So, my editor wants me to write an editorial about how Unreal Engine 4 being free is the best thing to happen to gaming this generation. I don’t say this as a cynical way to start this article, nor  I leading up to the “well, he’s wrong!” moment where I turn the whole thing around like the rebel I am.

Ok, so I am totally planning to do that, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

My editor is wholly justified in believing that Unreal 4 being free is like manna from heaven for small developers (which, in turn, is good for gamers). He’s not wrong, nor is anyone else who might make that assertion. For those of you who don’t know, Unreal Engine is basically like a scaffolding for games. It not only allows big developers to skip over some of the mundane aspects of game design that should be rote for all professional game designers but it also allows smaller studios to leap-frog past the time-consuming basics to make the game they want to make…perhaps even without the technical expertise they need to make it.

Without a doubt, the Unreal Engine has given us some fantastic games in the past, games like the Batman Arkham games, Dishonored, Mass Effect, Borderlands 2, Bioshock: Infinite. But its real power is just now being realized with the most recent version, Unreal Engine 4, becoming free to use. While this isn’t a huge boon to the big developers, that’s hardly the market that needs help, and it’s definitely not the thing that makes Unreal Engine 4 so exciting for gaming…

A new age for indie games

It’s no surprise that indie games have come to a bit of a renaissance in the past decade or so. Games like Minecraft, Braid and Bastion pushed the limits of gaming and dumped a bucket of water on our flaming cynicism in a time when it was raging out of control. Hell, Minecraft practically created the building genre, which has exploded since its creation showed the world that, hey, this is a kind of game that we actually enjoy.

No triple-A developer would have taken the risk of Minecraft. Not in a million years. Working with smaller budgets, these games were able to take risks that bigger developers aren’t always willing to do, which in turn gives gamers more variety in their games and often gives us the sorts of games we didn’t even know we wanted – the sorts of games that big-time developers were afraid to even try to deliver.

These indie games games truly showed us what small groups can do when not constrained by big, bad CEOs and the ever-damning bottom line. And then, the folks behind Unreal Engine announced that the most recent version, Unreal Engine 4, would be free to use for anyone, with payments made only when the devs actually make some money on the product (“We succeed when you succeed,” they proudly boast on their site) which may just make the aforementioned renaissance look like only a tiny spark, a beginning of something even bigger.

Now, I would be a cynical prick if I said that opening up game development to the masses is a bad thing. Making Unreal 4 free to use is such a revolutionary concept that I can’t even begin to overstate its importance to the industry – not only to developers who make use of it but to gamers who reap the benefits of this indie renaissance (a phrase I’m determined to use as much as possible). And the Unreal Engine is amazingly diverse, being able to be used for everything from photo-realistic 3D and VR titles to simplistic 2D platformers and puzzle games, which means that these developers can really flex their artistic muscles and create the kind of game they want to make, rather than being constrained to a certain type of game (thus flooding the market with that genre).

So this makes it easier for Indies to deliver whatever sort of game they want to deliver, which allows them to realize a huge variety of different creative visions.

But it’s not the “developers” that I think this is the biggest boon to – that is, I’m not talking about the kind of people who went to school and spent countless hours learning computer science and programming. I think the people this most affects are the non-developers, the folks who have very little programming experience but are willing to learn (that last part is key) and have a creative vision they want to realize.

The ease of use of the Unreal Engine, as well as the plethora of tutorials and asset packs available for purchase, will almost undoubtedly be the biggest boon to people with little to no experience in programming – someone like me who is completely ignorant to the process of creating a video game but who may have a notebook full of great ideas like a point-and-click adventure game about a three-legged dog named Bobo who overcomes his disability to become President of the United States (expect the Kickstarter next month).

A free Unreal Engine – one of the most powerful programming tools available to developers – would be an immensely potent vehicle to allow people with little to no experience realize a creative vision that could revolutionize video games as we know it. And if this prediction of mine pans out, it may bring about way more than an Indie Renaisance. It may revolutionize the gaming industry as we know it.

Because claiming that only people who have been trained in programming and game development have good ideas for video games is way beyond asinine.

