Experienced Points: Get Unreal Engine 4… For 19 Bucks?!?

  By Shamus   Apr 29, 2014   69 comments

This week we’re talking about… you can read the post title, can’t you? Yeah. That. We’re talking about that.

Unreal Engine was my first experience with something that felt like a real toolkit and not a slapdash pile of utilites. When id Software gave their tools away, it was usually just some command line (DOS) program that would take in raw data and spew out a playable level. It was up to the community to make a program that could create that data. In comparison, Unreal came with a level editor. And not just a bare-bones level editor, but a real program with a proper GUI interface and a 3D rendering window that would let you build the scenery, texture map it, light it, set up switches and moving objects (like doors and lifts) place points for AI navigation, and fill it with weapons and enemies.

A lot of this comes down to the question of “How good do we make our tools?” For example:


Screw The Art Team

You can make a terrible, buggy system that requires a barebones 3D editor, two command line programs, and a couple of messy undocumented converters. The artists will hate this. It will be confusing and difficult and their workflow will suck.

Example workflow: Let’s say it’s sometime in the 90’s and you’re a level designer. You need to add some lights in the control room section of the level because it’s too dark. You add a bunch of geometry to form the light fixtures. This is fiddly and slow because the editor only shows the scenery in wireframe, and when the map is really full it’s hard to see what you’re doing and you can often end up clicking on the wrong things or accidentally editing stuff in the wrong area. Also, there’s a bug in the editor that if you happen to drag one cube over another cube and both of them are the exact same proportions, the editor will instantly crash. So when things get crowded like this you have to be extra-careful when you’re copy & pasting stuff. Once you’ve built the light fixtures (like: lamps or hanging lights or whatever) you place a couple of points that will generate the actual light. You can’t see how it looks because the editor doesn’t do lighting.

When you’re done with your edits, you save your work and exit the program. Then you type a command into DOS and the program begins chewing on all those polygons you built. It spews out a bunch of (to you, an artist) meaningless gibberish about culling and octree depths and branch nodes and whatever other mysterious crap is going on under the hood. After a minute that program is finished. You enter another DOS command to take the output and run it through another program that will do all the lighting calculations and figure out where the shadows are.

Once those are done you fire up the game. Sure, you’ve got a beefy computer, but you’re still launching a AAA game and this unavoidably takes some time. Even more so for you than for the eventual end users, since this version hasn’t been optimized yet. Once running, you load up the level and discover you forgot to give the lights a color, which means they are shining black light. Which is to say: No light at all. It’s a common mistake and the art team has been nagging the coders to have the lights default to (DUH) white but they’re all busy with other stuff and nobody is in the mood to fuss with the tools.

You can’t even get a sense for how good the light fixtures work, or if the support beams are casting dramatic shadows the way you hoped. So now you need to go back to the editor, make your changes, then run all those utilities again. And if the support beams don’t look the way you want, you might need to do this a half dozen more times in the process of fine-tuning things.

On the other hand, we could always just insist the programmers make us better tools because apparently…

Money is No Object!

Yes. Let’s have our rare and expensive programmers spend huge blocks of time building editing tools to make life easier for our cheap and plentiful artists. Of course, the time they spend on the tools will take away from the time they spend on the gameplay, meaning it will be that much longer before we can start iterating on the content. But someday when the programmers finish we’ll have a nice stable program for the artists to use, and they can see their artistic changes right away without needing to launch the game or muck about with external utilities.

These are the two extremes. Where each company fell on the spectrum depended a lot on their internal culture, and also on how long they planned on using the engine. If you’re riding the graphical bleeding edge, then you’re probably going to re-write half of this stuff before you make your next game. On the other hand if you’re less aggressive about graphics then you can put more time into tools because they’re going to be around longer.

So it all depends on you being a tech company or an art company at heart.

HOWEVER:

I can’t think of many companies more art-minded than Valve Software. And their tools are the worst I’ve personally experienced. Just shockingly bad. I last used Hammer (their level editor) back in 2011 or so, and it totally felt like a late-90’s tool. It’s shocking to me that they do such amazing work with such crude tools. I would HOPE that with their recent focus on user mods that they’ve improved their tools, but I haven’t investigated it.


2020209Sixty-nine comments, dude! Excellent!


