What are Game Engines?
You might have heard the term before but never really knew what a “game engine” is exactly.
Perhaps the best way to understand is by learning what their purpose is.
A game engine is the architecture that developers use to run the game.
Your average game engine provides developers with a way to add things like:
- collision detection
- artificial intelligence
- and more without the need to program them
Why Are They Important?
Game engines are reusable components developers use to build the framework of the game.
This gives them more time to focus on the unique elements like character models, textures, how objects interact, etc.
If everyone made their games from scratch without the help of excellent game engines, games would take longer and be more difficult to make.
That being said, there are still plenty of large companies and even indie teams that create their engines.
Creating one of the best video game engines is no easy task but sometimes necessary if the game is different enough that no existing engines will work.
Which Games Engines are Most Popular?
1. Unreal Engine
One of the most popular and widely used game engines is the Unreal Engine by Epic Games.
The original version was released in 1998 and 17 years later it continues being used for some of the biggest games every year.
Notable titles made with Unreal Engine include the Gears of War series, Mass Effect series, Bioshock series, and the Batman: Arkham series.
The strength of the Unreal Engine is its ability to be modified enough that games can be made into very unique experiences.
However, there are other engines available that are easier for new designers.
One of them is Unity, a multi-platform game engine that allows you to create interactive 3D content with ease.
A lot of indie developers use Unity for its excellent functionality, high-quality content, and ability to be used for pretty much any type of game.
Recent notable titles made with Unity include Lara Croft Go, Her Story, Pillars of Eternity, and Kerbal Space Program.
One of the best things about Unity 5 is the Personal Edition, which is free for everyone to download.
It includes the engine with all features and can (for the most part) be used to make games on every platform.
The problem is that the Professional Edition, which has a host of excellent tools, requires that you pay a monthly fee.
These features include beta access, game performance reporting, customizable splash screens, a team license, and more.
Unlike most other game engines, GameMaker: Studio has become widely used because it doesn’t require programming knowledge to use.
Instead, users can “point-and-click” to create games much easier and faster than coding with native languages.
Some of the best titles made with GameMaker include Spelunky, Hotline Miami, Super Crate Box, and the upcoming Hyper Light Drifter.
GameMaker is popular because you can make a game without having to learn a programming language first, and those that do have coding experience can use it to make their game better.
The problem with GameMaker and other point-and-click engines is that developers are much more limited than with other engines.
And while there is a free version, getting the most out of GameMaker requires you to buy either the Professional or Master Collection versions.
The Godot engine is great for making both 2D and 3D games. The engine “provides a huge set of common tools, so you can just focus on making your game without reinventing the wheel.”
It’s free to use and it’s open-source through the MIT license. No royalties, no subscription fees, no hidden strings—whatever you develop through the Godot engine is yours.
Godot has a community that’s constantly fixing bugs and developing new features, which is always a good sign. An active community means answers to even your most specific Godot-related questions.
Godot also links out to its other internet HUBS, including Reddit forums, Facebook groups, steam community, the Godot forums, and more.
“AppGameKit is an easy to learn game development engine, ideal for Beginners, Hobbyists & Indie developers.” Does that sound like you?
AppGameKit focuses on quickly coding and building apps and being able to share them across platforms. This rapid iteration and cross-platform sharing is geared towards mobile game development, but handles most platforms:
- iPhones and iPads
- HTML5 Browsers
- Raspberry Pi
AppGameKit costs $79.99, with options to bundle the base product with add-ons, like the Visual Editor, to save money on both products.
The Best Video Game Engines
The CryEngine platform is free to use.
You get the full engine source code and all the engine features without having to pay any license fees, royalties, or other hidden fees.
The CryEngine is a visually stunning engine. The graphics are beautiful and the characters are life-like.
You can use CryEngine to develop for several different platforms:
- Xbox One
- PlayStation 4
- Windows PC
- Oculus Rift
That’s right—if you were looking to dive into the world of virtual reality game creation, CryEngine has you covered.
In addition to the engine itself, CryEngine also provides plenty of free learning resources. Tutorials, forums, and documentation give you the tools you need to get started. Because of the power behind the engine, there’s a bit of a learning curve. YouTube and the official CryEngine resources are your friends, here.