Imagine if anyone could make a video game. Ok, I know that’s technically true now, but imagine if many of the initial hurdles of making those games – the time, money and manpower investment to just building the basic engine, for a start, to say nothing of all the asset packs available – were suddenly gone. Not only would we see a huge boom in the number of video games produced, we would see a huge boom in the types of video games produced. A triumphant return of adventure games (not that Telltale hasn’t been doing a fantastic job in that field), truly terrifying survival horror games, true (and well thought-out) difficulty, actually diverse characterization and representation in games (one need look no further than Cradle, a game set in the Mongolian steppes and staring a Mongolian dude)…all those things that are kryptonite to the huge triple-A market. And yet many are things that we still want and things that indies are uniquely poised to give us.

In short, we’ll see a lot more of the types of games that we want. And a lot more of games that we never knew we wanted. And a lot more of games that small groups of people, normally off the radar of big game developers and who would normally be left wanting, want. This is almost unequivocally a good thing…


The lessons of Unity and Steam Early Access

Again, I’m not going to sit here and say that Unreal Engine 4 being free is a bad thing. But I am going to say that it’s not an unequivocally good thing. I’m a cynical person and we’ve already seen what the proliferation of the ability to make video games produces.

We have to look no further than Steam Early access and the utter abuse that the Unity Engine had undergone therein.

Like Unreal Engine, Unity is a powerful tool for game developers. Like Unreal, Unity is free (though it does have a paid, “professional” version that probably has a lot of essential tools for more intricate games). Like Unreal, Unity allows game developers to make extremely varied games and has been used by professional indies and game development companies to make such drastically different titles as Ori and the Blind Forest, Pillars of Eternity, Kerbal Space Program and Hearthstone.

But lately, Steam has been positively inundated with absolute drek. All made with the Unity engine. All made by hacks with no creative vision who sink a couple hundred bucks into a do-nothing project and then turn around and sell it on the cheap and very likely get their money back. That’s right, pretty much every $2 “survival horror game” that’s over-saturated the Steam Market in the past year or so was probably made with the Unity engine. And pretty much every one of them is an effortlessly-created piece of trash.

Worse yet, the availability of pre-made assets makes it even easier for these hacks to just cobble together something with no vision and no creative direction. All they need to do is buy a pack of random horror/zombie/soldier assets, hurl them onto a map with no cohesive design direction and get it through the laughably-lax Steam Greenlight process with some non-representative screenshots and a few comments about how their “game” will revolutionize [genre] as we know it.

We used to do this when I was a kid at the nascence of PC gaming. Except we used the Doom level editor and put tawdry pictures in place of the wall textures and laughed as our friends fell into bottomless pits that they had no way of knowing about or walked into a room with so many enemies it crashed the computer. It was good fun.

But we didn’t charge anyone for it. Because we knew we weren’t making a game. We were using someone else’s game to make something that was barely even playable. And that’s what most of these hacks are doing. And the free-ness of Unity makes it aaaaaaall possible.

Unreal has been, fortunately, relatively unblemished by these exploitative developers as of yet, but not completely. We’ve already seen developers trying to pass off Unreal tutorial packages as a game on Steam. The game iss called Fade and it’s on Steam Greenlight, go check it out now. (LINK)

Now, I’m not going to sit here and call Unity Engine terrible because people abuse it. Hell, it’s not even Unity’s fault. Steam’s the one that’s giving these people an avenue to exploit the ignorant. I honestly wouldn’t have even known this was an issue if not for Jim Sterling, whose series of videos highlights most of these utter jokes which wouldn’t even be worth your time even if they weren’t borderline plagiarism and incredibly unethical. But I did notice the sudden inundation – like a wide-open sewage pipe – of terrible, hackish games on Steam. And it started to make me wonder if the Indie Renaissance was over.

And the fact that the lazy acts of a few greedy individuals could make me think that is a truly terrifying thought.

