It’s hard enough to assemble a team of people who have the skills to create all the pieces that are necessary for a complete game, and even harder assembling all those assets into a final product that’s polished for the world to play and enjoy. If that’s the crossroads you’re currently at, then this is the list of game engines you need to consider before picking a path for your game.
RPG Maker (ASCII, Enterbrain, Agetec)
This was the first game engine I ever worked with, and it was surprisingly simple while, yet it also had plenty of advanced tabs if I wanted to go deeper with my game mechanics. It’s surprising how far a few variables and switches can go, and because it’s not coding intensive it has the nice bonus of letting you make more progress in the first few hours than with more robust engines. The drawback is obviously that it’s hard to build anything but a RPG with it. Many different versions exist for the PlayStation, PlayStation 2, Windows PC, and even a few handheld gaming devices, so make sure you get the one that best suits your needs.
M.U.G.E.N. is a 2D fighting genre game engine that’s completely free. Every few months I hear about it and about once a year I see a jaw dropping fan project that showcases how strong it can be. It’s incredibly easy compared to most game engines, but its biggest con is that it’s very straight forward and doesn’t allow much wiggle room in design mechanics. If you just want to make your own fighting characters and levels, then it’s exactly what you need. The best part is that it has a huge online community that shares all of their creations for everyone to try.
Adventure Game Studio (Chris Jones)
This is another game engine that focuses on a specific genre. If you were a fan of point and click adventure games in the 1990s like Myst, Grim Fandango, 7th Guest, Toonstruck – or recent ones like Machinarium – then this software is worth exploring. Even though it was released back in 1997 at the height of the genre it caters to, its most recent update came in April of 2011, so it’s still a viable option for most Windows users, although not all Mac OS and Linux users will be able to run it.
GameMaker (YoYo Games)
Like the others on this list so far, GameMaker is primarily used for 2D game creations, but unlike the others above, it has much more flexibility with design, which can be bad or good depending on what you need. Its interface hides most of the coding involved and lets users input data rather than write lines of code, but those who want to dive into coding can do so in advanced areas of the program. If you’re not shy with programming then you can customize your creation into many genres, but if you are afraid to program then you’re mostly restricted to sidescroller and top down perspective games.
Unity (Unity Technology)
With the humongous rise of handheld electronics in recent years, the usage of Unity has soared and has even stolen a bit of thunder from the rest on this list. It’s similar to the Torque and Blender game engines – which are also really worth checking out – and it’s capable of creating games for PC, Mac, Wii, Xbox 360, and PS3, but its popularity in the past year has been largely due to its use in developing iPad and iPhone games. It’s so popular right now that I actually plan to take my own advice and learn Unity in the coming months to stay up to date with the game industry!
Gamebryo debuted about a decade ago and I have to admit I underestimated it. It seems more robust than the Panda3D engine and over a dozen high budget games have used it to date, including Fallout 3. Like Unity, no matter how much or how little of its source code you use, it’s a fully fleshed game engine that will require you to have substantial coding experience if you want to use it. It’s great for indie projects or even for wide release game studios, but if you’re looking for simplicity and ease of use then it’s too much horsepower for your needs.
XNA Game Studio (Microsoft)
Microsoft XNA is one of the best opportunities in the game industry right now. It’s a .NET programming package that lets you make any small to medium sized game you’re capable of coding, and then it allows you to share your creation with the world on Xbox Live. How cool is that? It’s like a cheat code or a cool friend who lets you bypass the long line at a club; the exposure of Xbox Live isn’t a free perk but it’s something that’s hard for the others on this list to match.
Unreal Engine (Epic Games)
This is pretty much the undisputed best game engine in the current era of the game industry. With literally hundreds of games – even MMO games – that have used it in the past, the Unreal Engine is capable of creating any game for any genre with any budget. While it’s by no means something an amateur should tackle solo to make the game of their dreams, it is however a great tool for creating the 3D level of your dreams.
Unreal Tournament 2004 comes with UnrealEd – the Unreal Engine’s level editor – bundled in for free, and after one or two nights of reading and watching tutorials online you’ll be able to create your own 3D level that you and your friends can play online. It lets you use hundreds of objects and textures from the game to create your own levels, but importing your own data is also an option. Those interested in just the FPS angle should also check out Valve’s Hammer Editor, which is another valuable game bundle worth having and knowing.
Game Design Schools to Consider: