Competition in the game engine space is heating up.
GDC saw significant announcements from Unity and Epic. Unreal Engine 4 has gone free – plus a five per cent royalty fee on gross revenue – while Unity has revamped its Free and Pro packages.
Developers can now get access to the entire Unity 5 engine for free with the Personal addition, while the $75 per month Professional package, a price that has stayed consistant from Unity 4, now offers new Cloud services, analytics and performance reporting.
Valve is also set to make its own waves in the space with the completely free Source 2 engine, available to both developers and players interested in creating content for their favourite games. Meanwhile Autodesk teased plans for its new Stingray engine.
Despite the tech giant’s roster of tools, it will be hard pushed to charge a significant fee for Stingray, given the low-priced nature of its fierce competitors in the space.
And let’s not to forget the plethora of other excellent game engines available to developers (We'll be profiling more this week).
Set them free
Moves by the engine giants paint a picture of an industry that, affected by the indie revolution years back, have almost been forced to lower their prices to ensure they aren’t missing out on the millions of devs out there looking for the right tools.
In Epic’s case, though last year’s turn to a subscription model saw the community grow by a factor of 25, money up-front still proved to be a hurdle for some.
“Just the effort of having to enter a credit card into a website is a barrier for people nowadays,” said Epic CEO Tim Sweeney. “There is so much great stuff available that doesn’t have any barrier to entry at all. We met a large number of people who just hadn’t jumped in yet because of the paywall associated with it. In restrospect, I see exactly where they are coming from.”
Sweeney added that having so many tools available for free is liberating for developers, who can download them at a click of a button on their computer to test them out.
“It’s a great business model. It’s great for users and it’s great for developers,” he continued. “It means that anybody can try anything and then choose the best among all the options. It’s a much superior model I think. Especially with commercial software, having to go and pay usually hundreds of dollars to buy a 3D package and then potentially realise you bought the wrong one.”
Unity has long been available for free, but with Epic moving to a free base model and CryEngine adopting a low subscription fee last year, does this mean Unity has lost its unique selling point in the market? Not so, says a feisty John Riccitiello, the firm’s new CEO.
“No one makes the complete package we do, not even close,” he said. “What Unity allows, and the ease of use of Unity to build content on multiple platforms of the high quality we allow users or developers to do, is really unmatched out there.
“I also don’t think that a royalty model is particularly democratic. If someone achieves significant success, it ends up being a ridiculous axe on success. And we’re really not about being a cap on success.”
How low can they go?
A race to the bottom seems apparent then in th e game engine space. The healthy competition between fierce rivals after the largest slice of the pie has driven down prices – as clearly have industry shifts toward independent development.
But if you speak to Sweeney or Riccitiello, there’s no race occurring. Both are adamant they are setting out their own paths that will ultimately lead to better tools for developers.
Free means that anybody can try anything and then choose the best among all the options.
Tim Sweeney, Epic Games
“I certainly don’t see it,” said Sweeney of a race to the bottom. “I think what you’ll see is developers able to try everything, choose the best technology for them, and ship games that are better, significantly better than what they would have been able to create with what was readily available just a few years ago.
“All along during this time there have been some open source engines you can go and download for free. Now everything is available for free. I don’t think it’s a race to the bottom; what we’re seeing now is games development going mainstream.”
Riccitiello said Unity’s ‘race’ “involves a 12-year commitment to solving partner problems so developers don’t have to”, and one that it is spending tens of millions a year to achieve.
“If others are doing that [racing to the bottom] they will at some point be unable to make the investments they need to make to actually make a worthy product,” he said.
In defence of paid
One firm that isn’t offering its engine for free, yet at least, is Crytek. It introduced a subscription fee for CryEngine last year, but that’s as far it’s willing to go, co-founder Faruk Yerli told Develop.
He explained that while the firm still maintained a segment for those triple-A developers after a different kind of licence, the subscription package was for indies looking for solid techn but perhaps do not need access to the source code. It’s a deal Yerli feels is fair and is reluctant to alter the model.
“Royalties for us were an issue,” he said. “Because we don’t want to ask a small developer to share your profit with us. If you make one game successful and you want to make a bigger one next time, then let’s talk about that game, we don’t want to milk your first one, it’s fully yours.”
But where does that leave Crytek in the market now? Can CryEngine compete when so many other options are available to use freely, or at least try at no cost? Yerli explained how Crytek sees the industry, in terms of the type of developers there are.
“With CryEngine, Crytek is going to the high-end,” he explained. “There is a low-end, mid-end and a high-end, when you classify good tech. Unity wants the low-end part.
He added: “Unreal is coming from, I would say, mid-end to high-end. But they also want to do the low-end. Which I would say is a bit tricky. But if you have a certain success you can do it, it’s not impossible.”
One brave new company entering the 3D game engine space is tech giant Autodesk, which already develops a swathe of tools under its Gameware label such as Scaleform, HumanIK, Beast, Navigation and other useful software including Maya and 3ds Max
Called Stingray and built on the BitSquid engine acquired in June last year, the firm’s product marketing expert Wesley Adams said the firm aims to build a tool that will “drastically improve the way 3D games are made”. But Autodesk will be hard pressed to charge a high fee for it.
When asked for his opinion on the lowering of prices from the top engine makers – he was not yet prepared to disclose potential licensing options for Stingray – Adams said the moves weren’t necessarily good or bad, but just reflected a need to change the way tools are purchased by developers.
“For example, at Autodesk, we created low cost monthly subscription plans for Maya LT,” he said.
“That was new for the 3D industry at the time, but today is standard. And subscription models are how the vast majority of indies use Maya LT. Changes like this are great because it makes it easier for more creative people to get into game-making.”
The industry’s top engine providers are all confident that moving to lower-entry pricing models is the best option for both them and developers. For creators, it’s one of the best eras ever to be making games, no doubt, but tools firms will need to make sure they remain competitive with the fierce and extremely competent rivals. There’s no going back.
Main image credit: ©2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc.
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