Hi Dave,

Well, a lot depends on what you want to do. The BGT toolkit, written
by Philip Bennifall, would certainly fulfill all of your requirements
as it is a fairly complete game engine and you can produce free games
using the Shareware license version which costs $29 as I recall. Of
course, if cost is a factor or you just want to get some practice into
a general purpose programming language my next suggestion would be
Microsoft's Visual C# .Net.

Visual C#, called C-Sharp, is really becoming the all purpose
programming language these days, and Microsoft is marketing it pretty
heavily as the replacement for Visual Basic in terms of newbies and
amateur developers. Not to mention many professionals use Visual C#
.Net as well for software development. As an all purpose programming
language, and as someone who has used it extensively myself, I can say
it has a lot going for it.

First, it has largely replaced Visual Basic in terms of amateur and
professional developers which means there is lots of documentation
around. For instance, the Microsoft XNA Community is a forum
specifically geared to C# .Net developers and Microsoft's XNA
Framework for developing next gen games for the .Net Framework.

Second, while Microsoft's XNA Framework/API isn't fully accessible
there are plenty of alternatives today. There is SDLDotNet which is a
.Net implementation of SDL and there is SlimDX which is a free and
open source wrapper for Microsoft's DirectX 9, 10, and 11 APIs. Sapi 5
is a standard Windows com component and can easily be added to a C#
.Net application with fairly easily. So C# .Net certainly has access
to a wide array of high quality game APIs etc.

Third, unlike a few years ago there are now free development IDEs and
tools for Visual C#. Microsoft's Visual C# Express 2008 is free, and
mostly accessible. Alternatively the Mono Project has released an IDE
Monodevelop which is totally free as well. So obtaining development
tools for Visual C# development these days is not a very expensive
investment.

Fourth, if you do think about developing something cross-platform its
possible to do that via the Mono Project. While not 100% compatible
with the Microsoft .Net platform its still relatively easily to create
apps for operating systems like Mac or Linux via Mono. So C# .Net is
beginning to see wider use beyond the Windows platform.

Fifth, C# .Net is a simplified C-Style language that has a lot in
common with Java. If you ever want to experiment or program in other
languages like C++, Java, Flash, etc C# .Net will help you with that
as it is similar to Flash and Java.

Finally, newer Windows operating systems such as Vista and Windows 7
are pretty much geared for .Net applications out of the box. Windows
Vista comes with .Net 3.0 by default and Windows 7 comes with .Net
4.0. The point being is that as newer Windows releases come out and
.Net becomes the standard API for newer emerging games and
applications you don't have to worry about installing 500 MB of
components etc as is the case for older Windows platforms like Windows
2000 or Windows XP which really predates the big switch to .Net.

With all that said, there are things to be aware of. C# .Net isn't
without its drawbacks, and are among some of the reasons why I am
currently not using it myself.

First, and foremost, C# .Net is a runtime language and is compiled to
an intermediate language which gets run by the .NetFramework. The
problem with this approach is that it can easily be reverse
engineered, cracked, hacked, and is a major security risk for
comercial developers. To resolve that security problem, no thanks to
Microsoft, you need to purchase a tool like Dotfuscator to scramble or
obfuscate the il code so it can't be converted back into readable
text/code.

Second, if you have to deal with legacy operating systems like Windows
XP, for example, your end users might be a bit turned off at having to
install 300 or 400 MB of .Net components if their system is out of
date, and I might add these components must be installed in the
correct order or things will break. This is nothing short of a
technical support nightmare when user x gets it wrong.

Other than those two issues I think C# is really the way to go for
future Windows development. Especially, if you are new to programming,
and want to break into development with the bleeding edge Windows
technologies and APIs without spending a small fortune or without a
lot of complexity.

Cheers!

---
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