9. January 2015

 

I needed to create a sprite sheet for an upcoming tutorial series and managed to throw one together in an amazingly short amount of time with almost no artistic ability.  Good looking art with no ability is something many indie game developers are screaming for, so I figured I would share the process.

 

During the tutorial we use the following programs:

Mixamo Fuse (Free version available, MSRP $99USD)

Blender (Free and Open Source)

TexturePacker (Free version available, MSRP $50USD)

 

If you want more details on Mixamo, I extensively review it here.

 

The ultimate output from this entire process is the sprite sheet powering this animation:

bigguy

 

And here is the resulting sprite sheet, click it for the full resolution version:

a

 

Now finally, the video.  You can watch it in full 1080p on YouTube.

 

Coincidentally, if you want more information on how I created the above animated gif, I used a program called Cryotek Animated GIf Creator, and document the process here.  It’s a very cool program and completely free.

Programming, Art, General , , , ,

23. November 2014

 

Today I was contacted by a developer from the jMonkeyEngine team who was interested in spreading the word about the OPENGEX format among indie developers, and I agree completely with the goal.

 

Before I even get in to OpenGEX, it’s helpful to first look at the alternatives available for 3D import/export.  Moving 3D assets between software packages and into game engines has long been a challenge and there have been a number of popular formats as a result.  Let’s take a quick look at the more popular choices.

 

COLLADA

 

Site Link

 

COLLADA is probably the monster in the segment now, standing for COLLAborative Design Activity, ranking up there amongst the most contrived acronyms I’ve ever encountered.  COLLADA started life at Sony and was later submitted to Khronos, the party responsible for OpenGL, for standardization.  Several major players in the industry signed on to support COLLADA, pretty much everybody actually, but most importantly, all the big boys signed on,  including Alias ( Maya ), Avid ( Softimage, at the time anyway… ) and Autodesk ( 3D Studio Max ).

COLLADA was designed primarily as an interchange format between tools, allowing you to for example use Max and Softimage in your art pipeline rather seamlessly.  For the most part it worked too, the industry came together and interchange was probably better than it’s ever been.

Obviously there is a but, or I wouldn’t be writing this, I would just say “hey, we should all use COLLADA!” and be done with it.  So, time for the but… and what a big but it is. ( sorry… )  First off, COLLADA is a huge, some could say bloated format, that is ill suited for games.  Again, it was designed for communication between authoring tools, ease of use and performance certainly weren’t priorities.  Being controlled by the Khronos board certainly couldn’t help either, and it didn’t.  The format became convoluted over time.

The next major problem is a change in the industry… you see, Autodesk bought everything.  So suddenly most of the software this open standard was designed to work with are owned by a single company.  Now with each new version released, things are broken, often needlessly.  For a large company like Unreal or Unity, supporting a complicated and constantly moving target isn’t a big deal, they can frankly just throw money at it.  For smaller, indie or open source game engines, this isn’t a solution.

 

FBX

 

Site Link

 

The FBX format started life in a product called Filmbox, made by a company known as Kaydara.  Filmbox started life as a motion capture suite and obviously needed to support various software packages, so they created the FBX file format.  In the early days, well before the rise of COLLADA, it was supported by pretty much all of the common 3D packages of the day ( 3D Studio Max, Lightwave, Softimage, Power Animator ( Maya’s precursor ), Cinema3D, etc ).  Well, Filmbox was eventually renamed MotionBuilder, a product that exists to this day and it was acquired by Alias, the makers of Maya and PowerAnimator before it.  Remember how in the COLLADA write up I said Autodesk bought everything?  Well, that wasn’t really an exaggeration… in 2006, Autodesk purchased Alias and with it gained control of MotionBuilder and the FBX file format.

So, fast forward to today and Autodesk controls Softimage, 3D Studio Max, Motion Builder, Softimage and more.  FBX is the format they use internally to communicate between their own tools.  So at the end of the day, if you are working entirely in the Autodesk ecosystem it’s the easiest and safest route to go.

For game developers though, it’s a bit of a different story.  Once again, the large guys can easily support FBX, just like COLLADA.  Perhaps most importantly, Autodesk make available an SDK for working with FBX.  Some game engines make use of this SDK such as LibGDX’s fbx-conv tool.  There are limitations on this license however on of the biggest is that it is incompatible with GPL, meaning Blender and similar tools can’t use the SDK.  ( although I would put this on the awfulness of GPL instead of Autodesk’s license, but that’s splitting hairs ).  This means Blender uses a “clean room” implementation of FBX and this means that the FBX support in Blender is, well, pretty crappy.

 

FBX however is not a game friendly format either, once again, it’s designed for communication between game tools, not for fast and efficient storage.  So even in the case of tools like LibGDX that support it, they ultimately just use it as a source and convert it to their own internal format.  This means each time you change your asset in your modeling tool, you have to convert it again and again.

 

OBJ, 3DS, MD2, DXF, etc

 

 

This is a catch all category, but it’s worth noting the above.  Open Source game engines commonly support some of the older simpler formats, one of the most common being OBJ.  These were the file export formats from popular 3D applications from years ago ( OBJ = Alias, 3DS = 3D Studio, DXF = AutoCAD, MD2 = Quake Engine ).  The reason they are supported is the formats tend to be fairly simple with a large body of code already available.

 

On the other hand, they are also ancient and incredibly limited, especially when it comes to animation data.  If you have simple requirements, a simple format should do the trick and frankly you will often see OBJ format supported when animation data isn’t needed ( such as by Mixamo Fuse or Poser, for model data ), but once you start adding complexity, these formats start to show their age.

 

I am mostly mentioning them for completeness only.

