Unity and Unreal Engine are the go to for many small development teams, and last year yielded some of our greatest games (here’s to you Firewatch). It’s not necessarily a new phenomenon, but last year saw a host of announcements that top recent AAA titles are using engines developed in-house. Call of Duty has been running on Infinity Ward’s IW engine since CoD 2 in 2005, and EA has long been tinkering with its Frostbite engine which both Battlefield 1 and Mass Effect: Andromeda have been released on. So why is an in-house engine favoured so much among the big dogs over mainstream middleware?
Game and Platform Specific Features
Engines like Unreal and Unity run as foundational technologies – aiming to serve everyone’s basic needs from a game engine. That means that for every feature you’re running on a specific title, there’s going to be four or five extra features that are redundant.
Quickly these tools clutter development and create more labour for the technology under the hood. If a AAA game has a clear and specific mechanic that isn’t otherwise included under this middleware umbrella, or if this mechanic is the sole concept of the game, rendering extraneous features redundant, developers will often create their own dedicated program. Different titles require different things from their engines – an open world game doesn’t want an engine that relies heavily on memory requiring hefty loading times, whereas this might be best for a story branching mechanic. MMO developers are often the most likely to create their own engines, even those in small independent teams. The infrastructure underlying an MMO is critical to that title holding up under the intense stress that can be placed on the server. Because there’s so much riding on the engine you use, then, many developers prefer to take matter into their own hands.
If a player finds a crash bug in your MMO experience, you’re going to want to fix that as soon as possible.
Developers often prefer to create their own engines in this instance to ensure that they have the internal code down and can easily run a debugging process to quickly and easily fix the issue. Debugging is notoriously difficult without this knowledge of the inner workings of your engine, and if you need assistance from Unity or Unreal to make your crash go away before a tight deadline, you’re going to have a few sleepless nights to say the least.
Payments To Engine Licenser
For a AAA title to pay the 25% royalty fee that Epic charges after $50k in revenue, there’s going to be a serious dent in profits that simply doesn’t need to be there.
In truth, the cost of developing an in-house engine in the first place is a considerable overhead. For AAA companies, however, it’s an affordable upfront capital that pays for itself incredibly rapidly. Without any licensing costs per developer to worry about, or any royalties to pay after release, big developers can keep their expenditures down.
Similarly, money can be saved in streamlining a AAA workforce. Notoriously large and cumbersomely complex, any time saved away from that infamous crunch time is money in the bank.
A developer with a game engine tailored to their title streamlines workflow – employees know their engine and can quickly input data right where it needs to be, to do what it needs to do.
The Mercy of The Licenser
Many AAA development companies, and smaller studios alike, simply don’t like working with someone else’s code. Not knowing the inner workings of the title you’ve been working on can become a stress, especially when something goes wrong as we mentioned earlier.
But working with a middleware company means that you have to trust that whoever owns the external engine doesn’t revoke your license for any reason during development – and it happens. Engine owners can curb your creation in strange ways through restrictions too – with Unity announcing a ban on gambling game developments a few yeas ago which evolved into an extra gambling license having to be purchased by developers.
What Does This Mean For Indies?
A game specific engine doesn’t necessarily mean a better engine, and for independent studios an in-house engine is still a massive overhead and consumes time that can seriously butt into your development budget and schedule, throwing a project wildly off course. Unity, Unreal, or CryEngine are flexible all-in-one packages that satisfy hundreds of successful titles every year. If you are looking for something more niche, there are softwares that aim at specific genres or mechanics.
There are, of course, still reasons Indie developers would want to invest in an in-house engine. The learning process of understanding how the engine itself functions can be extremely helpful in efficiently writing your game to the strengths of your engine. Certain functionalities may also be out of your reach still, if you have that one revolutionary mechanic you’re really striving to implement well then you might consider writing the engine to run it yourself. Staying in control of development is a must for some developers, and it’s about deciding if it’s worth juggling the time and money in creating your own software.