With indie game design on the rise there’s a growing demand for new tools and game engines.
The advantage of using a game engine is that is solves many universal problems that apply to all games. Things like user input, physics, lighting, rendering, and collision are all pre-designed so you can focus on the fun part: making games.
But there are so many free game engines all competing for your creative energy. How do you choose?
Before diving into this list I’d like to say that there is no “one engine to rule them all.”
Each engine has its strengths and weaknesses. Each will have its advantages for certain projects. Also, each engine has its own style and user in mind.
Search around, try a few, see which ones stand out. The more you play around the more you’ll learn about the game design process.
And don’t be afraid of making the wrong choice! Every game engine will teach useful skills with many shared features between them all.
The Godot engine is your open source solution for true cross-platform game development.
It’s my engine of choice for 2D game development and it works well with 3D too. The release of Godot 3.0 brought a major update to the 3D features, bringing it up to speed with other modern game engines while keeping the free price tag.
Godot also offers a dedicated 2D engine that works in pixel coordinates and makes 2D development a breeze.
The best part of the Godot engine is the scene and node system. It makes organizing your games easy which speeds up development and improves the scalability of your projects.
With powerful animation tools and a built-in scripting editor, making games with Godot is a joy. Definitely worth a try, especially if you’re into 2D projects.
Here’s a neat open-source game engine that integrates with the 3D animation software Blender, one of the most popular choices for anyone in the 3D open source community.
Blender is a popular choice among indie developers so Armory solves the problem of having to bounce between programs to develop games.
There are several demos available to get you started, including a twin-stick game and third-person character demo.
Before learning Armory it helps to have knowledge of Blender and its exhaustive list of tools.
But if you want a game engine that’s big in the open source world, Armory is well worth looking into. Plus if you never learned Blender it’s not a bad idea to pick that up!
If you’re looking for a one-size-fits-all game engine, Unity is basically what you want.
It boasts an accessible but powerful set of tools that have made Unity the most popular game engine around.
Because of its powerful cross-platform toolset, Unity has been used to create hit games like Pokemon Go, Hearthstone, and Rimworld.
Perhaps the best part of Unity is the massive community which provides a never-ending supply of new assets and learning resources. If you have the time and dedication to put into learning Unity, the community will be a wildly valuable asset.
Using pre-made assets and Unity’s advanced rendering engine, it’s possible to get a beautiful prototype up and running within days or weeks.
Thanks to a partnership with Microsoft, Unity developers also have the option of using Visual Studio as a scripting editor. Visual Studio provides tools that offer vast improvements over Unity’s native experience and it’s useful if you typically code in MS Visual Studio anyways.
Note that Unity is not 100% free if you’re making money with the game. To practice and build your own stuff, totally free. But check out their store for pricing details if you want to actually publish a game and earn some real money from it.
4. Unreal Engine
Unreal Engine 4 is truly the rock star of this list.
Responsible for games like Fortnite, GTA V, Player Unknown Battlegrounds, and even the final choice for Kingdom Hearts 3, Unreal Engine offers everything you need to make stunning high-quality games.
To design a real AAA game you’d likely need a massive team. But that doesn’t mean a small indie studio can’t dive in and start working on something here.
Unreal’s graphics capabilities rival CryEngine, but Unreal is more polished and user-friendly.
Scripting is handled in C++ so you may benefit from some programming background. But with Blueprints, a node-based scripting editor, Unreal developers can create behavior without writing a single line of code.
Epic has provided a variety of tutorials to help beginners get comfortable with the engine. Unreal also offers cross-platform support and templates for both 2D and 3D games.
Like Unity, Unreal has its own asset marketplace where uses can find models and tools to use in their own projects.
While it does feature quality content, Unreal’s marketplace isn’t as robust as Unity’s asset store. But don’t let that dissuade you from trying it!
End of the day you will never go wrong trying Unreal and learning this platform inside-out. It can be used on practically any game so what you learn here can carry over to practically any other game engine.
CryEngine is a powerful 3D game engine aimed at delivering state of the art graphics for console or PC.
With solid VR support and advanced visual effects, CryEngine appeals to developers looking to make photorealistic games or next-gen games on a platform like Steam.
Generally speaking, this game engine aims for AAA quality content with highly detailed & super realistic characters. Like Unity and Unreal 4, CryEngine offers a suite of tools to make game development easier.
This is definitely worth picking up if you’re serious about high-level game design.
With CryEngine’s level editor and design tools, efficient level editing is possible even with a semi-novice skillset. Developing a complete working game from start to finish can be pretty fast once you really learn the engine.
Unfortunately, CryEngine has a reputation for being difficult to use and harder to learn than most engines. Total beginners should probably start somewhere else to at least get familiar with how a game engine works.
Also worth noting this engine is totally free to use, but when publishing a commercial game there is a royalty to consider. Check out the registration page for more info there.
Looking for a 2D game engine? Well Defold packs everything you need for development into one tool.