If you’re looking for a shortcut for in-game assets, you can likely find it in the marketplace. The Cryengine marketplace offers packages like “mountain cottage” or “space soundtrack” in exchange for money. There are also assets available for free, like the “CryEngine V Beginners Pack” and the “Explosives” pack.
7. Amazon Lumberyard
Amazon Lumberyard is the engine built by Amazon (as the name suggests). According to the site, Lumberyard is “Free. Powerful. Fully Customizable.” The game engine has “no royalties or seat fees, frictionless integration with Twitch and AWS, plus much more on the horizon.”
From books to other physical products, to groceries—everything Amazon touches seems to get…easier? More convenient?
AWS stands for Amazon Web Services—a secure cloud platform built and maintained by Amazon. Integration through Lumberyard means it’s easy to get build a game with online play. The only catch is the AWS services through Amazon cost money. Still, you can pick your plan (or not include online play at all).
If multiplayer games are your thing, Lumberyard has the tools in place for you to make that happen.
There is a “Getting Started Guide” video series for Lumberyard which will get you up to speed and walk you through building your first game prototype with the engine.
8. RPG Maker
The best thing about RPG maker is the same reason why it occasionally gets a bad rap—just about anyone can use it to create a game.
The software is designed to let you build a complete game, from start to finish (even if you don’t know anything about game programming).
“The RPG Maker series allows you to customize every aspect of your game with an easy-to-use interface, making it perfect for beginners yet powerful enough for experts.”
There are several RPG Maker products. RPG Maker MV costs $79.99. There’s a free trial option for Windows users.
“Libgdx is a Java game development framework that provides a unified API that works across all supported platforms.”
API is the abbreviation for application programming interface—having a single API makes libGDX a great choice for cross-platform development. It doesn’t matter which platform you’re targeting: Windows, iOS, Linux, Mac OS, etc. all use the same API.
LibGDX allows you to run and debug your game natively on your desktop. This makes it easy to generate rapid iterations of your game and test the changes quickly (since you won’t need to fire up iOS/Android etc. to test those changes).
You can download LibGDX with the help of their setup app.
“Urho3D is a free lightweight, cross-platform 2D and 3D game engine implemented in C++ and released under the MIT license.”
The Urho3D wiki contains everything you need to get started with the engine, including How-To Guides for setting upon:
- Windows with Visual Studio
- Windows with MinGW
There are walkthroughs for creating your first project, and several other forum topics ranging from cutting holes in terrain to developing basic material effects for rendering.
Urho3D is currently on version 1.7, and as we mentioned earlier it’s completely free to download.
There’s a long list of credits and an actively contributing community.
The website has a complete list of features, including the version in which those features were first implemented.
Urho3D also addresses its limitations, including the fact you’ll need skills in “C++ for performance-critical code and improving existing subsystems such as networking, physics, and animation, depending on your needs.” The brief limitations list is available in full on their site.
The Best Engines to Make Mobile Games
I think it is no surprise that the emphasis on game development with these engines lies primarily with PC game development and the like.
But what are some good engines for mobile games? You need to have a solid foundation on which to build on. Sure, you can use the Unreal Engine to create some seriously stunning visuals on your PC, but what is the ‘secret sauce’ for mobile design?
Here are some of the better engines for mobile. I will include the supported mobile platforms.
As stated before, let’s focus on the mobile aspect instead of the impressive list of PC-based games. Unity has been blazing a trail through gaming and has become one of what I like to call the ‘Big Two’: Unreal and Unity engines.
Nearly half of the mobile games being made today have used Unity as their engine. It’s a cross-platform engine that gives the user access to the Unity store: a place where assets can be used for your game.
Unity is supported on iOS, Android, Windows Phone, Tizen, and Fire OS.
This is the heavy hitter these days, seemingly everywhere we look. But it’s a good thing, especially for mobile users.
Unreal Engine has become more streamlined for easier use, and now is a good time as any to get on the Unreal bandwagon. The graphics you will be able to make, along with the documentation and 2D and 3D capabilities make Unreal a slam dunk.
Unreal is on Xbox One, PS4, PC, iOS, Android, Mac OS X, Linux, and VR.
This is an engine developed by Apple and is exclusively on Apple devices. It has a lot of depth for a free application and can help you develop a 2D title in no time. You will have a great support system in the form of Apple, and iOS is solid.
This is the perfect engine if you are looking to break out onto the app market, especially on the Apple store.
It is a free download for iOS.
