Main image of article Why Game Engines Spell Trouble for Indie Developers

Seduction comes in many forms, including game engines. Virtually in a matter of weeks, people who’ve never crunched code can churn out a mobile game. It’s that ease of use, on top of a basic engine’s cheap cost, that’s prompting newbies to create games and game companies. But as with anything, cheap and easy can have its pitfalls. “As with any business development, individuals need to go into the creation of a new enterprise with their eyes open, realizing all the potential benefits, risks, liabilities and responsibilities,” says Kate Edwards, Executive Director of the International Game Developers Association. “Having been there myself, it’s very exciting to launch a new business and focus on the goals and all the positives, but that can often overshadow the everyday reality of running a business. Tools which facilitate an easy start up for game development are a great benefit, but they’re only one aspect of creating a successful game and a prosperous game development company.”

Revving Up the Engine

Game engines like the drag-and-drop-no-coding-needed GameSalad allow even 10-year-olds to create games, while popular engines like Unity and Corona provide the means to create cross-platform titles without getting too deep into the code. “It’s like being a movie writer. You don’t care about having to make the camera or the lens, you just want to write the script. But before game engines, these kind of tasks were all tangled together and you had to know both or have people at your company to do both,” says Joe Kaufman, founder of indie developer Fire Maple Games, which created  Lost City – the No. 1 paid game app last year on iTunes with 1.4 million downloads – using a Corona game engine.



Game engines separate the two areas of programming tasks that are needed to create games. One is memory management, the other creating the content, says Kaufman, who started out as an animator 20 years ago. Nick Pittak, co-owner and lead technical artist of indie game company Prismatic Studios, uses Unity to aid his creations. “The engine helps with everything but the design. It now takes about half to a quarter of the time to make a game,” he says. “Before we used engines, we would have to pay a programmer to take our instructions to make the back-end of our game.” Prismatic, a two-person studio, plans to release a 2-D puzzle-based game in October. While Kaufman has managed to do exceptionally well with just one employee, generating over $1 million in revenues without having a business background or marketing guru, he notes the seduction of game engines can trip some people up.

Who’s at Risk and How

Game engines are most likely to benefit people who are artists, designers or “idea people” with little programming experience, says Kaufman, who also recreated the popular The Secret of Grisly Manor. But some of those same people are the ones in the greatest danger. “The ideas people are the ones most at risk,” Kaufman says. “The danger is when you don’t know how to program and you can’t do the artwork yourself, then you have to hire people to do that for you. That can get expensive because the trick is once you create the app, you have to maintain it. So every time there’s a change to the iPhone, your game may not work and you’ll have to rehire them again.”


IGDA’s Edwards advises indie game companies to do their homework and understand all aspects of running a business. “The role of their development tools is certainly part of that education, but in my experience more game developers need to better understand the mechanics of running a business – including the financials, human resources, marketing and production aspects.”

Indie Growth

Although there are potential downsides to the way indie companies use engines, most say they offer more upside. In addition to offering more programming power and speeding up the development process, the ease of use and moves by engine companies to offer their SDKs for free make them extremely appealing. “The feedback I’ve heard from the indie community has consisted of generally positive experiences for both game engines [Unity and Corona],” Edwards says. While hard figures are difficult to come by, Edwards believes engines have spurred dramatic growth in indie game companies. “I would venture to say that the readily available and comparatively inexpensive SDKs from companies like Unity and Corona would account for at least 50 percent of the growth of indie game development.” Image: Wikimedia Commons