 

 

So, a TL;DR summary of the negatives of each format:

 

COLLADA

  • bloated and complicated format
  • run by Khronos group ( this is a good and bad thing )
  • fragile between versions, breaks easily
  • not game engine friendly

 

FBX

  • proprietary file format
  • controlled by Autodesk
  • not open source friendly license
  • not game engine friendly

 

The Others

  • ancient
  • poor animation support
  • limited functionality

Enter OpenGEX

 

Site Link

 

This brings us at last to OpenGEX ( Open Game Exchange ), an open 3D file format targeted specifically at game developers for use in game engines.  It was created by Eric Lengyel originally for the C4 Game Engine and was funded by a successful IndieGoGo campaign.  Essentially you can think of OpenGEX as a stripped down, game engine focused version of COLLADA.  Instead of being XML based, it uses OpenDDL (Link).

(Edit to fix JSON error)

The easiest way to understand the value of OpenGEX is to compare the format to COLLADA.  Fortunately the OpenGEX site provides just such an example.  Looking at the OpenGEX format, it’s quite clean, very reminiscent of OBJ, but with support for modern features.  The purpose behind OpenGEX’s creation is nicely captured in this comment:

 

The OpenGEX format was created because Collada, the open standard that we all hoped would provide a well-supported asset exchange format, has proven to be an unreliable mess. The most common source of problems has been the poor quality of the Collada export plugins available for software such as 3D Studio Max and Maya, and we attribute this to Collada’s over-engineered design and its mutating under-specified format.

 

Now of course, a format is of little use if no tools support it, and this is where OpenGEX shines.  There are already exporters for Max, Maya and Blender.  Additionally there is an Import template available for implementing OpenGEX in your game or engine.  It’s basically a Visual Studio 2013 project with the code used by the C4 Engine to load OpenGEX files.

 

If you are interested in learning more, you can read the PDF spec here.

 

So…. what?

 

So what’s the value in all of this to you as an indie game developer?

 

Well, if you are working with Unity or Unreal Engine, very little actually.  They have the resources to support the COLLADA, with all of it’s quirks, breaks and other warts.  If however you are working with a open source or smaller game engine, moving to a much more sane format can make everyones life easier.

 

As is the nature of any format, the more it’s used, generally the better it becomes ( unless of course committee bloat sets in ).  Basically, the less time smaller developers have to spend on content pipeline tools, the more time they have to work on improving their engine.  Additionally, the less headaches the game developer suffers getting assets in their game, again, the more time they have to work on the game.

 

There has been some recent movement in regards to supporting OpenGEX.

 

First off, the developer who contacted me from the jMonkeyEngine has recently made a Java library on Github available for handling OpenGEX files.  This could potentially enable other popular Java based game engines *cough*LibGDX*cough* to support OpenGEX.

 

It was recently announced too that Ogre3D is working to support the OpenGEX format as well.  Again, the developers words perfectly capture why this is important:

Partly to address that I'm planning on adding support for the OpenGEX format.
Because of two reasons:

  1. The format is actually really good, easy; and contains everything we need. It's basically our XML mesh and skeleton format, but in JSON.
  2. Joint effort. There are already plugins. Open Source plugins. Which are being used for the C4 engine. If Ogre adopts the same format, we can share the burden of maintaining 3D asset exporters. Those are hard to maintain given Autodesk always releases a new version every year with partically no difference but breaking many plugins on the way. It should also empower more adoption of the OpenGEX format, and hopefully get others in. Unlike Collada, OpenGEX is good.

 

That second reason sums it up perfectly.  If a number of indie game engines all adopt the same format, the burden of maintenance is spread across a number of developers instead of each developing their own proprietary format and all the support that entails.  It also makes creating game tools that work across game engines a much easier task.  Finally, it helps break Autodesk’s chokehold on the industry!

 

So mostly it’s a matter of trying to spread the word and gain support.  One critical component would certainly be getting support into the Assimp ( Open Asset Import Library ), an open source model importing library that is the underpinning for many game engines importers today.  There is already an open feature request, so if you feel an open game friendly COLLADA option would be useful, that would certainly be a good place to start.

General, Programming ,

10. November 2014

 

Up until now, there has been only one book on the market for LibGDX and it’s a bit long in the tooth at this point.  Now there is a new book in town, the Libgdx Cross-Platform Game Development Cookbook and I just finished reading through it.  Let me start by saying, this book wasn’t at all what I was expecting… (how’s that for a hook?).

Gdxcover

 

This book was written by Alberto Cejas Sanchez and David Saltares Marquez, who is the man behind the Ashley ECS component included in LibGDX.  So you can safely the authors know their stuff.  Additionally, one of the editors was Joost van Ham ( also known as Xoppa ), this is the guy that wrote the 3D portions of LibGDX.  So we can say right up front this is a technically competent and accurate book.  Full disclosure, I got a review copy of the book, not that this has any influence.  On a somewhat related note, this book is not yet available on Safari Books online.

 

If you’ve never read a Packt cookbook series book, the basic premise is it’s a collection of “recipes”, which can be thought of as task oriented code samples coupled with a description.  With a traditional cookbook, say you wanted to cook a Quiche Lorraine ( for whatever aberrant reason! ) you’d flip open the cookbook to the quiche section and follow the recipe.  These cookbooks work very similar, except instead of retched pies it’s got recipes for things like creating a 2D depth of field shader or generating and rendering bitmap fonts. 

 

Over time, I have read a number of those Packt cookbooks, I’ve even written one and let me tell you right up front, the quality varies massively from book to book.  One of the big flaws with many of these books is the author’s grasp of English, whether it’s that English is their second language, or they simply aren’t great writers.  Fortunately, this is not the case with this book.  The language is clear, the grammar is solid and there were very few errors that I spotted.  Most importantly, language was never a barrier to my understanding what the author was trying to say.  Nothing is more frustrating when trying to learn something than being tripped up by the authors inability to articulate, so this is a big point in the books favour.

