Why Do People Care So Much About Game Engines?

Why Do People Care So Much About Game Engines?
Image: Ruby Innes / Kotaku Australia

Game engines. Why do they matter to anybody except the people that use them to make games?

I’ve never been able to understand it. I’ve played plenty of great games made in Unity, RPGMaker and more engines that are considered ‘mid’. My philosophy has always been that it doesn’t matter what you use as long as you’re able to make something great with it. A game can be incredibly simple and still be fantastic. A game can have visuals that aren’t the best but still deliver a great experience.

Then I go online. We all know that going online is the biggest mistake that anybody can make when wanting to see something normal. You can be having a completely fine day and then decide to go online and suddenly you’re confronted with Knuckles the Echidna’s cartoon arsehole. It’s not what you wanted to see, but it’s what you got regardless.

So, back to the point, I saw this tweet the other day and it re-ignited the thought about people dunking on game engines back into my mind:

Of course, there are times that using certain game engines to make games have resulted in either a poor product or a hard time for the developer. But discounting a game once you find out it’s being made with an engine that’s very accessible to developers that may not have the money or the technology to use a ‘more superior’ game engine just feels… weird.

Not to mention, is it the game engine’s fault, or the poor use of the game engine? Or even the result of poor treatment of developers? Many factors come into play.

Considering I couldn’t really wrap my head around it, I decided to ask some people with first-hand experience with game engines: game developers. I asked two questions:

  1. What is your perspective on non-game developers’ views towards game engines?
  2. What is the ultimate deciding factor when it comes to choosing a game engine to use?

Here’s what I got.


Julian from Massive Monster, Cult of the Lamb

Question 1:

“Regarding the perspective of non-devs, I feel like Unity has mainly got a lot of hate due to players becoming more aware of engines through the splash screens (which are required if your games are using the free licence, also meaning you have less than $US100K funding), meaning that games without funding are often the ones showing the splash screen. But it is nice giving the players a little insight into the tools we use to make games and showing they can use it too.”

Question 2:

“The deciding factor for us is whatever will be the easiest to use. We’ve used more alternative methods before such as OpenFL framework using Haxe and Stencil, but they are competing with Unity and Unreal, which have hundreds of employees to fix issues or respond to requests. Along with an ecosystem of plugins. We’re not precious about our code or engines, making games is hard enough so as long as it works and is quick to use.”

Marbenx, Shower With Your Dad Simulator 2015

Question 1:

“Sometimes it feels like a non-developer’s understanding of game engines is kinda like someone who’s passionate about eating food trying to make judgements about how a restaurant or commercial kitchen works. You might be able to figure out how a dish is made by looking at it and eating it, but that’s very different to the process of deciding on a menu, ordering and prepping ingredients, hiring staff and actually cooking the dish.

“A person saying ‘I don’t like games made in Unity because it’s a bad engine’ to me is the same as someone refusing any food cooked on a grill because they don’t like the patties in a McDonald’s cheeseburger. A game engine is just a tool. Some types of games might be easier to make with different engines, but in the end a chef’s knife and a pair of scissors can both cut.”

Question 2:

“I’m a solo developer, the main factor for choosing an engine is the speed at which I can make things. Being able to prototype an idea and turn it into something playable as quickly is possible (without having to spend too much time learning something new) is the main reason.”

Docien, Grabtron

Question 1:

“I feel like, in general, people with no game development experience either don’t know what game engines are, or they have a fundamental misconception about what they do. This can lead to some very unfortunate generalisations, like Unity being tied to ‘bad’ or ‘amateurish’ games.

“In reality, Unity just forces you to put its logo on your game unless you pay for a license, so all of the ‘commercially viable’ games that invested into their tools to make a finished, sellable product have the Unity branding removed, and all of the unfinished, joke-y or ultra-low budget games have a Unity splash screen forcefully tied to it.

“The end result this lack of understanding is that when people try to talk about games on a more technical level, they’ll make ambiguous statements about how ‘the engine isn’t good’ or that they ‘need to update the engine’, or something else in that vein.

