Review: Getting Started with Unity 5 by Dr. Edward Lavieri

GettingStartedUnity5

Getting Started with Unity 5 is mostly what it bills itself as: a way to get started in Unity for beginners. The book is clearly targeting beginners, and takes the reader from having never used Unity to making a simple farming-type game. I enjoyed reading it (in the whole 3 days it took to finish), however I’m not sure exactly how much I learned (if anything at all).

At 195 pages, the book is not extremely thorough, but does cover a lot of the basic fundamentals of game development with Unity. Unfortunately, that coverage is brief and only really scratches the surface. Some of the topics featured include: downloading Unity (an easy one), the editor views like scene/game/project/etc., game design, importing assets, animation, C# scripting, UI, and sound. Looking at that list, it seems like a lot of stuff, but some chapters are barely even 20 pages long. Not that it’s bad as an introduction, it could be a good place to start, but I feel for experienced developers the book falls short.

Besides the brevity of the coverage, I found some of the instructions confusing. For example, on the topic of programming, the author explains how to code different animals in a farm to do similar things like eat or have babies. This would seem like a classic text-book example for using object-oriented programming principles. Instead, the author concocts some cryptic array of numbers, where a 0 means a pig and a 1 a chicken or something or another. Not to say that this won’t work, sure, it will compile. It’s just not a great way to teach programming concepts to a beginner.

I don’t especially like giving bad reviews, and I don’t want to say the book is bad. It’s titled as a “getting started” book and that’s just what it is. I’m just not sure it’s the best instruction for a beginner, and the programming sections in particular were lacking for me. There are not many Unity 5 specific books available today but, truthfully, much of what’s covered in this book would have worked the same in Unity 4. Even so, the older Unity books I’ve read were much more comprehensive and useful than this one. So if you’ve just started to learn now, this book may be worth picking up as a quick intro if you understand it’s not very deep at all. Experienced Unity developers should keep moving.

Review: Learning C++ by Creating Games with UE4 by William Sherif

LearningUnreal

Right here is a book with a clearly defined goal and an excellent execution. Learning C++ by Creating Games with UE4 by William Sherif takes you on a journey from being a total blank in C++ to coding some basic features of a 3D game. Even though I have been coding in C++ for years, I still enjoy reading novice level texts as sometimes they can teach you a new way of thinking about familiar problems. For me, it’s also important to have good book recommendations (especially for people starting out), and I actually discovered this book from a member of the Unreal Engine community looking for a review. So here it is.

William Sherif starts the book proper, with how to setup a project using either Visual Studio or XCode. This is actually a great design, and it’s thoughtful to include both operating systems (Linux is not officially supported by Epic yet, so I can’t knock the author on that one). When first starting with C++ programming, probably the hardest thing is not the syntax but understanding how to configure the project and settings in the IDE, so I like that this was covered first. Next Sherif moves onto the basics of programming: variables and memory (numbers and pointers), control flow (if, else, equality and comparison), looping (while and for loops), functions and macros, variable scoping, objects and classes, inheritance, and finishing up with dynamic memory allocation and arrays. Really quite a good foundation for learning C++. I found the explanation to be clear and concise, and the author did a good job of easing the reader into the information. C++ is a huge topic to cover, and there are volumes of text many times this size going deeper into the intricacies of the language. I wouldn’t actually fault the book for this, I think it’s a strength. Some novices may be overwhelmed by C++ if they start with something like Stroustrup’s 1,300 page tome. So I would say this is a great introduction to the language, and a great refresher if you’re coming back after a while.

The second half of the book is focused on Unreal development in particular. The author opens by discussing templates and containers in UE4, including some basic ones like TArray, TSet, TMap and then discussing the STL versions of these and how they differ in Unreal. He follows up with the first real example in the engine: an inventory system (with a UI) and the ability to pickup items in the world. I like this approach as it’s a real tangible task that many games would include. The author then shows how to code NPCs that are able to display a text message to the player. Next, Sherif talks about how to create monsters – basically enemy characters that can chase and attack the player. He closes with adding spell casting (including the code and setup of the particle system).

