We are kicking off GDC 2015 with a bang today!
When I made the move from developing Flash games into actual game engines in 2011 for my indie projects, Unity was very appealing to me, especially as I work on Mac. I made some – cool – things with it on my own over countless long nights, learning the ropes of game design and game development while working during the day at triple-A studios. Between the licenses, upgrades, and necessary Asset Store purchases, I’ve probably spent at least $5,000 on Unity, maybe more. At the time, that was still very good for a commercial game engine. At the time, there was no Unreal Engine 3 Mac version and building out to every platform imaginable from the same project and engine was groundbreaking. But that was four years ago.
Now, not only is Unreal Engine 4 a massive leap forward from UE3, not only does it offer a Mac version, but it’s also a massive leap over Unity. And today, at the start of GDC 2015, Epic has announced that Unreal Engine 4 is now free to all. You only have to pay Epic a 5% royalty over the first $3000 earned per quarter by a product made with UE4, which is not only absolutely reasonable but an amazing, amazing deal.
When I got my first game industry job with Activision in 2009 (as working for a major studio was practically the only way you were able to make a professional commercial game back then) licensing Unreal Engine 3 was certainly not open to anyone other than major studios and cost a ton of money. Contrasting that with today, this is nothing short of the indie revolution perhaps coming to some complete level of culmination: now anyone can make and commercially ship a game worldwide on a world-class game engine for no up-front engine cost. My guess is, for all other engine-holders like Crytek (CryEngine) and Unity, to prevent everyone from abandoning their engine for UE4, they’re about to announce the same offer— at this point, they probably no longer have a choice.
Unreal Engine 4 up and running on my iMac within minutes, for free.
Combined with free CG modeling package Blender and ultra cheap alternatives to Photoshop (Pixelmator) and Illustrator (Affinity Designer — which is actually better than Illustrator), along with swapping a $65,000 Bachelor’s program at an Art Institute for online training courses at sites like Lynda.com and Gnomon (for combined annual subscriptions less than the price of a single course at a community college), the barrier to entry is practically zero. Just the existing overhead of your time. Thus, making a game on a world-class engine is now cost-equivalent to writing a novel on a laptop. While this is mind-blowingly accessible now, it also doesn’t guarantee you can complete either project. Additionally, you must invest a considerable amount of your time in learning the craft for how to do each of these things at all, and then how to do them well. But it’s way better than it used to be…
Compared to this, which I practically grew up on:
In the mid-to-late 90’s, I spent much of my years between 5th grade through maybe 8th grade after school and during summers modding Marathon: Infinity by Bungie. For example, I made my own Marathon sequels, and even Myst and Super Mario total conversions. But you couldn’t do anything commercially with mods and we didn’t even have dial-up Internet until I was a high school freshman in 1999. There were no marketplaces to sell games online anyway then, other than literally snail-mail payments through shareware.
If I were a middle-schooler with access to Unreal Engine 4 and commercial distribution platforms on Steam and freaking PlayStation 4, which anyone serious enough can get into today, game development would’ve been infinitely more viable to me as a business before I had even entered high school. This is going to happen now to the kids out there today, as well as anyone else that wants in on this sandbox. I can’t wait to read about the first million-selling title across Steam, PS4, Xbox One, Wii-U, and iOS made by an eleven year-old. It’s gonna happen, people. I know this, because I remember how relentlessly driven I was as a kid with nothing but time on my hands modding Marathon: Infinity— I can only imagine what I would’ve done with these tools and open commercial platforms.
2015 is definitely a rubicon of sorts in so many ways— we are firmly in the 21st century with the old models and ways of the 20th increasingly distant in our rear-view mirror, if not practically gone. This is the new normal. It’s astonishing to me that it’s actually here now; as an ’84 Millennial, I’ve been waiting throughout the 2000’s and early 2010’s for this, but it’s finally here in 2015. We’re all really lucky that these dreams have come true. There’s no excuse anymore— anything you want to make, go make it. It’s more of a problem of personal logistics: finding the time and money to allow yourself to learn and create. So much is possible today, it’s not about what can you do but what do you choose to do. It’s also an issue of having a viable plan to see it all through to completion, especially at the exponential rate the rules are constantly changing and how fiercely competitive these new rules have made the market on a global scale. But it used to be, before you could even think about those things, you were just looking for ways that starting out at all would even be possible. No more.
I also can’t help but laugh, because this new inside-out indie-driven time that I’ve been hoping for my whole life has made my entire career on-site at triple-A game studios and all the arduous sacrifice and pain that came with it now totally unnecessary. Today, I could’ve just signed up for my free download of UE4 and Blender and gotten to work, on demand in minutes, regardless. But I’m thankful, because at least it means we even have the option between making our own indie projects or working at corporate studios to help build massive titles. Being independent and freelance, I’ve never been happier, and now is a time where commercial independent creativity is concretely possible for anyone.