“To me, it’s like saying that ‘the art sucks because the painter wasn’t using the right paint brush and canvas!’ and it’s like, to a certain extent yeah! You should use the right tools for the job! But using the right brushes won’t stop me from trying to paint with the handles instead the bristles, or from creating poorly composed paintings, or from making bad color choices.

“At the end of the day, people want to honestly talk about and critique games, but they just don’t have the vocabulary for it. It leads to a lot of frustrating conversations.”

Question 2:

“There are a large number of factors when it comes to choosing a game engine. Stuff like deciding what kind of game you actually want to make (2D pixel art? Rigged sprite animations? Realistic 3D? Something very experimental?), the tools/resources it has to offer, or even just the size and reliability of the community.

“At the end of the day though, I just don’t think it matters all that much, as unsatisfying as that answer may be. Of course it would be nonsensical to make your hyper-real 3D FPS in Gamemaker 2 instead of Unreal or Unity, which is where you should research the kind of game you want to make and the various tools available, but past that its not important.

“What really matters is if you’re able to learn and master the engine you’ve chosen. Having a good community, extensive documentation, intuitive tools, anything that makes it easier to create and learn how to create, I think, is the most important thing.”

Caseytube, Sparkour

Question 1:

“I think that games consumers as a whole tend to compartmentalise their problems with individual games into broad categories, things they can visibly see, i.e. Sony vs Xbox, Consoles vs PCs, etc. And game engines, since they’re generally visible at startup, are another one of those things people tend to compatmentalise games with!

“However, that’s a gross simplification of game engines and what they do. Game engines are nothing more than tools to get you from point A to point B! From a game dev’s perspective, it’s just extremely funny to see people debate whether or not a game being made in Unity makes it bad or not. Because generally, they have no idea what they’re talking about!

“If non-devs want to know more, try this anecdote: Apex Legends, one of the most successful Battle Royale shooters with millions of players each month, was made with the Source Engine. The Source Engine has its roots in almost two and a half decades old technology (Quake, and later Goldsrc) and was never built for massive maps!

“It’s map format, BSP, was built for tiny hallways that you lob grenades at demons, not an MMO-sized island with a hundred players, and the engine was never designed to run on Xbox Series, PS5, or Nintendo Switch (that weird mobile version of the game doesn’t count, that was made on Unreal).

“I also know indie devs who are taking that same engine and turning it utterly on it’s head, making games that both visually beautiful, and scores deeper in gameplay. As I said earlier, game engines are a tool, not unlike a woodworker using a band saw over a hand saw, or a miter saw over the former.

“Each tool has it’s benefits and drawbacks, and I’d never use a hand saw to cut a hundred planks of wood, but I’d absolutely use it for one precision-cut plank, and if I’ve got no space for a massive miter saw. If you choose to use Unreal for, let’s say a multiplayer game, you’d have a much better time than say, someone starting from scratch in Unity.”

Question 2:

“I can’t speak for all devs, but if I were I’d say: We like to generally pick an engine for its strengths for our specific game, and something we are personally strong with using. Most of the time, for indie devs, we’re just fucking around in whatever engine we’re most comfortable with, until one day a game starts gestating in front of us, and we just stick with that engine and learn to hone it for that particular idea.

“Pro companies and big dev groups (more than five members, for instance) generally like to plan in advance, so they usually balance the benefits and drawbacks before development starts, experimenting with each engine and figuring out what their best platform will be to develop.

“Although some companies can get weird, I’ve heard of some publishers forcing their devs to use a particular propriety engines because it’s being developed by another one of the publisher’s devs, and that usually spells disaster for those projects. Bureaucracy sucks, leave dev decisions up to the devs, please!

“One thing I want to make absolutely clear though, is that any game dev worth their salt can take any of these and morph them into what they need! I’ve seen people perform miracles with Quake, and I’ve seen massive teams produce absolute garbage with Unreal.

“Ultimately, your game is what you make it, no matter what tech runs it underneath. The surge of boomer shooters we’ve seen in the last few years should make this really evident. Hell, Undertale was made using GameMaker Studio, the same tool I learned how to make crap 2D games in 2006 when I was nine years old at a game dev summer camp!