It’s marketed as the best way to make games for web and mobile designers. And with built-in version control and team management features, they may be right.
By focusing on 2D game development Defold can deliver a streamlined package with tools geared specifically towards the 2D world.
Getting started is easy with the many detailed tutorials provided in the editor right after installation. Following through can take a few hours but you’ll learn all the basics of building a platformer from scratch, or creating background parallax effects, or whatever you want!
Defold uses the Lua programming language for scripting behaviors. It’s also free and open source, keeping with the goal of providing a lightweight & free development experience.
So Monogame is an open source framework made specifically for creating cross-platform games.
Fans of the popular Stardew Valley will be pleased to learn it was developed using Monogame.
Those with C# experience or a background in Microsoft’s .NET environment will feel right at home in Monogame.
Unlike other engines on this list, Monogame does not provide enough tools and features to make it usable by non-coders. This truly is a developer’s paradise, so if you hate the terminal or command prompt you’ll wanna look elsewhere.
Developers using Monogame will have to code their own collisions and physics, or use libraries to help with that.
But Monogame is still a popular choice with those who know how to use it. And an active community is there to help beginners get started.
I mentioned Lua earlier and you’ll see it a lot that language Corona, a 2D engine built for rapid prototyping and cross-platform deployment.
Beginner friendly and fun to learn, Corona is completely free with no hidden royalties. That is huge considering so many game engines do require payments for commercial products.
If you want to learn but aren’t sure where to start, just get help from Corona’s community of over half-a-million developers. They also have a small but helpful subreddit that you might browse through.
In many ways Corona is more than a game engine.
It combines a marketplace of users with a publishing service and a game engine all rolled into one.
The idea is that developers can focus more on making games and less on the hassle of promoting and selling their work.
Aimed at beginners and mobile developers, Corona offers a process that’s more linear and easier to learn than what a bigger IDE would require.
Those looking for the path of least resistance should definitely consider Corona, at least if you’re brand new to game design.
Phaser is based heavily on Flixel, a free flash game library.
This engine lets you develop HTML5 games for desktop and mobile right from the browser. Because Phaser is easy to learn and commands a large community, it’s a good solution for people learning 2D game development.
Developers with a background in web development and Flash(now Adobe Animate) will appreciate Phaser the most. While it’s aimed at beginners and is easy to learn, many of Phaser’s features are locked behind a paywall.
Those without the funds to unlock the extra features will be stuck with a rather limited free solution.
But the license is free. Games that you develop with Phaser are yours to release and sell. Plus, the Phaser website has an extensive list of tutorials and coding examples covering everything you’ll need to quickly learn game development.
If you’re brand new to game design and looking for an easy way to learn then GameSalad is worth a glance.
This is a game engine that uses creation as a teaching method. For developers, GameSalad offers an incredibly simple way to create and publish games.
Absolute beginners will be surprised at how easy it is to create behaviors using the drag-and-drop scripting feature. No prior coding knowledge is necessary to make games here(although learning to code is handy!)
The fact that GameSalad is used in a K-12 education environment to teach programming skills is a testament to the program’s ability to make learning an enjoyable process.
That said, you may not be able to achieve the level of detail you want for a finished game. But that doesn’t mean you can’t create some fun projects here.
If you do build something then GameSalad can export your game as playable for PC, mobile, web, and some other platforms. All totally free.
Responsible for games like Hyper Light Drifter, Orphan, and Hotline Miami, GameMaker is a very popular game engine. It works as a 2D engine but it’s capable of producing AAA content.
GameMaker is designed to be easy on beginners but powerful enough to fill the needs of a large studio.
With a dynamic physics engine and a custom scripting language, GameMaker is a good choice for hobbyists and professionals alike.
With GameMaker you’ll get hassle-free access to a dedicated 2D physics engine along with network play, cross-platform deployment, and stunning visual effects using shaders. Plus there’s so much more that could be listed, but you really have to experience it for yourself.
If you’re looking for a 2D engine that’s simple to use but not limited at all, GameMaker is a strong choice.
It may surprise you to hear that Amazon is dipping their fingers into the gaming space too.
Lumberyard is a free game engine designed to integrate directly with Twitch. The goal of Amazon Lumberyard is to build games that are as fun to watch as they are to play, so quality visuals and stellar performance are key focus points.
If you’re familiar with game design then you’ll probably like what you see here. It provides a feature-rich experience that includes cloud integration, built-in multiplayer deployment with online tools, and mod-friendly support.
Plus Lumberyard provides access to the C++ source code so developers have full control over their games.
Smaller indie studios or lone game designers have the advantage of keeping everything under one roof.
With Amazon handing bandwidth and the cloud, you can focus on making beautiful environments and compelling characters with fun, engaging storylines.
Technical artists will find a suite of tools at their disposal including physically-based shaders, dynamic global illumination, particle effects, and volumetric fog.
This is a big engine but well worth learning if you have the interest. Take a look at their getting started page for more info.
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