License to Build: Why Game Development Engines Are “Going Free”

March 31, 2015

Game development engines are some of the most sophisticated software products available today, so why are so many manufacturers beginning to offer them to users for free?
It takes a lot of different people to build a virtual world, including illustrators, programmers, designers, writers, and a myriad of other roles, each of which is vital to creating a totally immersive, interactive experience. And yet, without materials to shape, or tools to bend to that task, those people would be forced to reinvent the wheel every time they wished to go anywhere. For this reason, some video game developers have chosen to invest in making software framework products called “game engines” that assist artists in the industry with implementing their creative concepts. In this way, the majority of game developers can focus on creating games themselves, rather than diverting their attention towards the parallel task of manufacturing game design tools.
Typically, a game engine will include features like 2D or 3D graphics rendering, collision detection, sound, scripting, animation, artificial intelligence, networking, streaming, memory management, threading, and localization support. Because all of these processes are so complex and intricately interconnected, building game engines can require a lot of time and ingenuity, and as a result these products have historically been very expensive to license. It has been common practice for some time for AAA game developers to pay vast sums of money for the highest quality game engines, ranging anywhere from thousands to millions of dollars, with the inclusion of royalty payments. Because only large, established developers could afford to invest in this high-quality, high-cost software, the price of entry into the field of game development has remained very high for much of the industry’s lifetime.

However, in the field of technology, the only true constant is change. Despite the tremendous expense associated with game engine creation, major engine manufacturers have recently begun a practice of offering their products at extremely affordable rates.

Most notable among these innovating industry giants is Epic Games, the creator of the best-selling video game franchise Gears of War, and of the gold-standard game development software, Unreal Engine. In March of 2014, Epic sent shock waves throughout the industry when it announced its intent to offer the engine on a subscription model for just $19 per month, plus a royalty fee of 5%. Suddenly, a product that had previously been available to only the biggest, wealthiest parties was being offered to everyone at a single, manageable price. When asked at the Game Developers Conference in 2014, Epic co-founder Tim Sweeney said this is “not the secretive, elite approach we’ve taken in the past where [the source code] is only available to a few teams in strict secrecy… With Unreal Engine 4, we hope to wipe the slate clean… This is a bold new step for Epic, but we think it’s an appropriate one for the new shape of the game industry.”
Later that year, Epic started a practice of offering the engine cost-free to universities for academic research. Then, in March of 2015, the company doubled down on its new business philosophy, announcing that the engine would be offered for free to everyone. At this time, any user can download and use Unreal Engine, including the source code, with no initial license fee, or reoccurring subscription payment. Only after a project has grossed over $3,000 per quarter is Epic due its 5% royalty payment. As the company’s co-founder said, “[i]t’s a simple arrangement in which we succeed only when you succeed.”
Other popular game engines like Unity have also been made available to users at an entry price of zero dollars. Only Unity projects that gross above $100,000 per year will be required to pay fees, and even then they can choose between a $75 per month charge and a $1,500 flat rate. Neither model charges royalties for game sales. Similarly, Valve will also be offering their Source 2 development software to users for free.
These changes in the way the video game industry licenses its engine software indicate a massive democratization of the game development process. As humanity continues its inevitable march towards complete integration with the virtual realm, it becomes easier and more necessary every day to create digital content. With more and younger people attempting to contribute to game development discourse, it only makes sense for engine makers to be eager that they do so in their own company’s language. Making game engines available at a low price point thus benefits both parties, enabling students and new developers to hone their skills with no initial risk, and encouraging greater overall use of the those companies’ products.