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Video Game Engine Makers Intensify Their Race to Zero

Free engines, they say, mean more people making games.

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If you want to know who the Game Developers Conference is for, just look at its name: It’s an annual pilgrimage for tens of thousands of video game makers, particularly “indies” who don’t work for the big-name studios.

Naturally, the companies that make engines — technology suites that automate some of the gruntwork of game design — use the occasion every year to try and reach those developers. And this year, the big selling point is “free.”

Epic Games kicked things off by announcing Monday morning that it had made its Unreal Engine 4 free to use, so long as developers give Epic 5 percent of their revenue after the first $3,000 grossed each quarter. Last year, Epic re-priced the same engine to $19 per month with a 5 percent rev-share, which itself was a drastic cut.

“As we take away barriers, more people are able to fulfill their creative visions and shape the future of the medium we love,” Epic founder Tim Sweeney wrote in a blog post.

Meanwhile, Unity Technologies said today that it would release a new version of its engine, dubbed Unity 5, which offers better graphical capabilities and cloud-based game testing. Unity doesn’t ask for a revenue share, but will offer two versions of the engine: A “professional” version that costs $75 per month for a team license, or a free version intended for “hobbyists, sole developers and studios just getting started.”

In an interview with Re/code, Unity CEO John Riccitiello said the paid versus free split is not new, as the company offered a free version of its last engine, Unity 4. However, he acknowledged that the free Unity 4 was too watered down and promised that any game made in Unity 5 Pro could also be made in the free version; the difference is that the free one lacks some supplementary features like the pro version’s Cloud Build.

The reason for all this price-jockeying is pretty straightforward: As Sweeney wrote, lower barriers to entry means more people, including those thousands of indies working alone or in small teams, making games. It’s in the game engine makers’ interests to entice those small, resource-strapped developers, just in case one of them emerges from the fray with the next breakout hit.

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