Growing up with the game industry has truly been a great pleasure. One of the coolest things about my time with the industry has been the recent years of incredible growth and the industry’s emergence as a leader in the entertainment industry. In that growth, conferences like E3, PAX, and GDC have only gotten bigger and crazier. GDC (Game Developer Conference) has a couple of different iterations (such as GDC Europe, GDC Asia, and GDC Next), but GDC ‘Prime’ (Simply known as ‘GDC’) is where all stops are pulled and vendors show off their latest and greatest.
This year’s GDC just wrapped and it has been a whirlwind week. There is so much to talk about in the way of technology and game announcements, but the focus of this article is going to be around core game engines and virtual reality technology. But before I switch to that, a quick shout out to Lucas Pope (@dukope) for pretty much sweeping the Independent Game Developer awards with his game ‘Papers, Please’. So great to see an amazing game recognized for its brilliance.
Two housekeeping items before I launch into full nerd mode here – two terms I would like to define for you, that is. The first is “Game Engine.” Game Engines are the final assembling point in the game-creation pipeline. It is where you pull in all of your art assets, where you create your level scenarios, and where you code (‘script’) events to happen in the game. Things to consider when a developer selects a game engine are points like how light is rendered in the engine, the ability for different dynamic visuals, and what the cross-platform abilities of the engine are. The second term I want to make you familiar with is “Virtual Reality.” Sure, you may have heard that term before and eye-roll at the very sound of the words together, but it’s making a resurgence in a massive way. Kickstarter birthed the Oculus Rift project, a goggle set that puts the wearer into a game placing two monitors right in front of their eyes in an oddly comfortable way (in a nutshell, I have not gone ‘full nerd’ here yet). In any case, they paired the ability to create a super emmersive visual scenario in the hands of many developers by allowing purchasable to Developer kits and pairing it up with the Unity3D game engine, common in the game-development community as a whole.
Alright, so lets go full nerd now. The week kicked off with Unity3D announcing its 5th iteration of its Indie affordable game engine. While it was not released, it was announced in a grand way. Historically, there has been a division between Unity and the “Triple A” game engines because of the type of game developer they were targeting and the resources required to make a great game engine. Unity 5 has the promise of some pretty impressive features, such as the ability to publish full 3D game experience to the web without the requirement of a plug-in through the WebGL technology. Also included is impressive Real Time Global Illumination and Physics based shaders. Which is nerd speak for “Gorgeous Graphics,” shortening the divide between Unity and the big guys.
Personally, I have gotten the opportunity to watch Unity grow from the four-person team I met out at Austin, Texas at the historic GDC Online (which has since been scrapped in favor of the GDC Next Conference help in LA). At the time, they were exclusive to the Web through their plug-in but walked over to our booth as they were all setting up and said to me, “Want to see 3D on a phone?” To which I replied, “No way!” Since then, they have built their technology to be able to export to Web (through plug-ins), iOS, Android, Windows Mobile, and even Blackberry. And now they have returned to their roots to make their engine capable of exporting to the web without the use of a plug in. Which has been kind of the Holy Grail for Game Engines, given the current market.
Not to be outdone, the next day Epic’s Unreal announced Unreal 4, and its release. Now, this is a product I have been talking about for almost two years, when they first started showing some impressive video of the development environment. While there were rumblings that it may be released to the game development community, it certainly was not on my radar because I assumed it was just buzz talk to steal some of Unity’s momentum. But a few of us where stunned to see the word “Released” associated to Unreal 4. The engine features some crazy-impressive elements of lighting and physics (more so than even the Unity 5 updates), but one of the most interesting parts of their showcase is their recent switch in how they present themselves.
Previously, Unreal had a bit of a confusing pricing model which they have recently switched to $19/month + 5% revenue-share, which is much more Indie Development-friendly. So if the mission was to offer a high-end, affordable option to the ever-growing Indie Game Development community, mission accomplished.
You have been following my blog posts through out the years, you know that another engine that I often reference is the Crytek engine (we game developers get all the cool tool names!). This is the engine behind the gorgeous graphics of the Crysis and Farcry series. While there were no super-exciting technology updates to this engine (which is still impressive by the way), Crytek did switch over to the EaaS (engine as a service) model, undercutting Unreal significantly at $10/month without revenue sharing. It will be interesting to track the disruption this has on Unity and Unreal users over the next year.
Finally in my engine discussion is something that I (along with many other people) were not expecting at all, the announcement of Ubisoft’s Snowdrop Engine. This engine is about as impressive and beefy as they come. First showcased in the announcement of Tom Clancy’s ‘The Division’, the engine has gone relatively under the radar. When Ubisoft announced the Snowdrop engine, it was unclear about whether or not it will be made available to the open development community, but given one of the release videos there is a indication that it may be after the release of the first game using it. The engine offers some crazy tools such as procedural geometry creation and other features like procedural destruction, stunning volumetric lighting, and jaw-dropping dynamic material shaders (personal favorite). While a huge fan of game development tools, I have never considered myself the guy to get a tool the minute it is available, but I can tell you that if Ubisoft makes this tool available, I am going to take a week off.
We now come to the Virtual Reality hardware portion of this blog post. This is easily one of the hardest things to discuss, because it is one of those “seeing is believing” topics. I cannot put into words what it is to experience the current VR hardware. The Nerdery however is showcasing a Oculus Rift lab experiment that myself and teammate Chris Figueroa tackled using the Oculus Rift Developer Kit I.
But the big news here is Sony’s announcement of ‘Project Morpheus’. While much of the community remained skeptical of Sony’s play to move into the VR space (given their track record of “pick up and put down” of different technologies), the results are actually rather impressive. The first generation of their Development Kit touts “bigger and better” than the first generation Oculus Rift. That, coupled with the support of engine creators like Unity and Unreal, and it looks like Morpheus could make some waves. Initial reports of those who waited in line at GDC to give it a try are also promising.
But in typical GDC fashion, Oculus Rift brought their response to the show. They showed off a more polished version of their Crystal Cove prototype and announced the second iteration of their developer kit. Overall, the technology is super impressive and in short, tracks every movement the brain expects to see when moving the head, creating an even more realistic VR experience. Getting to use and develop for the Oculus Rift first hand, I can tell you that the future of VR is very promising indeed.
To wrap this up, what happened at the conference is a promising nod at the game development community as a whole, not just top-end developers. The tools being made available to newb developers are vast and great. It is this writer’s opinion that this shift in attention is due to the recent boom of Indie Game Development (caused by many factors that are beyond the scope of this blog post). More tools of better quality available at a reasonable price-point means a lot of things. You will start to see really impressive titles being released for your computers, Playstation 4’s, and Xbox Ones. Additionally, mobile technology will be pushed in ways you never thought possible.
But one of the things I am most excited about is that these technologies are so affordable, I can’t wait to see what this does beyond the game market, and how these new impressive engines – paired with exciting and engaging virtual reality hardware – will change other experiences, like going to the museum, the zoo, or even how consumers make decisions about products. There will soon be a day when you can walk into a Home Depot, put on a VR headset, see your house loaded into a simulated experience, and make paint decisions based on how the light hits the wall at 5 p.m. in the evening.