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
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.
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.