oxm in­ves­ti­gates… game en­gines

OXM speaks to the pro­fes­sion­als about ex­actly what game en­gines are, which ones they use, and how they work

XBox: The Official Magazine (US) - - CONTENTS - Adam Bryant

Frost­bite, Unity, Un­real… we’ve all heard of their names, and seen the jaw-drop­ping, beau­ti­ful demos that show­case their tech and high­light ad­vance­ments in light­ing, an­i­ma­tion, physics, and par­ti­cle ef­fects, but what are they re­ally? Ask ten dif­fer­ent peo­ple what one is, and you’ll likely get ten dif­fer­ent an­swers. Yet game en­gines are the most cru­cial part of in-game de­vel­op­ment, be­cause un­til a team ob­tains or cre­ates one, al­most ev­ery­thing in the pipe­line is put on hold. De­spite this, for most peo­ple out­side the games in­dus­try they re­main a mys­te­ri­ous en­tity. So join us as we clear out the grime and sed­i­ment to give you a clear idea of just what game en­gines are ca­pa­ble of…

Well, what are game en­gines? “Sim­ply put, a game en­gine is a plat­form for your game to run on; to load the world, place you in it, and ac­com­mo­date your stay,” ex­plains CD Pro­jekt Red’s tech team. “There are many kinds of en­gines. De­pend­ing on your game’s re­quire­ments, each one will dif­fer in how much work it ac­tu­ally does. They ren­der (dis­play) the world, cal­cu­late physics, play sounds, and more. En­gines are all the code that is not spe­cific to your game, and can po­ten­tially be reused in a dif­fer­ent ti­tle.” By hav­ing an en­gine that al­ready has ways of han­dling things like ren­der­ing, physics, light­ing, and ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence straight out of the box, it makes cre­at­ing char­ac­ter mod­els and hav­ing them behave in a given way quickly achiev­able. Such game en­gines al­low de­vel­op­ment teams to fo­cus on ac­tu­ally mak­ing their games rather than hav­ing to es­sen­tially rein­vent the wheel ev­ery time they wish to do so. It’s also one of the main rea­sons why new de­vel­op­ers will opt for us­ing en­gines that are read­ily avail­able for free, such as Unity or the Un­real En­gine.

They’re also de­signed to have a mod­u­lar na­ture so that it makes it pos­si­ble to im­prove or ad­just an en­gine’s func­tion­al­ity by em­ploy­ing ad­di­tional soft­ware, re­ferred to as ‘mid­dle­ware’. This type of soft­ware is de­signed to deal with spe­cific tasks—such as Au­dioki­netic’s audio en­gine, Wwise, or Nvidia’s PhysX en­gine, which han­dles physics—that the orig­i­nal en­gine might not be able to per­form quite as well. There are even some soft­ware com­pa­nies that will pro­vide an en­gine’s en­tire source code so that more ad­vanced de­vel­op­ers can di­rectly ma­nip­u­late it to fit their needs. Cop­ing mech­a­nism But some­times, de­spite all the avail­abil­ity and flex­i­bil­ity of th­ese en­gines, de­vel­op­ers will need to spend the ex­tra time and money in de­sign­ing their own, like CD Pro­jekt Red did for their REDengine. “Each game en­gine is tai­lored for a spe­cific ex­pe­ri­ence,” ex­plains the CD Pro­jekt Red Tech team. “Our games fo­cus on cre­ative sto­ry­telling in a liv­ing and breath­ing world, so we re­quired an en­gine and tools suited for th­ese par­tic­u­lar ex­pe­ri­ences. Af­ter care­ful con­sid­er­a­tion, we ar­rived at the con­clu­sion that third-party soft­ware wouldn’t cut it. It would prob­a­bly take longer to ad­just a com­mer­cial en­gine to our needs than just make our own from scratch. So that’s what we did.” Hav­ing an en­gine specif­i­cally tai­lored to suit their games al­lows CDPR to have an un­prece­dented level of con­trol over ev­ery as­pect of de­vel­op­ment so that they could ac­com­plish any goal they set. And hav­ing their de­sign­ers in con­stant co­op­er­a­tion with the pro­gram­mers meant they were able to adapt the en­gine to bet­ter suit their needs.

