Why Game Engines Spell Trouble for Indie Developers

Seduction comes in many forms, including game engines. Virtually in a matter of weeks, people who’ve never crunched code can churn out a mobile game. It’s that ease of use, on top of a basic engine’s cheap cost, that’s prompting newbies to create games and game companies.

Cafu Game Engine Screens captureBut as with anything, cheap and easy can have its pitfalls.

“As with any business development, individuals need to go into the creation of a new enterprise with their eyes open, realizing all the potential benefits, risks, liabilities and responsibilities,” says Kate Edwards, Executive Director of the International Game Developers Association. “Having been there myself, it’s very exciting to launch a new business and focus on the goals and all the positives, but that can often overshadow the everyday reality of running a business. Tools which facilitate an easy start up for game development are a great benefit, but they’re only one aspect of creating a successful game and a prosperous game development company.”

Revving Up the Engine

Game engines like the drag-and-drop-no-coding-needed GameSalad allow even 10-year-olds to create games, while popular engines like Unity and Corona provide the means to create cross-platform titles without getting too deep into the code.

“It’s like being a movie writer. You don’t care about having to make the camera or the lens, you just want to write the script. But before game engines, these kind of tasks were all tangled together and you had to know both or have people at your company to do both,” says Joe Kaufman, founder of indie developer Fire Maple Games, which created  Lost City – the No. 1 paid game app last year on iTunes with 1.4 million downloads – using a Corona game engine.

Game engines separate the two areas of programming tasks that are needed to create games. One is memory management, the other creating the content, says Kaufman, who started out as an animator 20 years ago.

Nick Pittak, co-owner and lead technical artist of indie game company Prismatic Studios, uses Unity to aid his creations. “The engine helps with everything but the design. It now takes about half to a quarter of the time to make a game,” he says. “Before we used engines, we would have to pay a programmer to take our instructions to make the back-end of our game.” Prismatic, a two-person studio, plans to release a 2-D puzzle-based game in October.

While Kaufman has managed to do exceptionally well with just one employee, generating over $1 million in revenues without having a business background or marketing guru, he notes the seduction of game engines can trip some people up.

Who’s at Risk and How

Game engines are most likely to benefit people who are artists, designers or “idea people” with little programming experience, says Kaufman, who also recreated the popular The Secret of Grisly Manor. But some of those same people are the ones in the greatest danger.

“The ideas people are the ones most at risk,” Kaufman says. “The danger is when you don’t know how to program and you can’t do the artwork yourself, then you have to hire people to do that for you. That can get expensive because the trick is once you create the app, you have to maintain it. So every time there’s a change to the iPhone, your game may not work and you’ll have to rehire them again.”

IGDA’s Edwards advises indie game companies to do their homework and understand all aspects of running a business. “The role of their development tools is certainly part of that education, but in my experience more game developers need to better understand the mechanics of running a business – including the financials, human resources, marketing and production aspects.”

Indie Growth

Although there are potential downsides to the way indie companies use engines, most say they offer more upside. In addition to offering more programming power and speeding up the development process, the ease of use and moves by engine companies to offer their SDKs for free make them extremely appealing.

“The feedback I’ve heard from the indie community has consisted of generally positive experiences for both game engines [Unity and Corona],” Edwards says.

While hard figures are difficult to come by, Edwards believes engines have spurred dramatic growth in indie game companies. “I would venture to say that the readily available and comparatively inexpensive SDKs from companies like Unity and Corona would account for at least 50 percent of the growth of indie game development.”

Image: Wikimedia Commons

7 Responses to “Why Game Engines Spell Trouble for Indie Developers”

  1. Still not sure what the point of this is. Game engines are a problem for indies because… they create more indies? And people might make games without knowing how to program? And people might go bust learning how to run an indie studio? I’m sorry, am I missing the downside?

    Try. Fail. Try again. It’s the best time in history to be an indie.

  2. I tend to agree, because on my country, there is no research and development at all, the “Industry” here it’s based on the use of Engines, Torque (once upon a time), Unity, some with money Unreal, but nobody, nowhere, knows how to program a game engine, they just focus on the learning curve of their game engines. This is because the investors don’t want to spend money and time on development, they only want to see earnings as far as possible, research it’s a waste of money and time for them. The panorama it’s even darker, Universities teach Unity3D on Engineer careers, the whole thing it’s around using those stupid Engines, and I don’t see how my country could become stronger if nobody it’s interested on doing research, I believe that it’s mandatory to KNOW how things work in order to use them properly.

    The Game “AAA Heores del Ring” has very severe bugs with animation, they sometimes don’t blend between animations, let’s say, the character laid on the ground to Stand Still and Walk, the character “disappears” one frame, on the next it’s on a completely different pose, nobody on that studio knows how to program animation blending, even when Unreal exposes very clear that feature, they don’t even know that exist in the first place.

    It’s not only affecting Indies, it’s affecting an entire third world country business model of Video games Industry.

  3. Mike Bithell

    Wait… what?

    You realise games have been made in ‘engines’ for decades, yeah? That you still need to use programming languages to make games in an ‘engine’.

    A silly article, I really hope it doesn’t put any kids off getting started and making something cool.

  4. No offense intended, but this was a silly article. Game engines don’t spell trouble for Indie devs, that makes no sense. Now, ask a programmer if engines are evil. He/she went to school, spent thousands of hours learning and perfecting ways to control 3d physics in a game environment. Unity allows a dev to hit “Attach Rigidbody” bang, got physics. They need to be tweaked to be any use, but bang. The job isn’t programming, it’s putting out product. Whether it’s Tiny Wings, Lost City, Zombieville USA…products go out, money rolls in. Your premise is flawed.

    It’s like complaining that cars have made pizza delivery a profession that anyone can do.

  5. “Tools which facilitate an easy start up for game development are a great benefit, but they’re only one aspect of creating a successful game and a prosperous game development company.”

    The point of this statement is not that it is dangerous to use an Engine to create a game, but that creating a sustainable game development company relies on many other factors.

    It’s like the article is saying buying a frozen pizza in a store is dangerous because you might not have an oven to cook it. Where the alternative is to create the pizza from scratch at home… you’ll still need to cook the pizza.

  6. Justin Cuff/Ultimate Fantasy Studio

    It’s just a catch-title to get readers to read that there is no substance in the article related to the title. The only people ‘at risk’ are those who won’t try anything and fail at trying. Inexperience as a business owner/operator and a poorly managed budget is the only real risk (other than death) to an indie dev or team. Game on!