With the next generation of home consoles on the horizon, a lot of discussion has focused on rising costs of game development. It's not unusual for the top titles (the AAA tier) to cost large developers like EA the same amount as a Hollywood movie. All of those pretty new graphics require even more painstaking art creation methods, and advances in physics and increased expectation from network multiplayer modes also increase development costs. As a result, game publishers are less and less likely to take a risk on a unique game or story concept. To protect their significant investments, publishers attach their projects to established franchises and genres.
But there is an upside to technical developments in gaming (beyond the pretty new graphics). As a new technology comes in, the old becomes the domain of indy creators and makers who can turn these tools towards enacting their own personal visions. However, picking up where Carmack left off on Quake 3 is not as easy as those discussion forums make it sound. That's where a group like The Game Creators steps in.
The Game Creators have made a tool for independent game development called FPS Creator. FPS Creator is an easy-to-use development environment that can be used to make traditional FPS games, both single-player adventures and multiplayer arenas. At $49.99, I expected FPS Creator to offer the same kind of limited flexibility as RPG Maker on the PS2, but I was happily surprised to find a much more robust and useful tool for game development.
FPS Creator comes stocked with the basics of the FPS genre: You get some WWII models, some sci-fi models, and a smattering of zombies and skeletons to throw in the mix. Set pieces included with the default library are decent, and allow the average user to get going very quickly. In fact, following the tutorial provided in the FPS Creator manual (a PDF file included in the installation), I was able to create a super-basic single-player adventure and a multiplayer arena within a couple of hours. I copied the arena file to another computer on my network and was happily deathmatching in the lamest arena game ever created (well, since Kiss: Psycho Circus).
Working with what is provided in FPS Creator is easy as pie. You can use every elemental part of the included models to build your own structures and buildings right in FPS Creator, without using a 3D modeling program. However, to get a full range of personal expression out of FPS Creator, you still need to be handy with a 3D modeling package that will allow you to export to Direct3D's .X file format. Fortunately, there are a lot of plugins and tools to convert models to .X format, and The Game Creators offer a couple of packages on their site at reasonable cost.
The major functions and features of the traditional FPS action/adventure game are available out of the box. You can create narrative triggers, escort/protect missions, and various special areas within each level. Levels can be multi-tiered, allowing for tall towers or deep, dark dungeons, and opening up a very wide range of level design possibilities. All of the visual and audio aspects of the game can be tweaked and customized, but to do so, again, requires users to have skills in other programs to create audio files compatible with FPS Creator's mostly standard formats.
For non-player character behaviors, FPS Creator supports a pretty robust system of drag-and-drop AI elements that can be applied to characters within the game. These elements can be tweaked and modified by either combining them in unique ways or by actually writing new code in the FPS Creator scripting language. In addition, NPCs move along waypoints in a complex system that allows for variable path selection. That means those security guards in your game will seem a bit more "real" in their patrols.
But don't expect too much from the AI. In our game tests, we've not been able to get anything we would label "stellar" AI, but as long as gameplay doesn't center on outwitting your witless opponents, the AI options are mostly adequate.
The other big downside of FPS Creator lay in the visual quality of the engine, which looks very 2002 (think Quake 3 for the most part). That's noticeably not as pretty as the big FPS games of 2005, but we remember spending plenty of time looking at much worse graphics. For the indy scene, the graphical quality is acceptable, especially if paired with a cool game idea, but nobody is going to be fooled that this is a "real-deal" contemporary game release.
Other things we didn't like about FPS Creator included the somewhat convoluted method of bringing in our own models, as well as the proprietary scripting language used to modify gameplay. By reading posts on the fairly active forums, we managed to get some models into FPS Creator, but better documentation on this common task should be included in the box or featured more prominently on the website. And the scripting language is no bad to pick up on, but in an era heavily populated with promising new programming languages (LUA? Python?), it would be nice to see them supported in a tool like this so the efforts of folks working with FPS Creator could benefit from, and in turn benefit, other projects.
These negative aspects of FPS Creator are more than outweighed by the price: At $50, FPS Creator is one of the best tools we've seen for exploring game development. Real games can be created, and users are encouraged to sell and distribute their games. The games don't require anything to run except a contemporary version of DirectX and the game executable. FPS Creator even includes advanced tools for checking the memory usage and resource requirements of your game, allowing you to make highly playable titles targeted for real-world computer systems.
In teaching digital art and game design/analysis in a university media department, I encounter plenty of students who want to experiment with game design, but who haven't necessarily completed all of their programming courses. FPS Creator allows anyone with basic 3D modeling and media production (mainly audio) skills to make a fully playable game. The possibilities are nearly limitless, and I for one would love to play more independently developed games that take bigger risks.