So this is not a book that will show you “How to Make a Complete AAA Game in 24 Hours” but I don’t think that was the intention. What the author does is introduce C++ at the right pace, and also show how to get started with applying that knowledge to developing games in Unreal 4. In some ways, it almost feels like two separate books: one on basic C++ programming, and another on coding in C++ for Unreal Engine 4. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and I think both parts are worthwhile. Really, this book would be most valuable to someone that has little experience with C++ and is also new to using C++ in UE4. If you are already a C++ pro, the first half of the book may seem too basic. However, I think the Unreal coverage can be useful to developers of varying skill levels.

Overall I enjoyed Learning C++ by Creating Games with UE4 and would entirely recommend it to anyone interested in gaining knowledge in C++ for Unreal. To be honest, this is one of the only books out there on the topic right now, so it sort of stands alone. I believe it’s taken me a little over a week to read the 342 page text. Certainly, it doesn’t cover everything you need to know (not even close) but it’s a great place to start. I’d also add that I read the book on the Kindle Fire HDX, and the formatting looked pretty good. The price on the e-book was also much more affordable, so now may be a good chance to upgrade if you’ve still been reading on ink and paper.

Tutorial: How To Make a Cube Roll On A Grid in Unreal Engine 4


In this tutorial, I will show how to make a cube roll from side-to-side on a grid. This project took me around 3 days to complete, though much of that was wrapping my head around basic things in UE4. Some of the areas explored here include setting up key bindings and action mapping, setting and clearing timers, and rotating around an arbitrary point.

First, you want to start by setting up the action mapping. What this does is basically binds an input button (like a keyboard key) to a particular action (really just a name that you make up). For this test I needed 4 keys for up, down, left and right. Since the arrow keys and WASD were already used by the default Unreal fly camera, I choose to employ the IJKL keys to move the cube around. These options are found in “Settings->Project Settings->Engine->Input->Bindings”.

UE4_Cube_Grid_01

Next, we will need to connect those actions to a function in order to make something happen on the screen. You can do this by creating an “InputAction” Blueprint and choosing the name you created (like “Action_Up”). I set these actions to call a function I created for this example called “StartMoving”. In some cases, you may want to bind the action to a custom event, which may simplify the code and allow for a cleaner Blueprint (as you can use events to effectively “jump” to other points in the same Blueprint without a line connecting them). In this case, I had to pass in some state (to know which direction the cube is moving) so using a function was better suited for the job.

UE4_Cube_Grid_02

The “StartMoving” function is not that complex. All it does it check first if the timer is active (to avoid registering input while the cube is already moving), save some state on the cube itself (the direction of movement and it’s last position), and then creates a timer to handle the animation.

UE4_Cube_Grid_03
The key part is the creation of the timer itself, using “SetTimer”, which is shown below. You can think of a timer as spawning another process or thread that can run concurrently with your main logic. The timer just calls a function of your choice (“MoveTween” in this example), at a specified time interval (use 0.0166 for a 60Hz animation cycle, which looks smooth enough). You can also set whether it loops or not, we use looping in this case.

UE4_Cube_Grid_06
Finally, we have the “MoveTween” function, which is what is called by the timer and what does all the math calculation to rotate around a particular axis and point in space. It’s also what animates the cube, and clears the timer at the end itself. It’s very useful to be able to spawn a timer, and then have it terminate itself when necessary. The full function is shown below.

UE4_Cube_Grid_04

Really, the core math of the method is done by two function included in UE4, “RotateVectorAroundAxis” and “RotatorFromAxisAngle”. We first create a axis based on the movement direction. Then we subtract the pivot point (in our case, the bottom edge of the cube), rotate around that axis, and then add the pivot point back to the location. The rotation around axis logic is actually based on an example shown on the Unreal Answer Hub, though it was modified to fit my purpose.

