The annual Game Developers Conference (GDC) just came to a close with it’s fair share of surprises and interesting developments. What gamers may not realize, though, was that this year’s event was easily the most important in recent memory.
GDC is a strange event. Its primary audience is intended to be developers who show an interest in networking with their peers and sharing ideas and philosophies. And while plenty of interesting news and announcements have sprung from previous GDCs, they have all paled in comparison to what events like E3 and Tokyo Game Show have offered in the past. This year, however, was a little different. The biggest fish in the pond threw down the proverbial gauntlet in the race to give independent developers more power and versatility when it comes to developing games.
When Sony announced the PlayStation 4, it was clear they wanted to lure as many indie games to their console as possible, even games that might be ports from the PC. Microsoft lagged behind initially, but has since ramped up the ID@Xbox program, giving indie devs an easy-in to releasing their games on Microsoft’s consoles. But GDC ’15 was more than that. Other companies also showed their support for the little guys in ways that perhaps most gamers didn’t immediately notice.
Unreal Engine is (mostly) free to use.
For those not in the know, the Unreal Engine (UE) is considered by many to be one of the most versatile, powerful, and easy-to-use engines in the business. We’re now on the fourth iteration of UE, and it’s recently been announced that the engine will now be more easily accessible, not just for developers, by releasing it for zero upfront cost, and only a 5% royalty fee following a game’s release.
This announcement means amateur developers can now use UE to experiment and learn without having to worry about any expensive costs, and should they actually profit with the release of a game, Epic (the company behind UE) will profit as well.
Unity 5 Engine is cheaper than ever.
Not to be outdone by UE, Unity 5, the other big player in world of game engines, revealed that users would be able to download a limited version of Unity for free. This option doesn’t allow you to release your game and earn royalties, but it does permit one to build and experiment without the initial overhead costs.
To begin earning money, one need only spend $75 per month, or a $1500 one time fee. By paying for Unity 5, users are also granted access to Unity Cloud Build, allowing them to utilize the “power of cloud computing” and more easily push their projects to specific, and multiple, platforms.
Valve’s Source 2 Engine is officially unveiled, and yeah, it’s also free.
Valve’s Source Engine 2 is particularly exciting, if only because it has the company’s storied history attached to it. Steam is still the best mainstream release avenue for indie developers, so utilizing Valve’s proprietary engine seems like a no-brainer. On top of this, Source 2 will undoubtedly be a major player for at least the next decade (Source debuted almost 11 years ago), meaning the engine is incredibly scalable and should easily maintain a long life cycle.
Like it’s competition, Source 2 will also be free, again eliminating overhead costs for budding developers, indie teams, and AAA studios alike. However, there is a minor catch: All games developed with Source 2 must be released on Steam, though not exclusively. This means Valve earns 30% on all sales through Steam (if a game is developed on UE4 and released on Steam, the developer loses 35% total), but not through the likes of any other distribution method (all of which take their own cuts).
It’s now cheaper to release a game than ever before.
We’ve heard time and time again that development costs are rising every year, especially with the release of the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 still fresh in everyone’s mind. Developers are forced to take a little more time than, say, 2 years ago on a PS3 or 360 game, to properly develop a game without assistance from either Microsoft or Sony.
And even though more traditional routes of advertising are starting to cost more, they’re also becoming less important. An indie game can be developed for a fraction of the cost of a AAA game – and with the above announcements from GDC, AAA development costs should shrink too, though much more marginally – meaning the amount of money the studio needs to earn back before breaking even is somewhat lessened. Smaller ad placements on gaming websites, magazines, or even digital storefronts are all that is necessary to make your game known and, hopefully, sell what is necessary to actually turn a profit.
With more support coming to indie devs from Microsoft and Sony, and continued support from various PC digital distributors (Steam, Humble Bundle, GOG.com, etc.), it’s now easier than ever to grab the attention of gamers looking for something outside the AAA realm. With the announcements that the three powerful game engines being inexpensive to develop on should begin to blur the line between AAA and indie.
Microsoft and Sony are also using their biggest stages to show off the exclusive indie games coming to their consoles. Every E3 press conference seems to become more and more inundated with indie announcements and exclusives, and at GDC this year, virtually every major game announcement was about an indie game coming to a specific console or an indie game’s release date being announced.
At this point, it really does seem like the indie scene is ramping up (despite the hundreds, if not thousands, of recent indie releases). Now, literally anyone with a passing interest and a computer can learn to utilize these powerful tools to create their own games, levels, mods, or skins, and we will surely see a rise in the number of newcomers taking full advantage of engines.