Developers, beware the democratisation of game development

With opportunity comes risk, warns Carter Dotson

Developers, beware the democratisation of game development

I believe we are entering the era of the grand democratisation of game creation. Technology has made it easier for upstarts to make games from anywhere using consumer-grade hardware, with the ability to release seemingly wherever they want.

Culturally, the rise of indie gaming has made it so that players are willing to buy games with lesser production values than triple-A titles, but technologically, what a two-person team can do versus a 200-person team is a shrinking gap.

Technology announcements at GDC and beyond have certainly shown that the immediate future is one where anyone with the wherewithal can make a game.

But thriving off of game creation? That's still an open question.

Start your engines

Look at all the news that came out of GDC - top-flight multiplatform engines were in an arms race to get into as many developers' hands as possible.

Unreal Engine 4 arguably fired the biggest shot: the full engine with source code, the ones that triple-A developers have access to, is available to anyone for $19 per user per month plus 5 percent royalty.

Those royalty costs are definitely not nothing, but they're small enough that they should not dissuade anyone serious enough to create a game with Unreal. Given how Unity has become so popular for its low barriers to entry and multi-platform distribution, this was a necessary move for Epic, and it gives both curious upstarts and established developers who already know Unreal a viable option.

Top-flight multiplatform engines are in an arms race to get into as many developers' hands as possible.

And this is one that affects mobile gaming too: there are no more UDK restrictions, now iOS and Android distribution can be had by anyone who uses the engine - with full source code access. There's great power available to a whole lot more developers now.

Unreal isn't the only company making these kinds moves. Crytek made CryEngine available to indies for $9.90 per user per month with no royalties. The launch of The Collectables was well-timed to show that it's possible to make graphically-stunning games with the engine, and ones that use modern monetisation techniques.

Havok showed off a year's worth of work and projects made with Project Anarchy, and there were multiple well-formed games being made with the engine, including Dark Chill, an original title from Square One, which also worked on the mobile ports of The Bard's Tale. And this engine features free distribution on mobile to iOS and Android.

Of course, Unity 5 is also on the way. While no big pricing changes were announced, it still has a free option, remains popular, and is ever versatile. There's no reason to believe it won't continue occupying its current seat in the industry for at least the near future given how many developers work with it.

Open for all

In short, there's no shortage of engine options for developers to make the kind of games they want to make within budget – in fact, you could say the costs are almost trivial now.

This is what I mean by the grand democratisation of game creation: we are approaching the point where the difference between a AAA studio and a small indie team is pretty much just the number of people.

Of course, this grand democratisation has its drawbacks. Empowering more creators means little if the means for distribution are not there. After all, the music industry has gone through a similar democratisation: the tools for creation and distribution have been made available to more people.

But independent creators do not have any guarantee of success at all, and the top end of the industry is definitely struggling, even as more of the smaller artists are able to get exposure.

Gaming runs a similar risk: yes, the tools to support smaller-scale creation are there, but it doesn't mean a whole lot if smaller developers can't actually make a living. Developers can be given more power, but it doesn't mean that a quality game will guarantee the ability to thrive in the market at all. And for triple-A development, the ground is starting to crumble.

However, the advantage that gaming is that with this grand democratisation of creation, it's also opening up new distribution methods with the expansion of these engines. Unreal Engine 4 opening up to Android could potentially trigger a dramatic shift, helping to bring across triple-A devs who are already well versed in the engine's quirks.

Unreal Engine 4 opening up to Android could potentially trigger a dramatic shift.

Similarly, GameMaker Studio announcing PlayStation support makes it easier for the users of those tools to bring their games to Vita, PS3, and PS4 without going through third parties. 

Likewise, Unity for PlayStation Mobile opens up the Vita to more developers. I've spoken to one dev casually who had previously baulked at the cost and time it would have taken to bring its game to Vita through the standard Unity tools for the device. Unity for PSM and its potential zero cost mitigates a lot of risks for Unity developers.

New destination

The barriers between PC/console and mobile continues to blur thanks to these engines. A game like FTL that's established on PC can succeed on iPad (peaked at #1 in top paid, #11 in grossing in US, currently #3/#23) even at a relatively-high $9.99 price point because it's well-known.

Mutliplatform tools make it easier for more of these situations to occur, and while the transition from mobile to PC/console is a harder one (in part due to the difference in expectations in each market), engines make it technically possible to work on games that work happily on both, in theory at least.

What's more, the potential offered by gamepads and microconsoles is yet to be realised. The lines we seen between the platforms may soon be more than bored – they may be non-existent.

But that's the thing. Even though gaming is still far short of a meritocracy right now, there's still so much potential. There are still so many untapped markets and distribution methods, and with the tools for creation being so accessible, it's possible for enterprising developers for new developers to break in and mobile developers to break out.

Whatever direction developers are moving in, the bigger question is, can succeed when they get there?

Chicago-based Carter Dotson is a senior writer at, which was acquired by publisher Steel Media in 2012.

Stateside columnist

Freelance writer covering mobile and gaming for @toucharcade, @Gamezebo, and more!