--- Free Software ---
Wilbur (last update: June 2005) (www.ridgenet.net/~jslayton/sof…
Wilbur is an old program (which is funny if you consider 5 years old. But it is very simple to use to make planets quickly. It hasn't been updated in a long time, but I checked the website and the program and it seems to work well enough.
Terragen and Terragen 2 (www.planetside.co.uk/)
The original was an awesome program that created amazing landscapes with very little effort and ease. The learning curve for the first version is pretty easy. It's successor is a completely different way of making landscapes. It takes much longer to learn, but between the two, it is the more powerful. If you don't know either program yet, I suggest version 2. It will be worth the effort.
World Machine 2.2 (www.world-machine.com/)
I have not personally used this or learned this landscape creator, but it appears to work very similar to that of Terragen 2. It does look like it has better support than Terragen 2, but I haven't compared them in enough detail. I'd be curious to hear feedback if anyone has tried both of these.
Celestia is completely open-source and completely free. It is a beautiful program besides, and if you like astronomy, get it for that. The program is very easy to use for that purpose. But more than that, you have the ability to upload and create your own solar systems! Celestia Motherlode (www.celestiamotherlode.net/) has a number of already created and beautiful worlds ready to download and install...again it is very simple to do. And if you want to create your own worlds, there are a number of tutorials that can teach you how to do so in less than an hour! Used in combination with other programs, and you can really create some great worlds!
Before I discovered Celestia, I found this program. It is sorely outdated, and I wouldn't bother much with it. I include it here only if you are curious about it. It reminds me how quickly innovative people can evolve into better programs like Celestia.
If you don't use any other program listed here other than this one, I will be very happy. This is the most essential program (web or download) for the creation of solar systems you will ever encounter. The original program is based on a solid science-based algorithm called ACRETE. Anyone can make a random solar system, but this one makes believable worlds. Anyone who tries to do the same thing and wants to sell it to you is a crook because underneath any bells & whistles is this open-source program. It isn't a graphics program, but gives you the information to make whole solar systems. I use this to make the solar system I want, and use the information to program into Celestia. I use Celestia to place it in the sky and represent it visually.
Everchanging Book of Names (last update: March 2009, 64-bit) (ebon.pyorre.net/)
Some people can make up fantastic names, and some cannot. While I consider myself able to create imaginative names, I use this name-generator when I want consistency. This program uses mathematical algorithms to create names of people (and sometimes even races, places, and even medicines). Most "chapters" are from familiar books, like the Lord of the Rings or Star Trek. This is free shareware, so it has a few limitations and needs to download other "chapters", but if you don't mind generating only 5 names at a time, you'll be okay. The site is French, but the English instructions are easy. My only wish is that I didn't have to download each chapter individually, but the price tag makes it worth the work.
Say you want to make 3D models, but you can't shell out the money for a program like Maya, Bryce, or other modeling software. That is the beauty of Blender! It is open source and free! It is very powerful, too, and will give those other 3D programs a real run for the money (pun intended). The drawback is the learning curve. This is a very powerful program, and it takes a while to learn. The tutorials used to be few and far between, but these days there is a lot more available. Still, there are some amazing things that the program can do...it may just take some time to figure out how to do it all. There is pretty good support in the online community...plenty of very helpful and creative folks who love the program.
DOGA L2 & DoGA L3 (www.doga.co.jp/english/downloa…
If you want to create spaceships or robots without having to worry about all of the little details, this is a good program that can even do some basic animation. It's like working with a bunch of virtual Lego pieces that you get to put together quickly and easily to make some pretty impressive stuff. The basic model building is pretty easy to understand. The drawback is that this is a very old program from Japan, so English help is very difficult...non-existent really. It's worth a look, though, and fun for a time.
HeroMachine 2.0 (www.ugo.com/channels/comics/he… & Heromachine 3.0 (www.heromachine.com)
The GNU Image Manipulation Program is not bad for the price...free! If you can't afford Photoshop (like me), this is a pretty nice program. Again, it is open source and free. There is a lot of support and help for it, and it gets better all the time. Again, you just can't beat the price.
So, you don't have a fancy word processor and you believe Bill Gates' evil spawn isn't worth any more of your hard earned coin... Here is one solution. You can get a descent word processor, spreadsheet (good for those pesky astronomical calculations), database, simple drawing program, and a PowerPoint-alike for that word we all love... free! Also, Google Docs (docs.google.com/) offers some word processor, spreadsheet, presentation, and drawing capability for that same price. If you can't even afford a computer, at least you can use and store things through Google if you can get access to a public site, like a public library. Hey...five long years ago, it was Bill, Steve, or nothin'. We've come a long way, baby.
--- Low Cost Software ---
I can't always get what I want for free, unfortunately. In cases like that, I do sometimes use low cost software. There are two gaming companies I've used (I won't provide the links, though):
ProFantasy Software: Campaign Cartographer 3 ($45 USD); Fractral Terrains Pro ($40 USD)
The one I actually invested in was Fractal Terrains Pro. The guy who developed Wilbur worked on this, so you'll see similarities. FT Pro is a bit more powerful...but even then it only goes so far. If you do invest in this, you will get more than Wilbur, but you have to decide for yourself if it is worth $40 more... I suggest playing with Wilbur or the other terrain-makers first. If they just can't do what you'd like, check this out.
NBOS Software: Fractal Mapper 8.0 ($35 USD download); AstroSynthesis 2.0 ($35 USD download)
On the one hand, this has the ability to make an impressive 3D universe surprisingly quickly. The map output is actually in 3D, which is so very important when making a universe. There are many people who just give up and make their universes like giant earth oceans dotted with island planets...not realistic. This tool will help...but only if you really need a huge quantity of random worlds in a 3D universe. It does create whole solar systems, and can map those out. It makes names and even can make some surface terrains. But the name-generator for the worlds drives me nuts, and I find the mechanics of world-building only so-so. It's an interesting program, and if you are in the business of creating a lot of worlds in large universes quickly, it may be worth the investment. But I really think that all of that can be done with WinStarGen, Celestia, the various terrain-building programs, and your own imagination.
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