Whether you’re a new student of game design and development, a hobbyist looking to expand the scope of their project or an experienced developer refining their skills: these are tools that every dev needs to know, whether it’s because they can save you time, money, both or they are more beginner-friendly than the alternatives. This article will cover both 3D and 2D games, as well as a variety of Engines.
ProBuilder, Unity Technologies
ProBuilder is a free tool made by Unity themselves, which allows designers to quickly build/modify objects and terrain from directly inside the Unity program without the need of extensive 3D art knowledge. This can be downloaded from the Unity asset store and it is one of the most commonly used tools among Unity practitioners of all levels.
Unlike the Unreal Engine, Unity does not have built-in tools for altering geometry in the base version of the program. As such, this tool was designed in response to user feedback and aimed at just about everyone who uses Unity 3D. Praised for its sheer flexibility and ease of use, ProBuilder is excellent for quickly prototyping and testing levels and can therefore save you a lot of time and money; this is particularly useful for students working on tight deadlines or Indie Companies with a limited budget (or Hobbyists with a zero budget). The only major downfall is that this tool is made specifically for Unity and cannot be used in other engines.
Here is a list of all the main ProBuilder features:
- Extrude/inset – This allows you to push and pull certain parts of an object around, shaping it how you want. Think of a cube… you could use extrude the top face and pull it out to create a skyscraper or inset it to push the face in and create a box.
- Versatile poly shapes – Similar to 3D modelling software, ProBuilder allows you to manually add and adjust both edges and individual vertices. This allows you to create any kind of shape you want!
- In-scene UV controls – Have you ever tried saving a texture and then just slapping it straight onto an object? It usually doesn’t end well. This is because all textures are 2D squares, while all materials are 3D spheres… they don’t know how they’re supposed to fit around any other object unless you tell them how! Usually, this is where you’d need a 3D modelling program, but ProBuilder has the answers. This allows you to wrap and unwrap objects for easy texture management.
- Procedural shapes (including a stair-design tool) – Again, this is something usually only seen in most 3D programs or the over-caffeinated and highly advanced programmer. However, ProBuilder allows you to procedurally stack shapes and adjust them manually.
- Vertex coloring – This is a very simple feature but highly useful for prototyping. Vertex coloring allows you to select each individual face of an object and change the color. Create a cube, select the top face and change the color to green… you have grass. Can’t you just create a material and do the same thing? Not entirely. Unlike materials, which automatically wrap around the entire object, the vertex coloring only effects individual faces. You could make a cube that has a different color for every face, and it saves room in your project folder.
Mixamo is an online service that provides a variety of features for free. It’s main purpose is to provide assistance with rigging and animating humanoid characters for beginners. However, it also allows you to download characters made by the community.
Despite its main target audience being beginners, Mixamo is renowned for its quick and simple process, so it is of no surprise that many experienced developers also use it. Mixamo is a subsidiary of Adobe and requires an account to use; however, the setup should not take more than a few minutes.
While Mixamo is targeted at designers with very little 3D modelling/animation knowledge, there is still the drawback that you will need some knowledge of how animations work and some basic programming skills to set up the characters/animations; however, there are many tutorials on how to do this online. On a more cheerful note, Mixamo can also be used for most 3D game engines. This makes it a highly versatile way of saving time, money and creating your first fully-animated characters in the most beginner-friendly way possible.
Here is a list of all the main Mixamo features:
- Upload your own characters and get them rigged quickly – if you already have a character but don’t know how to rig and animate them, this is the first stop for you. The process really is as simple as uploading the character, clicking a few buttons and then watching the magic happen. Don’t worry- your uploads won’t be made public unless you select otherwise!
- Download a large variety of free animations – one of the most useful features of Mixamo is that it doesn’t just have a bunch of animations you can download, but they are also separated into packs! You can literally just go to the search bar and type in ‘magic’ and there will be a whole pack of animations with different spell-casting animations. There are also packs for general movement, weapons/combat, sitting/grabbing, other interactions and more.
- Download free characters, if you don’t already have them – If you’re worried about spending all that time creating and rigging your own character and then not being able to animate it properly, you can just as easily download a range of free characters from the website itself. They have soldiers, zombies, knights, mutants and more! Just scroll through, pick a character you like, hit download and you’ll be ready to test them out.
- Export characters/animations in multiple formats – Once again, Mixamo can be used with most 3D game engines and the best way to do that is via multiple export types. This allows you to export characters and animations in different formats, meaning that they are able to be used in Unity, Unreal or even edited in Blender/3DS Max etc.
Make Human, The MakeHuman Team
Make Human is 3D Middleware, made by the MakeHuman team, which allows users to quickly and easily create human models without the need of 3D Art knowledge. It is available for download on the MakeHuman website at and doesn’t even require an account to use.
