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Opinion: Why On Earth Would We Write Our Own Game Engine?
Opinion: Why On Earth Would We Write Our Own Game Engine?
December 19, 2011 | By Yossarian King

December 19, 2011 | By Yossarian King
More: Console/PC, Programming

[In this reprinted #altdevblogaday opinion piece, Blackbird Interactive CTO Yossarian King looks at the various reasons why you might want to (or might not want to) build your own game engine.]

I'm addicted to building technology. I can't help myself, it's just so fun and shiny. Tools, games, and especially engines. Mmmm, game engines.

Sound familiar? Why do we feel so compelled to write game engines? Shouldn't we be building games?

In 15 years with Electronic Arts I used and worked on several proprietary game engines. This seemed to make sense at the time, but when I left EA to help start Blackbird Interactive our technology choices were very different.

As the lead tech guy, I had to get a foundation in place to support our development. I quickly went from "should we write our own engine?" to "could we write our own engine?" to "why would we write our own engine??" Faced with the buy versus build dilemma, we chose to buy. This article explains why.

By game engine, I mean the core technology foundation that underlies a game. An engine abstracts game code from the specific hardware platform, provides key functionality such as rendering, animation, physics, and networking, and usually includes a tool chain and content pipeline.

High quality game engines and integrated middleware are readily available. Engines like Unreal, Unity, Torque, or CryEngine could do our heavy lifting so we can focus on our game. Engine prices are flexible, from free to cheap to a share of our eventual revenue.

As I started investigating the alternatives, I soon found myself asking why on earth would we write our own game engine, when we could leverage existing technology and immediately get to work on our game?

On the other hand, many game companies, even small ones, choose to build their own proprietary engines. The decision whether to build or buy engine technology would have a huge influence on all our future development. The choice could not be taken lightly.

When I worked at EA on FIFA Soccer, I really didn't have time to look at other technology. Or at least that's how it felt. With iterative products, six-to-twelve month development cycles, and ship dates that didn't move we had to focus on the task at hand, not gratuitous experiments with novel technology.

Electronic Arts was also rather insular. There were so many smart people and so much strong technology within the company that if I needed to reach out, I would contact someone I knew in another department, or at another EA studio.

Since going indie in late 2010, I've been reaching out like crazy. A dozen guys in a garage cannot stay internally focused. I have benefited from the wisdom and experience of many different communities, former co-workers, and free or cheap technology.

Game engines are a case in point — some are free, most at least provide trial versions. Mark DeLoura's 2009 Engine Survey and GDC 2010 followup was a great place to start as we began our evaluation.

We Chose To Buy

In the end, we chose to buy, not build. Here are our reasons...

The Features We Need Are Mostly Supported

Scott Greig, BioWare director of programming, gave a great talk at the Vancouver International Game Summit in 2008. To create the BioWare technology roadmap he started with a poll of key staff on which features needed to be world class in order for the company to hit its goals, which had to be competitive with the rest of the industry, which just needed to be functional, and what was unimportant.

With this in mind, I made a long list of key features and technology areas, and asked everyone in the company (all eight of us at that point) to rate our need for each feature on a scale from world class to irrelevant.

For us large environments, vehicles, heads-up display, and audio landed at the top of the list, with characters and MMO networking somewhere down the bottom. The survey didn't produce any great surprises, but it was good to see that we had a consensus, and it made everyone feel involved in the technology evaluation process.

As we evaluated different engines, we used the feature set as a checklist to see how well each engine covered our requirements. Most engines were capable of doing the things we needed, so this wasn't a critical factor, but it definitely played into the decision.

When I was lead programmer on FIFA Soccer for the PC, around about the year 2000, we rewrote the graphics engine three years running. The PC team worked alongside the Xbox and PS2 teams, each of which used different engines. Down the hall, other large teams worked on basketball, hockey and baseball games — you guessed it, each with their own unique engines.

Apparently when a bunch of human figures in sports uniforms run around inside a virtual stadium, the size and shape of the object they hurl around, and whether they do so with their feet, hands, or a stick, makes a big difference to technology requirements. Er, not

Each development group evolved their own technology over time, and arrived at unique solutions to similar problems. If we had shared our feature requirements from day one things might have worked out much differently.

