New subscription models for two of the most powerful engines on the market tore down the walls of games development

2014: The year that unlocked the game engine

I was one of the many journalists and developers invited to Epic Games’ GDC press briefing back in March, in which it finally detailed and launched the hotly anticipated Unreal Engine 4.

Watching the screen intently as an Epic representative demonstrated the new editor, the Blueprints system, the speed at which he could build and customise a clone of Flappy Bird, I found myself thinking one thing: “Even I could use this.”

Powerful development tools are becoming more accessible – at least in terms of usability – all the time, but the barrier that prevents aspiring game creators from embracing such software has been price.

Epic Games announced that morning that its high-end game engine would be available to anyone for $19 per month. Not just a watered down version, either – the full works, including the source code. Everything used to make Epic’s own Gears of War series, not to mention countless best-selling games, available to all for less than your monthly phone bill.

Shortly after, Crytek went one better, announcing that its stunning CryEngine – the tech behind some of the most graphically impressive titles released to date – would be available for $10 per month. An absurdly low price.

It was a significant step-change for the world of games development. Free game engines were already available, but none with the power, scope and proven catalogue of titles as these two.

Creating a triple-A video game suddenly became feasible for not just smaller, independent developers, but anyone at all. Indeed, Epic Games co-founder Tim Sweeney told me at GDC he hoped that even Minecraft players, bored with rearranging voxel blocks, would try Unreal Engine for themselves.

The walls of game development had been torn down.

And, as Unity’s David Helgason observed, there’s no going back. Epic admitted the decision to make Unreal subscription-based was a permanent one, and Crytek would be hard pressed to up its $10 price point. But why would they want to?

Indie developers have long since become a significant part of today’s games industry, and their presence is only growing. The triple-A, publisher-owned landscape of studios continues to consolidate – not drastically so, but in the last year alone, we’ve seen the likes of Neversoft, Activision’s The Blast Furnace and Murdered: Soul Suspect dev Airtight Games close their doors, plus the shocking layoffs at BioShock studio Irrational Games.

Meanwhile, new studios appear all the time. For every big studio that closes, a handful of new ones emerge, each focusing on fewer, smaller titles. It is these developers that Unity has built its business around in recent years, making its own engine so affordable and accessible that it has become indies’ first choice when it comes to powering their game.

Is it any wonder that both Epic Games and Crytek, previously focused on the larger, triple-A studios, slashed their prices to appeal to this increasingly influential community of indie developers? Unity’s Helgason welcomed the competition, maintaining that his firm has been a key driver in lowering the price of engines – and, by extension, the barriers to entry.

The new subscription models have been embraced by studios the world over. Bethesda-owned devs Arkane and BattleCry have both adopted the CryEngine, as has Robotoki, the new studio by former Call of Duty dev Robert Bowling.

Meanwhile, Epic Games has had a great year, with the makers of virtual reality titles Eve Valkyrie and Loading Human both switching from Unity to Unreal Engine 4. Square Enix has converted Kingdom Hearts 3 to UE4, and even browser games firm InnoGames is using the tech to power its push into the mobile space.

What will be most interesting will be watching out for the bedroom coders that have signed up for these high-end engines. Sweeney’s hopes of players moving from Minecraft to Unreal is not entirely unfeasible, and Crytek is clearly hoping to attract consumers now that CryEngine is available on Steam.

And, of course, there is the upcoming Unity 5, an even more powerful version of the popular engine that will no doubt be welcomed by the swathes of established users.

With such comprehensive tech so readily available, we stand at the beginning of a new era: one in which absolutely anyone has the potential to create triple-A, high quality games with far lower budgets than ever before. There will be far more aspiring developers looking at the tools available and thinking: "Even I could use this."

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