This week San Francisco played host to the Game Developers Conference, a week-long gathering of, ironically enough, game developers, joined together in the pursuit of creating the next generation of content. The event is no stranger to big announcements, though they are almost always tech-related, separating itself from events like E3, where the titles themselves are the primary focus. This year, two companies, Epic Games and Unity, made announcements that was sure to put smiles on more than a few devs (including me).
Let's start with Unreal. Unreal Engine 4, Epic's successor to the long-standing Unreal Development Kit (UDK), always had a fairly odd pricing model. Although, it could be argued that UDK also had a different pricing model, but that's outside the scope of this post. For Unreal Engine 4, developers needed to pay a monthly subscription price of $19 per month, and a 5% royalty fee on shipped games. This alone is pretty amazing, considering what is included with that subscription. Epic has always pushed their engine to the edge on whatever platforms they ship on, and Unreal Engine 4 is no exception, sporting features like realistic lighting, a built-in lightmapper (Lightmass) with global illumination, HDR reflections, all sorts of pretty post-proccessing (bloom, motion blur, etc.), new Ray-Traced Distance Field Soft Shadows, the list goes on. All of that with source code access to the engine internals, something I'd never heard of before version 4 came out.
As if this wasn't enough for the low cost they were charging per month, this week at GDC Epic actually made Unreal Engine free, though there is still a royalty per title:
When you ship a game or application, you pay a 5% royalty on gross revenue after the first $3,000 per product, per quarter.
This isn't a bad thing at all, it's actually pretty great. This means that anyone can develop on Unreal, even if they don't have the money for (or simply don't want to be bound by) a subscription. This is pretty perfect for indie devs, since it allows them to use seriously professional tools without much risk at all. Since you only need to pay after you've made money, they can make games that look amazing without flopping on a big engine investment.
Now for part 2: Unity. Unity is a great engine for desktop, consoles, mobile consoles, mobile phones, and tablets, just to name a few. They are the king of cross-platform development, which is why mobile indie devs targeting iOS and Android (and maybe Windows Phone) have been flocking to them in droves over the last few years. It's never been the prettiest engine graphically-speaking, but it has certainly proven itself to be the most robust. Unity has always had a fairly steady pricing model, allowing users to download a free version of the engine, or to pay for the full professional version. The pro version isn't cheap, either, costing $1500 per seat. Recently, Unity added a subscription option to help alleviate this up-front cost, where you could get the pro version for $75 per month.
The free version of Unity is good for small projects, but at some point you will likely hit a wall when you go to do something, only to be greeted by a "pro-only" error message. Unity 5, officially made available this week, has made a radical shift away from this licensing model, which also prompted for a small name change for the different versions. Unity 5 Personal Edition (the new free version) contains all Unity engine features, for free. Light Probes, Render-to-Textures, full-screen post-processing effects, dynamic shadows, occlusion culling, the integrated profiler, not to mention all the new stuff Unity 5 brings, are now completely free, which immediately prompted me to upgrade my group's project to use it. And, unlike Unreal 4, Unity doesn't even require a royalty for shipped games, even on the Personal Edition! The Professional Edition does still exist for developers grossing more than $100,000, and still includes some cool features like the team license and Cloud Build and Analytics Pro.
So there you have it. Two industry-changing announcements in three days. Not bad for the first half of GDC.