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Making Your Game Tools Fast And Efficient

September 25, 2008 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

[In this technical article, Cinemaware and EA veteran Khawaja -- the creator of the Fork Particle visual effects middleware -- looks at the state of UI and flow for game tools, suggesting practical tips to make your own internal tools and scripts easier to use and succeed with.]

Today, the creative process in various aspects of game development requires trying out numerous ideas and multiple iterations to perfect the final product. A fast iteration process enables better results.

Real-time visual feedback or real time preview is the key to fast iterations during video content development. This principle lends to development of software tools with user friendly graphical user interfaces (UI) and an added level of sophistication.

A digital artist once said to me, "Half my life was spent watching the progress bar on my computer monitor." We have come a long way from that point in time. Now, we need to create a much larger amount of assets for our games, so efficiency in creating these assets is more critical than ever.

Where the Problem Lies

Growth in video game production content translates into development of improved tools to efficiently create and manage content assets. These tools -- both externally licensed ones and those created internally by teams to manage particularly custom tasks -- incorporate data creation for new technologies and streamline production pipelines.

Eventually, tools may intelligently design some assets automatically. Currently, the creative process requires multiple iterations to reach the final asset revision.

There are two developer issues associated with the basic problem. The first issue emerges because often not enough time is spent on tools during a game project's pre-production period. It is also frequently assumed that enhancement to the software tools during the project will be sufficient.

This generally results in patched tool features and inflexible software architecture that eventually can only be fixed or improved by performing an overhaul. But due to time restrictions, an overhaul cannot usually be done for the project the tool was originally written for.

As for issue two, an interactive software tool usually requires a powerful engine under the hood, and friendly UI. It is natural to implement the underlying engine first because it is the tool's core functionality. It can be sophisticated and complex, which takes time to put together.

However, the lack of sufficient time assigned to the user interface design and implementation can compromise the use of the tool and limit the speed of work. It can also limit the number of users because of the steep learning curve, and that can be especially painful during project crunch periods.

In the final phase, the asset content is integrated so it can be reviewed in the context of the game for look and feel. A slow asset integration process results in fewer revisions -- or none -- due to its cumbersome nature, which can obviously compromise final quality.

Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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robert toone
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A nice straight forward article. I completely agree with. Sometimes however it is hard to convince teammates or development partners that this is really important and worth the resources it will take to get right.

thanks, this can only help our development cause.

ken sato
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With multi-SKU development, a good set of tools can not only make iteration shorter but also simpler, allowing teams easier cross platform work by having your platform hooks ifdef'd on console specifics. That way objects created with various design packages can be viewed, assessed, and optimized per platform without having too many tools to become familiar with. Kudos.

King Lee
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Good article!

I have written some editors...the main problem is about how to update data easily and make user easy to control.

I hope we can see more articles about this aspect。

Diego Castaņo
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Absolutely. Tools not only need to be artist friendly, as the author says, but also pipeline efficient.

As games become more complex, with millions of assets, it becomes very important to be able to batch process these assets with minimal user interaction.

I'm a tools developer and I've been developing an open source 3D production solution (SDK, exporters, importers, scriptable interfaces, applications and plugins) that allows tools developers to create tools with this flexibility. This project is called SceneEngine.

Luke Rymarz
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I currently work on tools outside the game industry, but it's nice to see an article focusing on the UI side for once. It's astounding how often the UI of a piece of software gets overlooked. Good UI design provides ease of use, but also --and this is something that isn't emphasized enough-- gives the implementer a very good head start on the software architecture.

But I'm curious; what do most people use for UI prototypes these days? I've had good times with C#, and I think Flex (and Adobe Air) is great if it fits into your workflow (i.e. flash anything). Anyone else have a favorite, or is there already a standard Max-like kit that everyone uses?