“So next time you get judgy about a game using a particular game engine, or you praise a game just because it was made on a particular engine, don’t! It’s all about the developer.”

Colestia, Scotty Goes To Centrelink

Question 1:

“Game engines are often a lot messier than non-devs might think. An engine will usually handle lots of complex stuff in the background (e.g. rendering a scene, playing audio). But there are tonnes of things that a game engine can’t do out of the box.

“For example, most 3D game engines don’t have a built-in tool for managing dialogue. In practice, game engines are more like a precarious heap of tools, plugins, and workarounds — ready to fall apart with any software update.”

Question 2:

“If you’re just starting out, I think the biggest factor in choosing an engine is accessibility.

“I made my first games with GameMaker, mainly because it didn’t require coding (these days I’d recommend Bitsy for similar reasons). I stopped using GameMaker in 2015 after it was acquired by an online gambling company.

“I then switched to Unity mainly because it had a huge library of 3rd-party tools (and at the time Unreal Engine still had a 5% royalty fee on all published games, regardless of size). I’ve stuck with Unity since then out of sheer force of habit!”

gbGeorge

Question 1:

“One thing that is really unfortunate about the way game engines are perceived by the larger audience is that each one denotes a certain ‘brand’ or ‘style’ or even a level of quality. Some (Unreal, Unity, etc.) are almost almost even treated like they’re a publisher. This misconception can really hurt the way a creator’s work is perceived publicly.

“One of the two most accurate analogies I can really give to a game engine is that they’re like a tool, and the one that you prefer to use is the tool that feels the most comfortable in your own hands. It might do one or two specific things you need it to handle well out of the box, and might require a little more hands-on work for other aspects.

“The other more literal analogy is that they’re not dissimilar to the program you might use to video edit or make digital art; the significance in what they do differently can come down to the artist and what benefits and shortcomings can empower them or restrain them to create in a way that’s efficient or fulfilling to that artist.”

Question 2:

“Some engines are just accessible to independent creators, like (again) Unity, Game Maker, Godot and these are the ones that are unfortunately held to the most scrutiny, because it becomes very easy for anybody to create their first game without experience, with help from asset stores or built-in packages, and put on Steam and itch along with thousands of other games like it for millions of people to see.

“That then cultivates a perceived ‘brand’ for all games that are built in that engine. Really what you’re seeing in these scenarios is the level of reliance an independent creator can have on a particularly accessible engine — which I firmly believe is actually a good thing. Any tools that we can put in artist’s hands that allow more people to create is always a benefit to that industry or artistic field.

“An engine like Unreal is also built with so many high-powered tools and an empowering publishing pipeline that it really puts releasing a game something anyone can do that, and that’s great. Ultimately, anyone that’s dedicated enough to learn their way around a game engine has what it takes to make it in games if you ask me.”

Mark, Game Maker’s Toolkit

Question 1:

“I think a lot of non-developers carry misconceptions about what game engines are, how they’re used and how they differ. This means they can end up parroting a misinformed stereotype about the Unity engine: that it’s the root cause of poorly made games and the game would be better if it was on a different engine.

“But games like Cities: Skylines, Hearthstone, Subnautica, Pokemon: Brilliant Diamond and Rust clearly show the efficacy of Unity. Crappy games are just the result of using the tool badly, not the tool itself.”

Question 2:

“All game engines have things they’re better at and types of games they’re better suited for. When it comes to picking an engine, it’s usually a case of choosing an engine that will suit the needs of the game you’re making — the scale, scope, 2D versus 3D, platforms you want to support, and so on.

“For newer developers like myself, other factors can play a role like how approachable the engine is, how many tutorials exist for it, and so on.”

Marty from Laundry Games, Sponger

Question 1:

“I’ve found a lot of consumers tend to put a lot of stock in the engine and will write off game engines before seeing what they are fully capable of. To The Moon is a good example of a great game made in RPG maker which lots of people write off as a hobby engine.”