All Our Target Platforms Are Supported

When an opportunity comes up to put your game on a new platform, the right engine can make this almost trivial, while the wrong one can make it well nigh impossible. Building your own technology gives you more flexibility, but at the cost of doing the grunt work of porting yourself.

Choose the right engine, and the grunt work is done for you. In addition, developing for multiple platforms simultaneously is much easier, since the bulk of the platform-specific code has already been written.

For us at Blackbird, platform requirements were nebulous. We wanted to launch on social networks like Facebook, and then move onto mobile platforms including iPhone and Android, but tablets looked pretty good too, and a standalone PC build for Steam distribution also made sense. Consoles were a possibility in the future, depending on the success of the game.

With platform needs shifting as we analyzed the market and considered different partners to work with, flexibility was key. High end web graphics were not broadly supported, and mobile was hit and miss. Unity had done well on both fronts, and their console support would no doubt mature by the time we needed it.

Platforms are more stable now than they were 10 or even 5 years ago. Back in the late 90′s and early 2000′s, 3D graphics on the PC was a hotbed of activity. Hardware acceleration was a new thing. Custom API's like 3dfx Glide and PowerVR were competing with the nascent D3D.

At EA, we needed FIFA to look great on hot new hardware, but still run well on older computers with software rasterization and 256 colors. A custom, rapidly evolving, hybrid engine was almost inevitable. On the consoles, Xbox was like a clean, simple, fast PC, but there was no point burdening it with all the legacy rendering code, and unfortunately our engine wasn't tidy enough to simply take what we wanted. So we started from scratch.

As for the PlayStation 2, Japanese trade officials had placed restrictions on export of PS2 dev kits for fear they might be used for military purposes, so our PS2 guy got shipped off to Japan for several months to work in isolation with a snapshot of the PC codebase. Needless to say, the code diverged.

New platforms still exist, but they come in large equivalence groups ("consoles and PC", "mobile", "online"), each of which can be served by a single engine. Some engines even span all the groups. Rumor has it that Crytek and Unreal are both considering Flash support.

You could argue that HTML5 is a new platform that requires a custom engine, but spend an evening trying to find and run HTML5 demos on different browsers and (cool as they are) you'll see HTML5 is not quite ready for prime time. Besides, Adobe's already way ahead of us. Engine developers today are well-organized, well-funded, and well aware of emerging opportunities — it's unlikely we'll beat them to the punch.

If you work on truly bleeding edge platforms (iPad 3? PlayStation 4?) you may not get the support you need from a third party engine, as happened to Silicon Knights when they tried to use Unreal Engine 3 on the Xbox 360 before it was ready. On the other hand, perhaps there is an opportunity to partner with the engine developer and accelerate both your progress.

Good Workflows Are Available Immediately

Never underestimate the importance of good tools for your artists and designers. And never overestimate your ability and desire to deliver them — especially when push comes to shove and you have to decide whether to add a new feature to your game or a new feature to a tool. Chances are high that the game will get your attention, at the expense of the tool chain.

A good engine should enable good workflows out of the box. As we evaluated engines, we looked not just at runtime features, but also at the development environment, the tools provided, and the content pipeline. Visual concepts can quickly be tested with an art pipeline that quickly takes models, textures and animation from our art package into the game.

Workflows are easy to overlook or get wrong. Being at a small company like Blackbird I have direct hands-on experience with every aspect of the game — I know how everything works and what everyone does. This gives me great insight into the workflow requirements across the team, but time is limited and it is hard to do much more than meet the minimum needs. With a working foundation, I can focus on adding small improvements rather than building complete pipelines.

At EA, the opposite was often true — large teams and specialization act to limit interaction between different disciplines, so the programmers are much less likely to know how the artists and designers work. The result is that workflow improvements frequently fall through the cracks or get implemented poorly, because the person implementing the tool feature didn't really understand how it would be used in practice.

Most of the third party engines we evaluated had better workflows than the proprietary engines I've worked with in the past. While it is certainly possible to build good workflows internally, all too often they fall by the wayside as the schedule slips and all engineering resources are put onto game features.

Anything That's Missing, We Can Add

Extensibility is vital. No engine will do everything you want out of the box, you will need to customize, tweak, and extend it to suit the needs of your game. Custom content pipelines, new editor windows, and of course unique features for your game itself. Clearly building your own engine gives you the ultimate in control and customization — just remember that you have to build it before you can extend it. With a third party engine you can jump straight to the extensions.