How­ever, as you can imag­ine, this isn’t a task for the faint-hearted. “Cre­at­ing your own en­gine re­quires a lot of work and a ded­i­cated team of pro­fes­sion­als,” says CDPR. “A mod­ern open-world en­gine is a big and com­pli­cated beast. Tam­ing it re­quires a lot of knowl­edge and ex­pe­ri­ence. More­over, be­fore the core of your en­gine is ready, game­play sys­tems can­not be built on top. So there’s a lot of pres­sure and lit­tle lux­ury to pol­ish one small el­e­ment of the en­gine for an ex­tended pe­riod of time. Also, when we en­counter an ob­sta­cle, we have no other op­tion than to rely on our­selves and fix it. No out­side sup­port is pos­si­ble, whereas for the com­mer­cially avail­able en­gines out there it’s some­times of­fered.”

Even those that have any idea of what a game en­gine is tend to over­sim­plify their role, think­ing they’re re­spon­si­ble for

“A mod­ern open-world en­gine is a big beast. Tam­ing it re­quires a lot of knowl­edge and ex­pe­ri­ence”

just one as­pect of a game, like graphics or per­for­mance. This results in many mis­con­cep­tions. “I think the big­gest mis­con­cep­tion about game en­gines is that they are some sort of mag­i­cal piece of soft­ware pow­ered by the blood of uni­corns that can make any game into a re­al­ity with just a few mouse clicks,” ex­plains se­nior de­vel­oper re­la­tions tech­ni­cal artist, Zak Par­rish. “The truth is that there’s no ‘Make Game’ but­ton in Un­real En­gine and you will

still have a lot of work to do to make your game into a playable ex­pe­ri­ence. Mak­ing games is a pro­fes­sion for the pas­sion­ate.” But the big­gest mis­con­cep­tion of all seems to be the be­lief that prob­lems within a game, like per­for­mance, frame rate, and crash­ing, are the fault of the game en­gine, when in fact this is al­most never the case and is more likely a pro­gram­ming prob­lem.

To­tally Un­real

Pos­si­bly the most well known of all game en­gines is Epic Game’s Un­real En­gine, which was used to de­velop the im­mensely pop­u­lar

Fort­nite, and was ap­par­ently piv­otal to its suc­cess. “Fort­nite has been a la­bor of love at Epic,” says Par­rish. “We’ve worked on it for a long time to turn it into the game it is to­day. Ev­ery part of that process—ev­ery refac­tor, ev­ery over­haul of a ma­jor sys­tem, ev­ery out­right re­place­ment of a se­ries of game me­chan­ics—was only pos­si­ble due to the flex­i­bil­ity af­forded by Un­real En­gine.

“The re­sult is a game that serves as a solid plat­form upon which we can con­tin­u­ously ex­pand and build,” con­tin­ues Par­rish. “Ev­ery key as­pect that is Fort­nite: The ro­bust and evolv­ing Save the World ex­pe­ri­ence, new game modes such as bat­tle royale that didn’t ex­ist at early ac­cess launch, the re­lease of the game on ev­ery con­ceiv­able plat­form from high-end PC to con­sole all the way to mo­bile de­vices, even the abil­ity to keep new con­tent rolling for play­ers at a vir­tu­ally con­stant pace, ev­ery part of that de­vel­op­ment process has been pow­ered and stream­lined by Un­real En­gine.”

There are now plenty of game en­gines avail­able for free, some of which you’ll see on the next page in our run­down of some of the best, so if you’re in­ter­ested in ven­tur­ing into the world of game de­vel­op­ment and cre­at­ing your very own Fort­nite, here’s some part­ing advice: “Don’t wait, don’t make ex­cuses; just go make a game,” says Par­rish. “Hon­estly, my first bit of advice for as­pir­ing devs right now is to fully grasp that there has never been a bet­ter time to learn game de­vel­op­ment. If you’re new to the game dev world, you prob­a­bly have no idea that you’re in a real golden age right now. You have so much tech­nol­ogy and op­por­tu­nity at your fin­ger­tips: Free game en­gines like Un­real, free 3D apps, free 2D apps, tons of free train­ing on how to do things… I look back at when I was first learn­ing this stuff and I’m floored.

“There’s re­ally nothing stop­ping an as­pir­ing de­vel­oper right now from just mak­ing a game and ship­ping it,” Par­rish con­tin­ues. “Sure, if you’re by your­self you have to limit your scope a bit, but if you want ship­ping ex­pe­ri­ence— the ex­act ex­pe­ri­ence stu­dios care about—you can build a game and launch it on just about any plat­form th­ese days, all with­out much, or any, money out of your own pocket. And from tools to source code to tons of train­ing con­tent, Epic Games and Un­real En­gine are be­hind you all the way.”

Above

See all that lush fo­liage? The game en­gine is what’s help­ing an­i­mate it.

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