  1. MichaelGC says:

    If they’re still using Hammer:

    http://www.shamusyoung.com/twentysidedtale/?p=4749

    maybe that’s why HL3 is taking so long…

    • Mechaninja says:

      I almost hope HL3 never comes out. The constant and ever more reaching and obscure “GABEN BROUGHT THREE DEVS TO THE CONFERENCE. THREE. HL3 CONFIRMED” on reddit entertain me endlessly, and I will miss them when they are gone.

  2. Groboclown says:

    Fortunately with the tools vs. engine debate, you can calculate some relatively hard numbers to show to management to indicate how much money will be saved by adding feature “x” to the tool. If 1 developer takes 1 day to add a feature, and it saves an artist 10 minutes per iteration, you can multiply that time by the number of artists and the rough number of times per day they use that feature.

    The experience I have (note: not in gaming) of developers writing tools to help the back-end users (note: the people the company pays, not the people giving them money), the devs do want to make the tools easier to use, but they have to appease management’s desires for deadlines. I find that this behavior comes from a dev’s desire to want their product come across as “not sucking” by the people they work with.

    • Blake says:

      ” If 1 developer takes 1 day to add a feature, and it saves an artist 10 minutes per iteration, you can multiply that time by the number of artists and the rough number of times per day they use that feature.”

      This approach works when you have an unlimited number of equally talented and experienced programmers.
      But if you’ve only got enough programmers to get the game finished then hiring another to help with tools also involves the cost of hiring, and however long it takes for them to be experienced enough to help.
      Furthermore if you need one of your rare graphics programmers to work on an art tool, then it’s more likely you’ll have to cut visual effects from the game as replacing them might not be an option.

      As I programmer my instinct is always to spend a bit more time getting the tools working perfectly, setting things up to be convenient in the future and such, but have had to train myself to be better at stopping at ‘good enough’ and not continue down the path of diminishing returns.

  3. Alex says:

    Honestly right now the question really does come down to “what can we afford to do?” and not “What is our engine capable of?” All of the commercial engines out there have been incredibly easy to use. Some of course a bit more limited than others, but overall there are very few limitations on what you can do.

    To be fair tech has kinda been in that corner for a while now. Between NeoAxis, Shiva 3D, Unity, and Torque we have had access to relatively cheap game engines for years now. Unity was launched in 2005(for mac only). Torque came out in 2001. Now tools are better and we are getting commercial level engines into indie hands but…. meh? Indies can’t utilize that tech as well as the big boys. Stuff that was hard then will still be hard now. Art direction, gameplay polish, and even performance will still be issues to deal with. I guess for the Mid – High tier indies( teams of 15+) it will do wonders. For every one else? Hard to say. I mean look at Gone Home. The game looks nice, but not great even though all they had to worry about was the environment. A better engine wont make better environment artist or give them more time to work on the art.

    • Blake says:

      “Now tools are better and we are getting commercial level engines into indie hands but…. meh? Indies can’t utilize that tech as well as the big boys. Stuff that was hard then will still be hard now.”

      I’m going to disagree with you here, the initial cost of getting an application running, reading input, saving/loading, networking, writing a sound engine, and drawing to the screen is kinda large (especially for cross platform games).

      A large studio has probably paid for all that at least once and has things in place to work off, or could otherwise afford the extra programmer or two it’d take to get things going.
      Independent projects often fail before they get there because they’ve used up all their budget trying to get an application going before they can start their game.

      The small subscription cost means practically anyone can skip all that first part and start creating their game, without needing to dig into code to write things others have written hundreds of times before.

      Basically this will allow a huge number of indie projects to exist that couldn’t otherwise because everyone can skip straight to the fun stuff.

      • Alex says:

        Oh of course all of that is great. I meant that it’s not new. We have had tech like this for quite a while.Engines like Shiva, Torque, Unity, and Neo Axis have provided boiler plate code like that for years. Only thing is that now we have the Bleeding edge players throwing their product in as well. I don’t think it is going to have a lasting effect on the actual games that are produced. Only thing it’s going to do is, make Unreal the only thing that is taught in schools. And then we can all be happily subservient to Adobe, Autodesk, AND Epic. ;)

  4. Tse says:

    Well, I looked at some tutorials. The workflow is fast and easy, and the result is very good. I think it’s good enough to make architectural visualizations. Rendering a 1 minute video won’t take a whole week anymore. And with this price…
    Too bad I’m an architect only by title. Learning this could get me into a well-paid position in an architectural studio, though.