 

Let’s take a quick look at the book’s Table of Contents:

 

  • Chapter 1: Diving into Libgdx
  • Chapter 2: Working with 2D Graphics
  • Chapter 3: Advanced 2D Graphics
  • Chapter 4: Detecting User Input
  • Chapter 5: Audio and File I/O
  • Chapter 6: Font Rendering
  • Chapter 7: Asset Management
  • Chapter 8: User Interfaces with Scene2D
  • Chapter 9: The 2D Maps API
  • Chapter 10: Rigid Body Physics with Box2D
  • Chapter 11: Third Party Libraries and Extras
  • Chapter 12: Performance and Optimization
  • Chapter 13: Giving Back

 

The book weights in at 487 pages.  I suppose I should clarify, the Chapter 9 title is very confusing. It covers 2D TileMaps, creating them in Tiled and loading them into LibGDX.  Remember back at the very beginning where I said “this book wasn’t at all what I was expecting”?, well… here’s why...

 

Looking at that list of topics and you probably come to the same conclusion as me, that this book is going to guide the reader through the process of learning Libgdx in escalating difficulty, frankly much like my own tutorial series does.  You would be wrong though.  To understand why, you need to look into one of these chapters to see what typical recipes look like.  Let’s take Chapter 9 as an example, the chapter on tilemaps, and not just because it’s one of the shortest… ;)

 

On a chapter on tilemaps, what do you except to see covered?   Creating and loading certainly, but what else?  Maybe something on layers, possibly something on mixing sprites with tilemaps maybe?  Nope, what you get is:

  • Introduction (an overview)
  • Creating maps with Tiled and loading them into Libgdx
  • Adding and querying map metadata
  • Developing your own map loaders and renderers

 

It’s that last one that defines this book, in my opinion.  I would have never expected to see that topic covered in this book, and I find it shockingly awesome that it is there.  It’s this level of technical detail that really makes this book.

 

So often these books are written to target beginners, and that makes sense, as they are generally the biggest audience for a book.  In all honesty, and this may sound more conceited then I intend it to be, but I was expecting to personally get nothing out of this book.  I know LibGDX pretty well myself and as an example when I read Learning Libgdx Game Development I don’t believe I learned anything new nor was it ever a source I went back to when I was encountering difficulty.  This of course isn’t a bash on that book, I’m just not the intended audience.

 

This book however, as an experienced LibGDX developer, represents a new and very useful tool in my toolbox.  It’s technical enough, applied enough and deep enough to be genuinely useful to developers writing real world code.

 

This however is a double edged sword.  If you are completely new with LibGDX, this may not be the book for you.  You have to absorbed a LOT of information all at once and this isn’t really a book that is set up to teach you from scratch.  For example, instead of teaching the user how to draw a sprite, then rotate and scale it, then deal with it in a resolution independent manner, the first drawing example does it all at once.  Incredibly useful information to an experienced developer… confusing as hell to a beginner.

 

The breadth of content is pretty solid.  If you are creating a 2D game, chances are what you need to know is covered in here.  There are a few odd decisions (IMHO), such as covering Git usage ( entire books are written on this subject already ), but not covering 3D at all, even though the guy that created the 3D api’s is one of your technical editors! :)  I know what writing to a page budget feels like, so deciding what to include and what not to include is an excruciating process.

 

Summary


So then, what’s my over all conclusion on the Libgdx Cross-Platform Game Development Cookbook?  Well, I don’t give a numeric rating or star score when I review things, but I can summarize it pretty easily with this title.

 

If you are an experienced developer working with LibGDX, buy this book, it will most certainly be of use to you.  I know my own copy will be dog eared from use! ( well… if digitial copies could get dog eared that is ).

If you are a beginner looking to learn LibGDX, this book will certainly be of use to you, especially as you get more comfortable.  That said, I wouldn’t recommend starting here, this is not a beginners book… fortunately, I know a good set of tutorials to get you up and running! 

 

So yeah, TL;DR...

Buy this book.

General, Programming

16. September 2014

 

It is getting more and more common for kids of younger and younger ages to show interest in game development.  In this day and age there is a wealth of information out there, possibly too much information at times.  This guide is intended to help parents or younger readers get started in the world of game development.  So, what exactly does this mean?  First it means I will focus on technologies that are appropriate to beginners.  Second, it means I am making no assumptions about your technical abilities, in fact, I am assuming you have none.  So if it ever feels like I am insulting your intelligence or speaking down to you, I am not!  On the other hand, if I am unclear or confusing at some point, please let me know and I will try to clarify.

 

 

How young is too young?

 

This is perhaps one of the most common questions asked.  How old do I ( or my child ) have to be to get started in game development?  This is a question with an impossible answer as all kids are different.  On the extremely low end of the range ( and using the right tools ), an incredibly motivated 6 year old would probably be able to have some success.  On the other range of the spectrum, a typical 12 year old should have the educational foundation and mental abilities to succeed.  The actual age is bound to be somewhere in the middle.

 

There are a few critical things to be aware of up front. 

 

The first is motivation.  Motivation is more likely to be the biggest hurdle to success, not mental ability.  If your child absolutely loves creating stuff ( loving to play video games is massively different than loving to create video games ) and is willing to trial and error, they are perfect for game development!

 

The second is managing expectations.  This is where we lose the most potential game developers out there, regardless to age.  Game development doesn’t have to be exceptionally hard, but it is certainly complex.  Your child is not going to be creating massive modern games like Call Of Duty or NHL any time soon.  Nor are they going to create an MMO ( online game like World of Warcraft ).  They need to start small, very small and work their way up from there.

 

A key way to put it is, if your child’s mindset is “I am going to create the next Minecraft”, they are going to fail and fail hard.  On the other hand, if their mindset is “I am going to create the next Minecraft, eventually”, they have perhaps the perfect mentality to succeed.  Knowing the difference there is critical.  Like almost any other skill, you need to start small and build on your successes.  Starting too big will just result in failure and frustration.  For the record, I believe I was about 8 when I started programming using Atari BASIC.

