VR may be the star of the show at the Game Developers Conference this year, but the nature of the event means that there's plenty of attention being paid to presentations and announcements from a side of the industry that's perhaps a little less sexy, but far more vital - game engines. Each of the major game engine platforms has a major presence at the show, each keen to showcase their latest technologies, the accessibility and functionality of their tools, and the developer-friendly nature of their licenses. So developer-friendly have those licenses become, in fact, that essentially every game engine out there is now available for free to developers who want to start using it; revenue models have shifted away from up-front payments or even subscriptions, towards taking a fairly modest share of revenues from successful titles.
It's an appropriate moment, perhaps, to stand back a little bit from this landscape and think about how far we've come. Game engines are seriously complex software platforms; creating a good, flexible engine demands the investment of huge amounts of money and talent, and keeping that engine up-to-date with the latest technologies is no joke either. Engines used to be the jealously guarded crown jewels of a development studio, with each studio "rolling their own", but as the technologies involved became more extensive and complex, that approach has become prohibitively expensive and inefficient for most developers. Today, unless you're building something quite extraordinarily unique, there's little justification for starting a game project from a blank page of C++; a good third-party game engine is the basis of almost every game you'll play this year.
"A moderately talented coder can accomplish things with Unity or Unreal in a matter of days which could have taken a team of geniuses months to get up and running only a few years ago"
That shift has essentially created a layer of abstraction in game creation. Only a couple of decades ago, creating a game of almost any kind demanded writing low-level code "to the metal" - interfacing directly with the hardware of your chosen platform, a technical skill far beyond the grasp of many. APIs like OpenGL and DirectX created a thin layer of abstraction above that complexity, but that's nothing compared to the extraordinary amount of functionality that's provided by a modern game engine. Today's game engines still require a good degree of technical ability for those who want to build top-flight titles, but they also offer the capacity for creative people to dive in and start prototyping and building out levels, gameplay flows and visual or audio design right from the outset of a project. A moderately talented coder can accomplish things with Unity or Unreal in a matter of days which could have taken a team of geniuses months to get up and running only a few years ago.
That transition could have meant locking independent or hobbyist developers out entirely, with the fundamental software required to get a game up and running being hugely expensive and available only under corporate licensing schemes - but instead, the strong competition between game engine companies has driven us towards an altogether brighter reality. Despite the countless hours of extraordinarily talented work that have gone into engines like Unreal, Unity, CryEngine (and its derivative, Amazon's LumberYard) and so on, all of these technology platforms can be downloaded and developed upon for free, whether you're a veteran game creator or an ambitious teenager. A variety of business models have emerged, and continue to emerge, for monetising on successful games built on those platforms - but it's perfectly possible to work with the industry's most cutting edge and accomplished game engines, create a game and not pay a single cent until such time as your game is actually making money.
This is a revolution, and one that's already borne a fair bit of fruit. The extraordinary importance of "indie" games to today's industry - with titles developed well outside the traditional studio and publisher system emerging as critical darlings, commercial successes and platform-supporting pillars - rests in no small measure on the availability of great game engines to creators. This flood of talent and creativity was previously being held back by scarcity; building a beautiful, complex game could only be achieved if you had a startlingly brilliant programmer who could construct an engine that supported your vision, and people with those talents were jealously hoarded by studios for whom they built proprietary technology. Those people are still hugely valuable to the industry, of course - but the best fruits of their labours, the industry's best engine technologies, can be downloaded by anyone for free.
"Today's engines open up game creation to a wider audience than ever before - but it's still not remotely as wide as it could be, or as it will be"
Some creators have compared this to the appearance of relatively compact, low-cost film systems like Super 8 in the late 1960s and early 1970s, a development which fueled an explosion of creativity and experimentation in cinema as young directors got their hands on movie-making tools that had previously demanded huge budgets and studio approval. The comparison is apt in some ways; the proliferation of engine tech has absolutely allowed creative people to build games without "asking permission", and the result has been a broadening and deepening of the very nature of videogames as a medium. It's not wise to draw comparisons too closely between the two fields; videogames in the 2010s are also undergoing a huge upheaval in distribution and a rapid expansion of the audience, both of which were also experienced in film but not simultaneously with the democratisation of film production tools. At the same time, though, it's interesting to note that the real impact of Super 8 and its ilk didn't make itself known for quite a few years. When the directors who grew up experimenting on those formats started churning out blockbusters the likes of which the world had never seen - like Lucas' Star Wars and Spielberg's Jaws - that was when the real impact of opening up production tools started to be felt, and it changed the film medium forever. If games follow a similar path, we're in for an exciting few years ahead.
"It's not hard to imagine that a few years down the line...it would be possible for creative professionals from other fields, with no programming experience...to pick up the tools and start realising their ideas as real, playable, distributable games"
Even if games are on quite a different path (which is possible; Spielberg and Lucas had to wait for studios to acknowledge their skill before changing the world, and I'm not sure today's game creators want or need the permission of such gatekeepers before shaking things up), the coming years will be fascinating anyway - for the simple reason that the creativity unleashed thus far by the opening up of game engines is only the tip of the iceberg. Today's engines open up game creation to a wider audience than ever before - but it's still not remotely as wide as it could be, or as it will be. The coming year will see an explosion of features, already starting to appear here and there, designed to allow creators to prototype, build and modify game objects and environments more easily than before (and here, I believe, VR will be crucial; whether the technology is embraced by consumers or not, creators who work with 3D worlds and objects will very likely be enthusiastic adopters of the headsets as they mature). Real-time collaborative working across the Internet on complex game projects is becoming possible and will eventually be trivial; game logic, already often composed in high-level scripting languages, is slowly being pushed towards visual metaphors and more natural language interpretation.
The benefits of having a highly technically skilled team working on a game won't go away - but alternatives will appear, to a degree we've yet to see. It's not hard to imagine that a few years down the line, the tools for building many types of games will be so accessible and so intuitive that it would be possible for creative professionals from other fields, with no programming experience beyond a basic high school level grounding in basic concepts (and yes, that's also a hurdle we need to overcome), to pick up the tools and start realising their ideas as real, playable, distributable games. That's a real Super 8 moment; a logical endpoint for the democratisation of creative tools that we've seen thus far, and a point where the floodgates of creativity, innovation and imagination will truly be thrown wide open for our industry.
That, I believe, is the path we're on right now - and following the developments and announcements at GDC seems to confirm that direction. Today's indie scene is strong, vibrant and fascinating, but it's only the vanguard of a much bigger, broader movement that's headed our way. VR isn't the only exciting thing at GDC - because right now, everything about the direction of this medium is exciting in its own right.