With the start of a new gaming console generation last November, the developers who may make the next big games are in hot demand.
The demanders: Companies that make game engines, which serve up design and development tools and do a lot of the initial grunt work, so that developers don’t have to build each new game from scratch. If games were Lego sets, game engines would be pre-made foundations and platforms to be built on.
At the Game Developers Conference last month, Epic Games drastically cut the cost of licenses to its Unreal Engine; Unreal Engine 3′s basic development kit cost $99 with a 25 percent cut of revenue above $50,000, while Unreal Engine 4 and its source code initially cost hundreds of thousands of dollars for developers. Now, that once expensive option is jammed into a $19-per-month subscription with a 5 percent revenue share. Crytek also standardized the licensing costs for its own engine, CryEngine, to an even lower amount, a flat $10 per month with no revenue share.
The price cuts were seen as a response to Unity, a younger engine made by Unity Technologies, that claims some 600,000 monthly active developers who could choose to pay what was formerly the cheapest subscription option, $75 a month with no revenue share.
While CryEngine is intended for desktop and console development — and was used to make such visually impressive games as the Far Cry series and Ryse: Son of Rome — both Unreal and Unity tout their “cross-platform” capabilities. The engines’ makers have courted mobile and online developers seeking to create broadly appealing games in the vein of Epic’s own Infinity Blade (Unreal) or Temple Run 2 (Unity); part of the sell is being able to make, for instance, an iPhone game that might later be ported to PCs or consoles with minor changes as necessary.
“Our goal is: You build the content once, and be platform agnostic,” Epic Games general manager Ray Davis said in an interview with Re/code.
On Thursday, an update to the latest version of Unreal brought official support for PlayStation 4, Xbox One and SteamOS, the Linux-based operating system powering Valve’s Steam Machines. Unity, meanwhile, has worked to embed itself into both PlayStation and Xbox, offering a free version of Unity to independent developers in Microsoft’s ID@Xbox program.
Unity also hit upon a clever secondary revenue stream: Letting developers buy assets, things like 3-D objects to use in a game, or a camera designed for certain genres, from other developers in an online store; the company takes a 30 percent cut of each sale. And many of these assets only work within Unity, thereby keeping developers inside the system — so long as they remain happy with what they’re getting out of the engine.
That and an aversion to additional development costs may be the key to understanding why the engine guys are so vocal lately. Unlike consumer products like phones, which often come attached to contracts, or computers, which run out of space and wear down over time, Epic, Unity and Crytek are selling commitments, and developers about to take the monetary plunge into new platforms are the perfect targets to nudge in one direction or another.