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Can Game Engines be more Accessible?

A few nights ago I made a post about game engines getting in the way of individual artists because of the heavy technical side of them and I wanted to expand on some of those remarks because I could hear a collective groan from the more technical community.

First let me say that game engines have come a long way in the last ten years. When I worked on my first video game project at Rhythm & Hues Studios, we wrote our own game engine, had a small staff of programmers (small by today’s standards where even Limbo had a team of twelve programmers) and many artists creating content as well as a game testing team working continually at debugging our game.

Now fifteen years later, individual artists are creating games and getting greenlit on Steam, or selling on indie sights like Desura.

Very popular and sometimes experimental games like Dear Esther are produced by tiny teams. One of my favorite series is created by Frictional Games, three indie artists began the company working remotely from each other and have a series of games that are now considered among the most scary games on the market and have a loyal following.

http://www.frictionalgames.com/site/

The technology has become increasingly accessible to artists and small programming teams, and what one person or a small team is capable of is downright amazing.

Although these changes have happened, there is still a sizable chunk of the market which is domineered by programmers because there is a ceiling involved with most off the shelf software. I’m not saying programmers aren’t creative and can’t make games, but that there is another creative group who are less technical and are trying to break into the industry and often hit that technical ceiling. Likewise, there are some creative programmers (the team at Frictional being a good example) who may do more should easier tools for animating characters be available so they can focus on the game play, rather than getting bogged down doing something they may not enjoy, like animating.

The technical ceiling I’m talking about can be seen in two game engines that are very popular right now with Indie developers and even triple A titles. Those engines that I have used mostly, are Unity and Unreal, also known as UDK.

Now before I talk about some of the pros and cons of the two main engines that I have used over the years. I want to point people to the link above, a Ted talk with Will Wright the creative behind the Sims and Spore.

In Spore in particular we’re seeing some remarkable things that it’s easy to miss if not for realizing how hard it is to do the things he has game players doing in high end software like Maya, Unreal and Unity to name a few. If I want to design and create a character, and then animate them, it is a long process of design, sculpting, simplifying the model, then rigging and animating and exporting and programming. This is with powerhouse software behind me.

Yet Will Wright demonstrates in Spore that he can make a character and it is auto-rigged, and animated, tested and back in game play having been designed (within constraints) by the game player.

This kind of interactivity is some of what is missing from current game engines when it comes to the more difficult things, like inserting your own custom characters and giving them animations. I’ve talked about this before to people and there is always a little scoffing, but then Larry Weinberg, a former Rhythm & Hues artist is the person responsible for a similar type of software, namely Poser. The brilliance of Poser is that Larry took the complex pipeline that a visual effects artist might use, and made it simplified. Personally, I’d like to see Poser and it’s philosophy, incorporated into Unity and Unreal. In short, it’s brilliant in it’s simplistic approach to the complex. Now imagine, a combination of Will’s character creation program and Poser, where a character is added into Unity or Unreal. A walk cycle is added, and then using Poser like controls the speed, the rhythm and other controls are tweaked in real time, with a very user friendly interface – not in Maya or another animation software.

http://poser.smithmicro.com

To me this is all about pipelines in and out of software. Right now there are some things in major game engines that are not quite smoothed out, not really ready for primetime, and often badly documented at best. A good pipeline will cut down the amount of time that you do a redundant task that doesn’t really make or break a game, like for instance a walk cycle.

The point is that in games, a walk cycle is not the make or break of a game. Spending long hours rigging, and animating each character should and can be simplified and essentially automated. I know that sounds like a tall order, but I’m pretty sure this will happen eventually.

Okay, that said let me get back to the technical ceiling and some pros and cons of the two main game engines, Unity and Unreal.

UNITY

Unity has steadily gained momentum in recent years and making it’s presence well known for making video games. Part of what makes it so engaging is the intuitive and Mac like nature of the user interface. When it comes to packaging the game up, and making titles and menu buttons it is pretty simple, it’s the stuff I can teach in one class. You could compress the game into something playable and get it out to friends with less than three button clicks; Apple like ease of use.

On the other hand if you don’t know loads about programming you are likely to hit the ceiling with Unity fairly quickly and then become mired in trying to make a type of player work within the game you want to make, finding that there is conflict between different types of game play and the scripts you are now using. When you find a script you like, let’s say for instance a third person controller game, and you want to bring that character controller into your game, there will be conflict with the scripts. There are essentially different teams working on different types of game play, and these things don’t have to work together. They only have to work together should you bring them into your game project. This is a different philosophy from Unreal, where something brought into your game will not break your game should you change direction.