 

 

What is Game Development anyways?

 

This section is going to get slightly more technical, but not overly so.  Game Development is an umbrella term, it includes many different skills all coming together to create a greater whole.  Think about Game Development like you would an car maker.  There is no single skill involved in making a car, instead you have engineers, graphic designers, manufacturers, quality assurance and more all coming together to make a car.  In the case of a game however, it’s still possible for all of these different tasks to be performed by a single person.  There are a number of highly successful games out there that were written, drawn and scored by the same person.  It is important to realize though, this generally isn’t the case.  Basically what I am saying is game development isn't a single task, it’s multiple.  While your child may really enjoy one part, they may dislike another part.  It’s also important when looking at what tools to use to see if they come with art or sound examples to get your child started, so they don’t have to do everything all at once.

 

If you look at a modern game’s credits, you will literally see hundreds of different names and job titles contributed to the project.  When just getting started however, there are really only two tasks to focus on. Creating the game and creating the stuff that goes in the game.

 

Let’s look at the board game Monopoly as an example.  Two major sets of skills went in to making that game.  First you had to create the game…  design the board layout, make the dice rules, write up all the game cards, etc.  Then you had to create the contents of the games, the pictures that went on the board, the drawings on each card, the little plastic houses, etc.

 

In video games, it’s really no different.  You have the task of creating the game, generally called programming and the task of creating stuff to populate your game, be it art, animation or music/sound.  These skills are completely different but are generally required for a game.  This actual tutorial is going to focus mostly on programming, when a child is interested in game development, this is generally what they mean.  A child interested in being a game artist for example, has probably already got their face buried in a notebook, sketching away!  This by the way is the perfect approach for them too, as the difference between “an artist” and a “game artist” is miniscule.  If you do however want to explore computer art for games a bit closer, read this guide.

 

 

What is Programming?

 

So, chances when you are talking about game development you are actually talking about game programming.  What is programming?  The simplest definition I can give is programming is the art of telling the computer what to do.  In the case of game programming, this means doing stuff like “when the user pushes the UP arrow do this” or “when player health equals 0, draw that”.

 

Now how you program games, that’s a much trickier conversation and one of the biggest things that you will struggle with.  Perhaps more importantly, it’s the thing that is going to be most dependent on your child.  We don’t all think the same way and we don’t all express ideas the same.  In some cases a child might take to one particular style while a completely different child would possibly despise it. 

 

For the most part for game programming there are three different ways to tell the computer what to do ( and often a combination of all 3 ):

 

Visually – this is a very common approach for beginners and for game development in general ( Unreal Engine 4, one of the most commonly used commercial game technologies has a Visual scripting interface called Blueprint for example ).  In Visual programming languages you generally drag and drop to draw your game screen, then wire it all together in a flow chart like experience  Basically it’s the programming equivalent of creating a flow chart.  If your child is a visual thinker, this may be the best route for them.

 

Here is an example of a Visual game development tool, Construct:

 

Scripting Languages – With scripting languages you tell a computer what to do using small text files.  You often still draw your game using a visual editor like the picture above, but when actually telling the computer what to do, instead of filling in text boxes or creating flow charts, you use code.

 

Here is an example of the LUA scripting language, using a 2D game library named LÖVE:

image

This little bit of text tells to computer to load an image with the filename “whale.png” and then to draw it on screen.

 

Traditional Programming Languages – Finally a lot of game development is done in traditional programming languages.  Common names include C++, Java, C# and more.  I should start straight away by saying, I do not recommend young programmers start by using a traditional or more accurately, a compiled programming language for several reasons.

 

The big question you may have is, what’s the difference between a scripting and compiled programming language?  A lot of it is technical and beyond the scope of this article but most of it comes down to complexity.  Dealing with a compiled language leaves you dealing with a number of things you simply don’t have to worry about with scripting languages.  Things like compiling ( the act of turning the text you write into something the computer can understand ), linking ( can’t easily explain this one ) and more. 

 

Perhaps more importantly, it’s purpose.  Scripting languages are generally much more focused in what they do and are designed to make things easier for the developer.  Put in the simplest terms, scripting languages are generally a lot easier to learn and use.  If you do want to learn more about traditional programming languages, you can read this guide.  It is a much more technical guide than this one.  If your child is in their teens, this may be an appropriate place to start.  That of course isn’t to say that teenagers ( and older ) are too old for the stuff recommended below.

 

In the end you will often find game development tools offer both a visual system and a scripting language, where much of the game is created using drag and drop but portions can be controlled using a scripting language.

 

 

IDE, Library, what???

 

OK, one last topic to cover before we get into it.  There are a bunch of terms and expressions that get thrown around that might be confusing.  I am going to quickly cover some of them.

 

Language – This is the programming language used.  Just like we used English, Spanish, German etc to talk to each other, we use different languages to talk to computers.  In the example above the programming language was Lua.

IDE – Integrated Development Environment.  This is a bundling of a number of tasks all into a single application.  Not all suggestions will have an IDE, meaning you need to use different programs to do different things.  Generally an IDE includes a text editor, a programming language and various tools all in a single spot.

Library – Think of a library like someone doing a bunch of work for you.  Generally even the “simple stuff” isn’t actually part of the language, things like drawing on the screen.  Instead people write that stuff and make it available to you as libraries.  In some cases, like GameMaker or Construct, it’s all bundled together for you.  In other cases, like Lua, you pick a library to go with the programming language.  Each approach has advantages and disadvantages.  For example, Gamemaker bundling everything together makes life easier to get started, but with Lua, if they don’t like a particular library, they can simply use a different one.

