With the recent release of the free version of the Unreal Engine and the announcement of the free Source 2 Engine, you now have even more options for making your own games. But picking out the best engine for you and your skills is a little tough. Let's take a look at some of the best free software for a variety of skillsets.
Before you can really dig into most of these tools, you'll need at least a foundation in programming. But whether you're a child or an adult, we have you covered. As far as making your first game, our friends over at Kotaku have you covered. That said, not all of these tools even require coding skills, so you might be able to jump right in.
For Beginners: Stencyl or GameMaker
If you're just starting out making games and you don't have any experience with programming, you might want to start with some of the easier to use tools. Two of the most popular and well-received are Stencyl and GameMaker. Both are very easy to use for beginners and have churned out some quality titles.
Stencyl is a tool to create games without code. It's an entirely drag-and-drop interface and you can publish your games to Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS, Android and Flash. If you've ever used something like Scratch, you'll be immediately familiar with Stencyl's LEGO-like approach to building code by arranging blocks. Stencyl aims to make creating sprite-based games very easy, so it tends to be most used for puzzle and side-scroller games. It's tough to do anything very complex with Stencyl, so if you're looking to do something like an RPG or strategy game, you'll likely want to look elsewhere. Some popular games built with Stencyl include Impossible Pixel and Zuki's Quest. Stencyl also has a built-in tutorial that will teach you just about everything you need to know.
GameMaker is another free, easy-to-use-tool made for beginners where you can create games for Windows, Mac, iOS and Android. Like Stencyl, it's all drag-and-drop, but also includes hooks for creating multiplayer games, linking external SDKs and more. The free version of GameMaker exports with a watermark, but it's still a decent place to start and comes packed with a tutorial for learning the basics. GameMaker's a little more versatile than Stencyl in the style of games it can handle, and they have a bunch of guides for different types of games to teach you the basics. Popular games made with GameMaker include the original version of Spelunky and Hotline Miami.
Of course, there are a lot of other options for similar tools. Buildbox is a newer tool that gives you a trial period and training program to learn how to use it, and GameSalad's a long-running and popular platform as well, although it's often reported as being buggy and unstable. Construct is also worth a look if you want to make HTML5 games. The problem with all of these options is that you end up being pretty restricted in your design. Since they're made for beginners, you end up breaking the tool when you try to do anything particularly complicated. This means they end up producing buggy, unplayable games if you try working too far outside of their system. Still, they're a great place to start and are good for people who don't have a lot of coding experience.
For Mid-Level Users Looking to Make 2D Games: Cocos2D
Cocos2D is an open source tool for creating 2D games. Your finished game can be published on Windows, Mac, Android, iOS, Windows Phone or the web.
Cocos2D has been used to make all kinds of successful games, including the award winning Badland. If you're not sure where to start with Cocos2D, Ray Wenderlich has a fantastic tutorial, as does Udemy.
For Advanced Users Making 3D Games: Unreal Engine or Unity
If you're interested in making more complex, 3D games, Unreal Engine and Unity are two of the most popular free tools available. Both have their strengths and weaknesses, and both have different licensing deals worth looking into to before you decide on which one's best for you.
With Unity, you can make 3D and 2D games for just about everything, including Windows, Mac, Xbox, Playstation, Android, iOS and more. It also supports assets from the likes of 3ds Max, Maya, Softimage, Cinema 4D, Blender and more. Unity uses C# alongside its own custom programming language, so you'll want to be pretty well-versed in that before you dive in. That said, between Unity and Unreal, Unity is probably the easier to learn of the two. It has a lot of pre-built behaviours and the built-in asset library makes tracking down assets easy. A few of the developers I talked with while writing this suggest Unity as the best starting tool because it's conceptually easier to understand and learn than Unreal. If you've made a game with something like GameMaker, you'll be able to wrap your head around how Unity works right away. Unity also supports some alternative payment models right in the engine, including a number of free-to-play monetization models.
The free, personal version lacks some features of the professional version, but there's plenty there to get you started. If you make a game with the free version, you don't have to pay licensing fees or royalties, though there are some caveats. Namely, you can't receive more than $US100,000 worth of funding/revenue for your games if you're using the free edition. To help you get started with Unity, there are a ton of great tutorials out there. Popular games made with Unity include Alto's Adventure, Gone Home and the upcoming Firewatch.
Unreal Engine 4 uses C++ for scripting, so if that's the programming language you know, Unreal Engine 4 is probably the software to use. You can release games you make with Unreal Engine on PC, Mac, iOS, Android, Xbox One and Playstation 4. Unreal has pretty much everything you need to build a game is built into the engine, including 3D modelling tools, landscape systems and more. Because it's packed with so much stuff, Unreal Engine 4 tends to have a higher learning curve than other tools, so even if you're well versed in C++, expect to run into some walls as you're learning. That said, you'll be able to build incredibly professional looking games with Unreal. You can also reverse engineer Unreal's nodes to learn more about how it works, but it's still difficult to jump into Unreal Engine 4 without any prior knowledge. Unreal Engine 4 is still relatively new, but a few games have been released that use the engine, including Daylight and Tekken 7.
To use Unreal Engine 4, you'll have to agree to a royalty fee if your game sells. When you ship a game or application, you pay a 5 per cent royalty to Unreal after your first $US3000/quarter. It sounds like a lot of money, but depending on how much revenue your game brings in it's not as much as it sounds. To get started, check all the tutorials available for Unreal Engine 4.
It's also worth considering Valve's Source 2 Engine, which should be available for free later this year, but we don't know much about it beyond that.
For Writers: Twine/RPG Maker
Not everyone out there is an expert coder, and while tools like Stencyl are great for those types, they're still a little too complicated for many. If you fancy yourself more of a narrative storyteller, you have two excellent options in Twine and RPG Maker.
Twine is a very simple system that allows you to create interactive, nonlinear stories. Basically, you can make your own choose your adventure. It is incredibly easy to use. You connect your stories through various nodes, like you would a mindmap. Each choice the player can make gets a new note. Then, when you're finished, you can easily publish that to a web site. It's pretty straightforward to use, but if you're struggling or want to add some extra elements, Twine's starter guide features everything you need to know. Popular games made with Twine include A Kiss and Cry$tal Warrior Ke$ha.
If Twine's a little too old fashioned for you, RPG Maker might do the trick. The free version's not as powerful as the paid alternatives, but you can do a lot with it regardless. The system's easy to learn too, you can drag and drop graphics, insert dialogue in a click and more. You'll have to really think outside the box to make more than a simple RPG, but well-received titles like To the Moon and LISA show that it's possible. Plus, you can get started with a pack of free music and art assets so you don't even need to learn how to draw. The built-in tutorials are also useful for making your first game. Popular games made with RPGMaker include Clock of Atonement and One Night.
Additional Free Tools for Assets
Of course, a game's a lot more complex than just an engine. You'll need all kinds of other assets, including artwork, sound and more. I asked a few indie developers for a rundown of some of their favourites:
- TexturePacker: A free, sprite creation tool
- Tiled: A simple map editor that hooks into Cocos2D, Unity and more
- OpenGamesArt: a place for free assets and placeholder graphics
- Free Music Archive: a resource for free, Creative Commons music
- FreeSound: a collection of free, open source sound effects
With that, you should be well on your way to making games on the cheap. Obviously you'll still need to invest time, blood, sweat and tears, but at least your pocketbook doesn't have to take a hit as well.