October 18th 2010 | Jens C Brynildsen
One of the tools I've been wanting to check out for a long time is Partigen. It's a particle generation plugin for the Flash IDE that can add effects like fire, rain, sparks, explosions, smoke, fireworks, bubbles and much more to your projects.
What is it? Particle effect extension for the Flash IDE
Platforms: Windows & Mac
Cost: $47 - $147
Its been many years since text effects and other fancy plugins were big in the Flash community. They're still around, but people now use them with moderation. This is a good thing. I've always felt that effect plugins have been overused and I remember those early Flash tutorials on how to make pixie-dust appear as you moved the mouse cursor across the screen. Fun to do, but you can't really justify to use them on other than Disney.com and similar sites.
Effects certainly have their place though and Partigen does its best to make particle systems approachable for all Flash users. When I left the Flash On The Beach conference a few years back, the weather was dreadful. Through the window of my bus, I shot a series of pictures of the pier to experiment with how the rainy glass refracted the lights of the Brighton pier. Playing around with Partigen for this review - this is what I came up with:
Drag the mouse across to change the camera focus. Note how we alternate between the two particle systems, one for drops falling down the focused bus window and one for the rain outside.
Partigen is an extension to Flash Authoring (the IDE). In the ZIP file you get when you purchase the product, you'll find a .mxp file. DoubleClicking this opens the Adobe Extension manager and installs the required files. The next time you start Flash Authoring you'll find two new folders in the Components Panel. The first contains the two main components that you can use and the other holds different example particle shapes.
You start by dragging a particle emitter to the stage. This emitter may be animated, tweened, masked and whatever you want and it's where the particles will start from. For some reason you can't set alpha, but there's ways around that. Select the Emitter-component on stage and select Window -> Other Panels -> Partigen2UI.
This UI will let you pick, preview and apply effects. In the Emitter-tab you can tweak all the settings for your particle emitter. You adjust how often new particles are spawned, their life, blending, randomness and much more. At the bottom there's a timeline that let you adjust each particles basic animation, color, scaling, rotation and alpha over time. This panel also offers a randomness-factor to make effects look believable.
There's a preview panel inside this UI as well, so you don't need to export your movie to see the effects. The preview updates as you type so you get instant feedback as you work. Every time you make a change, your particle emitter is also updated. This is done by updating a component parameter with a XML configuration. You can export and tweak this XML as well as saving it to the Library tab as your personal presets.
In the Library tab you can find loads of presets to start with.
These presets vary quite a bit in quality and I have to say I'm not too impressed with anything that has to do with fire and water, but there's loads of good presets to start working from. Just click the Use-button to apply the effect to the selected emitter and then you can go back into the Emitter-tab to see how this effect is created.
While it's cool to have a WYSIWYG panel, most programmers will want programmatic control over effects. Partigen supports this and also offers API documentation. This documentation is barely more than what you'd get from a standard Java-doc though. There's no examples, just parameter descriptions.
There is a solid series of tutorials on Youtube but I prefer to browse the docs as it's usually much faster. The component does come with some code examples, but there's room for improvement in this area. Adding more inline and downloadable examples would solve this.
More or less everything is available through AS3 and making your own particle types is as simple as:
myEmitter.particle = myCustomParticleSymbol;
As in the example at the top of this review, you can also render the effects to a bitmap canvas to enable interesting effects such as pixel blur and open up for further manipulation of the effects. Partigen is quite flexible indeed.
Particles isn't something everyone needs, but if you do - check this one out. Partigen is very easy to get started with and it's a relief to rather work on tweaking the visual effect than to program it from scratch. Many coders want to write things themselves, but even basic particle systems can take time. Partigen should be flexible enough for many use cases and if you need just one of these effects, you can easily recoup the $47 cost of this component.
It's obvious that a lot of development effort has gone into the Partigen UI and given that designers probably are the typical user for this product, it's wise to focus on that. We would however like to see some more code examples. One neat thing I'd like to mention is that Desuade offers access to the source through both GIT and SVN. Thanks to this you can tweak any part of the code that does not work as you like.
Jens has been working with Flash since version 3 came out. Since then, he's been an active member of the Flash community. He's created more than a hundred Flash games (thus the name of his blog) but he also creates web/standalone applications, does workshops and other consulting. He loves playing with new technology and he is convinced that the moment you stop learning you die (creatively speaking). Jens is also the Editor of this website.