Even if it’s not Unity and Unreal’s fault that these people exist and do what they’re doing, there’s no doubt that the availability of these free engines has posed a serious problem for, at the very least, Steam as a company if not the indie video game scene if not the video game industry as a whole. The uninitiated turning to Steam could rightly think that the Air Controls and Gary’s Incidents and Skatemans of Steam are indicative of the indie scene as a hole. And those people, after being tricked into spending their money on these unplayable experiences, may be turned off to video games as a whole.

So really, it boils down to a balancing act. Does the good of Unreal and Unity being free to any old person who wants to try their hand at video game development outweigh the bad, the surge of effortless garbage we see coming out of it? This is a tough question to answer, but fortunately, I think we have an excellent litmus test to answer this question…



I spent a bit of time ranting about the Sirenum Digital’s Lost Pisces Kickstarter and why it failed recently, but that was mostly for effect. Granted, I still think the funding campaign is doomed to failure, but the campaign isn’t the important thing. It’s the project itself that will really show which side of history Unreal Engine will fall on.

The Lost Pisces is an immense project that promises to reinvent the way we interact with AI. And it’s being done by an incredibly small team of four…and only one of those is a programmer.

“I went to school for product design, which is all about designing cars, planes, and toasters, all mundane things like that,” Dan Rutkowski, head honcho over at Sirenum said in an interview with Only Single Player in February. “I went there just to try and get an idea of concept art and that sort of thing. I’ve held down several other design positions, and this has just been an indie development situation for years now, where I’ve been trying, slowly, to learn more about Unity and then eventually Unreal.”

The idea that a guy like this could make such a revolutionary thing happen speaks firstly to his and his team’s motivation and drive…and second (and most important to our discussion here) to the power and ease of access Unreal provides to the video game design process.

The Lost Pisces is exactly the example I was alluding to earlier. While I’m sure the folks over at Sirenum aren’t complete novices to game design (one of them is actually a game designer), the fact that this is not a team of industry veterans but, instead, a bunch of artists with a creative vision and the drive to see that vision come to life (for a pittance of a price tag, no less) is pretty much the poster child for the good that a free Unreal Engine could do for the industry.

Unreal (and Kickstarter, another double-edged sword for the games industry) have allowed Sirenum to remain independent and not seek out a publisher…and therefore, made it so they won’t have to compromise their vision

Y’know, assuming they can get the darn thing funded, but we’re talking hypothetically now.

So if The Lost Pisces ever gets released and if it lives up to Sirenum’s vision, I’d be willing to call the contribution Unreal Engine 4 being free makes to this gaming generation (and the future of video games as a whole) an unabashed positive. I’d even call it revolutionary.

Naturally, it doesn’t have to be The Lost Pisces. It could be any number of visionary, revolutionary projects, even one that hasn’t been dreamed up yet (like the Adventures of Bobo, Canine and Chief…working title, do not steal)…and maybe that blanket qualifying statement alone undermined my whole cynical argument, but until I see a project like this, something truly visionary that comes out of only a dream and a prayer, I just can’t help but look at the growing cesspool of filth pouring into Steam and shake my head.

And if all we keep seeing is the people with years of video game development experience continue to churn out quality products, then I’d say it’s business as usual and Unreal really hasn’t changed anything. Because the Notches and the Jonathan Blows and the Phil Fishes of the world are always going to deliver quality content because they know how. Maybe Unreal Engine being free helps them along but I can’t exactly call it revolutionary until it actually brings about a revolution.

What about you, cynical/optimistic readers? Do you think I’m being unfair by judging Unreal Engine’s worth by how easy it – hell, by how easy Unity is to exploit? Do you think there’s some other negatives to Unreal 4 being free that I haven’t mentioned here? Or am I just a big stick in the mud who should keep his big, fat mouth shut? Sound off on the comments below (well, except about my big, fat mouth…I’m sensitive).

Brienne Gacke
Writer, journalist, teacher, pedant. Brienne's done just about anything and everything involving words and now she's hoping to use them for something she's passionate about: video games. She's been gaming since the onset of the NES era and has never looked back.

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  1. Oh wow i thought i was the only one!

    1. I’m glad I’m not the only cynic in the world :-P

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