Game Engines are specialized software that provides the necessary tools to Game Developer for the simulation of graphics, maybe 2D or 3D. Game engines significantly reduce the time, expertise, and cost to develop a simulation. Now, you may be wondering why am I using the word, ‘simulation’? Well, the popular belief is that game engines are used to develop only video games, heck even Wikipedia gets it wrong, so I won’t blame you. The world has changed and so is the use of Game Engines which has expanded from just making video game experiences to Movies, TV shows, Marketing, and Architecture, etc. In all these cases the Game Engine help to simulate the 3D and 2D graphics to be shown or interacted with, in real-time.
Origins of Game Engine
Well, it wasn’t always this easy. Games had to be designed from the ground up, to make optimal usage of the video hardware. It was very difficult to make a game and required a high level of coding expertise. Take, for example, Andy Gavin, the co-founder and lead programmer at Naughty Dog, he left his Ph.D. in Artificial Intelligence at MIT to make video games. There are also hundreds of videos on YouTube of retro game programmers mentioning different challenges they had to face to make video games, like Andy Gavin in his interview to Ars Technica, explained how he had to hack the PS1 to increase the virtual memory, to make better graphics.
They had to rely on third-party hardware and software like Silicon Graphics and other software to make games. Game Companies made in-house construction kits/set to build video games. The word ‘Game Engine’ caught on with the id Tech 1 Engine which was built to make the famous game, Doom. The Game Engine was capable of making groundbreaking graphics on weak hardware on PC. The success of Doom and Quake inspired developers to make games in a modular fashion and thus was born various game engines after that.
How does a Game Engine make Video Games/Simulation?
The game engines provide pipelines and toolsets across a variety of commonly used game areas like Rendering, Audio, Physics, and Artificial Intelligence.
This is the biggest job that the game engine has to do. Rendering means drawing the 2D or 3D graphics onscreen. The rendering engines are built upon APIs. API is like an instructor. Hardware like GPU, CPU, and RAM, etc. can’t do tasks on their own. They need someone to tell them that. API gets the tasks and it assigns different hardware their respective tasks. Some of the famous APIs are Vulcan, DirectX, and OpenGL, etc. The industry is moving towards low-level API where they have direct access to the metal (hardware).
Audio is one of the biggest components to make a Video Game/Simulation. One of the biggest things that gobble up storage is Audio. For example, Titanfall for PC required 48 GB [to install], but 35 GB of that was just the game’s audio files. The game engines provide various audio toolkits to fit your audio budget and feature set.
Extensive works are done to make Audio better, recently with the Advancement in Ray-Tracing. Ray-Tracing Audio has been introduced, where you can perceive the distance and direction of the object just by the sound. Ray-Tracing Audio is much better than surround sound used by Dolby Atmos or DTS.
The Physics Engine handles all the in-game physics like collision, momentum, and velocity, etc. This is a very important part of the Game Engine. You wouldn’t want your Physics Engine to go out of control and break the laws of physics. Modern Physics Engine has gotten so good that they realistically simulate a Black Hole.
Physically accurate black hole with volumetric accretion disk, made using @UnrealEngine . Black hole spin warps space time, causing further space warp and doppler shift of light, present in the video (Spin = 0.4). #UE4 #madewithunreal #BlackHole #gamedev pic.twitter.com/1gYzx6yXE9
— Ryan James Smith (@OverdrawXYZ) October 13, 2020
Artificial Intelligence requires specific skills set and are to be done by software engineers with special knowledge. The game engines provide specific tools to make this process easier. For Artificial Intelligence, the game programmer has to input the basic set of rules, that the NPC (non-playable character) has to follow. These rules determine the path and action taken by the NPCs to achieve a goal such as killing the player.
A major stride that has been made in recent years to improve AI is Ray-Tracing. Ray-Tracing can help to make much better and smarter AIs.
Future of Game Engines
Game Engine’s development was majorly influenced by video games. However, the game engine has also found its way into movie making. One of the biggest innovations out of the collaboration of Unreal Engine and ILM (Industrial Light & Magic) has been Virtual Sets. Virtual Sets is one of the biggest innovations in movie making and is going to replace the green screens. Virtual Sets are much superior to green screens and save a lot of time and money. They used the Virtual Sets to film Star Wars: Mandalorian and the film VFX looked nothing short of extraordinary.
As for Video Games, Game Engines are facing some huge challenges as the gamers feel like the leap of graphics from previous-gen machines like PS4 and Xbox to next-gen machines like PS5 and Xbox Series X is banal. That’s we have reached a point in graphics where basics have been nailed, and even big changes to polygons and geometry have diminishing returns.
To tackle this the focus of game engines has shifted from just increasing triangles mindlessly every year to increase graphical fidelity to more effective and new methods for game development like Asset Streaming from SSD(called Nanite in Unreal Engine 5), Automatic World Editor, Ray-Tracing, etc. The most interesting aspect here is the Automatic World Editor. Previously everything had to be placed individually by the developers to make games. So, if you saw a small rock vibing alone in the forest of a video game that was placed there by a game developer. However, with Automatic World Editor, we can make worlds automatically with the help of Machine Learning.
(An example of Game Automation being used by Luminous Industries to make their upcoming game, Project Athia)
The Game Engines continue to evolve and transform our lives in ways we didn’t even think like movie making, marketing previews, and research. It is impossible to overstate how much easier they make the jobs of the people by giving them the toolkits to make a real-time simulation. They are some of the most complex pieces of software but often get ignored due to their simplicity.
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