  5. Tizzy says:

    Apparently, Pixar (I know, not videogames, but whatever) is firmly on the “good tools” end of the spectrum. They have people who most of their time trying to make the artists’ lives easier. Must be nice.

    Sure, their artists probably don’t come *that* cheap, but I think it reflects more on their core philosophy.

    • Alex says:

      Pixar is totally different in its treatment of artists. Pixar doesn’t do mass layoffs and in general they like to keep people. So their artists, programers, and scientists(!!!!) are all well paid and comfy. They do this so that their top talent wont leave. Since every one is “top talent” then…. no one leaves ;) .

      Pixar though have also realized that bubbles are terrible. They have open sourced much of their tech so that other people can get used to it. If they are used to it, they can come in from any program(Maya, Blender, Modo, etc.) and get integrated into the Pixar environment.

    • Thomas says:

      Well they are a company that directly produces art =D Programming for Pixar is only as useful as it enables artists to do stuff. With a game, sure you can’t have a game without art, but you can’t have a game without game either.

      • evileeyore says:

        “With a game, sure you can’t have a game without art, but you can’t have a game without game either.”

        Ehhh…

        *Looks at Endless Forest, Flower, Dear Esther, Proteus, and upcoming The Old City*

        *Looks back at the premise sentence*

        We’re gonna disagree on that one.

        • Tizzy says:

          Very good point, evileeyore, glad you chimed in.

          • evileeyore says:

            But yet I’m not entirely sure how much of those you could call a game…

            Interactive Art?

            I’d have tossed The Path in that list, but personally I think it has too many “game elements”, even though it really is just an interactive story.

            In the end I’m fine with “You can have a game without art and art without a game, and both can be called Video Games”.

            • Alexander The 1st says:

              As a counterpoint, I’m going to point out that Endless Forest, Flower, Dear Esther, Proteus, The Old City, and various other pieces of said genre of Interactive Art Games…

              …they all have the code behind them allowing for display graphical and non-textual objects to the screen, not to mention systems for gravity, collision, and movement.

              They may not necessarily be relatively complex systems of a game, but much like the hyperlinking capacity in Depression Quest, they *are* there.

              Whereas something like Zork has *no* art assets outside of the textual graphics. Depending on how you contextualize font as art or not, it could be considered to have no art, whereas the above games *do* have a system of interactivity intended to make a point such that it would be hard to say they don’t have a game in them.

            • Kian says:

              I think you’re straying too far from the meaning in the sentence. When he said “you can’t have a game without game”, he is talking from the programming perspective. Not arguing over the definition of “game”. Essentially, if any of those games is interactive in any way, that interactivity has to be coded. Otherwise, they’d be movies.

              Pixar doesn’t need to worry about interactivity. That’s why they can focus entirely on art. They don’t need to worry about the movie running on different platforms, for different aspect ratios, different control schemes, etc. The movie is rendered in-house and all they provide their customers is a non-interactive movie.

              With games, regardless of your definition of “game” so long as it’s interactive, all the time spent providing better tools sacrifices every other aspect.

      • False Prophet says:

        Pixar does a lot with physics. E.g., part of what made Finding Nemo so impressive is that they figured out how to make realistic bubbles in CGI. Not just in movement/behaviour, but even little details like how they refract light.

        I feel there’s a lot of crossover between animation and games, especially these days. The big battle scenes in the Lord of the Rings films weren’t really scripted, they were really more of an MMO run entirely by AIs. There were even some hilarious unintended results from the AIs at the beginning.

        • Thomas says:

          But all of that stuff is still only useful in as much as it enables storytelling. The bubbles were nice, but they were nice as an enabler of the artistic vision that the film had

  6. Daemian Lucifer says:

    “If you’re really interested in making your game pretty then it’s far more important to hire talented artists and make sure they have a clear artistic vision. ”

    Really?What modern games have you been playing?

    • Shamus says:

      Since I talk about nearly every game I play here on the site, I’ll assume that was rhetorical. But… I don’t know what you’re trying to say here. All modern games are ugly? Some don’t look better than others?

