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Game engine

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Building a video game is not unlike crafting an intricate mural, nuanced symphony, or blockbuster movie. Modern day game developers have more powerful technology at their disposal than ever before. That being said, the demand for high-quality media—such as 3D models, original soundtrack, art, and so on—is growing every day.

A truly great video game hides the complicated marriage of logic and art behind the scenes, but developers are well aware that even the slightest hiccup could delay production. Here are # obstacles many game developers face.

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Original author: 
Peter Bright

Mozilla wants the Web to be a platform that's fit for any purpose. That's why the company is investing in Firefox OS—to fight back against the proliferation of platform-specific smartphone apps—and it's why the company has been working on WebGL, in order to bring 3D graphics to the browser, Emscripten, a tool for compiling C++ applications into JavaScript, and asm.js, a high performance subset of JavaScript.

The organization doesn't just want simple games and apps in the browser, however. It wants the browser to be capable of delivering high-end gaming experiences. At GDC today, the company announced that it has been working with Epic Games to port the Unreal 3 engine to the Web.

The Unreal 3 engine inside a browser.

With this, Mozilla believes that the Web can rival native performance, making it a viable platform not just for casual games, but AAA titles.

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A shot of Unity 4's new Mecanim animation interface.

AAA developers with deep pockets are no doubt looking forward to the many gorgeous upgrades available in the upcoming Unreal Engine 4. But smaller independent developers will probably be more excited about the new features for Unity's just announced Unity Engine 4.

The new version of Unity fully integrates new animation tools from Mecanim, a Canadian company that Unity acquired last year. This brings skill from experienced animators who have worked with major publishers including EA and Ubisoft. Besides improving computational efficiency and increasing Unity's limit on simultaneously animated characters from dozens to "hundreds" at once, Unity President Dave Helgason stressed that the Mecanim system makes animation much simpler for developers.

"Things that would normally take several hours or even days to do—taking the animation data, making sure it fits the character, timing the motion extracts and making sure it all loops correctly—now that's all automatic so it's literally minutes... you can do so much more with so much less," Helgason told Ars. Users will also be able to buy canned animations from the Unity Asset Store, dropping fully animated characters into their projects unedited, or diving in deep to play with the underlying blend trees and state machines if they want.

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Epic Games

"I light my level by dropping a sun in."

That statement from Epic Games' Senior Technical Artist and Level Designer Alan Willard doesn't seem like such a big deal on the surface. To a non-programmer, it probably sounds like the blindingly simple and obvious way to add light to a three-dimensional environment ("Computer, drop in a sun, please. And make me some tea, Earl Grey, hot.") But to anyone who has worked with an existing game engine, including Epic's incredibly popular but six-year-old Unreal Engine 3, the ability to simply "drop in a sun" using the upcoming Unreal Engine 4 is a major improvement over the current status quo.

"I don't have to go through and place a ton of lights and process those down into light maps, so just from an iteration standpoint, the engine is able to be worked with at a much higher speed," Willard continues. "I can just begin placing things and they look like I spent three days tweaking the lighting to make it look like that."

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A select group of people got a private demo of Epic Games' Unreal Engine 4 at the Game Developers Conference in March, and Stu Horvath of Ars Technica's sister publication Wired was one of the lucky few. UE4 has many new features that will let it continue to sit on the Throne of Games (Engines), though Wired hints that old console hardware may hinder its crack at progress.

The most recently released version of Epic Games' engine, Unreal Engine 3, powered the game Gears of War released in 2006. Since then, it's been an unstoppable force behind over 150 games, including the Mass Effect trilogy, Batman: Arkham Asylum, Mirror's Edge, and Borderlands.

