Video Game engines are at the core of any video game development. They provide the tools the content creators will need to build the game the audience will enjoy. Engines also come with constraints, limitations that often drag games down or make further entries in a series a harder task.
We all know of the popular engines such as Unreal and Unity, but there are dozens out there we never hear of, as they are homebrewed creations by the developers, built from the ground up to serve the need for a specific game. It’s not unusual for developers to use these private engines once and then switch to a new original engine or adapt an existing one.
But there are also those who continue to use the same engine moving forward, improving upon their work, making the engines more robust and, wherever possible, correcting some of their limitations.
Last week I mentioned I was playing the Nancy Drew adventure games, and I still am, and even at game number 20 and counting, the engine remains the same, a homebrew by Her Interactive that is instantly familiar to avid players of the series but which has enough limitations on it that it draws heavy criticism from the same audience. Her Interactive announced last year they would switch to Unity moving forward, but naturally, this change would lead to a delay in the game’s release.
Over the course of the series, Her Interactive improved on the engine, fixing stiff animations, adding fluidity to movements in the first person, even allowing for top-down views of the map, but the limitations, particularly on character models, were always present.
As I read the news on the switch to Unity, I couldn’t help but wonder: is it worth to have homebrews when there are other engines available? Why would anyone build their own engine? Well, let’s see…
For that first question, while most major engines are now freely available, with licenses now depending on how many units your game sells, this wasn’t the case years ago where hefty license costs often drove developers to come up with their own engines, riding them for all they were worth until they were successful—and solvent—enough to afford one of the major engines.
Then there are the companies out there, like Blizzard Entertainment, which build all their games from the ground up, including the engine, because it works for them and allows them to tweak things to perfection. Having said so, not many have the Blizzard money or their release philosophy of “it’s done when it’s done!”
Blizzard is also an interesting case as there are few companies who’ve maintained an engine as much as they have the World of Warcraft engine, which they continue to work on to this day, despite numerous requests to abandon it in favour of something much more powerful and robust to bring World of Warcraft in line with current generations and beyond.
But with cases such as WoW you have to understand that changing the engine would be downright suicidal for the already weakening brand—which still boasts more payers than some countries have in population—as it would cost them that sector of the player base without high-end machines, one in which I find myself right now. You could also argue the same point for the developers of the Nancy Drew games, as the now forgotten engine allowed them to expand their player base without alienating any potential customers.
Then, lastly in the homebrew engine department, are those companies who have moved from proprietary engines to their own because of issues or disappointments. CD Projekt Red for example, built The Witcher by heavily modifying the Neverwinter Nights engine, which even then they felt was extremely rigid and didn’t offer designers and developers much freedom or even the proper tools, forcing them to take very creative approaches to things. It’s no surprise that when they began working on the sequel, they decided to build their own engine, one that would work just as they wanted it to.
But then, what about the rest? Those who have chosen a third-party engine over their own, why would they do it if it could potentially lead to frustration and time wasted? After all, not everyone has Blizzard or Nintendo’s ability to waste years of development in ‘experimentation’, and in fact, in our crowdfunding gaming culture, we’ve seen many games crash and burn just because the spent their funds doing exactly that.
In the end, the use of a third-party engine comes, in my opinion, for two main reasons:
The first is, of course, money. As I mentioned before, most engines now have post-game-release licenses and the price depends heavily on the success of the game, making it easy for developers to pick up full versions of the engines and create their games with what is essentially an IOU.
The second is support. If you create your engine from scratch, you have no one to complain to if something doesn’t work, and you have no resources other than your own internal development documents if you want to figure out how to do something. Third party engines have not only the support of their creators, sometimes for free and others for a small fee, but also that of their community. Take Unity for example, how many developers have found an issue, struggled with it to the point of ripping their hair out in frustration, only to take a swing at the forums and find the answer within minutes?
Third party engines are also a wonderful place to start. Much like CD PRojekt Red, which started with the Neverwinter Engine, many developers use third-party engines as their gate into the world of game development, using the tools to not only learn how to build their game but also learn how engines work, and as was the case with The Witcher’s developer, learn how to build their own.
To close this off, let me ask one last question. What about changing from one engine to another? How and when should developers do it?
I leave that question to you, but my view on it is that it depends on the money factor. Can you afford to spend the time creating your own engine, or are in such a tight position that you need to focus all energies on the content?
And if money is not an issue—first of all good one!—then are you prepared to extend development times and delay launches because you’re building your engine or learning how to use the new third-party one effectively? Constant delays have been known to kill off interest in games on the long run.
But in the end the question with engines is always: can you risk it?