MakeHuman is useful for anyone who is making 3D games with humanoid models. While there are other alternatives of better quality and greater resources (Autodesk CG, Adobe Fuse etc.), MakeHuman is one of the only programs of its kind that are completely free. Like ProBuilder, this program is useful for students, those working under tight deadlines, and new indie companies looking to save money. Semi-experienced users could also create basic models and then edit them in 3DS/Blender etc.
Here is a list of all the main MakeHuman features:
- Modelling/Character design – height, weight, age, appearance, basic clothes.
- Geometry – Fine-tune individual polygons/groups for realism or comedic effect. Want to create a tiny little man with an exceptionally large head? Go nuts!
- The MakeHuman website contains extra assets to download, provided for free by members of the community. If you can’t quite find the right hairstyle or the right pair of jeans then be sure to check there.
- Ability to export in multiple file types – Similar to Mixamo, this allows you to easily export to whichever program you want, whether that’s Unity, Unreal or a 3D modelling program of your choice.
- A variety of rigging options/ poses to export for easier animation. This includes T-pose, V-Pose and a selection of action poses. They won’t protect you from the plague, however…
Twine, Chris Kilmas
Twine comes in the form of both a free online flowchart/interactive fiction service and a downloadable program, built by Chris Kilmas. However, it also makes a great tool for planning and writing linear games.
Twine is aimed primarily at interactive fiction enthusiasts of all kinds and there are plenty of people outside of the gaming industry who use this service. While it is extremely beginner friendly, experienced users would also find a lot of value in this as it is a faster and free alternative to other programs. Whether you want to prototype interactive dialogue or build a flowchart for your game, Twine is one of the most efficient ways of doing so.
Here is a list of all the main Twine features:
- Create and link to different flowcharts – Creating new flowcharts is as simple as a button press. However, creating links between them will require one simple line of java code. The on-screen instructions will help you with this.
- Click/drag-and-drop approach to reorganize flowcharts and maintain a neat workflow – The arrows linking the flowcharts are automatically placed by code. Once you have them, you can just drag and drop different parts to keep your designs neat and tidy.
- Create a playable web build – With the simple press of a button, you can create a HTML web build which can be shared with friends and played from start to finish. Creating a web build is also a great way to save and back-up your progress, in case you run out of cloud storage or accidentally delete your old save.
- Create variables that can be stored and called in basic scripts – Again, this will require some basic Java knowledge. However, intermediate to advanced users will be able to do a whole lot more than just linking flowcharts. Tutorials for this will be available online.
Fungus is an interactive fiction plug-in for Unity, which uses block coding and graphical UI to make it as beginner-friendly as possible. No programming knowledge is necessary, however a basic understanding will make learning it easier, as well as adding your own features to it.
Unfortunately, Fungus was only designed for use inside the Unity Engine. However, it is extremely useful for both 2D and 3D games. While it is aimed at beginners, it is a highly useful tool for all RPG enthusiasts. Intermediate coders could also edit it to their own liking and even integrate it into their own scripts.
- 2D and 3D dialogue systems, using block coding.
- Built-in UI system, which can be easily edited to your liking (this includes character portraits, dialogue boxes, subtitles etc).
- Ability to store variables (numbers, string etc.) which can be called using block-code.
- Built-in speaker system, which allows the user to assign dialogue to certain characters, including name, portraits etc.
- Built-in animation cues – you can use the menus/block code inside Fungus to start and end certain animations instead of hard-coding them in C#/Java! This helps the user to implement a basic cut-scene system, which the base Unity program lacks.
Using the Tools Together
Using these tools is a simple process… You can:
- Go to Twine and design some flowcharts for your game/level.
- Use MakeHuman to create some 3D characters (if you don’t already have your own) or use Mixamo to download some.
- Use Mixamo to rig and animate your characters and export them into an engine of your choice.
- If you’re using Unity, you can use ProBuilder/ProGrids to quickly build levels with the same ease and precision as Unreal/Frostbite etc.
- Lastly, download Fungus for a dialogue/cutscene system.
With all the tools together, along with the asset store/marketplace, you can get started on a completely free game without needing all the hours of work that hard-coding and 3D modelling bring. Beginners will find this much easier to achieve than spending hours learning 3D art and programming, while indie companies and veteran game developers can enjoy the hefty savings on their budget. So what are you waiting for? Go and make some speedy and cost-efficient games!
Robert Bushell is a former Games Design and Story Development student at the University of East London. He is best known for his writing but still remains active in the gaming community via social media and is always willing to lend a hand. You can follow him on Twitter @R_H_Bushell.