Unity3D vs. Unreal 4 vs. Crytek: GDC 2014 Engine Wars

GDC 2014 is over, and one thing is clear:  The engine wars are ON!


For at least a few years, Unity has clearly dominated the game engine field.  Starting with browser and mobile games, then gobbling up the entire ecosystem Innovator’s Dilemma style, Unity has become the engine of choice for startups, mobile game companies, and downloadable console titles.

Until now, Unreal seemed unphased.  The creation of an entire generation of studios based on Unity technology seemed to completely pass Epic by as Unreal continued to be licensed out for high fees and revenue share by AAA studios cranking out $50 million blockbusters.

Lately, the AAA market has been contracting–leaving only a handful of high-budget tent pole games in development every year.  Many of those mega studios have started to use their own internal engine tech, avoiding Epic’s licensing fees altogether.  Surely this trend was a big wakeup call.

This year Epic strikes back with a new business model aimed at the small mammals scurrying underfoot the AAA dinosaurs.  Offering Unreal 4 on desktop and mobile platforms for a mere $19 a month and a 5% revenue cut seems like a breakthrough, but it really isn’t.

One of Unity’s biggest obstacles for new teams is its $1500 per-seat platform fee.  When you need to buy 20 licenses of Unity for 3 platforms, things get costly.  Unity’s monthly plan can help lower initial costs, but over time this can be far more expensive than just paying for the license up front.  Even when you add up all the monthly costs for each platform license subscription, it’s still a better deal than Unreal.

Giving up 5% of your revenue to Epic when profit margins are razor-thin is a non starter for me.  Unreal’s AAA feature set creates unparalleled results, even with Unity 5’s upgrades, but it’s that 5% revenue cut that still makes it an unattractive choice to me.

Epic is also aping Unity’s Asset Store with their Unreal Marketplace.  This is absolutely critical.  The Asset Store is Unity’s trojan horse–allowing developers to add to the engine’s functionality as well as provide pre-made graphics and other items invaluable for rapid prototyping or full production.  While Unreal’s Marketplace is starting out rather empty, this is a big move for the survival of the engine.

Unreal 4 throws a lot of tried and true Unreal technologies out the window, starting with UnrealScript.  The reason why Unreal comes with the source is that you have to write your game code in native C++, not a scripting language.  The new Blueprints feature is intended to somewhat replace UnrealScript for designers, but this is completely new territory.  Unreal advertises full source as a benefit over Unity, but source-level access for Unity is almost always unnecessary.  Although, it is possible now that Unreal 4 source is on Github that the community can patch bugs in the engine before Epic does.  Unity developers have to wait until Unity performs updates themselves.

Unreal 4 is so radically different from previous versions, that a lot of Unreal developers may have very good reasons for escaping to Unity or other competing engines.  For some, learning Unreal 4’s new features may not be any easier than switching to a new engine altogether.

Oh, and Crytek is basically giving their stuff away.  At $10 a month and no revenue share, I’m not sure why they are charging for this at all.  That can’t possibly cover even the marketing costs.  I’m not very familiar with Crytek, but my biggest issue with the current offering is Crytek for mobile is a completely different engine.  The mobile engine Crytek built their iOS games with is not yet publicly available to developers.

Which brings me to the latest version of Unity.  I’m sure it’s getting harder to come up with new stuff that justifies a point release.  Still, I need almost none of the features announced in Unity 5.  This is irrelevant as Unity has won the war for developers.  Which is why Unity is moving on to the next problem:  making money for developers.

Unity Cloud is Unity’s new service that is starting as a referral network for Unity games.  Developers can trade traffic between games within a huge network of Unity apps on both Android and iOS.  Unity’s purchase of Applifier shows they are dead serious about solving monetization and discovery–two of the biggest problems in mobile right now.

While other engines are still focused on surpassing Unity’s features or business model, Unity have moved into an entirely different space.  Ad networks and app traffic services may start to worry if what happened to Epic and Crytek is about to happen to them.

Anyone who reads this blog knows I’m a huge Unity fanboy.  But having one insanely dominant engine is not healthy for anyone.  I’m glad to see the other engine providers finally make a move.  I still don’t think any of them have quite got it right yet.