Sprite – A sprite is a graphic used in a game, for example the player.  A sprite can be a single image or could contain multiple for animations.  The exact meaning of a Sprite changes from engine to engine, but is always a visible thing in the game that moves.  If you’ve played Super Mario Brothers, Mario, the turtles, fireballs, etc… would be considered sprites.  The world however, such as pipes and the sky, would not generally be considered sprites.

HTML 5 – This one can get a bit confusing.  HTML5 is the most current version of HTML ( Hyper Text Markup Language ) which is the language of the web.  When you load a webpage in your browser or phone, generally it’s an HTML document that you are looking at.  The confusing part is, HTML5 is actually an umbrella term for a number of technologies that work together to make the web work.  Those include HTML itself, which is a language that describes the contents of a webpage, CSS which is another language that describes how a webpage should look, and finally JavaScript, which is a scripting language that controls the logic.  People often use the terms HTML, HTML5 and JavaScript interchangeably, although this isn’t technically true.  HTML5 can be used to create games and doesn’t have to be run in a web browser.

Debugger – When your game doesn’t run correctly, it can be tricky to figure out why.  Some packages ship with something called a debugger, which is a tool to help you identify problems or “bugs” in your game.  It is a somewhat advanced feature for beginners, but at the point you need one, a debugger can be invaluable.  For additional information on debugging click here, although advanced warning, that is a highly technical article.

 

 

 

Kid Friendly Game Development Options

 

Now after all of that we get to the meat of the article… the actual suggestions for development tools to introduce your child to the world of game development.  This is by no means an all inclusive list!  For each example I will list what’s included, an example of how it works, positives and negatives, the costs if any and links to books available, if applicable.  One last very important thing to note…  any of these options is a valid one, there really isn’t a single ‘best” choice.  Tailor your decision to best match your kids interests.  If you first choice doesn’t work out, try a different one.

 

The following list is in no particular order.

 

Scratch

 

http://scratch.mit.edu/

Overview:

Scratch is an MIT backed project aimed at teaching kids aged 8 to 16 to learn how to program.  There is a massive community built around Scratch, which has been around since 2006.  There is a special focus on being family friendly.  Scratch is run entirely in the web browser, you simply go to the web page and start programming.  If you want to save your work, you need to register, but it’s a simply form and doesn’t even email you for verification.

 

Scratch is firmly in the visual programming languages category.  Your child works by dragging actors onto a scene, then controls them using Lego-like programming blocks.  The blocks are a good parallel to actual programming language structure, so if they switch to scripting or traditional programming, it will make immediate sense.  There is a good amount of documentation available and you can find literally thousands of sample scratch programs to learn from.

 

Perhaps the most valuable part of scratch is it comes preloaded with all kinds of content for your child to get started with.  However it also has the ability to import graphics and audio you create yourself or get from the community, allow an easy transition between programming and making game assets.

 

Screenshots:

Scratch running in Chrome:

image

 

Loading a new Sprite

image

 

Programming in Scratch:

image

The above is a script attached to the blue dog.  It’s in two parts, first is when the Green flag ( Go ) is clicked.  It makes the dog visible, moves to a certain position on screen, then moves by one step over and over.  The other waits until it gets the collide message from the other dog, when it does it goes back to the starting position, changes the scene then hides itself.  Each Sprite has it’s own script.  The programming blocks are drag and dropped from the programming palate:

 

The Programming Palate:

image

These are the blocks you use to program in Scratch.  Above are the “Looks” options.  As you can see, there are a number of different categories to choose from.

Includes or Alternatives:

Scratch is an all in one solution, so you need no other tools to work in Scratch.  It also ships with a large variety of sample scenes, backgrounds and sounds to start with.

Costs:

Scratch is completely free and run by sponsorship donations.

Books:

 

Comments:

Scratch also makes an iPad application called ScratchJr which is aimed at children 5 to 8.  It is also completely free.  Since there is nothing to buy, or download and you don’t even have to register to try Scratch, it is probably the easiest option to try out in this list.

 



 

 

Construct 2

 

https://www.scirra.com/

 

Overview:

Construct2 is another visual programming based game engine.  You create games in Construct2 using a drag and drop interface and control logic using a flow chart like event system.  If the functionality you need isn’t available in Construct2, you can create your own plugins using JavaScript, although this is certainly an advanced feature and is strictly optional, Construct2 is meant to be controlled using the event system.  The ultimate output of Construct2 is HTML5, which can be exported to run on a number of platforms such as mobile ( Android, iOS, Windows Mobile ), browsers and desktop.

 

Construct2 is a great deal more complex than Scratch, which has a two fold impact.  First, Construct certainly has a higher learning curve than Scratch, so it isn’t suitable for younger children and does not take a teaching approach.  On the other hand, it is meant to provide an easy to learn tool capable of creating professional games, instead of for learning.  This means there is a lot more runway before your child runs into any limitations.  There are many professionally shipped games that were created in Construct 2. 

 

There is a good deal of documentation available, including a complete references and a PDF manual available for download.  There is a very active community and strong forum for support.

 

Construct is an application installed on your computer.  Construct requires a computer running Windows.  There is no Mac option currently available.

 

Screenshot:

Construct 2 Main Window:

image

 

Event Sheets

image

This is the primary way of programming a Construct 2 game.  The example above is part of the code controlling how the player responds to input, taken from one of the included samples that shows creating a simple shooting game.

Behaviors

image

Behaviors allow you add quickly add predefined behavior to a game object.

Integrated Image Editor:

image

 

Includes or Alternatives:

Construct 2 is an all in one solution that contains everything you need to get started.  Out of the box however it does not contain a ton of content to get started with.  They do however have a free asset pack available for download. ( Warning, that is a direct download link.  Click it and the 38mb archive of assets will start downloading ).  If you move beyond the free version, you get more assets included.

