John is a fervent writer, gamer, and guitar lover. Former automatic-transmission repairer, welder and hobbyist game developer.
With video games becoming a major player in mainstream entertainment, more and more people are looking to get into the business of making them. Starting in any new field can be a little daunting, so it can help to take smaller steps towards your ultimate goals. In short, you shouldn't be creating your first project from scratch in Assembly language.
One way to hit the ground running is to use a game engine, but which game engine should you use? And, for that matter, what even is a game engine? Well, every case is different, so I can't tell you which engine you should use . . . but I can help you figure it out.
What Is a Game Engine?
There is plenty of detailed information out there about what a game engine is, so I won't belabor the point here. A game engine is a set of tools that act as an interface between you, the game developer, and the hardware you are developing on.
Game engines make the development process much faster by doing a lot of the legwork for you. Were you to start from scratch, you may have hundreds of lines of code to write just to initialise your graphics. With a game engine, all of that is taken care of.
Each engine has different strengths and weaknesses, so the best engine for you will mostly come down to the type of game you are making. For example, Unreal Engine is great for getting those AAA quality graphics, but carries a lot of overhead and so would not be suitable for a smaller game aimed at low-end gaming hardware.
Now, with that out of the way, let's look at some game engines and what situations they are best suited for. This is by no means a comprehensive list of game engines, but rather the most popular ones that suit particular needs. If you don't find one on here that feels quite right, by all means, do a bit of digging around online and see what you can come up with.
As the name suggests, RPG Maker is really only suitable for making roleplaying games, though it has been used to make other styles of game. The real strength of RPG Maker lies in its user-friendliness, however. Games are created in a WYSIWYG (What You See is What You Get) editor, with little to no coding knowledge necessary.
Obviously, this makes RPG Maker ideal for beginners or those with little coding experience who would nevertheless like to make a game. There are limitations to this ease of use, however. As mentioned above, it is difficult to make anything that is not a top-down RPG game. It is also difficult (when it is possible at all) to achieve more complicated game mechanics.
As long as your game falls within the constraints of this engine, you will have a great time using it. In short, it's great for beginners, but once you begin to grow as a developer, you're going to want something more powerful.
It's worth noting that I am including RPG Maker because it is a good way to get a grounding in how game engines work and what they do. There are other limited-use, user-friendly engines that work well for different genres (GameGuru, for example, is good for FPS games), but I feel RPG Maker is particularly good for first-timers.
When you're ready to move on to something complicated, Unity 3D is a huge step up from RPG Maker in terms of difficulty. The reason it makes a good next step in spite of this difficulty curve is that the amount of documentation available for it is unparalleled.
Beyond the official Unity documentation, there is also a strong community of developers happy to help. From guides on getting started with Unity, to complete YouTube series' on how to make certain types of games. There is more to wrap your mind around, but you will not find another engine with as much help so readily available.
In terms of what you can do in Unity—just about anything. As with any game engine, there are limitations that may leave you wanting a different engine. But those limitations are considerably further out than something like RPG Maker. Indeed, only experienced and knowledgeable game developers are likely to even be able to reach these limitations, let alone go beyond them. For a gamedev beginner, Unity will do just fine.
Unity can handle both 2D and 3D games, though its 2D implementation isn't the best, as it essentially uses the 3D engine and, thus, creates a lot of overhead that isn't necessary. This aspect of Unity has led many game developers to choose Godot for their 2D games, instead.
Best Looking Games Made With Unity
Unreal isn't much different from Unity in terms of difficulty. The available help is not quite as comprehensive, however, so practically speaking, it may feel harder to get to grips with. There is still a very good community around this engine, however, and new tutorials and guides are emerging all the time.
Unreal is known for its stunning visuals and is responsible for some truly great games. If you want to make a game with some AAA-quality graphics, this is the engine for you. If you're looking to make something like an 8-bit style 2D platformer, you could make it in Unreal, but it would be a bit overkill.
The number of engines out there is just too vast to cover in one article, so I kept this one to just a few popular choices. However, I would be remiss if I didn't at least mention some of the other great game engines out there.
- Godot Engine
- Game Maker Studio 2
- CryEngine 3
- Adventure Game Studio
If you intend to release game, whether you charge for it or not, you need to be aware of the licensing terms for the engine you use. Many game engines are free to use for personal use, and even some commercial use.
Some engines—like Godot—are entirely free, whereas engines like Unity are free up to a certain amount of revenue. This means that you can make and release a game without paying for the engine, but if you or your company makes over a certain amount of revenue, you have to buy a licence for the engine.
Licensing is something you should consider before you start working in an engine, but absolutely something you need to understand before releasing.
Choosing a game engine might seem like a daunting choice at first. After all, it is rarely easy to move a game from one engine to another, so you will likely be stuck with your choice of engine until the project is complete.
In your early days of game development, try not to worry too much about locking yourself into any specific engine, however. Play around, try different things. Many developers settle down to a preferred game engine—that's perfectly normal—but be sure to get a good sample of your options before doing so.
Finally, regardless of the engine you choose, be sure to learn to code as well as you can. Every engine is different, and the languages used aren't always the same, but being able to code is a transferable skill. And, once you've learnt one language, it is much easier to learn another.
Best Game Engines for Beginners
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2020 John Bullock