Engineers & Enablers: Keeping your game engine competitive

Engineers & Enablers: Keeping your game engine competitive
James Batchelor

By James Batchelor

September 29th 2016 at 11:57AM

Competition is fierce in the engine space, but that hasn’t deterred more companies from offering their own suite of development tools

Given the domination of huge, high-end engines from Unity, Epic and Crytek, you could be forgiven for believing that it’s foolhardy for any other company to release their own game-making toolset.

However, rival engine firms insist there are still plenty of opportunities for new products thanks to the sheer variety of studios and their projects. Offerings such as Lumberyard, Stingray, GameMaker: Studio, GameGuru, Stencyl, Phaser, Construct2, GameSalad – the list goes on – cater to developers with different needs and skill levels.

“The task of creating and maintaining a games engine might be seen as Herculean, but there is always room for a product that offers something that did not exist yesterday,” says Lee Bamber, CEO of The Game Creators (pictured).

“Large engines need to satisfy millions of users, the tool-chain becomes more complex to accommodate their needs and it requires a lot of money from the user to keep going. A smaller engine has the benefit of being less complex and less costly, which means easier to use and cheaper to make your finished game.”

JC Connors, senior leader on Amazon’s Lumberyard, adds that the extent to which developers modify these engines for their individual project ensures titles built on the same tech stand out from each other.

“Most of our conversations are with developers who believe that the technology that they build is as important as the underlying framework,” he says. “There’s tons of room for innovation when it comes to engines, especially when you think about cloud and community features.

“We don’t spend much time thinking about what other engines are doing. The canvas is so large, the most difficult part is prioritising what capabilities and features we should build next for our customers – thankfully, we have an open dialog with developers and we hear about emerging challenges all the time.”

There’s tons of room for innovation when it comes to engines, especially in cloud and community features.

 

FASHIONABLY LATE

Lumberyard is the newest contender in the engine space, having launched earlier this year. Yet Connors says being a late entry actually gives the Amazon team an advantage.

“We aren’t bound by the same needs to maintain backwards compatibility to legacy partners,” he explains. “As such, we can move fast and reinvent what it means to be a great game engine in a world where 85 per cent of top PC and console games feature multiplayer.”

Catering to the modern market has enabled Amazon to not only improve on its core engine – derived from CryEngine – but also engineer services that help devs tailor their titles to changing player behavior.

“We’ve been working closely with our customers to improve Lumberyard, making the tech more modular so developers can better customise it with their own differentiating technology, and continuing to add new features in areas such as graphics, cloud integration, Twitch, VR, and more,” he details.

Connors’ claims that Amazon is not getting caught up in competition with the larger players echo those of other engine firms, who instead choose to focus on honing their own offerings.

There’s always room for a product that offers something that did not exist yesterday.

“A product can pretty much market itself if the benefits are compelling enough, and our strategy for user acquisition is to add more features, game-making content and help and advice, either from community requests or changes in the technology landscape,” says Bamber. 

Autodesk industry strategist Maurice Patel adds: “Each company is following its own strategy and they are all different, but the focus of most companies is shifting away from the engines themselves to a much broader perspective on content creation.”

Arguably the pressure is on for smaller engines to raise their profile, showcasing the games built with their tech. Yet Bamber stresses that this isn’t a priority for The Game Creators, which lets users decide whether or not they want to promote GameGuru or AppGameKit as the foundation of their titles.

“Some engines automatically stamp their logo on the game with an option to pay and have it removed, but we feel our approach is better,” he says. “Traditionally, gamers are much more interested in whether a game is good or not, rather than the technology it was created in. 

“A better strategy is to offer a service allowing finished games to be listed on the engines own website, or in press releases and other social feeds that target the budding game developer, rather than the poor gamer who wants fewer loading screens and more game.”

 

A NEW WAVE 

Much like the big three that dominate the space, other engine creators are keen to reach out to the rising wave of new and aspiring developers.

“We have also been focusing on usability, to make it easier for anyone to start creating interactive content,” says Patel. “This includes improving the workflow between our 3D animation tools and Stingray to help indie developers who do not want to build custom pipelines. 

“Ultimately, we believe interactive game engine technology has a much broader set of applications than just games; but it has to be much easier to use if it is to reach its full potential. The Stingray source code is available if you need to get deep into the guts of the tech, but the trick is to abstract that complexity from users who want to use engines to build interactive experiences rather than spend their time developing games.” 

Most engine companies are shifting to a much broader perspective on content creation.

Last year, The Game Creators took the bold step of launching a game engine that would be accessible to end users themselves. Players can download GameGuru from Steam and create a 3D title within minutes. They can even sell those creations on, with Bamber promising “no strings attached”.

He says: “Thanks to Steam, we have been able to grow our userbase considerably, attracting users who do not necessarily want to spend months learning tools or a fortune on content, and instead want a fast track into the world of game creation, as much for the fun of creating as opposed to the serious business of games production.”

Connors (pictured) argues that engine providers shouldn’t just focus on creating tools that enable devs to make great games; instead, they should be thinking about how they can help those studios make their games successful.

“We want to help developers build the highest-quality games, spend less time on the muck of creating the backend infrastructure needed to build multiplayer and community-driven games, and connect with their players, broadcasters, spectators and fans,” he says. “We achieve this by providing a free triple-A engine, so developers can spend more on differentiating their game, making it easier to build connected experiences by providing deep integration with AWS, and helping designers make games as fun to watch as they are to play with our Twitch integration.”

Finally, Patel reiterates that the real opportunity for games engines lies beyond our own industry.

“Customers have been able to utilise the Stingray tech outside of the games industry,” he says. “DreamWorks joined us at NAB to share how they used it for Kung Fu Panda concept work. Stingray is also the engine behind Autodesk Live, allowing architectural and construction professionals to visualise their building designs.”

Ultimately, as long as people are making games – or all manner of interactive experiences – engine providers will have opportunites to hone, enhance and reinvent their products in order to enable creators to achieve their visions.

This interview is from our September issue, and part of our Engines Special.