I remember when I was a doe eyed teenager thinking that it would be great to make games (I know better now, of course) if I could only afford the fees to get a good engine. You see back then commercial engines were licensed for inordinate sums of money and the technical hurdle of building your own engine was fraught with danger. Over time though that has changed with old engines being open sourced, new products entering the fray and licensing models shifting to be more palatable to those who might not be able to afford huge upfront costs. Today it seems that free is now the way to go as 3 major platforms have just announced that their engines are free for all who want them, opening up a wealth of possibilities to indies and big development houses alike.
Unity has been the mainstay of many indie games for quite a while now, enabling many to create games that would’ve otherwise been impossible. They’ve also long been sympathetic to the cause, offering free (but often cut down) versions of their engine to anyone who’d ask for them. The difference between the free and paid tier has been eroded completely with both versions containing all the same features and editor. This is a big step for Unity as there was a definite rift between the paid and free versions, something that was abundantly clear to me when I was tinkering around with it. Now the difference between the tiers comes in the form of additional services and can be had for a measly $1500 (which includes a team license) or $75/month if that’s too rich for your blood. Suffice to say that I think Unity is likely to remain the king of indie engines for a long time now as even the pro tier is well within the grasp of aspiring devs.
Not to be outdone by Unity Unreal announced on the same day that their new Unreal 4 engine, which has had some incredibly impressive demos, is now free to any and all comers.The barrier to entry wasn’t particularly high before, they only charged $19 to get access to the engine and all its source, however that’s enough to stop some people from considering it in the first place. Now you’ll be able to get it everything that program gave you for free and you won’t have to pay a dime until you’re able. The limit on revenue isn’t particularly high though, only $3000 per product per quarter, before you have to shell out 5% of gross revenue something which could be a killer for some devs. Still it’s hard to deny what the engine is capable of producing so it might be an easier sell for more established dev houses.
Lastly Valve has swaggered into the picture debuting their new Source 2 engine and announcing that it will also be free to anyone who wants it. It’s been not-so-secretly released as part of the DOTA 2 development tools for the better part of a year now and by all accounts seems like a really capable next-gen engine. Source 2 appears to be the most “free” of the free engines that have debuted in the past couple days with Valve wanting no money up front for the engine nor any backend revenue should you make it big. However there is the caveat that the resulting game be released on Steam which means all sales on there give Valve their 30% cut although you’d incur this same cost regardless of which engine you used if you sold on Steam. Source 2 is then something of a loss-leader for future sales, a clever move by Valve to bring more developers onto their platform (as if there wasn’t enough already).
With this many options available now developers are now spoiled for choice when it comes to selecting an engine for a game, something you really couldn’t say even a few years ago. Whilst I think Unreal will probably be the least likely one to be used out of the current 3 I think there’s going to be some stiff competition between Unity and Source 2 as time goes on. Unity has the head start in this regard as their tools really are top notch for both novice and advanced developers alike but Source 2 has the potential to turn into something amazing based on the community that Valve seems to develop around every one of its products. The real winner in all of this is us, the gaming public, as it means more games will get made and more concepts will be explored.