Dominate. Create. /reboot. Game Engines Through Time

When video games first hit the arcade, developers built the game from the bottom up — structuring the kernel to fit the technology and specifications available at the time. They were constantly challenged to keep games within tight parameters as the technology battled to keep up with the demands of the software and the burgeoning gaming market.

The Original Game Engine

Then came the first person shooter (FPS) from the ilk of id Software. Doom and Quake from id Software and Unreal from Epic Games set the stage for the original concept of a ‘game engine’, creating a solid code structure which could be used as a framework. Instead of laboring over code in the kernel, game developers could now create games around the game engines, adding in their own variables for story, graphics, levels — basically all the assets the game needed to become playable.

The Unreal engine from Epic and the Quake engine from id Software were two of the most popular in the ’90s, and for a long time they set the standard as to how game engines evolved. They introduced the licensing model for game engines, so studios which wanted to create their own titles could just license the original engine frameworks from those who had already done all the hard (and excellent work).

Unreal and Quake (iD Tech) were the first of their kind, but today they are followed by a long and impressive list of game engines, such as CryEngine, which can be found on this exhaustive Wikipedia page. They have also been impacted in terms of development by the changes which have rippled across the gaming industry. The evolution of the casual gamer, mobile gaming and the arrival of the increasingly advanced console has seen software engine lose ground. In fact, a recent piece on Gamasutra by a well-known games developer goes into great detail as to how game engines have not received the attention they’ve needed over the past few years. Fortunately, change is, as they say, afoot.

Open Source Models of Today

Many of the game engines which have been paid for in the past have adopted a free open source model today — CryEngine and Unreal are free to use — and the market is seeing some new beasts taking charge while old stalwarts like iD Tech fall by the wayside. One of these is Unity, a game engine which has literally done the cliché: taken the market by storm. According to recent statistics on their website, Unity has 45% of the global market share with its closest competitor only raking in 17%. Another new contender is Stingray from Autodesk, a surprising new arrival in a market already dominated by big (cough) guns, but one which focuses on bringing an affordable game engine to the indie developer.

How Would You Rank Game Engines?

A survey by Develop 100 which ranks game engines and technology as voted for by the CTO puts Unreal Engine 4 in second place, followed by Unity in third place. And for those who want to create their own games without spending any money, there are now hundreds of free tools online. Many of them allow you to build a specific type of game with just an idea and a bit of time — the software does all the work for you. For developers and enthusiasts, this open availability and increased capability has allowed for more people to develop truly interesting games and ideas, taking some of the ground away from the traditional AAA titles. More people are playing games on more platforms and this demand is driving the market into new and exciting frontiers. Some of the game engines which are on minds and lips are now being used to create virtual and augmented reality video games and the gamer is just aching for the technology to hurry up and get here.

A Zingy Future? More Than Just Games

Whatever happens next, it looks like game engines and their development are rapidly bringing a fresh and brilliant zing to an industry which is always keen to try something new. Today game engines are being used far beyond the parameters of just fun and games (sorry), they are being used for military simulations, training, medical evaluations, mobile, web, console and wearable. It’s a smorgasbord of development magic out there and gamers need on sit back and wait in antici…pation.

Oh, and if you really want to see the difference a game engine makes, take a look at these videos which show how popular games look when played in different engines.

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