Source code access is a hot topic when it comes to engines. When you write it yourself, you can see and modify any source code at any time. Many people feel that using an engine without source code access is asking for trouble. "What if there's a showstopper bug?" My experience has been that showstopper bugs are much more common in my own code than in commercial software, and I'm willing to give up source code access in return for well-supported, high quality products.

We Need To Focus On Our Game, Not Core Tech

Our game is completely new — new IP, an unusual camera, a curious mix of client and server requirements — it will take a ton of experimentation to prove out gameplay ideas and confirm and refine our design. We can't afford months of tech development before we start testing the limits of our game design.

With a third party engine, core systems like the event loop, game object model, input handling, mesh rendering, particle effects and animation just work, so we can jump immediately to prototypes.

We decided that the opportunity cost of building an engine was too great — those months of programmer effort are much better spent on the product itself.

We have no illusions about licensing the tech we develop, we have no plan to produce the Next Great Engine as a side effect of our product development. The market for middleware is active and healthy — but very competitive, and the leaders are extending their lead on a daily basis. If anything, we might build a few special-purpose tools that integrate with major third party engines that we could sell to the people who use those engines.

A good example of this approach is Autodesk's integration of their Scaleform UI library with Unity. And with over 6,000 employees and annual revenue approaching $2 billion, Autodesk's involvement in game engine middleware is also a good example of the depth of competition in the middleware market.

At EA we focused plenty on core tech, but we still never had any plan to sell it. (Besides, who would license a render engine with functions like RENDER_ball and RENDER_stadium?) In fact we thought our internal technology represented a significant competitive advantage that we couldn't possibly let other have.

Though there was an embarrassing incident in which a significant chunk of the FIFA PC source code from 1997 was accidentally included on a demo CD. I suspect that if this fell into Konami's hands, it may have set International Superstar Soccer back by several years as they tried to figure out just what we were up to.

We Save Money

We did the math, and developing our own engine would be way too expensive.

Sure, we could whip up a quick graphics demo in OpenGL or Direct3D in no time. Add some audio, google up some physics code, and in a couple days you'll feel like you're halfway there. But what about memory management? user input? animation? the file system? a content pipeline? tools for artists? cross-platform compatibility?

Suppose it would take four programmers three months to get a decent engine in place, supporting a subset of features sufficient to create a particular game, with tools and workflows good enough to get the content team started. That's one staff year, worth say $100,000, give or take. For that money, you can buy over 60 Unity Pro licenses, or over 500 copies of Torque 3D.

Granted, Unreal and CryEngine will set you back significantly more than that, and probably want a hefty royalty as well. But remember, you're licensing a complete product — for $100,000 you're only getting the prototype of a game engine, just enough to get started on, with likely lots of bugs and a pile of missing features.

Also keep in mind that most of these engines have free versions you can get started with — just be careful what you get hooked on! For us, we were able to run with the free version of Unity for over six months before we decided to upgrade to Pro.

Don't underestimate the time it will take to write an engine. Why not invest that effort into the game itself, and not into the foundation required to support the game? There is a lot to a modern game engine, and it is a huge effort to build one. Look at the number of people in the Unity team photo, or the number of programmer job openings at Crytek. Sure, you don't need to write a complete commercial product — but why not use one that already exists?

At EA, money was rarely an issue. At Blackbird, it's a huge issue. It would have been irresponsible to spend our investors money building another game engine when there were several engines to choose from that would serve our needs and let us focus on developing our game.

You May Choose To Build

Our situation is not unique, but it's not universal either. Just because we decided to buy an engine doesn't mean you can't build your own. Here are my thoughts on when it makes sense to build.

You Already Did

If you have already written a game engine that you use in your games, switching to a new engine is a huge challenge. If you are happy with what you have, more power to you — if not, well, I can sympathize.

From the late 1990′s I worked on eight consecutive iterations of FIFA, and there had been at least three products before that and at least eight since. The very first version was written for the Sega Genesis in late 1993. I'd put the odds about 8 to 1 that none of that Genesis code runs on the Playstation 3 today — unlikely, but not impossible. The codebase evolved incrementally over time, with systems added, removed and refactored by generations of programmers.

When you have a stable, mature engine, it is extremely difficult to stop using it. You need to tear down your game and build it back up on a new foundation.

