A little over a year ago, I conducted a survey of senior technology- and production-focused game developers, asking them their thoughts about game engines. The results were published on Gamasutra in March 2009, in two large articles, one covering the general results and the other touching on the technology-specific results.
Since that time I've been thinking about engines a lot, and talking to engine developers, but haven't spent much time writing about the space apart from a presentation I did for GDC China.
Doing the survey again this year didn't seem like a good idea, since frankly a mere one year gap is rather short for this space. I'm not sure the results would be particularly different or interesting compared to last year's. So instead I decided to write each of the game engine manufacturers and get an update from them, to share with you in this blog post. How have their engines evolved in the past year? What titles came out that highlight their engines the best? And what are they showing off at GDC 2010?
Unfortunately not all of these engines are showing publicly at GDC. But I hope that this summary article helps you in your quest to find a game engine. You may notice that both Epic's Unreal Engine and Valve's Source Engine are missing from this list - they both are behind closed doors at the show, and making some significant press releases over the next few days, so I felt comfortable letting them speak for themselves. In this piece, the engines are ordered roughly by the size of their GDC presence. In this post I will cover:
Last year at GDC 2009, Crytek showed CryENGINE 3 to the public for the first time. The introduction of a viable version of CryENGINE (used for games such as Crysis and Crysis Warhead) for the next-gen consoles was met with enthusiasm, and the booth presentation focused heavily on the CryENGINE 3 Sandbox world building tool as well as the ability to rapidly preview CryENGINE content on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. The level of graphics fidelity for this cross-platform engine was clearly extraordinarily high.
Since that time, Crytek hasn't been resting on its laurels. In August 2009 at GDC Europe, the company showed off its LiveCreate technology, improving that same live-preview technology for PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 by allowing level preview for all platforms to be driven simultaneously from a single development PC.
The full version of CryENGINE 3 was released from development to partners in September 2009. Crysis 2is planned to be the first console game that will ship on CryENGINE 3; it is currently expected in late 2010.
In November 2009, Crytek announced that they were making CryENGINE 3 available to educational institutions free of charge. The CryENGINE 3 Education SDK is designed to enable educators to more easily teach their students about state-of-the-art game development tools and production practices.
This year at GDC 2010, Crytek is planning to highlight the addition of stereoscopic 3D capability to their engine. They have the largest open booth of all the engine providers and will be showing the new engine running on PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 using LiveCreate. They'll be hosting a series of public presentations in their booth during the duration of the conference.
Last year at GDC 2009, Unity Technologies launched Unity 2.5, the first version of Unity for Windows. Up until this point the engine and tool had been available purely on the Mac. The Windows version suddenly opened up Unity to a much wider development community.
In October 2009, at Unity's annual "Unite" conference, the company announced Unity 2.6, which improved background loading, added a profiling tool, included an animation editor, and added support for external version control. In addition, Unity announced Xbox 360 support, and declared that the indie version of Unity would now be free.
Just before GDC 2010 kicked off, Unity announced Unity iPhone 1.6, which adds .NET 2.1 support for the iPhone version, reduces the binary size of applications by up to 25%, and adds in the core networking features of other versions of Unity, allowing the developer to offer multiplayer gameplay over Wi-Fi or 3G.
At the time of this writing, over 100,000 people have downloaded and installed Unity, and more than 600 applications have been published to the iPhone app store using the iPhone version of Unity.
At GDC 2010, we can expect to see a preview of Unity 3.0 (summer availability) in their booth, which includes a unified editor, source-level debugging, and a deferred rendering system. Unity is also announcing availability of Unity for Android, iPad and PlayStation 3! We'll certainly see highlights of the content produced in the past year for the web, Xbox 360, Wii, and iPhone in their booth as well.
Perhaps the marquee title for Unity this past year has been EA's Tiger Woods PGA Tour Online. Pushing the Tiger Woods console/PC experience to the web was no small task, and seeing EA adopt Unity for the title adds even more credibility to the use of Unity for a modern 3D gameplay experience on the web. On the iPhone side, games such as Tumbledrop (written by an artist with no prior programming experience) and Star Wars: Trench Run show off the capabilities and ease of use of the platform, while Max and the Magic Marker really shows off its cross-platform nature, shipping for PC, Mac, WiiWare, and web.