Now, this is what I’m talking about. You don’t exactly need to know how to code to access the best that this engine has to offer. It is as easy as just cutting and pasting assets.
They advertise as being able to create 3D and 2D titles without coding at all. The great graphical quality of the assets is super attractive and adds a great style to your arsenal. This is perfect for those new to game design and developing things for mobile platforms. Check out Bruce Lee Dragon Run!
As of right now, it’s on iOS and is offered as Plus, Indie, and Pro plans priced at $15, $35, and $99 respectively.
5. Corona SDK
Corona SDK uses Lua as its programming language, which can be a breath of fresh air for those game developers who need a little break from the more programming languages.
It allows for great app development on the engine, allowing the designer to include all the bells and whistles we are used to as mobile phone users.
Corona SDK is found on iOS, Android, Kindle, and Windows Phone.
6. Marmalade SDK
Marmalade SDK is an engine by Marmalade Technologies Limited.
Marmalade Games has had a hand in making some iconic adaptations of board games like Clue, Life, and Battleship for mobile devices, so you know what it is capable of. The engine’s philosophy is called ‘write once, run everywhere’, AKA writing the game assets and the like in one form and being able to run it on many different platforms.
It utilizes C++ as its chief programming language.
Since it’s a proprietary license, you will be doling out some coin on this bad boy. We’re talking hundreds of dollars. However, if you are a serious game designer, no price is too great to get your vision across.
It is supported on Android, BlackBerry 10, iOS, LG Smart TV, Tizen, Mac OS X, Windows Desktop, Roku 2, Roku 3, and Windows Phone 8.
This is a great little cross-platform engine. It caters to all levels of game designers, from the beginner to the expert.
AppGameKit utilizes Vulkan as its coding language and doubles down on its cross-platform support. You can get started easily, have everything running quickly, and branch out to different platforms, achieving a large amount of exposure for your game.
It is supported on Windows Phone, iOS, Android, and Blackberry.
8. Clickteam Fusion
Clickteam Fusion is a fun engine supported by even more fun and creative team. Ever hear of Five Nights at Freddie’s? Yep, made with the Fusion engine.
This engine comes chock full of graphical assets already made and ready to be put to use. It has an integrated physics engine and a great community, to boot.
It is available on iOS, Android, and Windows. You can even get it on Steam.
9. GameMaker Studio 2
GameMaker Studio 2 is an engine from Yoyo Games. It’s the second iteration of GameMaker Studio and comes with an import feature so your previous projects with the first one can be up and running in no time.
The time it takes to develop a 2D game using this engine is pretty quick, emphasizing a drag and drop feature for their assets, making the workflow much more dynamic and robust.
The community is vast, and you can find multiple resources across social media.
You can find GameMaker Studio 2 on Android, iOS, Windows Phone, Tizen, Amazon Fire, and PS Vita.
10. Construct 2
What better than an HTML-based engine to wrap up the list? Construct 2 doesn’t hinge on your ability to code. Sign me up!
If you are much more familiar with HTML5, this could well be the mobile game engine to pick. Not only do you not need to code to create 2D games in Construct, but it runs pretty well, and has cross-platform support.
You can find Construct 2 on iOS, Android, Windows Phone, and web browsers.
Whatever you ultimately choose, there is a whole slew of engines that can be tailored to your specific needs for mobile game development.
Whether it’s Unity, Unreal, or Clickteam Fusion, there is truly an engine out there for every type of designer and creative type. Some are pricier than others, with some having proprietary licenses instead of being open source.
If you’re willing to part with some money, (or not), you can build on your portfolio of creative works by creating a great little mobile game to bring in players.
Guide to Open Source Game Engines
Open Source software has been a blessing for game designers and gamers alike. It allows designers to use the source code to modify and create to their heart’s content.
The best time to get involved with game development is unquestionably right now. There are tons of options to choose from. Specifically, open-source game engines.
Open source engines truly are ‘open’, with developers freely sharing info, bug fixes, assets, and more. This has paved the way for some seriously creative games being developed by determined people utilizing both 2D Open Source Game Engines and 3D Open Source Game Engines.
Here are some of the best options for open source game engines you can use currently.
Godot has been becoming more popular in recent years. Arguably the biggest draw to Godot is its status with the MIT license.