Question 2:

“I know for myself it’s mostly about what my requirements are for the game. I’ve used both Unity and Unreal, but I’m currently working on a really small momentum platformer. For small 2D stuff and prototyping, I love Game Maker Studio 2. It has a lot more potential than people give it credit for and the first thing everyone asks me when they play it is if it’s made in Unity.”


So what I basically got from these game makers is that game engines are just a tool. A hammer can’t hit a nail on its own, there needs to be somebody holding the hammer. But on top of that, the person holding the hammer needs to know how to hit the nail, and how to hit it right.

Makes sense to me!

While I originally thought that I’d leave it at that, I then had a thought. Sure, there are some bozos online that think game engines define games, but is that really how everybody feels? After asking game developers how they really feel, I decided to put the feelers out to gamers as well. Here’s what I asked:

Do you have any strong feelings about what game engines are used to make games, like RPGmaker, Unity, GameMaker, Unreal, etc? If so, why? And if not, why not?

And here’s what the gamers that came to me had to say.

“No, because outside of cases where the engine has a very specific, obvious and limited primary use case (see RPGmaker), gamers have NFI of just what a game engine is capable of, what aspects of it made it the right choice for a project, etc.” – Nathan @ElPrezAU

“A lot of times when playing RPGs in particular, I wish stuff was on a newer engine. Looking at Bethesda games in particular there. Apart from that I quite often can’t tell what engine things are on anymore without checking and IMO that’s a good thing.” – @beardwthahat

“I thought I did. I remember thinking that whatever engine Arkane used felt weird as if I replaced sleep with red bull for a solid week. Then I found out they used a different engine for Dishonoured to Prey. I’m just flailing around because I’m bad.” – @bad_here_day

“Biggest opinion as gamer (and occasional developer) is I care not what engine you use, except that if you’re custom making it you’d better have a damned good reason. After all, all the time you spend on engine dev is time you’re not making the game. Speaking as the fool who has reimplemented way too much on cuberail.games that I could have trusted existing code to do.” – Lachlan @thelochok

“I do not care what engine people use because I’m not a lunatic. IMO people can make cool and fun games using anything. There have been no patterns I’ve noticed that suggest a game engine will affect my enjoyment whatsoever.” – Lucy

“Not really strong feelings per se but I feel as though the RE engine and Northlight engine are currently the only engines that feel AAA, everything else feels like it could be released on PS4 era consoles.”  – Thrillhouse

“I have no particularly strong feelings about the engine a game is made in, unless it’s obviously a Unity Store asset flip. Those are a bit funny.” – Cassie

“I read game press almost daily, and longreads about the making of notoriously delayed or expensive games are the ones that interest me the most. The main issue that tends to come out of these is crunch, and how fairly the staff are treated by studio management. But in my opinion, another major issue is the choice of game engine. Mass Effect Andromeda is forced onto Frostbite and gives the cinematics/animation team major headaches. The new Lego Star Wars opts for a custom engine and protracts development into several delays. Kingdom Hearts 3 switches to Unreal and finally gets pushed out the door. The choice of engine, good or bad, seems to have a cascading effect on the rest of the production, and definitely deserves some scrutiny beyond how it affects the graphics.” – Dale

“If the engine is not noticeable, it doesn’t really matter what engine is used for a game. If the game is immersive enough, it doesn’t matter. As soon as you break the immersion, the flaws in the engine become apparent. GameMaker is more prone to it than Unreal. There’s a stigma around games marketed for using Unity and Unreal engines because they’re free to access and the majority of content using them are amateur-ish. It doesn’t mean that the game is bad, it just comes with some negative connotations. But if it’s not used in the marketing, it’s not brought up as much when discussing game flaws.” – Madison

“People refunding a game because it has the Unity logo on the loading screen if you’re using it for free is dog for indies. Undeserved bad rep. It’s pretty cool that they let you use a good engine for cheap/free and there are plenty of polished games on Unity that people don’t realise are made in Unity because they can afford to license it.” – Mike


This is a topic rife with hot takes, garbage takes, rational takes and more. It’s definitely something that I find very interesting in terms of just how different responses are between literally everybody. Now I leave it to you. If you’ve read this far, great job! You’re now on your way to commenting your opinion in a rational, respectful and thought-provoking way. That’s awesome!

