As most of you probably already know, this week was fruitful in engine announcements. Epic changed their licensing fees for Unreal Engine 4 so that users now only pay when they make money. Unity technologies announced that Unity 5 (Personal) was going to be free also, depending on your revenue.
(Oh, and Autodesk announced their Stingray game engine, but still no info on price, as far as I know). In their launch trailer, Unity Technologies CEO John Reticello talked about the democratization of game development and how Unity 5 reflects that company value.
Unreal Engine Logo – Epic MegaGames
Unity engine – Democratization!
Is Democratization a good thing?
In theory, democratization of game development is a great thing. A lot more people can start trying to make games without having to invest in buying (or building) an engine. In an industry that is often frowned upon for not being very inclusive at the employee level, having potentially more diverse people being able to make games is wonderful. But is having more developers a good thing?
Let’s look back at the launch of the iPhone back in 2008-2009. Back then, the iPhone was still a new device and it was selling like hotcakes to the greater public. Apple then decided to open up the platform to developers and charged only 100$ per year for developer membership. From a game development point of view, this was a huge departure from the relationship a developer had with a first party. When you wanted to develop a game for a console, you first needed to contact (or already be in contact) with a first party (Nintendo, Sony, Microsoft). You then needed to submit a form to them telling them the type of game you want to do, and if it was approved, you needed to buy expensive development kits (usually over 10k$) and start development. With Apple’s system, you only needed an Apple device and pay 100$ a year! Things were great for developers!
And, in the beginning, some people made a lot of money making games and application. To be quite frank, however, a lot of them were pretty crappy. Sure, the phone’s hardware was not what it is now, but some of the games out there were pretty terrible. Lured by stories of overnight success and riches, more and more developers then entered the fray. As the numbers of developers (and released games) increased, developers had to find a way to distinguish themselves from the competition. Two things happened. The quality of some games increased (that’s good!), but the price of the games decreased (that’s bad…). There was so much competition in fact, that this eventually led developers to lower the price of games to zero (0). This is when free-to-play games started becoming the norm.
Unfortunately, I think that the number of games that are low quality and simple far outweigh the number of games that have increased in quality. And most of the high quality games you see on mobile that are high quality are free-to-play titles supported by companies with money.
So, if we analyze the market from a negative point of view, having more developers was globally a bad thing. It gave access to a market for many developers, but they now have to make high quality games for a very low price, most of them being free. As I mentioned in an another post, another side effect is the cheapening the value of a game. People need to think before they buy a 1$. Not only because the offer of games is so large, but also because of the perceived quality of these games.
(Note that I have nothing against people developing small, simple games. In fact, I encourage people to do this! As an indie, you’re better off starting small and working towards larger projects than the other way around.)
What about the other markets?
I’ve been largely talking about the mobile space, but a different variant of the same effect is happening on the PC market (Steam, etc.). The quality of games is still relatively high, but the problem of being discovered is more than ever present. Even on Steam (and other sites, such GOG.com), where there used to be a limited number of games, we can now find a lot more indie-type titles that are all struggling to get noticed.
I don’t think that the democratization of game development will be as problematic on PC only because the quality expectations for PC games is so high. People may easily have access to tools and Steam, but a lot more development (time and money) is needed to be at the right level.
As for the console space, democratization is happening a little bit because the First Parties (Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft) have opened up to indies a bit more (again especially through Unity), but developers seem to be more reluctant to enter this space right now. So, the problem won’t be happening for a while.
So, is democratization a good thing?
If we look at the market/economics point of view, having more competition at the individual level is a bad thing. Despite the negative overtone of this post, I still believe that the democratization of game development is a good thing. We have seen many high-quality, interesting things come out of the indie (and less-independent) development scene in the last few years. And this has only been possible because of the democratization of tools, hardware platforms and the market.
But as a competitive industry, it’s still something to keep in mind.