As stated, it’s free of subscriptions and charges. This could be a huge draw to game designers that are starting and want to dip their toes in the water without feeling like they are being thrown into the deep end, both financially and developmentally.
Godot can make both 2D and 3D games, making it versatile and multifaceted with its assets and tools.
Also, the community is a big aspect. The forums and subreddits are always populated by informative FAQs and other posts. I believe that Godot will become even more popular going into 2020, as its community is passionate, its constant fixes and developer support, and its great interface will easily propel it to be a heavy hitter on the game development scene.
2. Spring Engine
The Spring engine is a game engine specifically aimed towards RTS creation, specifically 3D RTS games.
Using the specific code, Lua, Spring engine makes nearly everything customizable. For control freaks like me, that is a godsend! If you are a fan of RTS gems like Age of Empires or Halo Wars, Spring engine might be exactly what you are looking for when developing your title.
Spring engine emphasizes that the capability of in-game assets, (i.e. unit sizes, etc.), is only limited by your own PC’s power, giving you the potential for some seriously large battles in your created game. It was written using many different programming aspects, including C++, OpenGL, FreeType2, and more.
Spring engine is completely free, but I recommend throwing a few dollars the developer’s way to show some love from one gamer to others!
3. Panda 3D
Panda touts that ‘it just works’, and it’s true. Panda stresses great visualizations, flexibility, and more. They aim to be the ‘most flexible’ game engine out there, and so far, they are making a pretty decent case for it.
Like many great open-source game engines, Panda 3D can run on nearly every major platform. This adds valuable versatility to both the programmer as well as the player of the game.
Panda 3D wants you to know it is geared towards tinkerers; those game developers that aren’t satisfied with merely thinking, building and finishing. No, Panda 3D wants you to look under the hood of your project, exploring all of its features and what it has to offer.
Panda 3D also allows for support with assets from other game engines, like Bullet, allowing for more flexibility, the very thing they emphasize.
As a designer, you can have direct control over nearly every aspect of the building process, with everything you need being in close contact, monitored heavily, and easily editable for your convenience.
Anyway, I have said enough about the pros of Panda 3D, go download it already!
4. Cocos 2d-x
Cocos 2d-x claims that it is the ‘World’s #1 Open-Source Game Development Platform’. Well, are they?
Of course, it is difficult to give a definitive answer if you aren’t exactly familiar with game design, or if your personal preferences favor something more in line with Godot or Panda 3D.
Using the MIT license, Cocos 2d-x is completely free and open. It has a truly impressive bevvy of features at your disposal, namely the ability to be cross-platform and an easy way into the world of game development. It uses C++ but can be versatile and also use Java.
Cocos 2d-x is probably your best bet if you are planning on developing 2D games over 3D. You have greater control over the code, which allows you more freedom to tinker around and build your project with full autonomy.
Cocos 2d-x is fast, and I mean fast. You can crank out projects pretty quickly compared to other engines, and it has great stability of use.
This free engine is a great option for open-source engines for Android. It emphasizes working with Java, i.e. making it super easy and accessible for developers to pick up and go.
Not that it means it is completely easy; the team at jMonkey Engine does recommend taking it slow, especially if you do not have a lot of programming experience. They recommend having some prior knowledge just to make the transition into game creation easier.
Right off the bat, the team boldly claims that using their engine will be easier than utilization and outright learning C++, which is true. C++ can be a hang-up for many not familiar with programming, and jMonkeyEngine can be a great option for those who want to create games without really breaking your back trying to learn a whole new language.
As stated, jMonkeyEngine can help you build the next great Android or iOS game, with cross-platform design to help integrate your game or project. They are currently shifting some focus to virtual reality and the ambitious Oculus Rift.
And like any good engine, they provide a bunch of good tutorials and guides. These can be true lifesavers when you are stuck in the creative or technical process of development.
To recap, here are the top Game Engines:
The Most Popular Video Game Engines
- Unreal Engine
- Amazon Lumberyard
- RPG Maker
The Best Game Engine for Mobile Game Development
- Corona SDK
- Marmalade SDK
- Clickteam Fusion
- GameMaker Studio 2
- Construct 2
The Best Options for Open Source Game Engines
- Spring Engine
- Panda 3D
- Cocos 2d-x
There you have it, a little primer for you game developers out there looking for a few open-source game engines to get both your creative and technical juices flowing. Now get out there and start experimenting!