If you do get into creating plugins, you will need to download the JavaScript SDK, which is available for free.  In this case you will need to provide your own text editing environment, Construct does not include one.

Costs:

Construct2 has tiered pricing.

  • There is a free version available to download.  The free version is only able to create games that run in your browser.  It also includes less bundled assets and has a number of limitations on the complexity of game that can be created.  This limits shouldn’t be too much of a problem at least initially.
  • The Personal Edition is currently 129USD, is able to create Desktop, iPhone and Android games and includes much more bundled assets like sounds, songs and sprites.
  • Finally, there is a Business Edition, which is exactly the same as Personal Edition, except it costs more and is required if you make more than 5,000USD from your Construct2 games.  Basically if you have this problem, it’s a good problem to have!

 

Books:

 

Comments:

None

 



 

Game Maker

 

https://www.yoyogames.com/studio

 

Overview:

GameMaker is an all in one game creation system that is a hybrid providing both a visual programming interface, as well as a scripting language, their own proprietary language GML.  GameMaker initially exports to Windows only, but for a fee can also create games for iOS, Android, Web, Windows Phone and more.

 

Programming in GameMaker can be done in a flow chart like manner, similar to Construct2.  It also adds the option of programming in their own scripting language GML.  This is both a plus and a minus.  The ability to program using a Scripting language in addition to the visual system gives the user a great deal of flexibility.  It is however a more complex process.  Since the language is proprietary to GameMaker, if they move to a different environment, a lot of their knowledge will be less useful.  That said, general programming concepts stay pretty much the same from language to language, so this isn’t as big of a problem as it might sound.

 

Other than assets to get started with, GameMaker quite literally ships with everything you might need out of the box, although the quality of the tools varies.  You are able to create graphics, sounds and levels in addition to programming, all in one single application.  GameMaker has been used to make some very successful commercial games such as Spelunky and Retro City Rampage ( not for children ).

 

GameMaker is one of the more complex options on this list and is probably not appropriate for pre-teen level children.  For older children though, it offers a lot of flexibility and a ton of options should they wish to share or sell their games eventually.  Obviously this changes from child to child, so there is no hard set rule.  Just be aware, compared to say Scratch, the difficulty level here is much higher. 

 

Screenshot:

Main Interface:

image

Visual Programming:

image

Scripting:

(Script for firing a bullet)

image

Level Editor:

image

Sprite Editor:

image

Includes or Alternatives:

GameMaker is an all in one solution and contains everything you will need to make a game including code editing, image creation and editing, map designer and more.  It also includes a built in debugger, useful for hunting down problems.  The standard version however comes with very little in the way of included samples to get started with.  In fact, there are none.  However there is a very active community and tons of examples and tutorials available online.  The quality of the materials varies massively and curation by Yoyo Games is lacking, so finding the best starting material can be a bit of a challenge.  For all of the screenshots and code samples in this entry, I used material from this tutorial.

 

Costs:

GameMaker licensing can be a bit confusing, as their pricing structure has changed and not all material is updated.

The version you initially download is heavily restricted by the number of resources and scripts it can support.

You can however update to the Standard edition by simply registering an email address, which will be verified and you will then be sent a product key.

Then there is a “Professional” version for $100 USD that adds functionality for working with other developers ( you will not need at this point ).  The biggest difference is the Professional version can buy additional modules that support exporting to platforms other than Windows.  Each platform is generally $200 USD.  So for example, if you want to export your game to play on Android and iOS it will cost $500.  $100 for Professional, then $200 for each platform. 

Finally there is a “Master” version, which is basically Pro with all of the different export platforms enabled.  It’s $800USD currently.

For a new developer, the registered Standard edition is most likely good enough.  If you do need Professional, keep an eye on the Steam Store, it is made available for sale quite often.  To add to the confusion, the Standard edition you can download for free is $50USD on Steam.  DO NOT BUY IT!

 

Books:


Comments:

Note, it is not necessary to use the included tools.  For example, if you want to use another graphics program to create sprites, or to import graphics from another source, this is perfectly possible!



 

Lua with LOVE

 

http://www.lua.org/

http://love2d.org/

 

Overview:

Lua is a scripting language, while LOVE is a library for making games ( see the descriptions earlier for definition of a library ).  Lua was a programming language created for non-programmers and has become increasingly popular as a scripting language for commercial games, such as these.  That is one large advantage to choosing this option over say, Gamemaker’s custom scripting language, GML.  Lua is used elsewhere and fairly commonly, so it is a skill that will carry forward very well.    As a language it is fairly simple to learn.

 

LÖVE is the library you use to create games using the Lua programming language.  LÖVE provides pretty much all of the functionality you need to create 2D games including drawing graphics, playing sound, controlling input, loading files, etc. 

 

LÖVE and Lua isn’t a turn key solution like some of the others however, you still need a text editor to create and edit your scripts, a drawing program for creating art, and audio programming for recording sounds, a map maker for creating maps, etc.  Fortunately all of these things are freely available and I have recommendations below.  You do however have to download each one separately.  LÖVE however comes with no assets like graphics or sounds to get started, but sites like Open Game Art and FreeSound can help you get started.  It is however, yet another thing you have to locate and download.

 

The biggest negative about LOVE is the lack of platform support.  Currently LOVE can only create games for computers, although mobile targets are in the works.

 

Screenshot

Sample Lua/LOVE Code:

image

Zerobrane Studio:

image

Includes or Alternatives:

The LOVE library contains Lua, so all you need to get started is here with the getting started documentation here.  However that just gives you Lua and LOVE and nothing else.  You still need a text editor to create your code, plus art and sound programs.

 

For straight text editing, two very popular choices are Notepad++ and Sublime Text.

However, for Lua development I would recommend ZeroBrane Studio which is a more integrated development environment (IDE) that allows things like code suggestions and debugging.  Oh, plus it’s free, which is nice.

