Having spent a lot of time lately working on game development learning materials I’ve taken some time out to produce a series of video tutorials to teach beginners HTML5 and CSS web design, they are available on my YouTube channel in a playlist here …
As a tutor, it’s often difficult to know what to recommend young people do in order to learn in the best way possible. In the realm of digital media, it is easy to find ourselves lost in a sea of ever changing technological standards, intensive learning curves, and discouraging trend changes. When I first came to game development around seven years ago, I began with what was then Macromedia Director MX, building games for shockwave deployment and getting some experience of the difficulty inherent in using software that wasn’t particularly well designed for the purpose I required of it. Without boring you with the gory details of writing with ‘lingo’, a language I have little nostalgia for, I was happy to discover not long after becoming a tutor, that there were some clever people out there working on this problem.
Picking up Unity in version 1.5, I was instantly reminded of some software I’d messed around with as a teenager – ‘The Games Factory’ (from the folks that made Klik n Play), a simple point and click game development package that my friend Darren and I spent countless hours making simple shooter games with pictures of various people we knew as enemies – yes, we were that cool.
This nostalgia of course was only fleeting as I soon delved beyond the surface of the incredibly user friendly interface and found that what Unity represented was an ability – both for myself and my students – to get into real game development. Having been using Director MX, being introduced to a game engine that had re-thought what a toolset for game making should be, was a breath of fresh air – and this is no sleight on Director or it’s creators – it was and maybe still is a versatile tool, but what Unity did for game development was to give an opportunity to people like myself who approach game development from a different background such as graphic design or web development.
So what makes Unity stand out as something worthy of such praise? Well to begin with the approach is solid – having a visual editor for game scenes which allows you to edit objects and tweak their components just makes sense – and for someone new to programming, it helps immensely to have visual elements that match the programming concepts. With Unity, your focus remains on Game Objects, and the Components they contain – and once these visual elements give new developers enough to get started with, writing code for the ‘GameObject’ class really starts to make sense, as you have already visualised an entity you’re applying code to, rather than simply creating objects programmatically. Unity takes this idea further with its ‘Prefab’ system – taking game objects built in the editor and storing them for instantiation or modification as an asset.
Having spent the past few years teaching, and all of my years prior to that learning (not that i’ve stopped now!) I feel that I know an intuitive learning curve when I see one, and that is what is really important about what the guys and girls at Unity Technologies are doing. Since they were but a small group under the banner ‘Over The Edge Entertainment’, the producers of Unity have keenly promoted their ‘democratisation’ of game development – and this is something that really resonates with me as someone who is keen to ensure that all of his students get equal opportunities to learn. But it isn’t just my students, or yours – if you’re a tutor, it’s anyone who might just have the talent, the raw imagination to create a fantastic game, but are not immediately programmatically minded. Just to think of the thousands of young people who may be put off of considering the games industry as a potential career due to lack of confidence in mathematics or opportunity to try out making a game of their own is a shame, and something that Unity Technologies are unique in addressing.
Having made the software free to download in late 2009, CEO David Helgason stated this as one of their ‘best decisions ever’ at this year’s Unite conference – and I believe that this is not only fantastic in terms of expansion of the userbase of the software but also key in terms of perpetuating the democratisation of game development – bringing in fresh talent that previously may not have had the opportunity to work with such tools, let alone publish their games to platforms such as iOS, Facebook and Android.
To me talent matters most – I believe that any tutor does what they do because they believe they can help people unlock some kind of potential that would otherwise lay dormant. I also believe everyone has a talent – but not everyone has the opportunity to unleash it upon the world. At this stage to avoid sounding like the intro another awful Heroes-esque tv series, I’ll stop using terms like ‘unleash’ but suffice to say that the key element with tools like Unity is giving the gaming industry a larger pool of talent. This month in Develop magazine, the cover article lead with ‘Will the last developer to leave Britain please turn out the lights?’, a rather damning piece about the floundering of the UK games industry – of course most of this cannot be put down to a lack of talent, there are major economic and political reasons involved too (such as a distinct lack of understanding of the value of the industry from the government, but that’s another article entirely).
However, if more young people are exposed to game development, and it becomes as accepted as web design and HTML has done in further and higher education over the past decade, then there is definitely room for a paradigm shift in the focus of UK media production, and tools like Unity represent a real chance for this to happen.