What’s your take on the game engines used to make games? Do you think they’re an indicator of some steaming hot man-mud to come? Or do you think they don’t mean shit? Let us know!

Comments

  • I’m of the opinion that a game engine can only do what it’s designed to do, and I think that’s where the complaints come from. To use hyperbole, you wouldn’t use rpg maker to make a high fidelity action FPS.
    The most complained about engine I’ve seen is Unity, but I imagine that’s because it’s the most accessible and so devs are more likely to attempt to achieve their goals with it when there might be more appropriate engines out there.

    Frankly if you ask me we should just use the Doom engine for everything.

    • “a game engine can only do what it’s designed to do”
      I’m not so sure about that. Back in the day it was always interesting to encounter the odd cases of the original Unreal engine (only really designed for FPS games) being hacked up to make racing games, and even a pinball game, long before it became more of a broad-spectrum utility over the course of its third and fourth major iterations!

      These days both Unreal and Unity cover pretty much all the 3D bases, though the latter seems to have opened up to more of the modding which the former made a name in previously, and anything running on UE4 seems to cause unhappy load times if not installed to a SSD.

      Clearly we’re not just using the Doom engine for everything, but how much stuff even now is still built on parts of Quake II? :p

  • I care about innovation in gfx and game engine technology. For example I LOVE the idea of Nanite and Lumen plus meta-human type technologies creating a massive leap allowing for better graphics on slower hardware!
    I’m not a fan of EPIC at all; mostly because they’re connected to tencent… But the advantages such advancements can bring are fantastic.

    PS. I think UE4 sort of sucks btw! 🙂

  • So it’s not the Bethesda game engine that’s shit?? It just the people using it?

    Interesting take

    I think I’ll just continue to say it’s the Bethesda game engine.

  • Only time i really care about a game engine is if it’s an MMO and its using unreal engine 3. UE3 was never designed to run MMOs and results in lots of bugs and terrible performance.

    So if a new MMO comes out and its running UE3 i know to avoid it.

    • UE4 was not designed for MMO’s either and some games do use it for that purpose such as Mortal Online 2 which is slated to move to UE5 eventually.

      • Heck isn’t even something like Sea of Thieves a bit of a UE4 kitbash? Pretty sure that’s why some of the long-standing issues, along with the extreme delays with adding some features back in that had to be removed in a switch from Unity much earlier in development!

  • I don’t know… The limitations of the engine always show through to me. Then there’s the overall look or things like slow texture pop in on loading a level/area from UE3 as an example.

    I mainly get annoyed at an old engine being used because I constantly want something new from gaming in every way possible (intentional retro or indie games are fine of course). That’s why the tech in UE5 is exciting to me even though I don’t really like Epic as a company.

  • I like making stuff in Unity, mainly because of probuilder.
    I also like Microsoft MakerCode for smaller 2D stuff.

  • Personal Opinion:
    I hate Unity. Why?
    Because out of EVERY Unity based game I have played, on both PC and Mobile, they are always either incredibly laggy, buggy, or straight up unstable. Granted in some cases this is possibly the fault of the developer of the game (I’m looking at you Niantic), but I have never had a good experience with Unity in any of its forms.

    A few years ago I tried to play some web game that required the “unity web engine” well, that was an absolute joke. It didn’t run in Firefox, edge or opera, lagged like hell in IE, and caused chrome to crash on load. So that too hurt Unity in my experience.

    I’ve used at least 20 different games that run on unity, and all of them have been terrible in one way or another. And I’m pretty sure Unity is to blame, because so many different games from many different developers all have the same issues.

    Either way, just my experience, but it was not a good experience.

    • Vast majority of games are using older Unity3D builds which was early day crapola. Some new ones that have come out are using newer builds which is good. Unity3D has matured quite well, still not state of the art next-gen features like UE5 but good for smaller/simpler game titles, or stuff like top down stuff etc..

  • I’ll take the interviews and tweets I’ve read from Devs complaining about various game engines and the quirks, shortcomings and outright failures baked into some of them.

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