Last year at GDC 2009, what was most remarkable for me about Trinigy's engine was its use in the Autodesk booth for some of the Autodesk middleware demos. It seemed a quiet yet powerful nod of the head to the capabilities of the Vision Engine to see a large company using it publicly on the show floor.
Since then, Trinigy has been quite busy, announcing a raft of partnerships with middleware technology and service providers such as Morpheme, Havok, Fork Particle and Mixamo. In September 2009, Trinigy announced Vision Engine 7.6, which added DirectX 11 support, a new PS3 renderer, optimized deferred rendering and extended LUA integration.
In February 2010, Trinigy announced Vision Engine 8, adding the "WebVision" downloadable plug-in to enable Trinigy-based web games. The core of the engine also added enhanced multithreading support, extended physics integration for both Havok and PhysX, a new post-processing framework, and a new audio system. Updates to the toolset include a new Lua debugger and Perforce integration, among other things.
At GDC, expect to see Trinigy highlighting Vision Engine 8 and WebVision games, as well as two retail titles coming out in the next few months: Settlers 7 from Ubisoft, and Arcania from Spellbound. Many of Trinigy's partners will also be appearing in Trinigy's booth over the course of the conference.
At GDC 2009, I personally found myself a little unclear about what products GarageGames was offering. There seemed to be a handful of engines available for various platforms, and for varying purposes. This past year has seen a change in leadership in the company, with Louis Castle coming in as CEO and Eric Preisz as division leader for Torque. With these new additions has come a renewed focus, and the company seems to be moving with velocity again, refining their engines and clarifying their marketing message.
This past year has seen the release of Torque 3D in September 2009 (as well as a 1.1 beta update which added whiteboxing capabilities, the Bullet physics library, and prefab stamping), iTorque 2D and 3D updates, Torque 2D previews, and updates to the Xbox 360 version. Of course GarageGames was one of the first to bring 3D to the web with InstantAction.com, and this past year has seen a renewed focus on this product as well, reducing download time and adding improved support for game persistence in the cloud.
At GDC 2010 you can expect to see many demos in the Torque booth. They'll be showing off the full capabilities of Torque 3D, previews of Torque 2D, examples of iPhone games that have shipped with iTorque, and of course InstantAction.com. Also expect to see demos of the full development environment so you can see how easy it is to put a game together using Torque. They'll also be highlighting their high-quality graphics capabilities through a deferred rendering pipeline.
It has been a busy year for Torque, with management changes and a move to Las Vegas. But that hasn't slowed down the number of games using their engines. For a full list visit their website, but notable titles this past year have included Mass Effect Galaxy for iPhone, and the Penny Arcade Adventures series.
Gamebryo LightSpeed (3.0) was launched at GDC 2009, bringing greater real-time feedback and rapid prototyping capabilities to Gamebryo 2.6. Since GDC 2009, Emergent has been working on a significant number of enhancements focusing around rapid development. Working tightly with external developers has enabled Emergent to focus on what is most important to developers, and has also given them some improved prototypes and demos as part of their development kit.
The latest version of Gamebryo LightSpeed, version 3.1.1, includes the capability to do whiteboxing inside the Toolbench tool. By sketching out the level with rough shapes, the designer can test out level designs without the need to create complex art. When satisfied, the designer can export these rough shapes out to the DCC tool in FBX format to make creating the final art easier. Lua debugger integration and enhancements to the entity modeling tool make it easier to create new objects, or customize existing ones for your game's unique needs.
One of Gamebryo's strong features has always been its close partnerships with middleware companies. Over the past year, increased partnership with Audiokinetic, Xaitment, Pixelux, and Fork Particle (among others) has increased the capabilities of Gamebryo LightSpeed, allowing developers to use tools they are already familiar with.
Emergent has also made changes to the way it provides its SDK to developers this past year. Previously they shipped just two heavily-tested releases each year. Now developers will have access via Subversion to a monthly drop of the development build, allowing them to update more frequently if they like, or at the least have greater clarity over the direction of the engine so they can plan their title development appropriately.
