Epic Games is attempting to entice developers by getting all of them involved in building Unreal Engine 4 itself even as they make games with it.
"It takes Unreal from being perceived as the engine for the so-called 'big boys' to potentially appealing for the non-major development crowd that Unity has been courting hard."
The game engine wars escalated substantially at GDC last week as Epic announced a subscription licensing deal for the new Unreal Engine 4 that gives developers - or anybody, really - access to the full tools and source code for UE4 for $19 a month and 5 percent of gross revenue should a game be published through it.
It's a compelling move for Epic Games, its architects, as it takes Unreal from being at least perceived as the engine for the so-called "big boys" to potentially appealing for the non-major development crowd that Unity has been courting hard. We spoke with EU4's technical director Mike Fricker about what all this subscription entails and how the folks who pay it will play as much of a direct role in shaping the future of the Unreal Engine 4 as the people who created it.
"This whole plan comes from our community," Fricker told me as we sat in a small lounge Epic had constructed on a second floor of its booth which literally and maybe metaphorically stood above everything else in the expo area. "And we think with this release we've figured out that sweet spot for what the developers asked for."
And, sure, $20 per month is likely a manageable cost for anybody who is making a serious attempt at building a game, but Fricker insisted that the subscription cost is not strictly an aim-for-the-bottom type of move by Epic.
"I wouldn't say that we're targeting indie or anything like that, but we're trying to increase our spectrum of things we can support without sacrificing anything on the high end," Fricker said. UE4 is of course still the successor to probably the most noteworthy engine of the last-gen, and being an engine rooted in the new-gen (as well as carrying that Unreal name) it has to be powerful and a big step up. And with Unity and other newcomers really changing the accessibility game (pun intended) as of late, that's an issue as well.
"I was the tools engineering lead on Unreal Engine 3 for a while, and we worked hard to make the engine approachable and usable, but we never really got a clean break until we really started development on UE4," Fricker explained. "One of the goals right from the beginning was to make it so anyone could understand this thing, anyone can use it.
It seems to me, from speaking with Fricker, that the subscription license is a means to that end. Just as what UE3 was in 2006 is not what UE3 is now, what the new engine can do will change continuously over time. And Epic is apparently going to have its community of devs facilitate that change.
The point of including access to the source with the subscription license is to allow devs to work with the code to get specific results they want that working with static tools may not allow, but also Epic wants the devs to share what code changes they make. In other words, the evolution of the Unreal Engine 4 will be the direct result of what users do to it as much as what Epic does.
"Even if I get to that point where Epic hadn't added a feature that I need right now, maybe the code community out there has done that."
"Previously we had code available to custom source licensees, but now everyone gets the source. Anybody who pays 19 bucks gets the whole engine source," Fricker emphasized. "So even if I get to that point where Epic hadn't added a feature that I need right now, maybe the code community out there has done that. Maybe there'll be that change that I can get.
"And certainly the code community will understand the engine. There's now a group mindshare of [people who] use the source code, and there'll be tons of people to bounce ideas off of."
What Epic is doing, then, by handing out the source to all the license subscribers, is encouraging a mod community of sorts for the engine itself. Epic will do its own work on the engine, but essentially they'll have the entirety of the development community that uses the engine also working on it as they build their products. It's the democratization of Unreal.
More practically and immediately speaking, access to the source allows devs to make these engine changes themselves instead of needing Epic to facilitate them, as Fricker pointed out, but the more lasting effect will come from the devs sharing those changes. And while folks are making alterations to the source and sharing them and then also using changes their friends have made, it could be that they end up becoming loyal to more than just the tool set they like or engine that does what they want it to. It could be folks making even more of an investment in UE4 than merely creating a game with it.
And when continuing to use what they've made requires them to pay a fee each month and send Epic royalties on published products, the business sense of the affordable pricing becomes evident. If someone spends a year coding in changes to UE4 while in production, it might be more difficult for that person to jump ship the next time around. And that is Epic's true game right now.