Game development: To Engine Or Not To Engine

Since I started scanning the posts tagged with “Game Development” on WordPress, I’ve noticed a great deal of talk about game engines, in particular Unity and UE4. Although I knew such engines existed for some time now, I was a bit surprised how frequent they are used, and how even games created by a single developer were using these.

So I’ve been thinking a bit more about game engines and decided to do a post on them. To start with, what are the reasons and pros/cons to using one?

Though I mentioned two 3D Engines above, there is really a continuum of choices for game developers, with increasing reliance on other’s code and less on their own. I’ll list some options out, very roughly:

  • Assembly-language code  [all code]
  • Low-level programming language (C, C++, etc.)
  • Higher level programming language (Basic, etc.)
  • Some programming language along with an engine (Unity, EU4, etc.)
  • Game-development tool with simple scripting or visual-based logic blocks (RPG Maker, Game Maker, etc.)  [no or very little code]

Generally speaking, the farther down on this list you go, the less time you have to spend on coding as many things are already done for you, or can be done with a few clicks or a simple script. In exchange, you have more limitations on the types of games you can create, including graphics, gameplay, and other elements. If ten people create a game with RPG Maker, there are likely to be many similarities between these games, whereas if these games were made “from scratch” in a low-level language, they would probably have much greater diversity.

There was a time when I looked at those using RPG Maker and the like with disdain, thinking “those people aren’t really developing games!”. But after some thought, I now realize that their choice to use such a tool frees up their time to focus more on game elements, like story, gameplay, and balance. While it’s true that someone making games is less likely to “make it big” by selling their game to a large audience, I’m still very far from that goal myself and surely, the joy of the act of game making itself, plus the pleasure of having others play your game are too important aspects to game creation. [As a side point, as a career building skill I still highly recommend learning some commonly used programming language, such as C++ or Objective-C]

For me, I learned to program around the same time I was introduced to computer games, and programming itself is a very enjoyable activity. Just writing code, tweaking it, and seeing the results can be fun, though it depends somewhat on what the program is doing and how tedious the code writing is. Because of this, sometimes I can end up spending a great deal of time on tweaking certain parts of code, and not necessarily focusing that much on the “game-making” aspect. In any case, I consider myself much more familiar with programming than game-making per se, and have much more to learn with the latter.

Having said that, regardless of your experience level you can choose any of the above options, given you have enough time. So which do you pick and why?

First off, for 3D I think you pretty much are forced to use an engine, whether it’s Unity or something else. Back in the day when 3D rendering was a much less mature technology, it might be possible to calculate your own 3D-to-2D mapping and maybe even apply simple textures (think of the classic film Tron to get an idea of what I mean). But now with advanced lighting, textures, animation, and so many other things to worry about it’s nearly impossible to do all this yourself. I knew a guy once whose hobby used to be creating graphics engines for fun, but ironically he never really did much with them, since the engine itself was the end product. Unless you have a pretty large team you’re not going to get by with creating your own engine and consuming it.

My knowledge of tools like Game Maker is limited, but I’m pretty sure most of those are 2D only, so wouldn’t apply to making 3D games. If you want to focus more on level development and don’t mind little to no control over the gameplay, you can always use something like Minecraft or Blocksworld.

For 2D games, I think you have a little more wiggle room since it’s much more feasible to write your own code to do things like display a grid of tiles and scroll them. This is what I choose to do for my first iOS game, as well as the one I am currently working on. I considered playing around with something like Unity which has support for 2D games as well, but due to concerns about the learning curve I ended up not using it. From the little research I’ve done, it seems that one of the reasons to use something like Unity is for it’s level editor, which is something you really don’t want to make yourself. Also, you would have to worry less about performance of animations and scrolling since the engine would take care of those for you. Given the opportunity, I’d still like to play with Unity sometime, however.

In the end, I think we all want to be able to say “I wrote a great game”, as opposed to “I wrote a great program”. And as long as we can customize the end result to our liking, the player shouldn’t really care what technology or set of tools was used.

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6 thoughts on “Game development: To Engine Or Not To Engine

  1. GameMaker has some 3D support–I think it can use 3D models but really doesn’t like doing it. For a side scroller or isometric it wouldn’t be bad (at least from what I saw the last time I researched it).

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  2. I’m more of a programmer based on experience and have much to learn about game development too. Hoping to start working on my first game soon, based on a local comic book, and release it on Google Play before the end of this year, it would be easiest for me to start with Java, which is what I’m most familiar with unfortunately.

    Though I’d like to really get started with Unity, there’s already cross-platform game dev framework in Java that meets these exact requirements. I guess for me the choice depends on several other things like time and resource constraints aside from the capabilities of available tools.

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    • Nothing wrong with Java, it’s still a pretty popular language in many areas. The only reason I can see to learn Unity over a smaller, less-known framework (assuming functionality is similar) would be just if you wanted to move into professional game development, since Unity skills would probably be in high demand there.

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