Emergent has seen significant growth in Korea and China this past year, but few of these titles have come over to the U.S. In the U.S., games like the fantasy-themed MMO Freaky Creatures, free-to-play Dragonica Online from THQ-ICE, and Project Runway on the Wii have all used Gamebryo.
For more information on Gamebryo LightSpeed, check out their Direct3D 11 demo and video in the Nvidia booth, the tech talk in the Nvidia theater, or drop by the Emergent meeting room to arrange a meeting.
Terminal Reality launched their Infernal Engine just before GDC 2009. The past year seems to have been quite good for the company, with well-known studios committing to use their technology, and strong games coming out on the Infernal Engine.
Ghostbusters: The Video Game shipped for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC in June 2009, providing a high-profile example of what the engine is capable of. These high-end versions of the game were joined by versions for PlayStation 2, Wii, PSP, and DS, adding strong credibility to the claim that the engine is exceptionally capable of handling highly cross-platform titles.
The Infernal Engine is entirely custom code, requiring no other middleware – it includes its own rendering system, physics, audio, and AI. The latest version of Infernal has significant upgrades in both animation and lighting systems. The animation system includes hierarchical animation state graphs, partial hierarchy blending, animation source re-targeting, and an integrated character runtime with physics, events, and posing. The updated lighting system has added screen space ambient occlusion, realistic global illumination, and per-pixel motion blur, greatly enhancing the quality of the visuals.
Recently, Terminal Reality announced support for Intel's new Core i7 980X, a six-core, 12-thread CPU, showing the flexibility of the engine and its capability to be easily ported forward to future highly-parallel platforms. Observant readers may have noticed frequent articles from Intel covering Terminal Reality and the Infernal Engine, highlighting the strong partnership between Intel and Terminal Reality, which can only serve to benefit Infernal licensees working on PC-based SKUs.
In August 2009, High Voltage Software announced a long-term agreement for a lifetime license of the Infernal Engine. At GDC 2010, we may see the first results of this partnership, with High Voltage's The Grinder expected to be showcased in the engine's booth and talks, highlighting the new rendering system.
For more information on the Infernal Engine, be sure to attend the Infernal Engine presentation below.
Last year at GDC 2009 there were some rumors flying around that perhaps Ready at Dawn was getting serious about licensing its engine. The developer of Daxter and God of War: Chains of Olympus for PSP certainly had some hits under its belt, as well as a strong team and a lot of credibility. In October 2009, they jumped into the engine market with an offering for Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PSP.
The Ready at Dawn engine is tightly bound to Autodesk's Maya, and also integrated with Perforce, but apart from those two packages the engine is designed completely as an all-in-one solution, giving the developer a tight suite of tools that does not rely on any other middleware.
The engine is modular, task-driven, and data-driven, yet does not rely on scripting languages as many engines do. Having open scripting languages for non-programmers to use in the production workflow can be a source of headaches and bugs, so Ready at Dawn's engine instead focuses around the use of programmer-created modules which can then be combined inside of the engine's editing environment by the designers.
Complete access to the source code of both engine and tools is provided to licensees, and updates are distributed via Perforce in both stable and unstable branches so the developer can choose their tech based on their own comfort level, and also more easily plan out the development of their title based on engine dependencies.
The Ready at Dawn engine hasn't been shown much publicly, which makes GDC 2010 all the more valuable. Check out their presentations at the Autodesk booth during the show.
Digital Extremes' Evolution Engine launched at GDC 2009, with a series of private showings in a suite. Clearly Digital Extremes has a long history of technology excellence, having been involved in the development of many versions of the Unreal franchise as well as the gorgeous BioShock, so there was excitement about the availability of their engine for licensing. Aside from the great look of the engine and toolset at the conference, Digital Extremes focused highly on their software engineering expertise, emphasizing test-driven development and automated build processes.
In the past year, Digital Extremes has been working on improving the engine's performance, making the engine more relevant to a greater variety of games, and improving the tool chain. For example, moving level and texture decompression to the SPUs on PS3 has improved run-time performance; on the other hand, a project to accelerate skinning by using the SPUs proved less useful – however, source code to even their research projects is available to licensees, so if a technology proves more useful for your particular game, you can benefit greatly from work they've done which hasn't been incorporated into the core.