UE4_Cube_Grid_05

And that is basically it. I’ve even included the full project file below for you to download and experiment. I imagine this type of motion could be used for a type of puzzle game created in Unreal Engine 4. Download Link: UE4.7.4 Cube Motion Project Files

Review: Maya Studio Projects: Game Environments and Props by Michael McKinley

MayaGameEnvironments

This is a book with a solid focus, and I feel like it accomplishes it’s goal nicely. Basically what Maya Studio Projects is about is creating environment objects and props for games (as the title implies). There are 9 chapters, and each one chooses a different object to model. McKinley is very detailed in his explanation, and really shows each and every step needed to follow along. Some of the objects modeled include walls and floors, foliage, weapons, vehicles, buildings, lamps, and a simple object animation. Supposedly there is a DVD companion, but I got the Kindle e-book and usually don’t bother with looking at the discs.

What I like most about Maya Studio Projects: Game Environments and Props by Michael McKinley is that the book is very much geared toward game artists. While pre-rendered art and game art do require the same skills, there is a slightly different thought process and flow when you are working within the limitations of a real-time game engine. The author does not assume you are using any particular engine (though Unreal is named a few times) and the techniques can be used in almost any modern engine. However, the instruction steps are very much tailored for Maya. While this is great if you want to follow along, step for step, it may make it more difficult if you use another package. Also, I typically like to just read along and sometimes I felt the author was too specific in each step, making it harder to extract the general philosophy of modeling. This can be a pro or con depending on what you are looking for. I would have also enjoyed more pictures. Sometimes as much as 10 or 12 steps were made in text alone and it can be slightly confusing without a demonstrating photo.

To sum it up, this was a fine book and I learned a little bit. I would not say it was exceptional, but there was nothing grossly wrong with it. Certainly, if you are looking to create props with Maya (especially man-made objects) this is not a bad place to start. If you are using Maya LT for game development, this is a very relevant book since it (thankfully) doesn’t use really any of the features missing in the LT version. One slight disappointment, McKinley doesn’t actually show you how to make the nice art on the cover. Can’t hold that against him, though. I’d consider this a great beginner’s book, and should help to get you started with 3d game modeling.

Review: 101 Autodesk Maya Tips by Dave Girard

MayaTips

This was a short book, so I’ll give it a short review. Basically, 101 Autodesk Maya Tips is exactly what it sounds like: a compilation of quick tips for using Autodesk Maya. Some of the tips are as brief as one sentence, but a few are more involved. It seemed like the majority of the content was based around Mel scripting, and various ways to automate particular tasks. I have not worked with Mel scripting much, and am still trying to wrap my head around the interface and UI of Maya. Girard does, thankfully, include some more basic tips as well.

With a book like this, I was not expecting any grand revelations. The goal appears to be just to highlight some shortcuts and methods for getting more out of Maya. Certainly, I can’t complain about the price (at $3) and I finished the book in probably about an hour. All in all, I guess only really a handful of the tips were immediately useful to me, though it was great to see what’s possible. For that, I found it worth the meager cost and time investment. Hopefully you will find some value too in this quick read.

Tutorial: How To Make a Textured Spinning Cube Using Unreal Engine 4


 

Today I will show how to create a textured spinning cube using Unreal Engine 4. Making a cube spin is basically what I consider the “litmus test” of 3D engines. How long it takes you to figure this out will show how convenient or capable the engine is. While I might have skipped this test (by jumping straight into creating Pong) I thought it was worthwhile to go back and try it. Hopefully this tutorial will be helpful to some of you just getting started.

UE4_Rotate_Cube

First thing you should do is create a new blank project. I chose to make the project with the starter content (and deleting the furniture) however that won’t be important for this guide. Next look on the left-hand panel, make sure you are in place mode (the icon with the cube), and look under basic and find Cube. Now drag the cube into the scene. It will probably start inside the floor, so just press Q to go into move mode and then drag it up a little.

UE4_Rotate_Import

Since looking at a gray model is not that exciting, lets add some texture. In the Content Browser on the bottom, right-click in the empty area and select “Import to /Game…”. Then find your image file and press Open.

UE4_Rotate_Tex

You should see the new texture appear in the browser. Now drag this texture onto the cube model. You’ll see this automatically create a default material for you. With the cube still selected, click “Movable” in the Details panel on the right.

UE4_Rotate_Comp

The next step is to create the component Blueprint. You can do this by clicking the green “+Add Component” button on the top of the Details panel. Choose “New Blueprint Script Component”. In the pop-up window, pick Scene Component, click Next, type a name in, then click “Create Blueprint Class”.

