I've been testing out a few programs for creating RPGs trying to find one that will work best for the way I do things and I thought I'd share what I've learned. All are free and have active communities, all are 2D based, all run on windows and one also runs on Linux and Macintosh. I chose four programs to test, the others got axed before download because of things like not being free, having an unfinished engine or being in development limbo.
If you have a suggestion for software that I've missed and should look
into, send a link. Keep in mind that it must be free and complete
enough that I can make a small game with no money involved, and it can't
be a Mac only product (because I don't own a Mac). Please note that I'm not interested in general game makers unless it's got some sort of built in RPG template.
As I test these out I'll be creating a small game and which I'll make available to play at the end.
RPG Maker VX Ace Lite
This is a limited version of Enterbrain's VX Ace software. The RPG Maker series is made in Japan then translated to English and has been around for quite some time. I haven't played with this since the version that came out on the Playstation, so it's a bit different now. From what I can tell the only difference in downloading the normal version or Lite version is just a code, which means you can start building in this then upgrade to paid when you run into those limitations. Since I only want to make a small game Lite will work just fine for me. It seems this particular release is very new, so following the link above may be the best way to find it.
On the surface this one looks to be the easiest to jump right in and make games with, mostly because it comes with an expansive set of high quality assets. I have no desire in using someone else's art though, so this isn't a draw for me. The features appear to focus on making maps as quickly and easily as possible.
001 (aka Engine 001)
This one is the software I want to like. Even though I can only use it on windows, it appears you can make games for Mac and Linux and soon mobile devices! The idea of playing my little RPG on my phone is quite the draw. The software looks pretty flexible, it's got built in support for Action RPGs and Iso. To be able to get the latest features or sell your games you need to pay and this is the part that bothers me. I don't mind paying a set amount for a program like this, but it's not for the program, it's for a subscription. I want to buy it once and be done, subscriptions rub me the wrong way. The focus of the program seems to be to add features, not polish old
ones. This means that this system will be much more innovative but it
also means that I'll probably have to work around some of the program's
At first glance this one looks to be a good middle ground of ease of use without learning programming and lots of options to get your game the way you want it.
This software has a slick website and looks like it can do most anything you'd like a RPG engine to do, but I'm turned off by the programming requirements. The interface is also horrible, it's got "for programmers only" written all over it. I always have problems with interfaces like that, I just plain don't think like a programmer and it literally gives me a headache to try. I doubt very much that I'll want to use this one in the end. On the plus side there's no bonus content hidden behind a payment, it's completely free.
This software has been one man's hobby project since 1996. It has a very old fashioned interface and looks to have very limited capabilities but the developer is still active and improves it regularly. This is available for download for Windows, Linux and Mac, so if you're using one of the latter two, this may be the system for you. Downloading this for Linux was extremely easy, no compiling or typing commands required.
Having a good community can make all the difference between a bad product and a good one. Things like creator interaction, user scripts and easy answers to questions are important helps to making your first game.
This software has been around a long time and has been releasing new versions at a steady pace. It also doesn't hurt that RPG Maker has been around longer than it's current competitors. It's really no wonder that the community is large and involved. The community is quite active outside of the official website; there are many fan created scripts and tutorials to help you out. The official forums even have things like an extra resources blog and a pixel academy. Most of the people here are the type to modify something to fit their needs, so the people doing original graphics are rare and there are a lot of writers.
There's something a little less polished about this community. The artist seem new to pixels and the talk is much more programmer oriented. Nothing wrong with that, in fact it should be really easy to find someone who appreciates my skills and is willing to do all the code. The forums are extremely active. There isn't much presence outside the official forums. I wish I could say more, but I'm having a hard time feeling connected to or interested in these forums.
It's a very pretty site, best of all it shows off some really nice user created graphics. The forums aren't as active as the other two but it is much more artist oriented. There's a lot of original art here, not as many ripped graphics which makes me think more highly about the type of artist you'd find here. The community is really surprising to me, with the type of interface this software has I was expecting a community much more like the one I found with 001.
There are two forums for this, both active, both small and both a little quirky. Finding what you want is a little tricky. From what I can tell there is no growth in these communities, just a few people who've been around forever and work best with this software. In an odd coincidence, I found a fairly new thread talking about how to import my LPC graphics into this software.
The first step for me is to see how hard it is to add my own graphics to it. This is going to be a bit backwards from the way these systems want you to learn, but I don't see the point in making a game only to have to change it all once it's time to import the graphics I wanted to use all along. I also want to test the ease of use, so I'll be jumping right in and not using any tutorials or manuals unless I absolutely have to.
