Twelve months ago, when we last took a birds-eye look at the game engine market, the focus was very much smoothing out the pains of cross-platform development. Epic was focusing all of its efforts on the PS3 version of UE3, while Emergent was crowing about its multi-core friendly Floodgate technology.
One year on and the situation is a little different, both inside the market and externally. Developers across the world have downsized, but the public’s appetite for games remains as fierce as it ever was. Those left behind at streamlined studios still have to deliver envelope-pushing games with smaller teams and tighter budgets, and many of those cast aside need to regroup and strike out on their own. Now everyone needs nimble, flexible, rapid game engines.
“Developers, designers and engineers are all full of game ideas and innovations that are just waiting for a chance to be expressed,” says Emergent’s Geoffrey Selzer, whose new product Gamebryo Lightspeed is geared towards rapid prototyping.
“Particularly in these difficult economic times, it’s important to get your ideas in front of potential publishers or investors as soon as you possibly can. Solutions that enable game designers to get projects up and running quickly, and those that provide a flexible solution for getting their creative ideas put in front of publishers faster – so they in turn can get to funding faster – are going to be fundamentally necessary. Development teams will be refocusing energy on creating unique, immersive gameplay and finding new ways to entertain audiences, coupled with a need to reduce development and budget risk.”
Each of the 10 engines featured in this month’s round-up (starting over the page) has, in its latest release, improved its toolset to enable rapid iteration (if it wasn’t using that as its USP anyway). Gone are the days of twiddling your thumbs waiting for the latest build to tick along and then almost inevitably fail; now designers, artists and programmers can instantly change object placement, parameters and even whole scripts without requiring a recompilation.
Another growth sector has been in those targeting mobile platforms – specifically the iPhone – and web browsers. “These two sectors are still just in their infancy, and have fantastic growth potential,” says GarageGames’ Brett Seyler.
“Obviously iPhone stuff is very big right now, but new mobile platforms are likely to emerge, and they won’t be easy to develop games for. Companies like Zynga and Playfish are doing great with just Flash technology for games on Facebook. The industry is just starting taking note of this space, but the potential is pretty limitless.”
Mainly, it’s the more indie-focused engines that are exploring this area – Unity and GarageGames’ Torque 3D are the only two engines with built-in support for running through browsers and the iPhone – but the opportunity for growth in this sector is strong, especially as potential rivals to the now-ubiquitous Flash.
“These new technologies are the strongest and fastest growing business models,” says Unity CEO David Helgasson. “And that’s what we’ve geared Unity towards.”
In that regard, it makes sense that those middleware firms targeting indies and small developers are the ones to address the opening possibilities of in-browser and iPhone digital distribution, given that their customers will need access to distribution models with low barriers to entry.
Ask middleware companies how they’re faring in the recession and you know the answer already. But, the reasoning is strong: the technological backbone required for next-gen development is still as precariously high as it’s ever been for start-ups, but attempting to find a publisher that’ll bankroll you for a year while you get up to scratch is much more unlikely. “Teams should choose to use a game engine because the technology and service deliver what they need to make the best game possible,” explains Carl Jones, CryEngine’s director global business development.
“This rule applies in any economic circumstances; but clearly using a third party engine will save you a technology investment to maintain a competitive quality in your game and reduce the development risk significantly.”
But rather than remaining buoyant, some are going as far as to say that the economic downturn is actually a blessing for middleware companies.
US developer Terminal Reality has gone as far as to launch a brand new competitor into the engine ring – the Infernal Engine, which powers the firm’s eagerly-anticipated Ghostbusters game – at a time when many are scaling back their ambitions. “The current turmoil in the video games industry is actually going to drive engine middleware sales,” asserts Joe Kreiner, the firm’s VP of marketing. “We’re seeing lots of layoffs and companies going out of business. As these people reform into new studios, they’ll be more inclined to use engine middleware, rather than try and re-create technology mid-way through the console cycle.
Overall demand for video games is still strong, and games need to be created to meet that demand.”
GarageGames’ Brett Seyler agrees, but warns that studios need to make sure that the price is right.
“I would definitely look at licensing technology in this environment, but I’d be pushing harder for flexible payment terms and bigger price breaks. The build vs. buy question doesn’t even merit discussion for most platforms until you’re at least a couple of hundred people,” he adds.
“When we made the decision to develop Torque internally, there was nothing like it below several hundred thousand dollars. Now there’s competition and better options for developers on a budget. I don’t think there’s ever been a better time to license engine technology than today.”