UE4_Rotate_BP

In the new Blueprint window, you can delete the “Event Initialize Component” (though you can also leave it alone, won’t matter in this case). Pull off the output execution pin on “Event Tick” (it’s the white arrow looking thing on the upper-right). You should see a menu open. Start typing “rotation” and then pick “Add Relative Rotation”. In the Y field for “Delta Rotation” type in “1” and press Enter. Pull off the “Target” pin and type “parent” then click “Get Attach Parent”. Now you can save and compile the script.

UE4_Rotate_Play

Switch back to the main editor window and press “Play”. That’s it! Hopefully this tutorial was useful to some people (please let me know in the comments). I plan to produce more of these in the future, and they should gradually get more complex as I get more familiar with the engine.

It’s really quite amazing how quick and easy it is to work with Unreal. Using straight C++ and DirectX, one would be lucky to make a textured spinning cube in 2 hours, let alone 2 minutes. It really speaks to the robustness of the engine. Of course, I still have a long way to go in terms of learning the engine, so please follow me on this journey (and pray I don’t give up on this one).

Review: How to Become a Video Game Artist: The Insider’s Guide to Landing a Job in the Gaming World by Sam R. Kennedy

VideoGameArt

So I am actually not looking to try to break into the game industry as an artist. Why did I read this book? Well, I am very much interested at upping my game when it comes to real-time graphics and content creation as a hobby. Computer graphics are just fascinating to me, and the best engine and shaders in the world will not save a shabby piece of art. This book seemed like a good way to get into the artist mindset. To top things off, the sticker-price was a palpable $12 dollars and the cover art looked great (important when taking art direction).

Basically what the book amounts to is a series of chapters, each one describing a particular game art profession. Some of the jobs detailed include: concept, environment, character, ui, and marketing artists. Every chapter includes a job description, explanation of the process or workflow, example images, an artist profile, and finally a mock “help wanted” ad that could be for the position. The format is informative, and I think would be very helpful for a student looking to get into the industry as an artist. Certainly, you don’t have to be a student to find worth in this book and I personally feel it is a great choice if you are at all interested in video game art.

The author, Sam R. Kennedy, is a game artist himself and shares a some of his (quite impressive) work within these pages. Nicely, the photos on the Kindle e-book were in color. This is quite important, and in my research I did stumble upon some game art instruction books from people with questionable artistic ability. Of course, you don’t need to be da Vinci to make a 3d model (especially not when working from good photos or concept art) but I can’t help but wonder what I’m doing taking advice from an amateur. That was not the case with this text. Kennedy is a veteran and has worked at Ubisoft on Tom Clancy games and the like. I felt pretty comfortable accepting his opinions.

All in all, I was happy with the purchase and I’m glad to have the book in my collection. If it helps me (even a little bit) in improving my art that’s a net positive. In any case, it was inspiring and that’s enough for me.

Review: Drawing Basics and Video Game Art: Classic to Cutting-Edge Art Techniques for Winning Video Game Design by Chris Solarski

GameArt

I’ve been trying to get back into making art (I did go to art school, after all) and this seemed like a well reviewed book. Plus, the Kindle edition was very reasonably priced at $12. Drawing Basics and Video Game Art: Classic to Cutting-Edge Art Techniques for Winning Video Game Design by Chris Solarski is not a long book (at 240 pages) but it’s well worth reading.

It almost seems like it’s two different books sandwiched together. The start is with basic drawing techniques and a study of classical artists. Anatomy, proportions, perspective, composition and layout, etc. Then the second part is more of a study of modern games with things like how color sets a mood, use of different shapes to evoke feelings, horizon lines, etc. It’s all very interesting, and I think would be helpful to not just artists but anyone working in gaming.

Just be aware, the book doesn’t really teach you how to be a good artist. There are various topics covered that can certainly help an artist, but there is little direct instruction (outside of the brief introduction at the beginning). I don’t think that was the author’s intention, and there are really tons of more general art books out there if you are so inclined. Drawing Basics and Video Game Art is more about theory and I feel the author is successful in that aspect. Solarski also managed to get screenshots of many popular games to analyze in the text, and thankfully all the images were in full color on my Kindle Fire tablet.