When I was a kid, my dad did just that with our house. He poured a new foundation and built a floor on it, cut the house off at the ground floor with a chainsaw, and used hydraulic jacks laid horizontally to push the house across greased skids onto the new foundation. Mum took us kids away camping for several weeks. You can rebuild, but it is time-consuming, messy, and extremely disruptive.

The opportunity to change comes when you start a new project. If you begin a new game, at least consider alternative engines. Take a couple weeks and prototype something in Unreal, or compare the Crytek physics solution with your own, or look at the editor extension capabilities of Unity. Analyse the costs and benefits of your own technology versus someone else's. Even if you decide to keep using your own engine, you will get ideas from others that you can use to improve your own systems.

If you decide to switch, be very careful. EA Black Box recently shipped Need For Speed: The Run, during the development of which they switched from a custom engine to Frostbite 2 (an EA-developed engine, but external to the Black Box team): "According to designer Alex Grimbley, it has apparently taken a year to re-purpose the tech for driving rather than shooting." (Wikipedia)

The switch was intended to help "really blow the doors off the category," but despite a three year development window, the game is currently sitting at a Metacritic rating of 64. Granted it was an ambitious project and many other factors are at play, but a disruptive technology shift can't have helped.

Your Boss Told You To

Doing what management wants is typically a good idea, at least if you want to keep getting a paycheque. You can certainly question their decisions (if you can't, perhaps it's time to move on), but at the end of the day they make the call.

At EA, in about 2004, I was briefly the tech lead for the EA Graphics Library (EAGL) team, a central tech group that had developed graphics technology that was used in a large and growing number of teams across the company. EAGL was what finally brought the PC, Xbox and PlayStation 2 versions of FIFA onto a single graphics solution (not to mention hockey and basketball).

I joined the EAGL team at a time when EA decided it wasn't in the business of building technology, it was in the business of building games. Management chose to acquire Criterion and its successful Renderware graphics library and have it used by as many teams and games as possible.

This made some logical sense, but the strategy backfired. Renderware was acquired on the strength of Renderware 3.7 on the PlayStation 2, but then Renderware 4.0 was adopted for the PlayStation 3. Renderware 4.0 was a ground-up rewrite that was not ready for prime time. To make it worse, we all grossly under-estimated the cost of transitioning to a new render engine.

Ironically, Renderware 3.7 the strong third party solution became Renderware 4 the failed EA proprietary technology. In attempting the break the cycle of over-investing in internal technology, we instead repeated it. Renderware is no longer a commercial product.

Whether your boss tells you to build an engine or buy one, make sure there are solid business and technical reasons for doing so, and a clear execution plan.

It's Fun And You'll Learn Something

This is a great reason to write your own engine. Building all the systems required to make a game will be a lot of fun, and hugely educational — you will definitely become a better low-level developer. Reinventing wheels is a great way to learn about wheel-building, but if you want to race cars it may not be the best place to start.

Before you jump into that engine rewrite, consider using an existing engine and focusing on AI and gameplay. And unless you are independently wealthy and can afford years to build your game, writing from scratch may not make business sense.

After 15 years making games with proprietary engines, I've finally learned my lesson. I'm still addicted to building technology, but now I'm building games, not engines. You may not agree with me, but at least consider the alternatives and make your engine decision a conscious one.

If you have ideas and experiences on the build versus buy game engine debate, please join the discussion, I'd love to hear from you.

[This piece was reprinted from #AltDevBlogADay, a shared blog initiative started by @mike_acton devoted to giving game developers of all disciplines a place to motivate each other to write regularly about their personal game development passions.]

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Luis Guimaraes
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"We Need To Focus On Our Game, Not Core Tech"

Simply as that. There's a difference between being a game developer and a game engine developer. There's a surprisingly huge number of students and indies that go the building route just for programming hubris. While sometimes it makes sense, we're not in the 80's anymore.

If you're not thinking about your players, you're in the wrong business. Players want great and entertaining games.

Juan Del Rio
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Fantastic article, Thank YOU!

Tynan Sylvester
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The era of one-engine-per-game is slowly ending. It started when they began licensing the DOOM engine (maybe earlier). It's continued, since then - fewer and fewer engines are needed, more and more games re-use. As technology goes forward, engines get better and more generalized, so the value proposition in licensing improves. We don't need special-case solutions for PS3, Xbox, iPad, PC, and iPhone any more.