Oh–and in other news, YoYo Game’s GameMaker announcement at GDC, as well as some more recent examples of its capabilities make me wonder why I even bothered to get a computer science degree in the first place!

16 thoughts on “Unity3D vs. Unreal 4 vs. Crytek: GDC 2014 Engine Wars

  1. Nice article!

    I do have to say that while I was reading, I noticed that you’re a tiny bit biased towards Unity but then I noticed you also admit that 🙂

    I do however agree with a lot of your points, only it would be nice to really take into account the feature set of each engine and then compare prices. Because while the 5% might sound like a worse deal to start with, we have to remember that you might be saving a lot with unreal out of the box.

  2. Twenty Unity Pro licenses, three platforms. $1500 * 3 * 20 = $90,000. You’d have to make $1,800,000 gross revenue with your game before the UE4 royalty starts to overcome the Unity license prices. That’s $1,800,000. And with completely negligible investment in the first place ( = minimal risk), Unreal looks like the winner for a huge portion of game developers. And for the rest, the source access IS a factor. So yeah, I think one could say UE4 is a breakthrough. My two cents.

    • That’s a pretty good point, but I argue most games with a staff of 20+ are looking to make far more than $1.8m gross. $1.8m gross is like a top 50 iOS game. So I still think the costs of licensing scale with the projected revenue of the title.

      • That’s true. 5 % is too much for midsize and larger developer houses, our company included. But I’m afraid a large portion of the small ones and the ambitious hobbyists will see switching over to UE tempting because of its financially very low entry barrier. And with them moves the community, which is the thing that has kept Unity strong all along. I don’t know what’ll happen, but I’ll be certainly watching 🙂

  3. If you have the Unity Monthly Subscription can you jump to the new engine when it comes out or do you have to wait until the year is up before starting the subscription over?

  4. If I subscribe to Unity doing the monthly payments, can I download and switch to Unity 5 when it comes out or do I have to wait until the full year is up and start the subscription over again?

  5. My two cents:
    First, concerning licensing fees. Even 5% may seem much to big studios, they sure have an option to pay money before releasing games, instead paying royalties afterward. THE DIFFERENCE IS: they have not to pay anything upfront to license engine – big advantage. Besides, I simply can not imagine how Unity may be used for big projects. It simply does not fit in and it have hard times managing tens of gigs size asset folders (usual matter for big projects). So, for big players Unity is not a choice. Never was.
    Concerning smaller teams and indies, paying $19 month, instead of thousands of dollars, ability to cancel project anytime, without serious financial loses, ability to use much more advanced and feature rich technology with full source control, ability to integrate third party plug-ins at will are too big advantages, that easily outweigh 5% royalty. IMHO Unreal 4 really worth 5%.
    On the other hand Epic is giving you everything they have – giving now, they do not want to worry about what features include in new version of software, to force developers to pay more money. You pay 19 month and get everything. It is that simple. While Unity developers are forced to gradually improve their engine, to motivate developers buy future versions. I personally prefer Epic’s approach. I would gladly pay $19 month, than wait for new GUI system implementation for about two years, or wait when Unity guys condescend to implementation of APEX, or add morphing animation support etc.etc. Unreal 4 already have everything and much much more, so my voice to Epic.

  6. I would have to say I like all the game engines mentioned in this article, but of course I have my favorites. I am more proficient in Unity out of the three games engines mainly because the engine was straight forward and didn’t cost that much when I first started to develop. In the influx of the demanding market has caused Unity to raise their prices for everyone. I liked Unreal, but in my own opinion if it wasn’t for Unreal 4 I wouldn’t be using unreal at all. As a small studio I look for engines that will bolster my graphics and gameplay features. To me Unreal 4 is like unreal and unity having a baby. The $19/ month subscription and the access to the source code is outstanding news. All features and tools in Unreal 4 are great and make for faster production. Now Epic might have the 5% royalty, but that is nothing. After figuring out the cost between unity and Epic $19/month and 5% stake, Unity is definitely more expensive, especially if you consider Unity Subscription. You have to consider Unreal is a more robust engine than Unity and this should be a no brainer. However Unity one flat rate and no royalties still outshine Epic’s model, but everyone has to understand you can’t change everything over night, but over time you can. I love Unity and still use it today, but one thing that bothers me is the price of it in response of the power of the engine. Cryengine and Unreal made a decision they should have done a while ago, but yet you can’t beat the graphic quality, speed, and overall performance of the engine in regards to what you pay. At the end of the day though if you think that making a game or product with any engine is not going to cost you, then you might as well change professions. On the other side of the coin if I was Epic and had unreal I would want to get my 5% to. I know a lot of people would complain about it, but in all honesty I don’t see why all game engines don’t do the same and get a percentage for their engine and their work. Many if not all game developers don’t do free work. So this 5% royalty all screw that I not using unreal now, is a total cop-out, but if you look at the numbers it’s one of the best deals since Epic announcement.