Overall, I liked the book and I think you will too.

Review: Getting Started in 3D with Maya: Create a Project from Start to Finish – Model, Texture, Rig, Animate, and Render in Maya by Adam Watkins

3DWithMaya

In what has to be one ridiculously long title for a pretty straight-forward book, Getting Started in 3D with Maya: Create a Project from Start to Finish – Model, Texture, Rig, Animate, and Render in Maya is actually not a bad place to start if you’re trying to get into 3D. Adam Watkins manages to pack all the crucial steps of 3D modeling and animation into 9 concise chapters. I enjoyed the flow of the book, and felt that every important detail was explained. The author teaches just enough to get to the next step, and it’s all done in a logical order and progression. If you are just getting started with 3D, or if you know another package and are new to Maya, I think this is a excellent book to pick up.

Watkins begins by explaining the general workflow and with the Maya philosophy (including a few somewhat comical hardware recommendations even though the book is only a couple years old). He continues with architectural modeling, organic modeling, UV layout, textures and materials, lighting and rendering, rigging and skinning, and finishes up with animation. Clocking in at around 448 pages, the book is not particularly short but I found I was able to get through it quickly. Each chapter was just the right size to read in one sitting, and the text was engaging enough to make me want to come back the following day.

I definitely feel like I learned a thing or two by reading this book, and it has helped me to better understand the Maya workflow. Most 3D packages are huge, monolithic pieces of software, and no single book could cover everything. However, Getting Started in 3D with Maya covers the basic things you need to know in order to get started (so the book is true to it’s name). If I had one complaint, it’s that I thought the art direction could have been better. This book won’t teach you to be a masterful artist but I guess that wasn’t the goal or scope of the text. In any case, I would certainly be interested in reading more from the author as I feel he has a clear and honest style that is easy to learn from. Recommended.

Review: How to Cheat in 3ds Max 2015: Get Spectacular Results Fast by Michael McCarthy

3dsCheat

I found this book to be quite interesting, but it’s also very specific to the 3ds Max package. How to Cheat in 3ds Max 2015: Get Spectacular Results Fast by Michael McCarthy has about 15 chapters focusing on various aspects of the 3d modeling process. It probably only took me about a week to read the text, which I don’t mind at all. Not every book has to be a 1000 page tome. I actually find it refreshing to read short books, especially if the author can impart a deal of knowledge in a quick span of time. How to Cheat in 3ds Max 2015 was one of those books.

Included in the 328 page copy are some very essential topics in the creation of art in 3ds Max: customizing the UI, navigating the scene and transforming objects, basic modeling, character modeling, materials, lighting and shadows, reflections, animation, MAXScript, rendering, plug-ins, special effects, and more. Not a bad amount of coverage, though many of the chapters are not extensive.

If you’re using 3ds Max, I think this is a decent addition to your library. It covers some specific things well, and gives you enough information to know what to search for to find out more. I especially liked the chapter on how to make an object fracture and then fall into pieces using physics. It also shows you what tools there are (sometime even 3rd party plug-ins) and does give you a good idea of what’s possible if you’re new to Max. However, if you are using a different 3d package, the book may not be as useful.

What I wish is that there were more general 3d art and modeling books out there. I’ve already read Digital Modeling by William Vaughan and it was amazing, but sort of a one-of-a-kind. Too many of the books out there seem to focus on one particular toolset and don’t try to abstract the concepts into something more widely applicable. Clearly, the basic foundation of modeling and texturing techniques are not all that different with different programs. The buttons or methods may be different, but the thought process is very similar. I can’t knock this book for that, though, it’s just more of a general musing on the subject.

Overall I thought How to Cheat in 3ds Max 2015 was a competent book, and achieves what it set out to do. I feel like it would probably be useful for beginner 3d artists trying to up their game, but maybe as a 2nd or 3rd book. The chapters each have a sort of “cookbook” feel to them, so I think some other books do a better job of building on top of previous chapters in a more cohesive manner. However, I don’t think that was the goal here, so I won’t penalize the author. All in all: not bad.