Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Game Engines

Errr, right okay, when I started this course I really had no real idea how video games were made and put together. I'm even jumping ahead already, before I had chosen to study on this course I was going to go and study Physical Geography at Edge Hill University. This was all my fault, I have loved playing video games for a very long time and from a young age video games have been a very big part of my life, but who knew you could take a course on 'how to make them' at university?! I didn't! Like I said, it was my fault, I really had no idea of the vast diversity of available courses to chose from at universities across the country, until I met my partner Sophia. It was actually her who put the idea of studying video game art at university in my head, but that’s another long story for another time. Where I'm going with this is, despite my fondness for video games, and the enjoyment I've had from my experiences of learning how to create video game art on this course, unlike many other students on the course, when I first started this course, I had literally no idea how video game art, or any other 3D content was created. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I've always been a bit of a tech geek, I liked to find out about how many poly's a Gran Turismo car used, or how many gigaflops or whatever the PS3 could kick out when it was released! But I really had no idea how 3D content was manufactured, what programs were used to create 3D content, I'd never heard of 3DS Max or ZBrush, I never knew who created the 3D content or the specific roles available within the games industry. I didn't even no any 3D or 2D video game artists or any with relevance to the area. I'd always focused my interest, possibly due to the direction I was led within school and college, on traditional and historically predominant artists and it was only until I knew I was going to study on the Game Art and Design course at DMU that I began to look at a variety of video game and concept artists and their work, and even then I only looked at the bigger names within the industry such as Daniel Dociu and Andrew Jones. 

So from starting the course and still even now, perhaps not everything, but a lot of it has been entirely new to me, which in many ways has made it harder than it could have been, or may be for other students. I have thought for a while now that a big part of this has been because I have always taken interest in lots and lots of things from a very young age, were as a lot of people I have met since joining the Game Art course have had very dedicated interests in the surrounding fields such as the games themselves, concept art, comic book art etc. I suppose its slightly weird, I've not actually met anyone else on the course yet with such a strong interest, maybe even more of an interest in something else video game unrelated such as myself. Like I've said, video games have always been a very big part of my life but I’ve always focused more on what games are coming out and the reviews etc not on the art involved in the games. Again I've always been interested in art, and, hopefully, good at it! But as mentioned I’ve always taken interest in as may things as I could and tried my best to be good at those things too! I’ve taken part in many sports and athletic activities, I’ve always enjoyed reading, watching films, listening to music and I really enjoyed most if not all of the different subjects at school. Still to this day I find myself taking interest in lots of things, I enjoy as I always have learning new things and being open to new discoveries, which is possibly one of the reasons life has led me down the path of 'artist', but, like I've mentioned, unlike many other students on the course, video games aren't what I'd define as my main interest. I'd actually say that motor sport, in particular motorcycle racing is my main following/ hobby/ interest, but maybe this is a healthy thing as a video games artist? Being able to detach myself from games to pursue other interests keeps the creation of video game content on the course feeling much fresher for me. Perhaps only time will tell if this will eventually have a positive effect.

Back to the main point of the article, which is my opportunity to talk about video game engines. Oh dear! I really have no idea about game engines in all honesty apart from my brief experiences with the Unreal Development Kit earlier in the year and most recently a very brief try of CryENGINE 3 to begin familiarising myself with it for the group project. That being said I feel I'm in no place to give information on the variety of available game engines as there are much more appropriate places to go for that information, such as the internet! I would strongly advise, if you're in a similar situation to myself that you do as I have, and if you have a particular interest in game engines, even to find out what they are! I strongly recommend you get on Google and begin to research what engines are available and what they offer to artists, programmers, developers etc.

So what I will talk about instead is my initial opinion of game engines from my very recent introduction to them. I have touched previously on game engines in one of my previous blogs about Level Design when talking about pre-programmed software which makes the creation of video game content much more accessible with individual skills relating to game creation to take a much more active role within the design process and a games creation, so, I will try my best not to repeat myself. What I was talking about here was Game Engines. Game Engines are effectively middleware software that enables professionals and hobbyists alike to manifest their ideas and concepts into fully fledged and even releasable games. Not so long ago, every video game was made individually, by the individual companies and developers from scratch every time. A technique which has been around much longer in other industries to create content quicker, more efficiently, easier and by more people, such as the music industry, where music creation computer software has enabled hobbyists to create professionally sounding music from their own homes is now becoming increasingly more common within the games industry. And this is also true for large established developers too, and it is to use and most importantly, reuse existing game engines.

