Attack of the Free-For-Non-Commercial-Use Game Engines!

Gaming Hobby

I just stumbled across this story on Slashdot announcing Epic’s release of a free version of it’s Unreal Engine for non-commercial uses [Epic Press Release:]. The story also points out that last week Unity also announced a free version of their game engine, also for non-commercial games [Unity Press Release:].

It makes my heart swell to hear this! I’ve been a gamer (Console and PC, primarily PC) for well since my dad brought home our first Atari around 1978 (I may be a year or two off, I was 5 or 6 at the time) and I was hooked. Games are most likely the reason I chose Computer Programming as a career. I’ve been involved in game development as well. Not enough so that I work as a game developer, but enough that I do understand what it takes to get a game together (I am not a marketing guy, so I’m specifically talking about the Development portion of the process here.) You may have even played something I created [perhaps a later post will include some elaboration].

There are three types of Game Development companies in the world. One type that creates Game Engines and Game Content, ones that just creates Game Content, and ones that just create Game Engines.

Let me define Game Engine and Game Content

  • Game Content is  3d models, 2d sprites, sound effects, music soundtracks, story lines, characters, character dialog, etc.
  • Game Engine shows the content to the game player and interacts with the player to turn his actions into what he is doing in the game (so the engine controls rendering to the computer screen, reading the game controllers, sending force feedback commands to the controller/joystick, tracking player and enemy health, move everything around using the in game version of the laws of physics, etc.

All game companies create Game Content, that is their Intellectual Property that they hope will sell enough copies of a game to pay them to make the next version of it. Some companies employ development staff that also creates the Game Engine that handles all their Game Content. These guys hope to sell enough copies to pay them to make the next version of it as well, but they hope so many copies are sold that other Game Content companies will buy their Game Engine and create their own Game Content for it and sell you another game. Finally, the companies that just create Game Engines hope to entice a Game Content company to buy their engine and use that for their content.

And this completely ignores the Hardware level of games which is really in the Console gaming realm. As one might suspect, these guys make hardware that can run Game Engines, so they try to sell their hardware platform to companies that make Game Engines.

The landscape has not always been like this. It used to be the Game Company would make the engine and the content, shop it to a publisher who put it on the store shelves (remember, this was back before the Internet.) What happened was, these guys actually started to make money selling games and more companies wanted in on the action. Eventually some suit figured out that it was cheaper to buy the license to use/modify an existing game engine and just pay employees to make content, and they were right!

I’m not trying to say that making content is easy, and I’m not saying they don’t have development staff to customize the engine to suit their needs and to also implement the rules the game runs under as they are completely different from one game to another. This is the code that gives you health when you get the mushroom power-up, or makes you jump higher and float to the ground when under the effects of a high jump spell.

This, in my mind IS the game, the Game Engine itself just runs it all as a platform. It is a pretty delineated and sensible distinction. It is this distinction that has allowed for the the different types of game companies to exist.


So as you can see, Id made both the content and engine for Doom3, and the Engine for Quake4, that’s three revenue streams, and that’s just one game that uses the Doom3 engine. You get the point here.

Now what we are seeing is companies springing up that just create Game Engines and not an underlying title to showcase it. This is because more and more people are in the gaming industry to create content for these games. And they can undercut Id on the price which lowers the cost of getting into game development, which lowers the cost of games you and I buy.

Except, like the Apple App Store, more choices are just that more choices and it encourages shovel-ware because if you have five titles for sale you’re bound to sell more then just a single title, and it’s easier to make five titles by buying an engine then writing one. It is also good in the way if fosters competition at the top of the chain which means better engines for everybody!

At the very least the modding communities pleased to be able to actually get the hands into the engine itself rather then just the game functions it exposes. Very exciting!

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