While it’s true that a tool is only as good as its user, there’s also another saying, that a good carpenter should sharpen the axe before chopping down a tree. So yes, effective tools matter, whether it’s for something physical like carpentry or something digital like video game development. And that’s why in this post we’re going to be talking about the best graphics and rendering tools for game development.
Before we continue though, let’s take a moment to discuss what counts graphics and rendering tools are, exactly. For starters, game engines and frameworks are not going to be included in this list. Yes, that software is used to render stuff, but they are game creation tools, not tools specifically for graphics. General image editors and 3D editors are also not going to be included here, because those tools are meant to be general and not specifically tailored for video game development.
What are the best graphics and rendering tools?
So, with that out of the way, let’s start listing the very best graphics and rendering tools. We will start with tools that are specific for 2D games, then tools that are for 3D games, and lastly, tools that can be used for either 2D or 3D games.
Aseprite is an image editor geared specifically for pixel art. It has various features to make creating pixel art sprite easier, like color palette editor, pixel-perfect pencil tool, frame-based animation editor, and a smart image rotation algorithm that avoids pixel distortion. And of course, it has the usual features of a modern image editor, like layer and transparency control.
Spine, in short, is a tool for creating 2D skeletal animation specifically for games. By using skeletal animation, artists no longer need to create animation frame-by-frame, and can simply animate the required part. So instead of making 10 full images of a character walking, an artist just needs to move the body part images to the desired position to create a walking animation. That animation can then be exported with JSON format and be used in a game engine.
Enlighten is a tool that can be integrated to a game to provide real-time, physic-based lighting. Physic-based lighting is usually not used in video games because they’re slow to compute, however Enlighten manages to approximate this lighting system with a much faster calculation process. Enlighten is also the main technology behind Unity’s Physic Based Rendering feature that was introduced with Unity 5.
Foliage has always been one of the hardest things to achieve in 3D rendering. Fortunately, we have SpeedTree now, which is a tool that enables video games to render vegetation easily. SpeedTree provides a vegetation modeling tool that allows developer to quickly create 3D trees and plants, as well as an SDK that can be integrated into a game to render vegetation beautifully and efficiently.
Substance Designer is a material authoring tool, which is a tool to process and create textures for 3D objects. Using this software, game developer can decide how an object would look in game and create the appropriate textures and configuration for the object.
3D rendering is quite a heavy task for computers, especially when a video game features a gigantic, complex environment. So, optimizing the rendering process is really important to make sure these games always run smoothly, and Umbra is a tool that can help game developers do just that. Umbra can process a 3D scene and calculate which objects are visible and which are not, making sure the GPU only renders the necessary objects in the scene.
3D objects usually have additional data that describes how a particular object would look when rendered. One of these additional data is normal map, a texture that describes the smoothness of an object’s surface. Normal maps are important because they can make objects appear to be rough. CrazyBump allows developer to quickly generate a normal map from a texture. So if you have a rocky texture, CrazyBump can analyze the contrast of that texture and generate the appropriate normal map.
Many video games use a technique called bitmap font to render text on screen. This technique uses an image containing all the letters written in a font and renders letters to form a text. Littera is a tool to generate such image from a font type. With Littera developers can also customize the rendered font further by adding outlines or using gradient to color the letters.
STG stands for Seamless Texture Generator, and, as the name implies, it’s a tool that provides game developer with seamless textures that can be tiled. STG is able to process a digital photo and generate a seamless texture based on that photo. This is a really handy tool for creating realistic ground, grass, wall, and other textures that can be applied on a big surface.
The last one on this list is TexturePacker, and being the last one certainly doesn’t mean it’s the least important, because this is a really useful tool. TexturePacker is a tool that can pack multiple images into a single texture, using the most efficient layout possible. This technique is called texture atlas, and it’s a really great thing to have in video games, because having fewer texture files will reduce the rendering load and optimize the game.
About the Author
RakaMahesa is a game developer at Chocoarts (http://chocoarts.com/), who is interested in digital technology in general. Outside of work hours, he likes to work on his own projects, with Corridoom VR being his latest released game. Raka also regularly tweets as @legacy99.