One of the distinct properties of UE4 is its ability to create and display effects based on the inherent properties of an environment, rather than displaying pre-programmed ones based on anticipated scenarios. For example, light that travels through water would refract, and a character that stands in a mirror would see a reflection of themselves, not a pre-programmed image or pre-rendered character standing on the other side. This natural behavior presumably creates much less work for developers—rather than having to explicitly teach everything how to react to every individual stimulus, objects have inherent behaviors and know what to do.
Ash particles drift through a scene rendered with Unreal Engine 4. Wired
Another one of UE4's desirable new features is its particle effects, or the ability to render hordes of tiny objects and all of their erratic motions. In the demo shown at GDC, onlookers saw the engine's ability to render many pieces of ash floating in the air, and dust particles floating in the light of a flashlight in a dark room. Normally, having to render the odd and easily affected paths of particles brings processors to their knees, but with UE4 running on an NVIDIA Kepler GTX 680, they drifted without effort.

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IGF JE.jpg[The article was written by Ben Abraham and appeared originally on Gamasutra.]

On the same day caucuses around the U.S. line up to vote for their preferred candidate in the 2012 presidential election, two candidates squared up to debate the best practice in game design and whether it's better to build or buy a middleware engine.

In a GDC 2012 session moderated by thatgameocmpany's Kellee Santiago, Alexander Bruce of Antichamber fame and John Edwards from thatgamecompany debated whether game design is best served by licensed middleware or a custom made solution.

Alex Bruce began the debate with an opening statement aimed at those that create their own tech: "Building your own engine is like building your own Photoshop." His argument rested on the fact that developers need to balance an artist's needs with the practicality of engineering.

Instead, Bruce prefers to start with something (in his case, the Unreal engine) and then add, subtract, bend and twist it until it does what he wants. There are numerous precedents for this -- Team Fortress Classic, for instance, was built on Half-Life, which was itself built on top of the Quake engine.

The advantage, said Bruce is that "engines are about optimization" which means he can spend more time and energy worrying about other aspects of the design.

He was also realistic about his abilities -- sure, plenty of developers do well with homemade tech, but Bruce said, "I would not be where I am" without using a licensed engine.

He also learned about the dangers of internal engine development from one of his previous jobs: "I worked for a studio that burned itself to the ground thinking they could do everything cheaper, faster and better... but didn't allocate the resources to do it."

Bruce finished his statement by encouraging developers to prioritize how they want to invest their development time: "Technology is getting faster, but we are never getting any more hours in our day."

John Edwards then stepped forward to defend internal engine development, and conceded that he and Bruce "agree on all the points, but [not] on the conclusions." Edwards' conclusions were influenced by three problems that come with licensed engines: "Pay to pay," "leaky abstractions," and "avoiding the hard problems."

When developers and studios decide to buy a licensed engine, he said, they first pay for the engine before they even begin to make content for it. Once developers purchase this shiny new tech, "some interesting psychology takes place in the face of all these possibilities... with all its features unused, the engine is hungry... like a small child, starving for food," distracting developers from the core design of their game.

"Then you wake up months later... wondering what all these normal maps and bloom are doing in your text adventure."

The second point of trouble with licensed middleware is what Edwards called "leaky abstractions" -- when you use a licensed first person shooter engine, it becomes harder to make a game unlike a first person shooter, for instance.

The third and final problem is what Edwards called "avoiding the hard problem," noting that developers can often become distracted by fancy tech with exciting bells and whistles.

"If technology were the hard part, [games like Braid or Castle Crashers] wouldn't have taken three years to make!" said Edwards. "Engines can give you the illusion of progress."

Santiago later questioned both debaters, asking whether they had any regrets about their particular approaches -- suggesting that Bruce could have collaborated with an engineer.

"Yes and no." was Bruce's enigmatic reply. "Only once I got to knowing what my game actually was." The process of tinkering and twisting the engine was quite integral to his development process. "The game would not have ended up where it was if I had someone build an engine from scratch."

Edwards referenced the recently-debuted Indie Game: The Movie, which he felt exemplified how his company makes games, in that developers place themselves in the space where "there are a lot of unknowns" and a lot of creative uncertainty.

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