There are negative and positive points for using game engines. I'd personally say from the information I have at my dispense that they seem mostly positive. The complexity and difficulty involved in making current generation video games in always increasing and the industry itself is constantly becoming much more competitive and a demanding industry to work than it has in the past and this in itself is creating numerous problems for the industry. Budgets are becoming smaller, and production times shorter, with the increased time and in particular the expertise needed to develop today’s games many people have turned to readily available game engines such as Unreal Development Kit or CryENGINE.

Typically creating a video game would involve the extensive knowledge of underlying code and programming to ensure that thinks work how they should within said game, such as how objects or characters behave within a game world. Basically writing the rules of the way a game world will work from scratch. This would usually be very expensive and time consuming and easy to say very difficult and complicated making it even harder for other roles, especially artists to have a bigger say in the final outcome of a game, at least making the whole design process potentially very restrictive. With a game engine this 'leg work' has already been done and effectively the rules are already in place and with engines such as CryENGINE the actual use of the engine is made much more user friendly due to a well thought out, clean user interface. Most people are probably used to using Windows or OS X, and probably never even realise that these things aren't 'the computer' or how the computer works, they are, in their simplest forms, pieces of software or graphical interfaces designed to let the general public use a computer easily without which I assume 99.9% wouldn't have a clue! Microsoft spend billions developing the Windows platform, consistently striving to make it more user friendly (some might say they're not doing the best of jobs!), but without most people even realising we find this everywhere and everyday in our lives. You couldn't operate your television without the user friendly designed menu system, and even 60 years ago, your grandparents couldn't of tuned their wireless into the correct radio channel without some sort of radio receiver dial. This is basically what a game engine delivers to people like myself, it offers the chance to create video game content quickly, to iterate on that content and to finalise it without leaving the comfort of the engine.

Game engines, such as the CryENGINE haven’t just appeared overnight and have also taken many millions of pounds to create, CryENGINE itself having taken over ten years to develop and is still constantly undergoing improvements and changes. I think its important to realise though that although it may appear that there is a danger that because game engines can make it extremely accessible to begin creating video game content that there is potential for too many bad, un-thought-out games being released willy-nilly, that is, in the most part not yet the case. As I’ve mentioned, current generation video games are extremely complex and difficult to make and a game engine offers the individual roles within the games industry, i.e. artist, the opportunity to have much more important and much less restrictions on the content they are able to create, the individual will still need to have, at least a solid knowledge of their individual area of expertise. A game engine then allows these areas to come together and create professional looking content on a much smaller scale in much smaller teams that would usually take an entire development studio to accomplish.

Finally then, I would like to think that game engines are a positive thing. Its really not worth getting into an argument but creativity can be lost quickly and easily for many reasons, and the opportunity for anyone to be able to start creating easily, and most importantly to enjoy that can only be a good thing. I think that no matter what, it will still take dedicated professionals to create AAA game titles for the public to enjoy which should be good for me! And that if developers are willing to share their engines for teams of professionals to use to create content then we should see the continuing sophistication and unbelievable creations of dedicated and passionate game developers, and if this creation can filter through to the general public however basic, whether it be creating levels in Little Big Planet or building a community in The Sims then the spread of creation is a good thing and there will hopefully be a continued respect for the professional and a willing to pay for that privilege to experience somebody else’s creations. Is it also worth noting that it cost around $1.2million for a commercial license to use CryENGINE 3?! So, you know, this gives some kind of idea how much it would cost for a developer to develop a game from scratch if most are finding it cheaper to publish using these existing engines. I think that there will always be room for higher budget developments, fingers crossed, but engines mean that developers can focus more on the content creation and hopefully continue to deliver us with fantastic looking video games.

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