Game-Development Engines for Newbies and Pros

XCOM 2

Lots of people want to build video games, but have no idea where to start. Fortunately, there are a handful of prominent game-development platforms out there, and their cost has radically dropped over the past few years.

For smaller developers, choice of platform may boil down to complexity, cost, and add-ons. For instance, Amazon’s Lumberyard isn’t as popular as other platforms such as Unreal, but it does offer tight connections to AWS cloud and the Twitch live-streaming network, making it easier (perhaps) for a development team to cycle up and maintain a game. 

It’s also a question of ecosystem support: For instance, the more prominent game-development platforms, including Unity, have moved to embrace VR in a big way, which could sway things for those developers who want to build for Oculus and other platforms. The more versatile the platform, the more likely it is to attract widespread developer use.

Unreal

One of the older game-development platforms, the Unreal engine was meant for building first-person shooters (such as the ultra-popular Unreal Tournament). Like many of the other game-development platforms on this list, the current version features not only a variety of tools for game-building, but also access to the C++ source code for the entire engine. As the years have passed, developers have put Unreal to innovative use, using it to build complex, open-world games with tons of complex elements.

Unreal is a free download (and that includes full access to all features, tools, and source code). When you ship a game, you’ll pay Epic (the engine’s creator) some 5 percent of gross revenue after the first $3,000 per product per calendar quarter. As with many things in the game-development world, this is something of a double-edged sword: while “free” is always good when it comes to development, the idea of paying out a portion of revenue probably doesn’t sit well with many indie creators, who are already wrestling with razor-thin margins. 

Amazon Lumberyard

For those developers who already rely on Amazon for their cloud-computing needs—including Amazon EC2, DynamoDB, and S3—Lumberyard facilitates that connection, thanks to the platform’s tight integration with AWS SDK for C++.

Those developers who like customizing platforms to fit their specific needs will also appreciate how Amazon opened Lumberyard’s native C++ source code. The visualization tools are based on CryEngine, allowing for the rendering of 3D environments.

Anyone who wants to use Lumberyard for purposes other than game-making, though, prepare for a bit of disappointment: Amazon forbids the use of the platform for anything that connects to life-critical or safety-critical systems such as “automated transportation systems.” The one exception, according to the service terms, is the zombie apocalypse:

“However, this restriction will not apply in the event of the occurrence (certified by the United States Centers for Disease Control or successor body) of a widespread viral infection transmitted via bites or contact with bodily fluids that causes human corpses to reanimate and seek to consume living human flesh, blood, brain or nerve tissue and is likely to result in the fall of organized civilization.”

They’re kidding with that one. We hope. Although the idea of using a gaming-development platform to build world-saving software is pretty cool, too.

Enough with the lame jokes, you might be saying. How much does this cost? The good news is, Lumberyard itself is totally free (including its source code); Amazon makes money off any AWS cloud services used to power the game. In fact, the company even claims it’s cool if the game is totally disconnected from the cloud and you end up paying nothing: “There are also no seat fees, subscription fees, or requirements to share revenue. You pay only for the infrastructure resources you choose to use.”

Unity

Introduced more than a decade ago as a game-development platform for Apple’s OS X, the Unity game engine now supports a broad gaming ecosystem, including Xbox, PlayStation, Oculus Rift, Windows, and mobile operating systems such as iOS and Google Android. Developers can use C# or Boo (which is similar to Python) to build within Unity.

Unity is offered on a subscription basis. For “beginners” who want to toy around with the platform, it’s free… provided any revenues generated are less than $100,000 per year. For “hobbyists” (defined as individuals or firms making less than $200,000 in annual revenue from games), the price rises to $25 per month, but that comes with free cloud storage and some other features. For professionals (i.e., those without a limit on revenue or funding), the cost is $125 per month, but that comes with lots of storage and analytics add-ons.

CryEngine

As mentioned above (in the context of Amazon’s Lumberyard), CryEngine is favored among some developers for its rendering capabilities. Although it used to cost $9 per month, its creators first bowed to industry pressures and made it “pay what you want,” before shifting to the royalties model adopted by other engines (specifically, a 5 percent share of earnings after revenues have passed $5,000). 

 Prominent games built using the platform include Homefront: The Revolution, a combat game, and Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture.