If you're an aspiring game designer, or would like to see if it's something you would be interested in, then the best way to do so is by picking a game development platform and start playing with it. Here's 5 popular free (or at least free to start with) engines that you can try out.
The Source SDK
is the engine made by Valve Software and what powers all their popular games like Half Life 2, Portal 2, Left 4 Dead, and so on. It's one of the oldest engines still in use today, but the company has been updating it all this time. It's a good choice because you can get it for free by buying any Valve game, even if you download Team Fortress 2 (which is free) and it's available to you with all the needed tools. Source is also used by a lot of mod creators, which is great because a good way to start designing games is by starting with making mods, levels, and so on, for existing games. Source makes it very easy to do so.
The engine is primarily made for first-person shooter games, and it's very easy to make a level using the Hammer Editor. But it's also been adapted to RPGs and other types of games as well. The engine itself supports all the latest features like HDR, dynamic shadow maps, rag dolls, a full facial animation system, and so on. The Wiki also provides a lot of documentation to get started with.
Unreal Development Kit
The Unreal Development Kit
, or UDK, is another option to start playing with game design. UDK is great because it's one of the top engines used by professional games like Gears of War, Mass Effect and Bioshock, yet the company is providing the entire development platform for free to non-commercial projects. It also comes with a lot of popular Unreal Tournament maps so you can see how they were made.
The engine has all the state of the art features, including complete environment editing, scripting, animation, physics, cinematics, particle effects, and more. UDK has also recently been ported to mobile platforms, so you can use the same tools to make computer, console and iPhone games.
Following what EPIC did with the Unreal Engine, CryTek did the same thing with CryENGINE
and made it free for non-commercial uses. It's similar in other ways as well. Since both companies compete heavily, their engines provide many of the same features. There's been many debates online as to which of the two is better, and no one came to a definitive conclusion. Certainly each has its strengths, but for a starting designer, they both are fine choices.
is noteworthy because it's the most popular open source modeling application out there, but few people realize that it includes a full game engine under the hood. The benefit is that you can create your 3D models, and integrate them into the engine right there, in the same application. The negative is that Blender has a notoriously steep learning curve. Also, while it can provide fine basic 3D games, it lacks some of the advanced tools that the commercial engines provide.
Still, Blender has features like scripting, physics, collision detection, AI and vehicle dynamics. It also provides an audio toolkit. Blender can be a good choice for indie developers who want to stick with open source software, or don't want to pay a license for commercial games, which is required with any commercial engine.
So far we've focused on heavy-duty, 3D games using professional engines, but these days a lot of the innovation goes into lighter, more casual friendly games, published on multiple platforms. GameSalad
is an HTML5 game creator that provides easy publishing to the web, iPhone and Android marketplace. Even though it's using web technologies, it can create some surprisingly complex games, and has been used by thousands of successful games in the various App Stores.
The main features of GameSalad include an easy to learn dashboard, automatic publishing on multiple platforms, drag and drop, physics, and a large library. It's available for free to start with, then they provide with various plans depending on where you want to publish.