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Game Developer Magazine's 15th Annual Front Line Awards 2012
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Game Developer Magazine's 15th Annual Front Line Awards 2012

January 18, 2013 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

A reprint from the January 2013 issue of Gamaustra's sister publication Game Developer magazine, this annual feature gives awards to the best tools for developers. You can subscribe to the print or digital edition at GDMag's subscription page, download the Game Developer iOS app to subscribe or buy individual issues from your iOS device, or purchase individual digital issues from our store.

For 15 years, we at Game Developer have continued to honor the best development tools in the business with our Front Line Awards. Here's how it works: We started with an open nomination process where readers and at-large community members could nominate their favorite tools. From there, the Game Developer and Gamasutra editors, with a little help from our respective advisory boards, sorted through those nominations to come up with a list of finalists that we put to a community vote to determine which tools come out on top.

This year's crop of Front Line Award winners includes a few repeat winners and a few new members to the club, which is not so surprising, considering how our industry somehow manages to simultaneously change and yet stay the same. Havok Physics, Pro Tools, and Unreal Engine 3 had repeat wins this year, while Luxology's modo 601 managed to unseat Autodesk 3ds Max for best Art tool, and Bugzilla finally won a much-deserved nod in the Programming category.

Also, we nixed the Networking category in favor of a Best Free Tool category; as more and more game developers start working in small and scrappy indie studios, it becomes ever more important for devs to make sure they can work with tools that don't break their (nonexistent) budgets.

Congratulations to the winners! Here's to another year of great games -- and the tools to build them with.

- Patrick Miller

Hall of Fame

Unity 3D
Unity Technologies

In the late 2000s the game industry planted the seeds of change. High-quality development tools, historically hidden behind high-cost barriers, were being opened up to the masses for free or cheap. Along with this democratization of tools came an increased focus on speed and ease of development. Fast-forward to 2012: Tools across the board are easier to obtain and use, which has enabled the indie sector's rise to prominence, and one of the most important tools to come out of this era is Unity. Out of this storm of experimentation, Unity bubbled to the top, offering an unprecedented mix of power, value, and ease of use that has put new faces in the game development scene while simultaneously offering established developers a compelling tool.

Speed of development is a key factor in making games, and this is arguably Unity's strongest suit. Coding for Unity is simply a nice experience; it has a clean, component-based architecture that is both powerful and flexible. Since it's built on Mono, those who've had run-ins with .NET will be partly familiar with it, while its JavaScript support eases the transition for web developers. The code side of things meshes well with the Unity Editor, which provides many of the commonly used development tools (level editing, asset importing, animation tool, particle designer, and so on).

Unity also has a lot of power in the non-coding tools, and very few barriers to getting your hands dirty when you need coding support; the whole package plays nicely together. This is a powerful combination that allows you to fluidly move between using code-based solutions and tool-based solutions without struggling against Unity. The editor itself can be modified through code, allowing you to tailor your own tools, which is a boon if you need to provide extra support for non-coders that integrates with the rest of Unity. The broad deployment options that Unity provides are also a big time saver if you're interested in cross-platform releases, or if you need to standardize engineers with disparate skills onto one toolset.

Unity's potential for speedy development makes it particularly useful for small studios and indies, especially because it offers a free basic license and reasonable pricing for its pro and platform licenses. I worked at a small iOS independent studio on a game called Grem Legends, and one of the engineers didn't know native code -- but we needed all hands on deck. We were all pretty well-versed in C#, had a little bit of Unity experience, and didn't have time to build a bunch of tools from scratch, so we chose Unity. With Unity we got the game done on a tight schedule, which would have been tough if we had taken a different production path.

Once I got comfortable using Unity, I started using it as my standard tool for game jams as well. I used it at the "What Would Molydeux?" jam, and was able to finish the game coding solo while still going home and getting some sleep each night.

We would be remiss if we didn't acknowledge that part of what makes Unity special is the community of Unity devs. There are a lot of people using Unity, which means it's easy to share knowledge with and support other devs. The Unity team also provides the community with the Asset Store, which allows developers to distribute plug-ins that they've created. Beyond providing a means for developers to sell their tools, it's a centralized repository of tools, making hunting for what you need not quite as painful.

Unity is still a generalized engine, which means compromises that keep it from being a cutting-edge tool, but for many developers the tradeoff is well worth it. Plus, it abstracts away much of the extremely technical work involved in reasonably efficient rendering, opening the gate of development to those who aren't Direct3D/OpenGL gurus. For studios operating on the bleeding edge, or who need different workflows than what Unity has to offer, it can still be valuable for quickly prototyping, iterating ideas, and tinkering.

Unity reflects the change that has been occurring for the past several years in the industry. It's approachable, both from a financial and technical perspective, and offers excellent results for the amount of effort you put into it. What's more, Unity thrives in the diverse ecosystem of devices that game developers need to address, and with its swift development speed, it can have a place in all manner of studios, from the four-person team at a game jam to the triple-A juggernauts. Unity has opened the doors of game development for many, and we wouldn't have some great games without it.

Elijah O'Rear is a software engineer at Midverse Studios.

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E Zachary Knight
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I have been trying for a couple of years to get my Brother to switch to Blender for 3d art and animation. Unfortunately, I have no real experience with it and can't help him make the switch. He is comfortable with 3DSMax and claims the UI in Blender is too hard to use. I need someone to train him to use Blender so that we can make the official switch.

Asa Taylor
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After initially learning Max and then Maya, I've fallen in love with Blender thanks to the CGCookie training. Tons of free stuff.

Peter Huang
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I know what you mean. Coming from a 3dsmax background, the UI of blender can be a bit intimidating.

Ryan Creighton
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Blender's UI can be a "bit intimidating" like flapping your arms to to fly can be a "bit challenging".

Such Ch
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I can see his point about the UI in Blender, but it's like that for many other advanced tools too, no? Blender is a real winner though, with all that stuff from CGCookie and BlenderGuru, anyone with patience can become a pro. I love it.

Gregory Guertin-Jr
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Great article as always guys

Joe E
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Glad to see Unity recognized up there.
I remember falling instantly in love with it back in 2007 when I first found it by chance (the editor was still Mac only, so not very popular yet). Since then, I've never looked elsewhere. That was after years of dealing with clunky, buggy, slow and/or generally painful low cost solutions (3DGameStudio, Torque, C4, etc). Truly a breath of fresh air in that space, and combined with the trend in the business to seek lower-cost general purpose solutions (as opposed to cutting edge in-house engines), made up for explosive growth, and well deserved at that.
And obviously each version has gotten incrementally better and added more features, but the core foundations remain the same, which speaks to great software architecture from the get-go (as you guys have acknowledged with the nod to Joachim Ante in a previous article).