Another graphics research project this past year involved deferred lighting and deferred rending. While creating an impressive look for some types of games, other games are suited more toward traditional forward rendering. As a result the forward-rendering pipeline will primarily be supported going forward, but the deferred rendering code, again, is available in their latest source-code drop and could prove useful for some titles.
In the tool chain, updates to the Lua integration and user interface systems this year have resulted in efficiency improvements. The most significant addition to their Lua system is a fully-functioning script debugger with breakpoints, variable inspection and crash handling. For in-game user interface, the Evolution engine now incorporates Flash playback and ActionScript (negating the need to purchase other middleware for this purpose). All the Lua functionality is exposed to ActionScript and vice versa, allowing the developer to implement game logic in Lua and UI code in Flash/ActionScript, without having to worry too much about compartmentalization.
Aside from the engine technology itself, the Evolution engine continues to have a heavy focus on software engineering and reliability. This year there has been a renewed focus on build times, one of the banes of many a game. Digital Extremes claims incremental build link times under 20 seconds on all platforms, which is almost unheard of. Be sure to get in touch with to see it at the show!
Vicious Engine 2 (VE2) launched at GDC 2009, initially for PC, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. Over the course of this past year, Vicious Cycle has broadened support of VE2 to include PlayStation 2, Wii, and PSP, making it one of the more highly cross-platform engines available.
Vicious Cycle, creators of Vicious Engine 2, were acquired by D3Publisher in June 2007, and D3Publisher was acquired by Namco Bandai in March 2009, so there has been some concern about the continued availability of Vicious Engine. But the team assures me it is still available and being actively licensed, so be sure to get in touch with them at the show!
VE2 is designed as an all-in-one game engine, requiring no use of external middleware. The engine is mostly designed for third-person action games and platformers, as evidenced by this year's title Matt Hazard: Blood Bath and Beyond for XBLA. In trailers for this game, the developers' work on their lighting system and physics are quite apparent. Their latest titles include ambient occlusion (added to the engine this past year), and the new physics and ragdoll effects of Matt Hazard are very over-the-top.
Several areas the engine team is particularly proud of are the improved LOD and occlusion systems and the configurable, data-driven rendering, which allows game teams to create very unique art styles for their games entirely inside of the VE2 toolset. Vicious Cycle is also focusing quite heavily on streamlining and enhancing the networking code in VE2, allowing for more active enemies in multiplayer titles as well as the addition of online multiplayer co-op.
While Vicious Cycle doesn't have an open booth at GDC 2010, their presence will be seen at the show with sponsorships and banners. If you'd like to take a closer look at VE2, be sure to email them to set up a meeting!
Last year, prior to GDC 2009, I was unaware that Blitz Game Studios was licensing its game engine, so I failed to include them in the game engine survey. But in the year since, I've met with them numerous times, and have been impressed with the engine's graphical fidelity and cross-platform ability. Blitz consistently pushes their engine to cover new technologies, starting last year at GDC 2009 as the first game engine to include support for stereoscopic 3D.
One of their key focuses this year is driven by the innovations from Sony and Microsoft, both of whom are pushing new control technologies. While the two new control technologies (Project Natal and the PlayStation Motion Controller) are not terribly similar in terms of player experience, a lot of the underlying technology is, centering around image and motion analysis. BlitzTech supports both Project Natal and the PlayStation Motion Controller as standard, including a toolkit so developers can get moving right away.
BlitzTech is a very cross-platform game engine, and this past year Blitz has been seeking to extend games beyond the consoles, to web and mobile. Saying that your game engine supports "online" means more these days than it used to, and having an engine that is capable of supporting web and mobile clients and the sharing of data between all of these clients will be increasingly important. We'll look forward to seeing more from Blitz on this front in the near future.
Of course the core engine technology is also under continuous improvement, and over the past year BlitzTech has implemented refinements to real-time lighting, and improved multi-core support. They've also improved their animation pipeline, enhancing real-time animation authoring and retargeting.
A game that highlights the use of BlitzTech is the upcoming Dead to Rights: Retribution from Namco Bandai. For more information about BlitzTech or to have a look at it behind the scenes during GDC 2010, be sure to contact the team using the email address above.