In Unity, you may come up with an idea for a game and realize you have no idea how to make it happen. So then it takes lots of research and trial and effort.

A great thing about Unity is the online documentation, and the community which is also easy to navigate and find information. Unique too is the in-editor store for downloading content made by others. What does that mean? Well imagine being in Maya and having a button connected to Turbosquid so you can quickly search for a model you need and download it right into your project. This has created another growing community of entrepreneurs who see a need for something, like a buoyancy script so that a player can swim through water. Someone who needs this, suddenly has it, often for a small fee.

Additionally, when building environments Unity does more for the artist than some other game engines. Getting your work into Unity happens in real-time, if make a new asset you can put it in the proper folder, and it appears in your engine, likewise for any scripting you are doing. This means you don’t have to keep exiting the software to tweak your program and that means a lot of time is saved and you spend more time in game testing your product.

The scripting languages in Unity give the user a lot of flexibility, which means that someone starting out with scripting has some choices depending on their comfort level.

Now this is a rough evaluation of Unity, overall I would say it is fun to create games in Unity, and should you sit down for a day and create something you may find at the end of the day you are knee deep in your own game creation.

UNREAL

Perhaps the most popular game engine right now is Unreal or UDK. There are a huge number of games that use this engine and it’s well deserved. The software interface isn’t as slick to look at as Unity. For me learning Unreal was a little slow going. While Unity mouse and keyboard controls matched popular software like Maya, Unreal has mapped controls their own way which is somewhat odd and unnatural to me. This made diving into the software quickly a problem because I was forced to watch videos on just navigating the software before I could explore.

While Unreal will release updates every few months for their software, they have yet to release their newest version of the software to the Indie community and this is a big downside to committing their software. Unity on the other hand, will project when the next version of their software will be available, and they try to stick to that as close as possible. In the Unreal universe there has been impatience from the indie community who are waiting for the tiniest crumb of news about when Unreal 4 will become available, and to confound the community there is no indication of when the software will be released.

This means that there is some frustration waiting for tools in Unreal to make a significant leap. Some of the leaps forward, like the newer terrain tool, is buggy and not quite ready for full use.

Additionally, the software is fragmented. If you want to make trees, you need to use speed tree. If you want to make menus, you have to use Flash and essentially jump through some very vague hoops. It is not straight forward. Publishing the game likewise is more complicated than Unity’s three buttons or less philosophy.

On the other hand getting started with Unreal may seem more difficult and indeed more frustrating in some areas, but the ceiling for what you can do without heavy programming is higher. So for instance if I want to add ladders, or a zero gravity zone, I can simply put these things in. (Please note I haven’t used Unity since 3.5 so my knowledge may be a little dated). Additionally, there is far more under the hood in terms of creating AI that works in Unreal than Unity. Creating volumes for different things, like a swimmable volume, are easy and I will say that Kismet is far more friendly to use than the Unity version of the same. This means that a user can try many things quickly in Unreal’s kismet and create many different types of games.

One of the most impressive things to me about Unreal though is the renderer. The visual quality of Unreal is just much better than Unity. Unreal has softness to it, less pixelation and the ease of using atmospherics makes for an enjoyable experience creating environments. The renderer overall reminds me of the rendering quality that admired about Rhythm & Hues proprietary software. The quality made Maya’s render look amateur, and this is true for the Unreal render vs Unity’s. Unity games have a more crisp look to them, while Unreal has a soft quality, with automatic light rays and ambient occlusion.

Now you’re wondering why I think this all can be better? Well, for starters Unreal is sitting on the next version of their software and have for some time now. The new version is supposed to revolutionize how users will interact with the software and free up artists to make whatever they want in a game. Yet no one knows when this is forthcoming. Perhaps Unity will beat them to the punch and improve some of the things that make programming unique games difficult, or improve their render quality significantly in the next version.

I appreciate the ease of use of this software, and that I don’t need to have a programming team if I simply want to get started creating an Indie game on my own, however I believe as these software packages move forward we will see more artists working individually, and small teams like Frictional popping up. The more this happens, the more we will have break out artists/programmers creating amazing and rich worlds and stories, that are NOT triple A titles, but potentially so much more enjoyable to dive into for a few hours.

The tech has definitely come a long way since I began doing this in the 80’s, no doubt about it. Yet I’m still waiting to sit down at my computer and “compose” a game like a musician might, before it becomes stale in my head and falters.

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