      For the record: The Old Republic looks monotonous and uninspired, even though it has FAR more polygon and texture detail than (say) World of Warcraft or Lord of the Rings Online. Elder Scrolls Online is kinda “meh”, even though it’s in the same ballpark as the spectacular Guild Wars 2 in terms of system requirements.

      • Daemian Lucifer says:

        It was a joke on the blandness of plenty of modern games.There are a few beautiful ones,but with most you just want to scratch your head and go “Who the fuck thinks this is beautiful?”.

        • Shamus says:

          I get it now.

          Sigh. Yeah.

        • Hmm… Could it be that having a huge art team contributes to the bland color palette?

          I mean, if I’m doing the art assets for a game by my lonesome, I can call them up and compare them, contrast them, realize that the Mutant Soldier’s skin that I thought looked red really looks like hot pink when he wears the Uber Armor of Evil. To prevent that from the get-go, it wouldn’t surprise me if a game company tells the art team, “Unless specified, here’s your color swatches. Use these and these only, for consistency.”

          The result could be that nothing stands out or “pops.” Any truth to this hypothesis?

          • Shamus says:

            Possibly. I think it depends on who is running things and how well they manage the team.

            What you’re supposed to do is have your best artists create a few basic scenes or bits of example material. More than concept art, but less than the final whole. I forget what they’re called. Then artists use that as a guide so everyone is hopefully hitting the same notes.

            Then the art director or product manager reviews the assets as they appear and sends them back if they just don’t look or feel right.

            That all sounds reasonable, but like you pointed out – it probably gets difficult once the team gets above a certain size.

            That’s my non-artist guess, anyway.

            • Alex says:

              They do though. One of the problems is that half of your artists are in another office or country. The art director is either too over worked or has a serious “This small, insignificant detail must be perfect even if I don’t see the whole scene!” problem or both. Communication then stagnates. You don’t hear back from the art directors ASSISTANT for weeks. So your little shop in China keeps working on the assets because you are on a fixed bid and times-a-wastin. At the end of it outsourced companies have little to no direction with a massive amount of redone work because when the client did get back to them, it was “all wrong!”. And so on and So forth. Really good art directors are hard to find. I cant imagine being one for a large project like that.

              PS : All of that is not first hand. It is a collection of stories that I got from my coworkers and friends. I mostly work with indies. Even in that space a quality art director is worth his weight in gold though, because the same problems can arise from the next desk over.

          • Daemian Lucifer says:

            That however,doesnt excuse things like overuse of lens flare or a crappy color filter.

            • Indeed. That makes me think it’s done by a separate artist/team/department, or could be thrown on top of the assets after the palette has been chosen already.

              I wonder if any game company has ever developed the equivalent of Photoshop’s Gamut Warning. It’s a little “view” option that shows you where on an RGB image your “color” won’t print as you see it because (1) it’s an RGB image so (2) it’s printed with CMYK ink, not with light bulbs.

              Having some kind of visual “saturation checker” or what have you do a speed-run through the game and highlight places where X% of a screenshot is within a given color range might help matters.

          • Smejki says:

            Well, maybe. There should always be a lead graphic artist who sets up the standards on art and on its production pipeline and also reviews each piece of assets. But I can imagine some otherwise solid visions are constantly brought down by a committee of some important i-know-bests and similar creatures (a well suited guy says “Lens flares are hot right now. Put them in!”.

  7. Corpital says:

    I agree with the gist of the article, cola mostly taskes the same.

    Makes me wonder, if the engine will become something like Steam, so convenient and cheap that it’ll completely dominate the market. At least sounds like the BAs in game design here (here being this city) would be all over it and if they’re using it now, they probably still will if posible after actually getting work in the industrie.

    This post was sponsored by painkillers from the dentist. Can’t tell, if it is really cohorrend.

    • Daemian Lucifer says:

      “I agree with the gist of the article, cola mostly taskes the same.”

      Crappy.

    • Thomas says:

      It’s got serious competition from Unity though. I bet more and more mid level developers making games through Unity* definitely made them want to get out this subscription model faster.

      There has to be some sort of catch or hook for it. $228 is much cheaper than $1,000,000 there needs to be. We’re talking 4000 subscribers per ‘AAA games worth’ of people right now. I don’t know if there’s 4000 serious (possibly indie) developers in the entirety of the UK. If it takes 20 people to make a small indie game (deliberately an overestimation), then for 4,000 serious developers we’d expect 200 viable indie games a year in the UK alone. To scale that would be 1,000 viable indie games in the US.

