Whenever I talk to a game developer about getting started in the industry, they all tell me the same thing – get some free tools and start playing around. Thankfully, there has never been a better time to get started
Below is a list of four free game engines that are perfect for novice to get into game development. Some come with professional features that do cost money, but all have a fleshed out free version, perfect for those looking to dip their toes in. Who knows? You could have the next Minecraft knocking around in your head waiting to escape.
Free for the basic Studio FREE version, which includes the ability to sell your game royalty-free. The next version up is Studio Professional for $149.99, which allows you to remove the GameMaker branding and sell assets on the store.
Spelunky (made with GameMaker: Studio)
GameMaker: Studio is a ‘no experience necessary’ game engine, making it a great starting place for a novice developer. It features a drag-and-drop interface that gives you detailed visual feedback about how your game is coming along.
It’s more limited than some other engines on this list, so you’ll likely be making 2D sprite based games with it. That said, GameMaker is at the heart of some amazing games, including hit indie titles like Downwell, Hotline Miami, and Undertale.
Despite being designed for first timers, this engine actually is very robust. And hey, if you have a love of retro-style games, GameMaker: Studio might be the perfect fit for you.
- Designed from the ground up for beginners
- Despite its simplicity GameMaker: Studio is used to create some amazing games
- Limited free version, but still very useable
- If you want to export to iOS, Android and many other platforms it starts to get expensive
- Limited to making 2D games, so if you plan on making a polygonal game you best move on
Recent games made with GameMaker: Studio
Unity ‘Personal’ plan is free with no royalty plan on games. Revenue on the free plan caps at $100,000, so if your game makes more than that, or has a higher budget than that, you have to move up to the $35 per month plan or above.
Rust (Made with Unity)
Way back in the day Unity was a budget game engine designed to make small titles. Time passed and Unity began to expand and live up to its name, unifying game development across multiple platforms. Today it’s the go-to engine for a lot of independent developers, and a few of the bigger ones too. Part of the appeal of Unity is its ability to run on just about any modern computer, which is great for beginners who don’t have the latest PC hardware. But as you can imagine, it doesn’t have quite the same level of visual fidelity as some of it’s competitors like Unreal Engine 4.
Still, Unity is a great choice for those looking to learn how to make a game. Games like Firewatch on PlayStation 4 were made in Unity, as was the mobile hit Pokemon Go. In fact, Nintendo loved the engine so much they packed in Unity with the Wii U development kits. It may not be the most powerful engine on the market, but it remains a widely used and respected tool.
Like many other engines, it comes with free assets for you to play with, or you can buy more pre-built add-ons in the Unity Store. Finally, if you’re interested in mobile gaming, learning Unity is an absolute must. Huge hits like Angry Birds 2, Temple Run, The Room, and Plague Inc all came to life in Unity.
It’s not the most powerful engine out there, but Unity is a great place to start for first-timers.
- You don’t need cutting edge hardware to get decent performance
- Easier to make small games or prototypes than in some other engines
- Used by independent and medium sized studios
- Though it can look great, it’s not the most visually impressive engine
- Physics system less advanced than other engines
Recent games made with Unity
Free to use, but there is a 5% royalty on gross product revenue after the first $3,000 per game per calendar quarter from commercial products.
Gears of War 4 (Made with Unreal Engine 4)
Since the late 90s, the Unreal Engine by Epic Games has been an incredibly popular game engine used by big budget developers. It even holds a 2014 Guinness World Record for being the “Most Successful Videogame Engine”. The reason is simple – it’s versatile, well-built, and looks amazing.
Once only intended for large studios, the fourth generation of Unreal Engine is focused on servicing all levels of consumer. The variety of games powered by Unreal is a testament to its versatility. From fighting games like Tekken 7 and Street Fighter V, to Epic Games’ own Gears of War 4 and the PlayStation VR exclusive Batman: Arkham VR. Most big games run on Unreal Engine 4.
Of all the engines on this list, this one can feel the most intimidating. Epic Games clearly knew this would be the case and have a ton of video tutorials online. Plus, they filled the engine with free assets, like pre-made cars and characters, to help get you started. When you start to find your feet, you can jump into the Marketplace and buy new assets or even upload your own and sell them to other users.
It may look like a hard engine to learn, but Unreal Engine 4 is well worth experimenting with. Especially if you plan on working in video games professionally.
- Used by the big studios, so you can learn how the pros do it
- Ability to fully customize your game and program in complex functions
- Arguably the most visually impressive engine on the market
- Tricky for beginners starting from scratch
- Needs a powerful computer to run well
Recent games made with Unreal Engine 4
Free – no revenue share and no licensing fees. The catch is you have to use Amazon Web Service if you need a web service, like a multiplayer server, for your game.
Tech demo for Amazon Lumberyard
A relative newcomer on the scene, Amazon’s free game engine Lumberyard has enormous potential and the backing of one of the biggest web-based companies in the world. Supporting all the current generation consoles and the PC (and Mac), Lumberyard has been on the market for about a year now. At its core, the engine is built upon the powerful CryEngine, which Amazon licensed from Crytek.
Developer Cloud Imperium Games recently moved development of their massive space-sim Star Citizen to the Lumberyard engine. That should give you an idea of how high Amazon are aiming with this one. That said, Lumberyard is still an unproven engine, and at its core is the CryEngine, which already has a reputation for being difficult to master.
With the backing of Amazon, you can be sure Lumberyard will become a serious player in the market soon enough. But be prepared to spend a lot of time learning how to make it work for you.
- Could become one of the big engines of the future
- Has the backing of Amazon, who basically run the internet
- Generous free license
- Based on an engine that is already difficult to learn
- Time will tell if it does actually take off or stays a niche product
Upcoming games made with Amazon Lumberyard
- Star Citizen
- … uhh, that’s it for now.
Game development isn’t easy. There’s no way around that. But we’re fortunate to live in a time when independent creators can thrive and the tools they need to do their jobs are readily available.
Regardless of whether you want to make the next indie hit or mess around to see how a game comes together – all the tools you’ll need are out there. So download one and take the plunge. You’ve got nothing to lose!
Words: Andrew Whitehead (Twitter: @andrew20xx)