The first thing I notice is the reminder to buy the full software. There's a button to ignore but it's carefully arranged and worded so you'll want to hit the "buy now" button on accident. I was able to add my own graphics without looking anything up, it was just a matter of opening the right menu. Adding them to the map took another search through menus, but it was also simple to implement. Layering is a bit of a trick, you have to load things as a separate tileset if you want it on top of something else. It looks like knowing how to lay out the graphics before loading them is going to be the hardest part here, and it's not going to be that hard.
I got a popup on this one too, this time asking that I "like" them on facebook for a possibility of a free subscription. Ugh, I don't even use facebook! Thankfully it seems to be a one time popup, opening the program again shows nothing. After looking through all the menus, looking through the walkthrough, searching the forums and then going back to looking through the program again I eventually figured out how to add graphics by sheer stubbornness. The good news is that it took so much effort because there's just so many options, not because it was impossible to find. I'm not counting this as a failure on usability because it was easier than I was making it out to be, I just looked in the wrong place at first. Unfortunately I am really worried about how hard it is to find any information about creating your own graphics. The only thing I've been able to find is info on how to import the resources available on the site. You would think I could use this information to get my own in, but it only works if the art is available on the site. I'm not really interested in sharing my resources and it looks like there's quite a queue to get on that list right now.
Importing is a matter of making a tile set then selecting the part you want to replace and loading the image into it. You have to know the exact dimensions of the graphic you want to import, and you can't import anything that isn't a multiple of 32. Layering seems to be done the same way as RPG Maker, which means I've got to rethink how I do graphics.
No popup! However it took quite some time to even find the tiles in the first place and while I was playing around I managed to crash the whole thing. I'm not impressed. Some of the buttons are graphical only with no hover text meaning I had to press them to see what they did. Mapping doesn't have as many nice automatic things as the other two, it's pretty basic. Layering is done more the way I expected it to work when I made my tiles, with all the graphics in one file and you just choose which layer you want to put the tile onto. At first it seemed like you would have to import graphics one tile at a time and save it in the toolkit's own special format before you could add it to a tileset and save that. Eventually I broke down and read the tutorial meaning this is the first failure of the ease of use test. It turns out that you can batch convert from a graphic. Actually getting to this batch conversion tool is a bit of a trial in itself, and the program treats it like you're an advance user for wanting to do this. Since the default graphics are ugly I consider it a poor creator who doesn't want to do it. As a bonus it looks like you can have iso and ortho maps in the same game. The program didn't recognize the transparency of my imported image but it looks like it uses a horrible fuchsia as the transparent color. I'll simply have to make sure all my transparencies are colored before I import and I should be alright.
Importing graphics is one of the first tasks required of you when you start a new project, making it hard to miss. From here everything degraded quickly. I had to search the site for info which was scattered around on multiple wiki pages to find out why my graphics weren't working. OHR will only import graphics that are 8-bit BMP's, mapped to the OHR pallet and no larger than 320x200. The resulting tiles will be 20x20, which is a very unusual size. Eventually I managed to import something that vaguely looked like my old tile set and tried to see how it layered. Once again I found myself completely stumped on how to even place one tile so I just gave up. OHR wins the honor of being the most difficult to use.
Tile size? 32x32 only
Color Depth? Not limited
Imports tile transparency? Yes
Perspectives? Orthogonal, Side-View
Tile size? 32x32 only
Color Depth? Not limited
Imports tile transparency? Yes
Perspectives? Orthogonal, Isometric
Tile size? 32x32 only (62x32 for iso)
Color Depth? 16, 24, or 32 bit
Imports tile transparency? No
Tile size? 20x20 only
Color Depth? 8 bit
Imports tile transparency? No
Winner for Round 1: RPG Maker!
Largest community, most prolific resources, easy to use and looks good doing it. It may not have the versatility, but it does have everything I need to make my game.
Not moving on: OHR
Backwards interface, convoluted requirements, no versatility. Could be good for other people but it isn't going to make the style of game I want to make.
Options I want to see but didn't:
I'd like the ability to build in Linux. I know I'm a weirdo for using that OS and not programing, but with how awful windows 8 is I'd like to be able to leave that whole OS behind and not deal with it anymore. I'd like to export into all three OS's and to smart phones. Cross compatibility is a big deal for me, it opens up options when selling my work and allows me to share it with my entire family not just the ones with the suitable OS. I'd like to choose any tile size I want and I'm a little amazed that this isn't an option. Bigger isn't always better, and I don't always like 32x32, sometimes 16x16 would be more appropriate.
That's all for part one. In the next part I'll be mapping a dungeon and telling you more about my game.
Still to come: Character Creation, Mapping, Fights, Item Creation, Event Creation, Dialogue, Boss Battle, Branching Story, Effects, GUI, Title Screen and Credits, Final Game Download