The granddaddy of prosumer game engines has returned with a new top-of-the-range offering – and it’s got usability in its sights, Ed Fear discovers…
Back before Unity was the talk of the engine market, back before Microsoft claimed the term ‘democratising development’, GarageGames pioneered the concept of a ‘prosumer’ engine. Production-quality through its heritage as the Tribes 2 engine, powerful enough to underpin retail-quality games, and at a price that even hobby developers could afford, the Torque Game Engine – as its first iteration was then known – ushered in an era of engines and tools empowering a wide range of people to help them on their first steps into game production.
In the intervening time, there’s certainly space for others to come in and innovate. If Torque had a weakness, it was that it wasn’t as friendly as it could be. Editors didn’t exist for things like particles, for example, meaning they had to be defined in code.
So while the latest entry into the Torque family certainly has the high-end bells and whistles you’d hope for – screen-space ambient occlusion, a high-end pre-pass lighting system, PhysX built-in, and much more – the main focus for GarageGames has been on rebuilding the interface from the bottom-up to open the tools up to people other than the programmers.
“In the past, we put 3D engine features ahead of the tools to expose them in an accessible way,” says Brett Seyler, VP of business development for Torque at GarageGames. “This left us with a powerful, feature-rich engine that we and other experts could do incredible things with, but it was of limited utility to artists and other developers with less than stellar programming skills. Torque 3D delivers tools that any artist or modder can get results with quickly. The content pipeline is fantastic – not only can you get any asset into the engine in seconds, but you can make important tweaks to it too. You can define animation key frames to build new animations or modify your assets node structure for mounting the camera and other objects.”
All this means that as well as adding dedicated editors for terrain, decals, rivers, roads, materials, and particle effects – among others – the engine will now re-import assets on the fly as they change in their original authoring tool, both on the PC and on Xbox 360, PS3 and Wii.
On the topic of assets, another of the major changes for Torque 3D is its embracing of the COLLADA standard for all asset interchange – a dramatic step away from the bespoke DTS format that underpinned the previous versions.
“COLLADA is a true interchange format with growing support and adoption,” adds Seyler. “We take it very seriously and expect it to be the only way developers get their assets into Torque.
“The old exporter route, specific to each art application, was just painful for users and painful for us to maintain. There are too many art tools and they are updated too often, whereas every major art tool supports saving to the COLLADA format.”
That doesn’t mean DTS is dead, though, Seyler comments: internally the publishing tools strip down COLLADA files to create tight binary files for shipping.
“Having a highly-tuned binary format for game assets that you actually want to ship is a must. You don’t want to ship COLLADA files, especially if you’re targeting embedded devices with limited memory like the Wii. The artists will only ever touch or see COLLADA; however, we want to keep artists in the environment they are comfortable in, using the skills they already have. The project manager can generate a stripped down, optimised build targeting any supported platform with one-click at any time.”
STICKING TO THE WEB
The web publishing feature – essentially the ability to develop games that play in-browser – is another of the big focuses for Torque 3D. It’s no surprise that the company is putting its resources there: after receiving $80 million investment from IAC, GarageGames launched InstantAction, a high-end browser-based gaming portal. Is it fair to say that the team now sees web technology running through its veins?
Seyler explains: “As a company, we’re definitely ‘all in’ on web games and web technology, and this is a key focus for Torque. I think that browser-based
gaming is critically important for developers, both independent and professional, to embrace. It’s a tidal wave that’s not even begun to crest.
“Since the emergence of social networks and web-based connectivity tools, game developers have been trying to wrap these features in games. But these features don’t work and no gamer wants to create a new social profile anywhere. I think the smartest approach right now is in leveraging the openness of the dominant social platforms that exist today. Facebook is king right now, so delegating the ‘social’ part of social games to them makes perfect sense.”