      If they are expecting to make more money directly than they made before, then they’d have their work cut out for them. If the Unreal engine took in just $30 million dollars a year, then they’d need 120,000 people to sign up for their stuff.

      My guess would be that they’re worried about being taking over by competition and that they’re going all in on that ‘proportion of the profits’ clause. It doesn’t matter if you’re not making money on the software itself if you’re taking a cut of every game ever made

      *If they’re the same thing =D I don’t know, code is too cryptic for me.

      • Alex says:

        It is 20 bucks a month for the whole team. They are looking to make money off of the 5 percent royalties on games.

        • Humanoid says:

          I daresay that it’s aimed even more at ensuring the ubiquity of the engine amongst the development community. Like Microsoft Office’s business model, you want people using it early and using it everywhere. Then once you get to the really big contracts you end up getting in by default, because that’s all people know. If they can get just a few AAA games to use the engine instead of a competitor’s, because that’s what their employees know and have experience in, then it might already have paid off.

        • Steve C says:

          I don’t believe it’s $19 for the whole team. It’s $19 for each individual. Or more likely $19 per computer. The only organizations that get a blanket license as a whole for $19 are schools. I believe you are correct that the 5% off the top is where it’s at though.

      • Cineris says:

        According to some Epic employees I have spoken to (granted this is not the business-management side): The only reason Epic is charging money for Unreal Engine 4 at all is because they want people to take development on their engine seriously, and people do not take totally free things seriously (See: the 10,000 free books and tutorials that I have that I’d love to catch up on, but never make the time for because getting something for free subconsciously devalues it for you).

      • Trix2000 says:

        Those numbers don’t sound all that unreasonable to me, especially considering it includes educators and any dabbling would-be developer who wants to mess with the tool.

        And that’s ignoring the 5% cut, which by itself would probably be considerable.

      • Steve C says:

        You are vastly underestimating the number of people who have no intention (beyond a pipedream) to release a game and just want the toolkit to play with. For example if I had a teen who expressed interest in game design or programming I would buy a subscription without hesitation. It also doesn’t need to be games. It can simply be art creation to spice up something uploaded to youtube.

        Instead of thinking about it in terms of “indie developers” think of it terms of “highschool students in the UK who are interested in coding”. About 0.5%-1% of my highschool was into this stuff when I was in school in the 90s. I can only imagine what percent of students find this interesting now.

        Actually that makes me very curious. Any teens out there want to guess what % of their student body is into computer programming and/or virtual art?

        • Alex says:

          “For example if I had a teen who expressed interest in game design or programming I would buy a subscription without hesitation.”

          Why? With all of the free tools out there FOSS or otherwise would you “waste” money on a UE4 specifically? It would offer no benefits over Unity or Godot. It would not have the ease of use of Stencyl or Gamemaker.
          Autodesk started giving away copies of their packs to students(edu licence) and Blender is free. GIMP and Krita are fairly competent image editors.

          You literally only need to Buy your computer and have access to the internet to make a game now days. UE4 is really cool. Unless you are very serious about making games you could probably save yourself some money and go the free route. Probably learn more along the way.

      • Thomas says:

        EVE Valkyrie has switched from Unity to Unreal 4. I suspect this is the kind of news epic wanted to hear

    • Packbat says:

      The Firaxis XCOM game uses Unreal Engine 3. That surprised me when I saw it, but….

  8. Daemian Lucifer says:

    “Or Xbox Zero. Or whatever they call it. ”

    Next one will be xboxxx,of course.

  9. Muspel says:

    It’s worth noting that Valve started working on improving their tools back in May of 2011. I don’t know if they’re done yet (as much as such a project can ever be “done”, anyways), but I’m sure they’ve made at least some improvements.

    More on that here.

  10. Bropocalypse says:

    I’m constantly interested in game development, but I have other commitments that keep me from pursuing it seriously.
    In a blue moon when I try to indulge my game-making itch, I’ll usually end up prototyping a few systems, then getting bored once I figure out how it’s done. It would seem unfortunate for me that I don’t have the patience for the vast swath of actual data that makes up a real game, and only like to solve specific problems. Then again, this is arguably due to the fact that I spend the bulk of my free time working on a comic, which could mean that the energy that goes into creating an interesting exploration space is poured into that.
    Despite all that, I’m always delighted to see when anyone makes game development better in any way for everyone.