For art creation, Paint.NET, GIMP and Inkscape are three very popular free options, the last two however have a pretty hefty learning curve.

For creating levels and maps, Tiled is a very popular and free choice.

 

On the alternatives front, LUA is the scripting language for a number of popular game development tools including Corona, Gideros and Marmalade Quick.  None are as easy to learn as LOVE however, which is why I recommend LOVE over all.  They do however illustrate how learning Lua is a skill that transfers well to other projects.

 

Costs:

Both Lua and LOVE are free.  ZeroBrane is a pay way you like product.

 

Books:

Only one of these books is specifically about LOVE programming.

Lua also have a free reference manual available online.


Comments:

The name of the library is actually LÖVE with an umlaut over the O.  While cute, coupled with the commonness of the word love makes searching for help incredibly annoying.  When using Google, always add “lua” to search expressions.



 

Python with PyGame

 

https://www.python.org/

http://www.pygame.org/news.html

 

Overview:

Like the Lua and LÖVE option, this is a programming language and game library combination.  Very similar to the LÖVE library, PyGame is a very beginner friendly library.  Python is the programming language used in this pairing.  Python is a popular scripting language, although less so in game development.  It is an extremely popular language in the world of 3D graphics, such as at Pixar.   It is also quite commonly used by IT professionals to automate tasks, so even outside game development, Python can be a very valuable skill.  Python has been used to make several games.

 

PyGame also provides most of the common functionality you would expect in a game such as audio, input and graphics.  You also need to provide your own text editor, graphics, sounds, etc.  However unlike LÖVE, PyGame does ship with several examples and some sample assets to get started with.

 

Screenshot:

Python Code in PyCharm

image

Includes or Alternatives:

See the recommendations for LÖVE above, most of the same tools can be used.

ZeroBrane studio however is not an option for Python.  I would personally recommend checking out PyCharm, which has a free version available.  It is however a somewhat complicated editor.  Of course, you can still use whatever text editor you would like, such as the earlier recommendations of Notepad++ or Sublime Text.

 

Costs:

Python and PyGame are both free.  PyCharm is available in a free version.

Books:


Comments:

Python is a more complicated language than Lua, so its is recommended only for older children.  On the other hand, programming in Python is also much closer to programming in traditional languages, so the experience of learning Python will be closest to what professional programming generally feels like.

Sadly, there are two versions of Python, something that has plagued the language for a very long time.  Most of the time you want to use the 2.x version of the language.



 

HTML5 with various

 

http://www.gamefromscratch.com/page/Links-of-interest-for-HTML5-game-developers.aspx

Overview:

HTML5 is a somewhat confusing term these days.  Basically HTML is the language of web browsers while Javascript is the language that enables HTML to do stuff.  With each generation of web browser, the ability to create games has gotten more and more impressive.

 

Javascript is an interesting proposition for learning with as your kids probably already have experience in using a web browser.  Then can simply open a text file, type some code, save and load in the webpage and play.  It’s a very nice feedback loop.  Unfortunately there are some downsides here too.  While a pretty straight forward programming language, Javascript has some horrible flaws that make it hard to recommend to a complete beginner.  On top, each browser has tons of flaws, that also add a layer of complication on top.  Finally there are just so many options when it comes to HTML game development, unlike Lua or Python, that making a recommendation could actually take another article even longer than this one!

 

If you child is interested in working on HTML5 games, it is a good option to persue with the right library.  Two very good options, that provide game functionality and deal with some of the browser lunacy are Phaser and CreateJS, but there are literally hundreds of options.  Both of those libraries are straight forward, well documented and commonly used.

 

Like Python and Lua, HTML5 is not an integrated solution, so you need to provide your own text editor, graphics, etc.  However, pretty much every modern browser has build in tools to make development easier.



 

Stencyl

 

http://www.stencyl.com/

 

Overview:

Stencyl is a visually programmed game creation kit that bills itself as “the quickest and easiest way to make games”, which may actually be true!  In functionality it is very similar to Construct2, you program by drawing out your scene, then adding behaviors visually.  It is an all in one solution with an integrated image editor, although you can always import assets created in external tools.  There is no way to script in Stencyl, although you can create extensions using a programming language called Haxe, if there is functionality you need that is not available in Stencyl.  This however is advanced functionality and is probably beyond your child’s current ability level.  You can however download pre-made extensions from the marketplace.

 

Stencyl runs on Windows, Linux and Mac and by default can only create web (Flash) applications.  The ability to target other platforms like desktop computers (outside their browser), as well as iOS and Android is available for a cost (see below).  While it doesn’t ship with a ton of assets, it does make them very easily available.  In addition the help available online is very good.

 

Screenshot:

Stencyl:

image

Defining Behaviors:

image

Level Editing:

image

Program Flow:

image

Includes or Alternatives:

This is a pretty all in one solution.  Unless you delve into Haxe extension programming, basically everything is here with the initial download, or is linked directly from inside the application.

Costs:

Stencyl is available for free, but limited to applications that run in Flash, either in the integrated player or your browser.  Published games will have a Stencyl splashscreen when they load.

For $99, there is Studio that enables you to target desktop computers outside of the Flash player.  The splashscreen is removed in this version.

For $199, you gain the ability to target iOS and Android.

Books:

     

Comments:

None



 

Lego Mindstorm

 

http://www.lego.com/en-us/mindstorms

 

Overview:

Right off the top let me just say, this stuff is expensive Name Your Link'>Name Your Link'>really expensive.  However if your child shows an interest in robotics or is an avid Lego fan, this can be a very good introduction to programming.  Mindstorm Lego is basically a simple robot creation kit using lego.  The key part is it ships with a programmable piece that enables you to program your robot’s behavior.  Mindstorm enables a nice progression, your child can start by building in Lego, then start controlling the robot using the desktop or iPad application, then graduate to actually programming logic.

