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What’s In an Engine?

Gamers don’t have to worry about what engine their favourite games run on. Not usually. Not like a few years ago.

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The engine is like sound or editing – if it’s doing its job, you don’t even really notice it exists. And yet engines are right at the forefront of conversation again thanks to the Matrix interactive trailer released last week.

It was mind-bending. I don’t want to take anything away from it, because I still can’t quite get my head around it. Check it out if you can – it’s an incredible sign of things to come.

Yes, it’s in part down to the engine, although if you think other engines couldn’t achieve the same things in a different way, you’re kidding yourself. What the Matrix clip is doing is saying “Hey developers, look at what you can do – come use Unreal.”

Other engines don’t advertise themselves that way. Only Epic have that special relationship with Sony where they’ll very carefully choose the most controversial phrasing to generate the most conversation. Only Epic team up with moviemakers to tie-in with a film.

It wasn’t long ago you could tell an Unreal game by its colour palette and the way characters moved or looked. In the mid-PS3 generation, people were tired of Unreal – likely exaggerated due to the competition between Gears and Uncharted.

Now it allows you to do anything. Filmmakers are using it. Game developers are using it. Just about anybody with any need to utilise computer generated imagery can viably use Unreal. That should be advertising enough.

Unreal Unity

This is in my mind because the team behind the new Mass Effect is hiring for Unreal. That means the next game will not be in the Frostbite engine used to power Andromeda and the latest Battlefront/Battlefield games.

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This is huge news (although I still argue it shouldn’t be). EA were accused of forcing BioWare to use Frostbite for Andromeda, something that isn’t true. The engine caused problems, but the choice to use it was on the developers.

By using Unreal instead, they can focus on developing the game instead of focussing on getting the engine doing what it needs to do.

The issue is that a lot of these propriety engines are falling by the wayside, and it’s usually because they’re just too damn unwieldy for anything short of a full-time team to look after.

The Final Fantasy team had their own engine. They abandoned it for Final Fantasy VII Remake after using it for Final Fantasy XV. That game famously had issue after issue and the content that we got was made relatively shortly before release.

Microsoft’s Slipspace engine reportedly added to the $500m cost of Halo Infinite, a number that is highly dubious in the first place. But for the sake of talking engines, it’s worth mentioning. What did Slipspace allow them to do that Unreal wouldn’t? It means extra work, more control over the coding perhaps? Certainly means not giving money to Epic on a flagship game, but that’s not something Microsoft seems overly concerned with.

When was the last time someone spoke about Unity in a positive light? Or any of the other dozens of little engines that at one point was par for the course at every developments house in the world?

Conclusion

Cost to keep engines state-of-the-art is going up. Time needed to develop games is going up, and you’re better creating the game than debugging your propriety engine.

But when things are increasingly falling on Unreal, will there come a point where it is the standard engine? Can Epic be trusted with that responsibility? And, most worryingly, what will happen if they suddenly withdraw support  for whatever reason?

What’s in an engine? It’s a question nobody on this side of the gaming industry should have to worry about. Just play the games and, if the engine is doing its job, you shouldn’t have to think about it at all.

And yet there are bigger things going on that deserve at least a little bit of attention – attention that is diverted by blockbuster trailers.

 

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blank Mat Growcott has been a long-time member of the gaming press. He's written two books and a web series, and doesn't have nearly enough time to play the games he writes about.

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