I suspect that within a few decades, making your own engine will be about as common as inventing new camera technology to make a movie. As in, it'll happen, but it'll be weird.

Duong Nguyen
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There is plenty of reasons for writing your own engine but most of them don't apply to small and mid size companies. Owning your own tech IP, custom pipelines, proprietary technology, future proof, esoteric requirements, etc.. A company the size of Rockstar or EA sure makes alot of sense to write your own engines.. An indie startup, doesn't make much sense..

Even with that said, the game design more so defines what engine you need and simple put most game engines out there are noting more than physics and graphics wrappers with a pipeline thrown in, and mostly made for FPS type games. If your making a FPS great, if not, well not so great..

Even using 3rd party engines after a certain point you've done so much retrofitting and additions it might as well add up to writing your own and there is the issue of bug fixes and support from the original engine creators..

Jan Kubiczek
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id personally like to add that building your own engine can also diversify your prototypes. using a readybuilt engine its not very likely you stray far from the trodden path of existing paradigms.

Mathieu MarquisBolduc
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It doesnt make sense for small developpers, it hasnt for a long time. Also, we are in an area where content shines, not technology (just look at Skyrim...). Its no longer about the engine, its all about the tools. You want an engine that allows your content creators (level designers, mostly) to create top content very efficiently.

I shudder when I think that there are still people out there working on engines without a proper in-game editor & tool.

Shay Pierce
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I have pretty little understanding of the urge to build a new engine... every now and then the engineering part of my brain gets that itch, but given that every other part of my brain wants to actually make a game and finish it in a reasonable amount of time, that urge tends to go away pretty quickly.

Decide early what you like making: games, or wheels. Then admit it to yourself and focus on making that. (I choose games every time.)

Mikhail Mukin
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The problem with engines seem to be especially bad if you are developing for PS3/X360/PC, do not have money to buy Crytek/Unreal but want a fairly high performing engine with source code. To be honest, I simply do not know a good choice right now (?). Sometimes I almost wish a bunch of companies bundled together and bought Mercenaries2 engine (or Saboteur - does not matter much) from EA and released it as some kind of "subscriber-limited open source". Would not take too much to add good docs, fix some hacks etc. Of cause, those are just I know, I'm sure some other companies have other AAA level techs that are as good or better and not used any more.

It would be nice if Sony and Microsoft together promoted something like "open source" for PS3/PSP/X360, where developers could contribute parts of engines... Say, how many times I saw custom-made code for pak files? Table of offsets/sizes/map of file name hashes/"incremental" pak file to avoid re-paking of the whole thing when a few files changed. A tool chain to detect dependencies and re-build/re-pak what needs to be changed? Sounds familiar? Almost every non trivial console game have to have something like that... bigger companies do it "better", smaller companies hack together something that "half works" (like using file time stamps instead of proper dependencies etc)... and suffer...

Cost of developing a new "BIG" console - $ billion(s). Cost of getting together < 25 veteran developers and making decent engine "base" is well under < $ 10 mil (?). I understand that Sony has no intent to make things easier for MS and otherwise, but engine will be considered as "cheap" only if it supports both... And allowing developers to make better, more diverse games is in interests of both MS and Sony. Yeah, I guess I'm dreaming :) but nvidia and ATI agreed on supporting common DirectX and OpenGl...

Fast, hierarchical on screen profiling timers that works with threading? Good & fast memory reporting with file/line numbers/number of allocs/total alloc etc and csv dump? Even "minor" things like file opening functions that works for encrypted files, correctly takes application directory no matter if it is disk boot or HDD etc, handle and // and so on? Good container library that has non memory allocating (and not tree based) hash tables, invasive lists, static and dynamic arrays (this is pretty much all you will ever need if you want you game to be fast). There is a ton of those "little things" that a small company does not have time to do "right".

And for "lower priced"/free engines (Gamebryo, Phyre)... Some architectural decisions made there prevent them from becoming high performing AAA level engines. Every time I start reading about engine and see some generic tree based scene graph with some generalized "properties" or a shader system that searches almost every shader parameter by name and checks if it needs to set a ton of render states/streams/samplers before every DIP call or strings used all over the place and threading "not really used that much" - I already know that we will have to spend some long and frustrating time in the Tuner/xbperf fighting those sub optimal or "only theoretically good" decisions...