 

Lego Mindstorm enables you to simply control your creations, or program them using the EV3 software, a flow chart like process.  They do however make tools available allowing you to get as low leveled as you want to. 

 

Even though it’s somewhat off topic, I mention Mindstorm because it can be an ideal introduction to more (literally) hands on children to the concepts of programming.  Literally being able to see cause and effect in the real world can be very valuable.

 

Screenshot:

Programming Mindstorm:

mindstormProg

A Mindstorm robot assembled:

LEGO Mindstorm robot

Includes or Alternatives:

N/A

Costs:

Name Your Link'>Name Your Link'>Lots!

Books:

EBooks of the manual ( pdf link ) and teaching guide ( pdf link ) are available online.


Comments:

This is pushing the definition of “game programming”, but certainly is a very tactile introduction to many of the same skills that go into game development.  Also I have to say, had my parents purchased this for me as I child I would have considered nominating them for parent of the year awards.  When my daughter gets a bit older I am certainly buying this, but then, is it for her, or me? :)

 



 

Honourable Mentions

 

All lists must end at some point, and this one is no exception.  The following are other recommendations I have for parents looking to get their kids into game programming, but for whatever reason didn’t make the main list.  If nothing above appeals to you, be sure to check some of these options out.

 

Minecraft Modding

If your kids play games, there is probably a pretty good chance you have already been exposed to Minecraft.  Modding is the act of modifying an existing game and Minecraft happens to be a very popular game to mod.  Modifying an existing game can often be a great way, or at least motivation, for learning programming.  There is a HUGE community of people that mod Minecraft.  The downside is, it’s done in the Java programming language and it certainly isn’t suitable for young children.  If your child is very interested in Minecraft though, this could be a good approach to take.  You can learn more here.

 

GameSalad

http://www.gamesalad.com/

GameSalad is another visual game creation kit in the veins of Stencyl and Construct2 mentioned above.  It has been used to create professional games, there is a free version available as well as paid versions for other targeting other platforms.  I personally have no experience with GameSalad.

 

Codea

twolivesleft.com/Codea/

Codea is an iPad application for creating games on the iPad.  It currently costs $10USD.  It uses the Lua programming language and provides it’s own library for creating games that is very easy to learn.  It comes with code editing tools, debugger and tools to hook up with your computer.  You can later hook it up to a Mac and actually create a game for publishing.  However, typing code on an iPad keyboard is extremely unfun, so a bluetooth keyboard is pretty much essential.  It does however come with tons of examples and is actually a great option for a young developer who has an iPad, especially if that’s all they have.

 

Kodu or Project Spark

http://worlds.kodugamelab.com/browse

or

http://www.projectspark.com/#home

This is a game that is about creating games.  Basically it’s a game you can modify to do just about anything.  Kodu is a visual programming language created by Microsoft.  Project Spark is a modified version of Kodu being released shortly for the XBox One console.  It’s pretty far from normal game programming, but many of the concepts ( and the end result! ) are very similar.

 

Code Combat

http://codecombat.com/

Code combat is an interesting concept.  It’s a web based game where you control your character through programming.  As you progress in the game, it teaches harder concepts.  Basically you learn to program while playing a game.  It was originally created to teach Javascript, but has since added a number of other languages.  I believe it is completely free, so you’ve got nothing to lose by trying.

 

Alice

http://www.alice.org/index.php

Alice is a integrated programming solution designed to teach programming.  In their own words:

Alice is an innovative 3D programming environment that makes it easy to create an animation for telling a story, playing an interactive game, or a video to share on the web. Alice is a freely available teaching tool designed to be a student's first exposure to object-oriented programming. It allows students to learn fundamental programming concepts in the context of creating animated movies and simple video games. In Alice, 3-D objects (e.g., people, animals, and vehicles) populate a virtual world and students create a program to animate the objects.

Alice is maintained by Carnegie Mellon university and is completely free.

 

RPGMAKER

http://www.rpgmakerweb.com/

RPGMaker Ace is a product similar to GameMaker specifically for creating one type of games, Role Playing Games, generally along the Japanese style.  Their tagline is literally “Simple enough for a child; powerful enough for a developer.”  There are some commerically created games available that were written using RPGMaker.  If your child is really in to this style of game, RPGMaker could be a great introduction to game programming.  RPGMaker is $70, although quite often on sale on Steam.  Ironically enough, as I write this, it is on sale for 75% off.

 

 

Conclusion

 

Of course I only scratched the surface of the options available, but I think I got the majority of options in that list.  If you think there is something else I should have put in this document, let me know!  I tried to make this clear to people of all technical levels, but no doubt I’ve made mistakes.  If I lost you somewhere, please let me know and I will try to clarify.  The most important thing to remember, all children are different, so one approach that works for one child may fail with another.  Pick the option above that you think most fits with your child's personality, but if it doesn’t seem to be a good fit, remember there’s a dozen other options!

 

I hope that was useful.  Good luck.

Programming, General, Design, Art , , ,

13. July 2014

 

It’s funny the things in life that irritate the hell out of you.  This is one such example for me.  For HTML5 development, I generally use WebStorm as my IDE and Chrome as my default browser.  Webstorm has a plugin debugger that integrates directly into chrome.  However, whenever you run your application, there is this exceedingly annoying yellow bar across the screen saying “JetBrains IDE Support is debugging this tab”:

 

image

 

You can disable it by clicking the x, unfortunately each time you run your code it appears again.  It’s one of those things I just let annoy me, as opposed to looking in to a more permanent solution.  That, it turns out, was rather stupid, as this is fairly easily fixed.

 

In Chrome’s URL box, enter chrome://flags

image

 

Scroll down and locate Enable Silent Debugging and click Enable.

 

image

 

Relaunch Chrome and PRESTO, no annoying yellow bar!

 

image

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