Game Engine: Unity

In the next article, I’ll talk briefly about a fairly popular recent point-and-click / visual novel / anime mash-up, Tokyo Dark.  Published by Square Enix’s boutique publisher, SE Collective, Tokyo Dark runs entirely within the Construct 2 framework, and looks gorgeous doing so.

But before I talk about that, I should say a  thing or two about game engines, broadly.

Engine

One of the most agonizing decisions that young studios face comes very early in the game development process, and resonates from the moment the decision is reached until the point at which — many years later — the studio announces they will no longer offer players technical support on the title.

Which game engine shall we adopt?  The question is a vexing one because the choice will make itself felt in all sorts of ways, predictable and otherwise.  Some issues are exactly what you’d expect:  How video is handled (does your video player handle secondary audio streams reliably, or do we have to include two videos, one in English and one in Japanese?); The level of integration between installation software, digital rights management software, and the operating system (will your installation routine send my anti-virus software into a panic?); The way assets are created and stored (if the player installs a graphics card from a different manufacturer halfway through the game, will she have to reinstall the game, too?).  But there are always unexpected issues, too, especially as game development environments promise nearly effortless on-demand export across an array of consumer technologies (consoles, PCs, mobile).  It is imperative that the game developer feel confident that the engine they are choosing can (1) allow them to build the game they want to build without relying on custom-made plug-ins, outdated and deprecated versions of the software, shims, and work-arounds; and (2) gives them the flexibility to offer new content and to make strategic use of new consumer-focused technologies (what happens when a player tries to play their game on a new 8k television set?  On an LED array?)

The reigning champion in this field, for some time, has been Unity. Here’s one of their recent pitches to developers shopping for an engine:

(And while we’re here, Unity is looking for grad students with some ideas about how an artificial intelligence might become an important part of the game dev pipeline.)

Interestingly, once we eliminate the high barriers-to-entry that used to keep all but the best developers with the deepest pockets from game development (outrageous hardware requirements; exorbitant licensing fees; additional support fees; significant size of development team; etc.), it becomes apparent that what we call “game engines” are poised for a significant re-configuration.  Take, for example, this brochure for the “Unity Gambling Engine,” an ever-so-slightly creepy version of the Unity 3D engine clearly intended for non-developers.  (And — again — since we’re here, let’s learn about the fundamentally awful world of the “gambling vertical,” shall we?  Here’s a good place to start.  You may want to shower afterwards, though.)

There are many options beyond Unity, of course, including Construct 3, which we’re drawing upon.  The greatest advantage that those frameworks used to offer, though, was price:  They were typically free, or nearly free, while a workable Unity license cost thousands of dollars.  Trying (again) to appeal to a post-software-developer marketplace, though, has lead Unity to effectively give away its software for free.  You can still pay licensing fees, of course, but the former habit of charging a studio $5k USD just to get started is a thing of the past.  It seems likely, then, that the clock is ticking for the vast majority of those open-source engines, all of which lack the features and support of a meta/mega-platform like Unity.  Now those frameworks lack a price advantage, too…

But as with all things, the gradual drift towards a monolithic, homogenized standard should appear to us as a red flag.  The idiosyncrasy of small, niche, limited-platform game engines may go a long way toward guaranteeing the kind of “ironic vocabularies” we discussed at the beginning of the semester.  Perhaps, with the rise of a single dominant game engine, we are called upon to recognize that there is only one video game, a giant, multifaceted one.  Perhaps, in the near future, what seems to be a diversity of titles, themes, experiences, and options is really just a function of marketing, as we find that we are all playing a single game, overlaid by myriad themes and motif.