For those who grew up PC gaming in the ’90s and early ’00s, the launch of a new 3D engine from id or Epic was on a par with that of their latest firstperson shooters. Players grew almost as familiar with the idiosyncrasies and limitations of each engine as developers did, as companies like Raven Software, which used the Doom engine (now known as id Tech 1) to create Heretic and Hexen, and Ion Storm, which built Deus Ex with the Unreal Engine, twisted bespoke tech into new shapes.
While Bethesda’s acquisition of id means that its much-used tech is now only available to studios under the same publisher, Epic continues to enjoy a growing list of Unreal Engine licensees – the number of games powered by UE now so large that the list warrants its own Wikipedia page. And more recently, Crytek’s CryEngine and Valve’s Source Engine have been behind an ever-greater number of top-tier games, while Unity Technologies’ open model attempts to make powerful 3D rendering accessible, and affordable, to all with Unity 3D.
There are many more commercially available 3D engines besides – Emergent Game Technologies’ Gamebryo Lightspeed (behind Fallout 3 and Warhammer Online) and Blitz Game Studios’ BlitzTech (behind House Of The Dead Overkill and the studio’s own Puss In Boots tie-in), to name just two – but the common challenge faced by all 3D engine makers in today’s fragmented hardware market is that of supporting an ever-growing number of devices. As gamers play on smartphones and high-end PCs, while consoles stride into their longest generation yet, an inevitable performance gap must be spanned.
“We’re in a situation right now where we’ve probably never had as many, or as broad a variety, of platforms,” says Crytek’s Carl Jones, director of global business development for CryEngine. “That obviously increases the amount of work you need to do to make technology that works for all the platforms, and that gamers want to play on and developers want to build for. But the other thing right now is that the kinds of games that are being developed on those platforms are quite different still.
Director of global business development for CryEngine Carl Jones (left) and Epic vice president Mark Rein.
“I think certainly in the future we’ll see similar games being made across multiple devices and you’ll be able to run the same quality across all of them. But right now, there’s certainly a split in terms of the style of games, and that’s led to us being in a situation where you have a certain type of technology requirement at one end and a different type of technology requirement at the other.” As a result, Crytek is focusing its efforts on the higher end of the development scale, but it’s keeping an eye on other areas of the market.
Far from worrying that resources could be spread too thinly, Epic’s vice president Mark Rein sees the divergence as a positive influence on development. “On the console side, the long hardware cycle has given us time to stretch our wings and make significant improvements within this generation, while on PC, we’ve been able to address a wide range of platforms – everything from PCs running Flash inside a Web browser up to amazing high-end graphics, which we demoed with Samaritan last year at GDC. It has created an opportunity for Unreal Engine 3 to scale in a way that is unmatched in this industry.”
Having an engine that can scale across the full gamut of gaming devices is becoming an increasingly important consideration in order to remain profitable, both for the engine maker looking to court as many potential projects as possible, and for the studio keen to address the widest possible market with its latest game. It’s a key trend among engine developers and much of that scalability is being driven, unsurprisingly, by the emergence of smartphones and tablets as a major gaming platform.
“Our ability to provide the best engine for platforms like Flash and PlayStation Vita is because of the groundbreaking work we’ve been doing on smartphones,” eulogises Rein, whose company wowed iOS users with action RPG series Infinity Blade. “And that empowers our licensees to scale to all kinds of previously unimagined platforms like smart TVs and set-top boxes.”
Infinity Blade II shows what's possible on mobile with Epic's engine, delivering visuals more usually associated with consoles.
“Unity has traditionally been at the lower end of the scale,” Jones adds. “But in the same way that they’re making moves to upgrade their technologies to try and produce something that’s capable of a high-end graphical look, we’re definitely looking at what we can do on mobile devices, tablets and other platforms like that.”
But what others are already doing in mobile, and indeed browser, games is having a more surprising effect on the way in which 3D engines are designed. The hugely successful free-to-play model is influencing not only the features built in to engines, but also the way that 3D engine companies see their role. While Rein points to the additional plumbing required to support microtransactions and “social media hooks,” Jones highlights even more profound shifts.
“Obviously we continue to build on our realtime tools,” he explains. “We don’t want to end up with massive teams having to work on games in future. We’ve seen recently how impractical that is: there are some very, very big name studios that have made games that you would think are a success, but actually they’re closing down because the sheer cost of making that game was too high. Obviously that’s untenable, except for a very small number of games per year.
“But equally, at the lower end of the development scale where you maybe aren’t creating such complex games, you’re generally delivering more content throughout the lifecycle of the game. If you’re trying to create content on a weekly basis, which is quite often necessary in a free-to-play, mobile or casual game, your pipeline to get it out there has to be super-fast and very robust. And that’s something we’re concentrating on a great deal.”
Crytek will be able to acquire first-hand experience of maintaining a free-to-play game when WarFace, which currently has no confirmed release date, is launched. In preparation, the developer is building features in to CryEngine that Jones says will make the whole process of implementing microtransactions simpler. “I think also the whole business of technology providing will change,” he says. “We have some ideas about that but we’re not ready to talk about them yet.”
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