Game development tech has dramatically changed over the past few years. What does this mean for the industry? And, what can we expect to see moving forward?
In a recent live webinar, game development experts Michael Baker (@teknic) and Thomas Winkley discussed how recent innovations have leveled up the field, drastically improved production and set the stage for the future. After taking a look at what’s next, they took live questions from attendees. Here are the top five questions—and the three reasons why the next decade could be the golden age for game development.
1. How did the industry solve the “get content into the engine” problems of the past?
In the past, game engines and content authoring software were separated by (often byzantine) translation processes, which would convert artist created assets into engine-ready data. Historically, engine tech was built for specific game features such as genre, graphic style, or target platform. This required dedicated tech artists and engineers to create and maintain a pipeline of specialized tools. This process remains in place today, but the maturity of engines, unified standards and user-friendly tools have made everything much easier.
2. Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) are both growing exponentially. Where do you see those headed?
This is an interesting area right now. Investment has been strong in this category for a few years now as many are hoping AR/VR will lead to a new consumer market. Currently, VR gaming is a niche market as the hardware, software and design haven't quite synergized. VR/360 video appears to have a chance since consumers understand it and motion sickness is less of a concern.
However, AR is generally seen as “the next big thing” and offers a wider range of content possibilities when compared to VR. It's an interesting development space, especially with Apple's new ARKit. I suspect we'll see AR creep into apps for both utilitarian and social/artistic reasons—everything from room measurement and dance lessons, to photo filters and location-based storytelling.
3. How difficult is it to get into game development now, given the wide availability of tools and the need for experience developing with them?
It's definitely easier than ever to get into game development. This is another big shift in recent years. Most of the software needed to develop games is free. The two most popular engines for development, Unity and Unreal, are both available via a free license. Additionally, both engines have their own asset stores filled with user-created content—both free and paid. Unity, which has a much larger user base, has thousands of items in its asset store, including plugins, art assets, code, systems, publishing tools and just about anything you could imagine. Some studios actually sell development tools in order to fund their games.
4. When would you use Unity, and when would you use Unreal?
Unreal excels at photorealistic first- and third-person shooters for PC and consoles. It's a natural choice for powerful dedicated graphics hardware, but due to recent changes, the engine will run on mobile and VR devices. Unreal has a small but dedicated user base, many of whom have used previous versions of the engine and can be very helpful when troubleshooting development problems.
Unity excels at just about everything else. As a true general purpose engine, Unity's editor is designed for ease of use, and the engine will run on 25 different platforms at the time of writing. Due to this combination of user friendliness and wide range of device support, Unity has grown quickly to a user base of well over 2 million worldwide.
If we consider the diversity of content being created for games today, Unity is clearly chosen more often than Unreal. However, it's worth noting that increasingly, the two engines share a common set of features and workflows. We're also starting to see plugins that support both technologies.
Keep in mind that both engines are free, which means individuals and teams can evaluate them at no risk. It's a great time to be in game development!
5. What is “hybrid production”?
Hybrid production refers to the increasingly common practice of combining plugins and art assets with custom content. Even as recently as five years ago, most game production was completely custom—an art team would create art and an engineering team would write code, all from scratch. But now, with few exceptions, production teams acquire art and code assets to give them a jump start on the project.
Another aspect of hybrid production is that many common problems have been solved and are now sold as solutions. Development has been massively democratized, which has translated into better/cheaper options for developers at any scale. My studio is four years old. Our first game, which released last summer, was created almost entirely with custom content. Our second game, which was started 18 months ago, combines many plugins and asset kits with custom art and code. This has allowed us to do more with a smaller team and engage level design sooner.
It's an amazing time to be in game development and digital content creation. The hardware is powerful, the tools are cheap and the graphics are beautiful. Creativity and design are less constrained than they have ever been. Even better, though: The next decade might just be the golden era of game development. Over the coming years, I expect to see the following.
1. Increased use of hybrid production methods to accelerate prototyping and design. As described above, hybrid production saves money and time. In practice, this approach can translate into faster prototype iteration, which allows level design to start sooner. Ultimately, this eases the transition into production, as system features and gameplay goals are more clearly defined. It also dramatically reduces friction, which slows creation of high-quality interactive systems. This results in higher quality content overall.
2. Procedural workflows and in-engine content creation will increase. Non-destructive tools such as Substance Designer, Zbrush, Maya, World Machine and SpeedTree Creator will continue to dominate in the traditional content authoring space. But, systems like ProBuilder, Houdini, Surforge, playMaker, Apex Path and similar creation tools will see increased use in-engine. Working directly in the target environment for any digital medium is beneficial, and increasingly creators will opt for the convenience and features of in-engine tools.
3. Other digital media production will migrate into game engines. We've already seen the beginnings of animated shorts and experimental filmmaking in game engines. Both Unity and Unreal have been adding new cinematic tools, better rendering features and more animation control to support additional non-game content goals. The visual quality possible with physically based rendering is now very close to what was once only possible with software renderers like Mentalray and Vray. Animators, VFX artists and digital storytellers are starting to join the ranks of game developers to leverage the power of modern real-time authoring systems.
Watch the on-demand webinar, “State of the tech: Game development trends”, to hear more about where game dev has been and where it’s headed.