  11. Paul Spooner says:

    “Unreal Engine was my first experience with something that felt like a real toolkit and not a slapdash pile of utilites.”

    Are you talking about the original Unreal Engine? Or did you get a copy of Unreal Engine 4, and have been playing around with it? And, if so, what kind of powers does it have? Is it for good, or for awesome?

  12. Grampy_bone says:

    When I was in college I experimented with creating Thief levels with the Dark Engine editor DromEd. It was about the same level of tech as the original Half Life engine. It worked pretty well; you could jump into your level to test it out without too much hassle.

    I recall spending a couple months working on a level. When it was completed it consisted of *maybe* 20 minutes of gameplay. That was with a game that had very primitive visuals by today’s standards, and I was obviously reusing all the normal game’s art and music. It really gave me an appreciation of how much work goes into actually making content.

  13. Neko says:

    It takes a lot of time and expertise to make a high-poly, normal-mapped, fully-rigged and animated human figure and get them into a 3D world.

    Yeah, this is one thing that makes me hesitant about diving into it myself. I can program the hell out of a cool game engine, I can even cobble together some 2D textures if I need to, there are sound effect libraries and music available online I’m sure, but 3D models and animation? If I followed a tutorial, maybe I could make a box. That spun. On the wrong axis.

    • The Rocketeer says:

      The funny part is that you comprehend exactly what kind of errors inexperienced programmers inevitably commit, which is a pretty key faculty.

      • Alexander The 1st says:

        To be fair, anyone inexperienced with how 3D models and animations differ between 3DS Max and/or Maya versus UDK are pretty much guaranteed to have this problem.

        My first UDK project as a team had us use as many builtin assets to save time during the course, but we wanted unique characters – 2 main characters. And not even animation wise, just mesh (Bulk around the skeleton, not necessarily textured.), so we modified a tutorial model and then tried to rebindthe the skeleton that came with that mesh around it to the newly adjusted mesh.

        When we brought it into the player character pawn (Pawn = Avatar, character sprite, essentially.), we got the skeleton to work with the provided UT animations that the skeleton were able to use to move stuff, and the mesh followed…with some kinks. Notably, at one point, the character models were hunched over like zombies. In our end build, you can see model markers appear or parts of the model appear somewhat off of the model itself.

        And that was a 2.5 platformer. A later FPS-esque game I made had us try to get a “hand” as a weapon…but it kept floating around and rotating weirdly relative to the player character. At one point, I hacked a temporary solution that involved making the camera face the opposite direction of the player character’s orientation and just invert wasd controls to map respectively to sdaw. That was easier than figuring out why our hand model decided to flip axes at one point during development.

  14. Ross Smith says:

    Hmmm. Back in the day I made some Half-Life mods that were fairly well received (the Timeline trilogy); I’ve been meaning to get back into game development. I was looking at Unity, but my main beef with that is that it relies on Mono to run on non-Windows platforms (I’m one of those smug Mac types), and there’s no way I’m trusting my work to an open source .NET clone of dubious long term prospects. But UE4 is C++ (which I like better than C# anyway), so yeah, I’ll be looking into this…

  15. Ralph says:

    I agree with Shamus, but messing around with BSP, Vis and Rad made me the nerd I am today.. 8-)

    Agree Hammer sucks, just slightly less so than Q3Radiant and everything that came before.

    Does the unreal engine still do the weird carving out hollow space thing it did back in Unreal 1?

  16. Relating this back to the Steambox discussion a while ago, I note that Unreal 4 supports Linux (and therefore SteamOS).

  17. There is also Unity (popular with indies) which is both free and non-free depending on the edition if I recall.

    Then there is CryEngine (used to make the Crysis games) that let you edit the game world live (WYSIWYG principles), and free.

    And then there is Frostbite but that thing is pretty much big $$$.

    Unreal, CryEngine and Unity are probably the first three to look at if you are a indie.

    I’m probably missing a few others but those are the three of the really big ones I can recall from the top of my head that is free or almost free.

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