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  8. ok, it has been almost a year now. unity 5 is still vaporware. unreal is now free except for 5% royalties.
    my students are tempted by the siren call of unreal. i don’t like th c++, and i hear it runs poorly on standard macintosh graphics cards. for now, my it manager thinks i should go for unity. my students need to learn how games get made. either unity or unreal will do. but the licensing for unity is stalled in my legal department, and it is so costly for a pro version that my department head refuses to pay for it.
    because of the money alone, i would rather move to unreal and get the whole package to play/work/teach with, rather than play with a crippled version of unity(free) and have my school unwilling to pay for equipping our labs at 1500 per seat. plus i cannot even theoretically teach with the free version.
    bottom line for me is that unity had better fix their educational support and pricing if they want to hold onto any market share. either engine will do for learning how games are made. i need a tool to teach with. frankly, my students love the fancy graphics in unreal and they all thnk they will become multimillionaire developers, so they like the unreal licensing. as for me, i just need a good tool to teach with, and unity pricing has made it so far impossible to provide in our computer graphics center. that sux.
    please fix it. offer unity pro for free except for 4% royalities and let the next round of the game wars begin.

    • What about the new free plan for Unity 5? It’s not much different from the way Unity Free was before–but Unity 5 Free has pretty much all the features of Pro that your students would need.

  9. wow, things change fast. just logged onto their site and see five is out, now learn they are releasing a “personal version” for startups with less than 100k$ financing with no royalties whatsoever. game on!
    i am glad, because i like the unity system a lot. javascript and/or c#, mecanim, good import capabilities, easy exporting and builds. HUGE user base and LOTS of info on how to do things, so yay! onwards with unity it will be!

  10. oh, ouch. they did not fix their (apparent) bias against educational institutions.

    “For Unity 5 Personal Edition
    May not be licensed or used by a commercial entity with annual gross revenues (based on prior fiscal year) in excess of US$100,000, or by an educational, academic, non-profit or government entity with a total annual budget for the entire entity (based on prior fiscal year) in excess of US$100,000. ”

    i see they have added a link for “Education” with an offer of “easy access” for education. but i do not get paid extra to broker deals between my legal department, my college business office, and my IT manager. if they dont make it easier for me to get them in our door, i will leave them out. i can teach with unreal if i have to. they had better get very proactive in closing a deal, because to repeat i do not get paid extra (in fact i get blamed as a pest) to broker deals to bring software into our college repertoire. how come autodesk and unreal can give it away to students and for education? that is just a rhetorical question.

    basically for me as an educator, their new deal is exactly like their old deal. and btw, i need version control if i am going to teach teamwork and collaboration. no cloud build? no team licensing? unity needs educators if they want market penetration. educators need the software. our bean counters do not care about any of that. any purchase over 1k$ has to go to the legal department, and that is the kiss of death. my unity pro request has languished there for two years and counting. unity needs to come here, see us, give us seats in return for some sort of promo or publicity, and let us send out legions of unity users year after year. that’s how it can work for everyone. i am gonna need free software to teach with.

    • Why not use Torque 3D MIT? It is free and your students will real development and programming along the way. You got a real scripting language very C like and even the full access to the source code. No extra cost here. A full game engine that will test the student to their teeth whether they have what it takes to be a problem solver or not ;O)

  11. “that’s how it can work for everyone. i am gonna need free software to teach with.”

    Why not use Torque 3D MIT? It is free and your students will real development and programming along the way. You got a real scripting language very C like and even the full access to the source code. No extra cost here. A full game engine that will test the student to their teeth whether they have what it takes to be a problem solver or not ;O)

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