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!