Promising Crystal Space with Documentation Clear as Mud

While my daughter was (supposed to be) napping this afternoon, I downloaded Crystal Space, an open-source tool for creating 3D games. I made lightening-fast progress in the first couple of hours, but after that I was quickly lost. Maybe my expectations were unrealistic.

Over the last year or so, I have experimented with Half-Life 2 modding (making custom levels for a commercial first-person shooter game) and modeling with Blender 3D (a heavy-duty, free design tool).  I like the simplicity of Hammer, which is the tool that makes Half-Life 2 levels.  But getting Half-Life 2 to work on the school’s computers was hell; I couldn’t expect my students (mostly English majors) to go through all that effort to get Hammer to work on their own computers, which means that the students can only work on Hammer when they are in the computer lab.  (The next time I teach that course, I’m going to add a mandatory extra lab hour, so that I won’t have to cut so deeply into class time in order to give students access to the tools they need for their assignments.  Yes, the students can come to the lab outside of class time, but that lab isn’t open 24 hours, and sometimes other classes have booked it.)

Blender 3D, on the other hand, installs quickly and easily, but the interface is very unusual. Now that I’ve been using it fairly regularly for over a year, I have learned to appreciate its power.  I can carefully introduce my students to the subset of commands they’ll need to know, and there are many good tutorials out there.  Blender does have some excellent tools for creating animations, and it’s fairly simple to export videos (like this walking Hectopus I made). But the Blender game engine is underdeveloped, so it’s not nearly as easy (or fun) to DO anything with the things that you create in Blender3D.

But I’d really like to have my students use Blender 3D in order to design their own networks of rooms, and then on a project day I’d love to link all their rooms up and we could all explore the spaces together.  (I know that Second Life is designed for that sort of thing, but I’m concerned about the ownership of the digital IP the students will create there.)  Half-Life 2 would easily let us explore a shared game map.  It’s theoretically possible to export a level from Blender 3D into Hammer, so that Half-Life 2 players can share the space.

When I read about Apricot, an effort by Blender and Crystal Space users to create an open-source game, I got excited. Instead of teaching both Hammer and Blender3D, I would like to be able to teach just one 3D tool,

I looked all this up during my daughter’s (alleged) naptime today. I downloaded Crystal Space, a related set of tools (the purpose of which I can’t quite put into words at this point) called CEL, and an extension to Blender3D that creates Crystal Space levels.

While Hammer and Blender 3D have lavish and detailed tutorials, the Crystal Space tutorials were clear as mud.  Maybe that’s a bit unfair, since I have been working with Hammer and Blender for some time, and since those manuals made little sense to me when I first started.

What I did like was that, once I figured it out, I could design a world and then run a simple program that lets me walk around in it.

But I didn’t see any step-by-step, lavishly-illustrated-by-screen-grabs tutorials on the Crystal Space website. Nothing clearly explained what files go with what programs, whether there is a central control panel somewhere I don’t know about or whether I should depend on the command line, what each file is for, etc.  If I can figure more of this out I’m not opposed to writing the darn tutorials myself, but getting there will take time.

I tried to post a comment on the Crystal Space support forum.  When I tried to create the user ID “prof_jerz”, the system denied that that a user named “prof_jerz” existed.  When I finally hit the go back button to look at the confirmation screen, the database had created a user named “Prof jerz” (changing the initial capital and changing the underscore to a space — I presume this is due to some wiki-based convention).  When I finally realized this and tried to log in with the distorted userid, I got a message saying there had been a database error.

But the database/login problem had nothing to do with the Crystal Space software. There was also a database error when I tried searching the online documentation.