I'm a comp sci major so the programming part is no big deal for me... But here's the twist that might intrest you. This is a class put on by an enviromental design prof and programming skills aren't required. It's more about designing a game. Which sounds like what you are doing. Remind me and I'll give you more info as the year goes on.
posted by magikker at 2:46 PM on January 12, 2007

I think the Torque game engine requires a lot of programming skill to use. They have something on their site called the Torque Game Builder which looks simpler, but from the FAQ: Eventually, you will need to know how to program to make games. There is no getting around it.

I taught myself C to write games, and I can tell you that really simple-looking stuff can take a really long time to get right. First you write the code, then you debug it, then you spend hours if not days tweaking it until it gives you exactly the desired effect. This doesn't sound like what you want, so anything which requires coding is probably out. Modding existing games is probably the simplest way to write a game but you'd need to be able to do at least some scripting. Maybe get them designing levels in something like Freespace 2? It's free nowadays and it's supposed to have a very powerful level design tool. Or maybe something like Doom. Designing levels for these kinds of games is a realistic goal for a high school class, I think, and in many cases the tools should be free.

Gamemaker lets you write surprisingly complex and interesting games (like these at Iteration Games) without much if any coding, but I don't think it does 3D. Wikipedia has a nice summary.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 3:09 PM on January 12, 2007

Have a look at Game Maker. It takes away all the difficult programming tasks, and allows you to focus on the game graphics, objectives, levels and gameplay.

In my final year of high school we had to make a game with game maker, in about 8 weeks or so, and most of us managed to produce some pretty good games, which were fun to play and didn't look half bad either.

There's some course work for teachers on the Game Maker website, and there are a few great introductary guides to using the program which explain all its functions (including the really advanced functionality, such as custom scripts).
posted by jayden at 3:10 PM on January 12, 2007

Ah, I didn't notice in your post that you want to create 3D games. In that case, ignore my post, because Game Maker isn't really suitable for 3D games. But I don't think you'll be able to find anything similar for creating 3D games, since that's much more complex.
posted by jayden at 3:12 PM on January 12, 2007

Have you considered letting the kids mod existing games instead of creating their own from scratch?

If you're a complete novice to computer gaming, essentially, modding is what you're describing. The underlying code of a game remains, but the design, the graphics, the sound, anything else can be changed. For a popular game like Doom or Half-Life, you'll find there's already a massive amount of documentation available, in-depth tutorials and libraries full of stock graphics if your kids find their enthusiasm outstrips their artistic talent.

With newer, shinier games, getting a license for a classroom's worth of computers might be a hassle, of course, But, if you're operating with high school standard issue decade old desktops, the original Doom is now open source, has 14-odd years of resources lying around the net, and can't be accused of overcomplexity.
posted by Simon! at 3:30 PM on January 12, 2007

Is there some other software package I should be looking at?

Half Life 2, Unreal Tournament, etc. Many cutting edge PC games come with highly refined tools for user editing. (These tools are actually often more sophisticated than the tools used to create the game, because they are later versions of the tools the developers used when making the game, but hammered and polished into something more user-friendly).

I'm not familiar with the Torque tools, but regardless of which you eventually choose, I would suggest not starting from a complete blank, only start from blank in the area(s) of interest to the student, else it's too much work.

For example, start with a fully functional demo (or user editable game, such as Unreal or Hl2), and then strip out the aspect(s) they want to work on - such as making a new map from scratch. The technical skill and time involved in making and animating even just one character is enormous for someone not already familiar with max or maya (the usual software suite used to make these). If what a student wants to do is lay out the landscape and gamespace, they want to be able to work on that - try not to get in a situation where one piece of student work-in-progress can't be taken for a spin until another piece is finished (dependancies).

Another option (that probably won't engage the students as much, but might as well be mentioned) is to pick a much older game with a simpler engine, as this will allow much quicker results.

It varies by system, but here is some stuff in a rough order of easiest-to-hardest to make a basic first element and implement it:
sound effect
map texture
character texture
map with scripting
character model with animation

This list order does not apply to doing any of the above to a high level of quality - each are expert fields in their own right. It's more a list of how many steps are involved to get from nothing to having something in-game to show.
posted by -harlequin- at 3:37 PM on January 12, 2007

Note: While I think that modding an existing game is the best way to do it, when selecting a game to use as a construction platform, pay attention to the ESRB game rating if the students are young. Even if only using pieces of a game as a toolkit, at school if the game is not rated for their age, anyone with an axe to grind has an opportunity they might not pass up.
posted by -harlequin- at 3:46 PM on January 12, 2007

Second -harlequin-'s advice. And maybe you could get them to do a non-violent game.

When they start to need to produce sounds, graphics etc, there are heaps of specialised tools out there which do these things for free (I'm not sure about your school's budget). For image editing, I use the GIMP. For sound, I use various VSTs (sorry, don't know what that stands for, but they are basically synthesiser plug-ins - good free ones are all over the web and your students should have fun experimenting with them) to generate sounds with Psycle then edit the wav files with Audacity.

There are also free 3D modelling programs out there as well, but I don't have any experience with those.
posted by A Thousand Baited Hooks at 4:54 PM on January 12, 2007

There are also free 3D modelling programs

Forgot to mention - I think max and maya both have free personal-use versions with which to make non-commercial game content, so they're another area where you can use the same tools as used in the industry.
posted by -harlequin- at 5:06 PM on January 12, 2007

There are also free 3D modelling programs

I don't have much experience with such programs, but Blender is a popular and powerful open-source one.
posted by musicinmybrain at 5:23 PM on January 12, 2007

Yeah. Nthing the 'mod an existing game' recommendation.

Writing something from nothing is certainly romantic, but really ambitious and tough to scope (even sometimes for people who have been in the industry a while,) and it isn't a fair representation of what goes into a modern, high-budget 3d game.

I'd recommend Quake (i.e., 3) or Unreal. Unreal's level editor ("UnrealEd"), while less clunky than Quake's ("Radiant"), is based on a slightly more complex concept. Both are designed to make it easy to block out a level rapidly. Unreal 2003 (iirc) includes a special version of Maya Personal Learning Edition, which can be used to model characters for it. This is ideal, since Maya is a very popular modelling program in the industry. However, as someone noted, Blender can be used for Quake modeling.

Starcraft, which is the best Real Time Strategy game ever made (it's an objective fact, I looked it up in my gut,) includes a level editor, too. I bet a lot of other (inferior) RTSes include similar tools.

I think Oblivion (an RPG) is moddable, as well.

Besides World of Warcraft and The Sims, which are not moddable, FPS and RTS are the big genres for PC (with a dash of RPGs thrown in,) and console games are not so moddable, so, there you are.

As a rough distillation of what actual game development is like, at least where I work, I'd say let the kids:

1) pick a game with a modding toolset/community,
2) decide what they want to add/do,
3) Decide what exactly 'doing' that means (i.e., a simple, less than 100 word requirements doc describing what they're working on needs to do, but not how to do it.
4) Decide exactly how they're going to do it by breaking the job up into several 4 or less hour 'tasks,' and
5) Do it, while updating their tasks to reflect new realities, adding new tasks as necessary, and keeping track of how long each task took. Nothing too hardcore, like time of day, or anything, but a rough accounting of how every 3 or 4 hours were spent.
5a) Keep backups of the files they change (revision control is probably overkill,) and keep the game working-- don't get into a broken state.

Anyway, good luck!
posted by blenderfish at 2:24 AM on January 13, 2007

« Older Custom maps for reports   |   What's the deal with EVERYTIME? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.