Game developers no longer have to pay for the software they need to make great video games, because the tools used by some of the biggest and most successful studios in the world are available to everyone, for free.
In March, Epic Games announced that its Unreal Engine is now free to use as a development platform. Developers who sell games made with Unreal must pay 5 percent of any revenue after the first $3,000 earned each quarter, but free access means they don’t pay anything if their game doesn’t sell well, or they don’t intend to release a game commercially.
Unity3D from Unity Technologies, another of the most prominent engines, already had a free version. Unity doesn’t charge royalties, though studios that hit certain revenue thresholds must pay $75 a month or $1,500 for a professional version.
Valve also plans to release a free game engine.
Among the existing major engines, there is one holdout that does not offer a free version: Crytek continues to charge everyone for CryEngine, and is intent on continuing to do so. That’s not to say Crytek is being unreasonable. The company introduced a $10-per-month subscription last year, making it accessible to indie developers who can’t afford the higher-priced package that includes full source code.
But Crytek’s insistence on not releasing the engine for free seems partly due to its belief that CryEngine, more so than its competitors, is for high-end developers.
“With CryEngine, Crytek is going to the high-end,” Crytek co-founder Faruk Yerli recently told Develop, a news site for developers. Unity3D is going for the low-end while Unreal is aiming for everything from low- to high-end, he added.
Previously, Crytek offered a free software development kit that required a 20 percent royalty payment, but it’s phasing that model out. Yerli said Crytek doesn’t want to ask small developers to share their profits.
So is CryEngine worth the up-front price? And is it really the engine for high-end developers? To find out, we spoke to three experts who have extensive experience with CryEngine. (Dice was not able to get an interview with Yerli.)
Two of our experts, Sascha Gundlach and Michelle Martin, are former Crytek employees and co-authors of Mastering CryENGINE, a guide that explains the engine’s advanced features.
They say there is little reality to the idea that the big three engines are divided between low, mid-end, and high-end capabilities.
While CryEngine has a reputation for amazing graphics, “it’s absolutely possible to create absolutely stunning visuals with the other engines, too,” Martin said. “In this day and age it really comes down to the quality of your artists, how good they are.”
Game engines are crucial for developers. In 2013, Unity Technologies CEO David Helgason told us that an engine is “a toolset used to build games and it’s the technology that executes the graphics, the audio, the physics, the interactions, the networking.”
While at Crytek, programmers Gundlach and Martin both helped develop the famous Crysis games, and provided training to CryEngine licensees. After leaving Crytek, Gundlach and Martin founded independent development studio MetalPop, where they use multiple engines including CryEngine and Unity3D.
Unity3D’s pricing and extensive cross-platform support appeals to indie developers, especially those focused on smartphones and tablets, and, as a result, “Unity has so many indie titles with indie graphics that people get drawn to CryEngine, thinking it’s the only engine you can do stunning graphics with,” Martin said.
While Unity is capable of producing high-end games, CryEngine does draw a different type of developer.
“Usually what people say is that CryEngine is great for programmers, Unity is better for artists,” said CryEngine user Daniel Dolui. “That’s the way I felt when I was using Unity because there was some stuff I wanted to program from scratch and there was always a particular way to do it in Unity.”
CryEngine offers greater access to C++ code, which Dolui says gives developers more control over how a game is made. Dolui likened Unity3D to a smartphone and CryEngine to a PC—the phone might be easier to use, but the PC lets the user take more control.
“Unity does a lot of things for you and CryEngine asks you to do it yourself,” he said. “But in the end it will be your own way and in some ways it will be a more optimized way.”
Dolui founded a small startup, SolarFall Games, to build a hack-and-slash game called Umbra. With just a few employees, Solarfall has four CryEngine licenses, amounting to a payment of $40 per month.
The price is right, especially since it does not require developers to fork over a percentage of their revenue, Dolui says.
“If you’re really serious about programming your game, paying $10 a month should not be a problem for anyone,” he said. “$10 a month is like three beers in Nice.” (Dolui lives in France.)
Crytek charges a premium—the exact amount is not public—for full access to the CryEngine source code. This lets developers change the way the engine works to suit their own needs, although there is much that can be done without source code. Umbra, for example, will include modding tools to let players add content to the game. Dolui says CryEngine made it easy to add this capability, and that he has no pressing need to buy the full source code.
Big studios often want the source, as being able to modify the way the engine works lets them control all aspects of their games and makes it easier to optimize performance. For example, a studio building a massively multiplayer game that supports thousands of concurrent users may want greater control over networking systems, Gundlach and Martin said.
The makers of Star Citizen, a highly anticipated space simulator based on CryEngine, have “pretty much turned the whole engine upside down to build what they need to build,” Gundlach said.
Indie developers who can’t afford the full package shouldn’t feel shortchanged, though. The market has changed dramatically in recent years, from developers having to create their own engines to being able to get first-class technology for free or on the cheap.
Even if you have to pay a percentage of revenue to the engine maker, it’s still worth it, as without the engine a developer may never have made money in the first place.
“In the end, if you make a million bucks because of the engine, I think it’s fair to pay some royalties,” Gundlach said.
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