Develop asks why it’s entering the highly competitive space, and why developers should consider its new tech

A new game engine in town: Under the hood of Autodesk’s Stingray

In a market dominated by game engine giants Unity, CryEngine and Unreal Engine, it’s not often a new contender comes to the fore.

There’s numerous other tech, of course, for specific case-uses, from GameMaker and GameSalad to Construct, but now there’s a new major game engine in town, backed by one of the biggest tech companies in the industry.

Autodesk has entered the engine race with Stingray. Having long been a provider of tools like Beast, Maya LT and Scaleform, it’s now providing a platform to combine all of those together. The tech is built from the BitSquid engine the firm acquired in 2014.

Targeted mainly at ‘indie professionals’, it’s being made available on a subscription basis for £30 a month, or less depending on the duration of your package. The cost may be somewhat low compared to engines of old, but since Unity and Unreal Engine are offering their engines for free, it’s a bold choice to stick with a premium price for a new product. It should still be noted however that there is a free 30-day trial for developers looking to test it out first.

But there’s one particularly tantalising attraction for developers. For that same £30 a month, you’ll also get access to the full Maya LT. That’s on top of all its middleware products being made available free in the engine in binary form. Existing Maya LT subscribers are also getting Stingray for free.

“Included with Maya LT, it’s a really strong offering,” says Autodesk game solutions group senior director Frank DeLise, before saying of his rivals: “Free is still not quite free if you’re doing anything commercial. It’s either royalty or it’s got restrictions.”

Under the hood

Wesley Adams, who looks after product marketing at Autodesk, says Stingray has been created to be lightweight, yet powerful enough to provide high graphical fidelity, and also offer seamless integration with its expansive portfolio of tools.

The user interface of BitSquid has been written in HTML5, which Adams says provides unique advantages for flexibility. One of the biggest benefits perhaps is that the UI is completely disconnecting from the engine. Should the viewport crash, the engine will keep running. As DeLise puts it, this means developers can just hit the restart button and continue where they left off. “The engine doesn’t crash, in a sense,” he says.

Stingray also is also based on a data-driven, 64-bit architecture, which Adams says helps differentiate it in from other engines in a way that’s also appealing to developers.

“It means your renderer and the core technology of the engine are separate from your data sets,” explains Adams. “And this lets you access and make big, big changes to your engine just by looking at human readable layer in JSON files and then you can see the updates happen in near real-time to your engine in the editor.

“So this kind of design is really looking at: what is the future of making video games? And how can we make even drastic changes like this way, way easier? In my head that’s always the hardcore side of making changes to your game.”

The engine offers a number of features, including a node-based editor. This means instead of manually entering all the code, or even if the user has never touched code before, they can take ready-made nodes and drag and drop them in.

Flow nodes can also be created by scripting in Lua. If an extra node is required from a more experienced programmer, for example, they can code it, and send it across by just copying the code out of the editor and pasting it into an email. This can then be pasted back into another user’s editor to create the new node, which they can then carry on using.

Further features include physically-based rendering to produce high-level visuals, lightmap baking, its own reflection system and more.

“We’ve got that data-driven side that’s going to appeal more to your hardcore programmers that really want to get into the guts of the engine, and then we’re trying to make it friendlier at the other end too, so that more people can get into making games,” says Adams.

Pain-free compiling

Continuing with the firm’s goal of a forward-thinking game engine built on modern architecture, Autodesk wants to make the process of getting your game on your target platform easier.

“This is one of the most painful parts and can be one of the longest parts of making your game,” says Adams. “That whole crazy loop of compile your build, send it to the guy that’s going to put it on your target platform, they test it and they give you feedback. Honestly, it’s just painfully long.”

To this end, Stingray lets developers link the engine’s editor to the target device on which the game will run. As the developer is using the editor, they can see the device, such as an iPad, PS4 or Xbox One, keep up with what it’s being asked to do on-screen. Changes can then be made on the fly with the results shown in real-time on each of the platforms.

Each bit of content displayed on the target platform will be what has been specifically designed for that device. For example, when a material is created, it can be made for PC, iOS and Android. The different options for that same object is then what is shown on-screen. This can also be done for effects, LODs and other assets.

This is all done by downloading a special app for Stingray. The engine then connects to the app over wi-fi, and streams the content to the target platform. This can be done on multiple devices at once to see the changes on each, and also to platforms based in another country for a teammate to analyse.

“So suddenly, whether you’re an artist or gameplay designer, you can literally just go play the game, see how stuff looks, and then in-real time just go back and forth,” states Adams.

“You can be like ‘oh, this looks like garbage, I don’t want to have that here’, or ‘this jump is too high’, or ‘this mechanic doesn’t work right’. You can literally just go in, fix it, it updates right away in the engine and then sends it to your device as well. Then you can test it and keep going.”

Making waves

DeLise says the main target market for Stingray is what he calls ‘indie pros’. These are developers who have made a game before, or those who want to make a bigger game like an MMO.

He claims the likes of Unreal Engine and Unity can be “too much of a black box and not flexible enough” for the needs of some developers. However, it should be noted Epic Games has gone to great lengths to make its source code freely available with Unreal Engine 4, while Unity is widely known for its accessibility and ethos to democratise game development. But he says it’s also for those after a new data-driven architecture with
their engine.

“The biggest thing is, if you look at Unreal, it does have super high quality visuals, that’s its strong point, but the black box nature of both those engines have been limiting in the sense for indie professionals,” says DeLise.

“It’s for people who want to get to that next level or expand, make an MMO, or do games that really stress the system. Stingray doesn’t make as many choices for you in the sense of what kind of game it is, it’s much more open that way. That’s what we think is really its strong point.”

He adds: “I like to say it has the visual quality of Unreal, the ease of use of Unity and a flexibility of no other.”

DeLise goes on to say the reason Autodesk got into the game engine space in the first place was because of the convergence of real-time technology across all industries, not just games, and it’s a key part of the company’s future. He concludes with a sign of where game engines may ultimately be heading – requiring as little code as possible and being accessible to everyone.

“I think today it’s about these big game engines,” he states. “But tomorrow it’s going to be press play.”

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