Working with smaller companies in the last few years was pretty frustrating in terms of technology (after EA). Yes, you need to focus on the game - but this is much easier to do when your engine can do 4000 draw calls and process 14000 particles w/o slowing down you main thread (30 fps)... when you could fire a couple of hundred delayed ray casts and know they will be handled on other thread... when your textures and VB/IB will be defragmented automatically, when streaming system will work in the background about as good as disk access allows, when you have nice small block pool allocator with good on screen "status" display and so on... heck - even easily customizable "per project" on screen debug menu...

Even AAA engines... Almost everybody I know who worked with Unreal3 source complained that code is often "spagetti" after so many years and the docs are not that great (and running Unreal3 on PS3 is... hard...). Crytek did not even work reliably on consoles a year ago...

And Unity is only finishing X360/PS3 support. Questions about performance.. let's say are still open...

Robert Green
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"The problem with engines seem to be especially bad if you are developing for PS3/X360/PC, do not have money to buy Crytek/Unreal but want a fairly high performing engine with source code."

Well yeah, but that's simply due to the size/complexity of modern game engines and how much it costs to make a game look that good. To put it bluntly, if you don't have the money to license one of those engines, then you probably don't have the money to make a game that looks as good as those games do and should probably stop trying. Instead, you should be thinking about how a studio that can't afford a top-level game engine is going to make its product stand out for reasons beyond polygon count and threading efficiency.

PSN and XBLA are full of games that exemplify this attitude. See: Limbo, Flower, 'Splosion Man, Echochrome, etc.

Robert Green
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Sure you only need to 'build' the engine once, but in practice you'll probably end up rebuilding half of it every time anyway, and Mikhail was talking about someone looking to build the first game from scratch, so if they don't have the money up-front to buy a game engine, then they almost certainly can't afford to invest in building an engine of similar quality, regardless of the long-term benefits.

DICE is a great example, both because they did use Unreal for a while, and probably could only afford to build their new engine with money invested by EA on the basis they'd be able to use it for other games.

QEDPaul mQed
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Excellent article, thank you. From my own experience, I've had 24 years of writing my own engines, each time it seemed the only way to get exactly what I needed. All that changed six months ago when I discovered Unity. It did most of what I needed out of the tin and allows you to change enough of it to get it how I need it. For me this is a bit of a shock as I too love building engines, now I write and design games and tools instead. The amount of time it has saved is great. Even a couple of years back I don't think the middle ware tools were good enough for total cross platform support, but now I think they are near enough to give them a go. (You can follow my exploits on twitter @QEDPaul)

Jeremy Reaban
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Of course, one danger is that games using the same engine can share the same graphical look and flaws. UE3 is notorious for this. Not all UE3 games look the same, obviously, but it takes some work for them to look different.

Majd Abdulqadir
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Yeah, UE is one of the most recognizable game engines out there, and not in a good way. I don't know if it's a design choice or an engine limitation but almost all Unreal Engine game characters have that weird "bulky" look, with plastic-like shading.

Also DICE's FrostByte 2.0 has a unique over-bright look, which is prominent in all the latest games made with it (BF3, NFS:TR, and the new C&C).

Harry Fields
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One definite benefit of in-house tech, tool and pipeline building is that it ultimately strengthens lower level engineers. The more exposure they're forced to have to core engine and resource code, the more it will make sense to them. Is your talent a resource or an investment? --

Buck Hammerstein
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great article and one that brings lots of solid comments. one can see how beneficial licensing engines can be for smaller firms and how great it is to focus on the game and the gaming experience rather than the tech.

this can happen to big companies as well... look at Rage. id spent some serious coin on that dev and it lacked, what many believe to be, solid gameplay. also, in the time it took to develop, it was eclipsed by other games that beat it at the "graphics are pretty" scorecard. then there's the money mass effect 3 will make running on an old engine... it seems the engine isn't as important as it was before. now all the game look pretty good and physics are realistic. now if only i can do something fun in this world that's been created.

Jane Castle
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Both having an inhouse engine as well as licensing one have their pluses and minuses. It isn't a clear cut path and is dependent on the company, the game being made as well as the employees. To anyone that thinks that licensing an engine is a clear cut path and is all roses and candy canes, I have one word for you: RENDERWARE. Anyone who was on the short stick when they were bought out knows what I am talking about.

