The best engines for making games
Whether you’re looking to start up as an indie developer and need an intuitive and user-friendly experience to suit a variety of different projects, or you’re a triple-A developer needing a set of robust and powerful in-house tools for a particular title, game engines are the powerhouses that crunch numbers so you can play your favourite games in real-time, and at exceptional quality.
Starting as humble pieces of software, and then evolving to support the first 3D accelerated cards (graphics cards) such as 3DFX’s Voodoo series, here is a list commemorating significant advances in gaming tech, for both their accessibility for indies, and their technological prowess, showcasing the best gaming had to offer for their respective era.
Noteworthy titles: Arma 2, Arma 3, DayZ
The scale the engine can achieve, with accurate ballistics and physics models is outstanding. Bullets penetrate materials realistically and emerge from the other side with re-angled projectories and velocities.
Whilst the engine does have its quirks and slightly odd animation snapping, the engine serves as a reminder of what the PC platform can achieve with engines specifically designed for it. A great simulation engine that pushes for realism in lieu of gameplay, Real Virtuality has the accuracy and power to pull it all off, whilst still allowing for user-generated content/mods to be easy to develop.
RPG Maker Series
Noteworthy titles: Corpse Party, One Night, The Witch’s House
Whilst the RPG Maker series of engines have earned a reputation for low quality JRPG clones and fan projects, that stands only as testament to how easy the engine is to use. If you’ve ever wanted to make your own JRPG in the style of games like Final Fantasy on the NES/SNES, or other popular 2D JRPGs of those consoles/eras, then there’s enough simplicity for you to use stock assets and finish a small project over a weekend, and enough complexity with the inclusion of Ruby as a programming language.
The versions change over time, and depending on what project you envision, each version of the engine is different and meets different needs out of the box. If you can modify it yourself though, the possibilities are not just restricted to the genre (as we saw in the brilliant To The Moon).
Noteworthy titles: Undertale, Hotline Miami
Whilst built mainly for the production of 2D games, the engine does have enough horsepower for users to accomplish quite a bit more with GameMaker. Selling itself based on its easy to use drag ‘n’ drop method of visual scripting, anyone can make a basic game using GameMaker by following on of many online tutorials – both official and community written.
If you have an idea for a 2D game, and lack the skills of programming, GameMaker should be your first stop. It also has its own coding language called Game Maker Language (GML), which allows those wishing for more advanced games to not be restricted by the drag ‘n’ drop interface, and achieve a more complex project.
RAGE a.k.a Rockstar Advanced Game Engine
Noteworthy titles: GTA IV, GTA V, Red Dead Redemption
If id Tech 1 is an indication of where things really kicked off, then RAGE is a symbol for where we’ve come in recent years. Being able to cope with the stresses that a system like GTA: Online brings in its challenges to operate, as well as the other aspects of high quality gameplay Rockstar push themselves continuously to deliver, the GTA franchise has become a sandbox of play for everyone, purely because of the engine’s capabilities.
The complexity of physics, motion capture, dynamic animations, and a plethora of other advanced game engine techniques, mean that Rockstar holds one of the industry’s most advanced and capable game engines. Even going so far as to allow people to create movies using the engine and its built in-editor, RAGE makes a strong case for being one of the most varied and kitted-out tools for game development out there.
Noteworthy titles: Metal Gear Solid V, Pro Evolution Soccer
Hideo Kojima’s team reminded us of the potential that video game engines have to tell cinematic stories in a manner which easily rivals Hollywood in its own way.
Making the leap into physically-based rendering (materials on objects which convey real world properties such as metalness, roughness, etc.), the Metal Gear franchise has never looked so good. A true multi-platform engine that pulls no punches, the Fox Engine even found some use to run the Pro Evolution Soccer series for Konami.
Noteworthy titles: Skyrim, Fallout 4
The inception of the Creation Engine has meant that Bethesda’s open worlds now look lusher and more immersive than ever. What really made the engine stand out though was its ability to be modded with user-created content.
Whilst this was a feature of previous engines used for the Elder Scrolls, the Creation engine made it far simpler to create your own content, and was one of the first games to allow users to upload their creations to the Steam Workshop. This changed the way modders and independant game creators published their content, and gave gamers a far simpler way to install and digest that content.
id Tech Engine
Noteworthy titles: Doom, Doom 3, Rage, Quake
This is where it all started. id Tech would power some of the first few popular games that would use hardware acceleration 3D graphics cards, as well as push boundaries on what could be achieved on a platform. From bringing the renowned Doom into existence on DOS, to melting eyeballs with Doom 3 (as well as a brilliant port to the original Xbox), id Tech has been one of the most important engines in the industry’s history.
A noteworthy development was their successful Megatexture technology, which allowed one massive 32k x 32k texture to be placed across an entire level, meaning every piece of every surface can be painted with unique details as opposed to recycling the same texture map over and over in repetition.
Noteworthy titles: Half Life 2, Left 4 Dead, Counter Strike, Portal, Titanfall, The Stanley Parable
Valve not only created one of the most advanced game engine for its time with real-time physics and material rendering being a focal point for developers, but they also created a great selection of tools for users to create their own games and mods. When you think of PC gaming and modding, you’ll most likely hear the Source Engine referred to as the go-to-place for any budding modder. Level creation, custom characters and weapons, everything is neatly organised so that you can usually insert any custom asset into an existing source game, or make your own should you choose to. With games such as Garry’s Mod giving players a creative toolset to mess around with, there are many examples of great Source mods which went on to accomplish great things.
Noteworthy titles: Thomas Was Alone, The Forest, Fallout Shelter, Kerbal Space Program, Mobius Final Fantasy, Pokemon GO, Firewatch
Known for democratising game development, Unity 3D gave high quality 3D game development to the masses. Advertised as a complete game engine that was easy to use, the engine featured many features that even some AAA developers had in their multi-million £ engines. It was around Unity 4.x that things got interesting, and Unity 5.x is one of the most graphically impressive and controllable game engines on the market currently. Not only offering a free version, there are scaling subscription plans which mean anyone can get involved at any level, whether hobbyist, indie, or AAA.
Unity’s strength lies in how much control it offers, and how open it is for developing any sort of game, as well as achieving visuals rivaling most AAA studios, all bar one…
Noteworthy titles: Gears of War 4, Abzu, Batman: Arkham series – and thousands of others
… being the Unreal Engine. The Unreal Engine has powered most popular games of the last two decades. Take a favourite game of yours anywhere from the late 1990s up until the present time of writing, and there’s an incredibly high chance it was produced in a variant of Unreal Engine. Unreal Engine 3 powered a large amount of popular Xbox 360 and PS3 titles, being the licensed engine of choice for AAA developers at the time. The Unreal Engine 3 was the unmatched powerhouse that could scale on demand, and stream high quality assets dynamically which allowed for essential things such as streaming mip-map textures (why you see textures popping in a lot of the games of the last generation), lightmass baked lighting (bounced lighting, colour bleeding, radiosity etc.) as well as much, much more.
The latest iteration of Unreal Engine 4 is THE most graphically advanced game engine currently out at the moment. Nothing beats it. It’s possible for studios to create real-time animations within the engine that stand up incredibly well against pre-rendered 3D scenes from a professional 3D package such as Maya/3DS Max/Blender. The engine hasn’t even begun to stretch its legs quite yet, only just starting to look into DirectX 12 (the latest PC graphical rendering API), and without developers having released their Unreal 4 project in droves quite yet (a lot are in development still), there’s still plenty of time for UE4 to become as popular, if not more-so than UE3 was last generation.