It’s remarkable to think that as recently as the 1990s, computer games were sold on cassette tapes and written in hackable languages like BASIC. Today’s games have transformed into immersive and interactive motion pictures, with development budgets for titles in the Metal Gear Solid and Grand Theft Auto franchises surpassing $100 million. Remarkably, 2011’s Star Wars: The Old Republic is estimated to have cost Electronic Arts as much to produce as Lucasfilm paid to make the film Rogue One.
When a single computer game devours a $200 million development budget (not including marketing and distribution costs), it’s clear that smaller developers have a problem. Even if they’re not trying to create an open-galaxy MMORPG experience to rival EA’s franchised budget-buster, simply developing a useable framework could bankrupt them. It’s easy to appreciate, therefore, why the Unreal Engine has been such a boon to indie developers. Created by Epic Games, it’s already supported the creation of hundreds of titles, from Goat Simulator and Alone in the Dark to Tekken 7 and Gears of War 4.
The WordPress of Gaming
Like some of its famous products, the Unreal Engine is now in its fourth generation. This Windows-powered game engine can be used to create everything from cinematics to level design. Common templates can be fully customised, from side-scroller platform engines to first or third-person shooters. The integral Blueprint visual scripting language removes the necessity for C++ programming, which means that artists and non-computing specialists can be let loose on virtual environments. With a basic knowledge of 3D modelling software like 3dsMax or Maya, anyone can create bespoke gameplay environments.
Democracy in Action
Perhaps the Unreal Engine’s greatest merit concerns the democratisation of game development. As well as supporting high-profile titles like those listed above, it’s been used to create indie games that might otherwise never have existed. Like the 8-bit programs of yesteryear, low-budget titles often take more risks in their approach and gameplay. After all, cinematic graphics don’t guarantee enjoyable gameplay. App Store titles like Angry Birds or Candy Crush Saga became wildly successful because of their simplicity and one-more-go addictiveness, despite having cartoonish graphics and linear progression paths.
Today’s games market is dominated by lavish sequels, where only minor variations are permitted on well-worn themes. In such a familiar environment, new ideas have great appeal to gamers. Some of the most intriguing titles of recent years have been developed by small teams, such as Player Unknown’s Battlegrounds. This quirky survival game has become the most played title on the Steam platform, with 800,000 participants at any given moment. Yet major houses like Sony or Square Enix probably wouldn’t have commissioned PUBG as it lacks the brand recognition required to drive sales in HMV or Game.
At the same time, it’s worth noting that Unreal Engine 4 isn’t the only platform of its type on the market. CRYENGINE prides itself on having a strong user community, while the HTML5-powered Construct2 is great for creating 2D games. Unity was used to build the aforementioned Angry Birds and the wildly successful Pokémon Go, with VR support and cross-platform integration. Some game engines can be used completely free of charge, whereas Unreal Engine imposes royalties of five per cent on profitable titles.
Other Unreal Engine drawbacks include random crashes and bugs from unresolved conflicts. Performance can be sluggish, and some users complain of a lack of tutorials and assistance. Nevertheless, as a method of creating a game without a degree in C++ or a warehouse full of coders, Unreal Engine remains ideal for companies whose budget runs to six or seven figures rather than nine…