Yossarian King
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that particular stick had two short ends :-p

Robert Green
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One of the things that may have been overlooked in this discussion is that a codebase is often treated as an asset by a software developer. If you're licensing an engine for your games, and especially if you're making games that you don't own the IP for, then when those games are done, the only thing the company owns is its staff, who can (and will) move on in time. Especially if you're just scraping by project to project.

For that kind of company, it's very tempting for management to think that by building their own engine, they'll have an asset that's grows in value over multiple projects. Think of it as investing in property instead of renting. You might be spending more money than necessary and drawing focus away from other things, but at the end of the process you own something.

Of course that's an idealistic view that I'm not actually supporting, just putting it out there as a potential reason why developers (or those in charge of them) might value creating an engine. I think over the last few years that attitude has been changing though, as people realise that the amount its going to cost them to make something competitive with the best games out there just isn't worth it, and as such, the value of that codebase you spent 10 years creating isn't that great after all. Especially when you end up rewriting half of it every project anyway.

Mikhail Mukin
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" To put it bluntly, if you don't have the money to license one of those engines, then you probably don't have the money to make a game that looks as good as those games do and should probably stop trying."

I would not quite agree... Of cause, there are games where creative vision allows for "simple world". This is great. But a lot of games still need "reasonably complicated" world. The budgets for $10 - $15 games that I saw are ~ $1 mil. You can do/outsource quite a bit of art and you can compose a lot of encounters with this - assuming you have solid, fast, easy to use basic engine running, assuming your game editor will not choke (or become hard to edit mess) after you put just a few hundreds objects in it, assuming the technology is structured so that it is easy to share asset development etc.

From what I knew (did not check recently though), using a couple of AAA engines with source code was too expensive for $1 mil titles, and using cheaper engines... well - resulted in quite a lot of engineering work. To make it worse, this engineering work (to make various utilities, fix order of operations within frame, handle performance issues with collision and graphics due to the fact that most of the engines were overusing just "the main thread") had to happen right when engineering team needed to work on what would make this game different, on supporting game specific AI behavior, weapons, editor enhancements etc...

I assume things like linux or open office etc are more complicated compared to a typical PSN game... but there is whole "open source thing" from where you can grab it and use it. For console games - not so much... It just becomes more and more annoying to see a feature being implemented in your game - when you know it was implemented dozens of times by different companies...

You want free source control - you have SVN (not as good as P4 - but "good enough"). You want decent free 2D graphics editor - you have it. You want free web server - you have it... But you want free "reasonable" game framework for consoles - you are out of luck. There are hundreds of engines and developers each following their own agenda - but most just "not worth looking".

PS. when I was talking about Phyre - I was talking about 2.7, I did not look into 3.1+ yet... I was told it is better... well - no X360 support...

Jonathan Withey
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Really well written article and i definitely agree, with caveats.

A big benefit, as you point out, is having some of the tools and work processes from day one. Although, unless your game is super-generic or simple, you'll have to make custom tools for lots of design features.

It's worth considering to what extent you need to customise the engine - you refer to this with your "Need For Speed : The Run" anecdote. However, even with the commercial engines, they can still be chalk and cheese regarding the performance and tools needs of you particular game proposal.

Also, when it comes to optimise and fix nasty low-level issues, nobody in your company will know where to start because you didn't develop the engine. You will have to rely on the generosity of forums and the quality of support from the engine developer (e.g. do they provide hot-fixes / patches or do you have to wait for a new version ?). If you can build the whole thing from source and you have suitably adventurous programmers, this is an advantage.

Sergio Juarez
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Great article, I agree with a lot of the points the writter provided. The focus should be making games unique, not making everything under the hood shiny.

Cartrell Hampton
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I like _both_, writing the game engine, _and_ designing the game. As a 2D, single-player, Flash game developer, I know there are engines out there like Flixel and Flashpunk, and those engines are great, but end the end, I'd rather write my own.

A well-designed engine should be independent of the actual game, and handle all the low-level, boiler-plate code (or at least what one may consider boiler-plate) as needed. Thus, the developer can then focus on the high-level game code. Nothing wrong with wanting to have a great game, and all the intricate, low-level details under the hood flowing just the way you want them.


- Ziro out.