Wanted to take a moment to talk a bit about the Unreal Development Kit and it's potential as being independent technology. I have noticed that the many independent teams here on Game Dev are starting out with UDK as their core technology. As such I just wanted to share some things that I have learned about UDK and it's plausibility as an engine and development environment for independent video game projects.
The most credible UDK advantage over any other engine / tool kit is the power that you gain simple access too. The core Unreal engine has been used in many large scale commercial games and does provide the utmost speed and performance. I would almost even venture as far as to say that the Unreal engine is THE most powerful engine in existence.
UDK Comes with a very powerful and easy to use tool set as well. The Unreal Game editor (or the level editor) is basically a powerful modeling tool with a very easy to use video game elements wrapper. In other words it is quite literally point and click to design your levels and worlds. The Unreal Kismet editor again shines with power and simplicity, it's a simple point and click flow chart editor used to write simple logic into your levels. Things such as switches, dynamic lighting, traps, enemy spawning and more. Next we have the built in "Matinee" editor, this allows you easily add animated cut scenes into you game. Again we must thank Epic for the ease and power of this editor.
Next I'd like to talk a bit about Unreal's portability to various platforms. UDK currently ports to Windows PC and iOS platforms only. This means that your end product would only be playable on Windows PC and iOS devices such as IPhone4, IPad or iPod Touch. In order to port your title over to console systems such as XBox360 or Playstation3 you will need to upgrade to the FULL Unreal engine 3.
Next we get into the cost and licensing restrictions, here is where it all starts breaking down for me. UDK is free to use which is great, allows you and your team to start working immediately with no additional cost. When your project is complete you can release it free of charge and not have to pay Epic anything (again great for hobby / freeware games!). If you decide you want to sell the game you made, go ahead. You only need a $99 license to start selling your game. This will allow you to collect all of the profits from your game up to the first $50,000. Everything you make after the first $50,000 you must start paying 25% royalties on... (ouch!)
This will allow you to release your completed game and sell it over any marketing means you choose. However you are staying limited to Apple mobile devices and windows PC. Please consider these markets carefully, and also research them thoroughly before you commit. Windows PC game sales are dropping, have been for many years. If you google search for "PC vs Console Game Sales" you will see many examples and sales figures that show the drastic difference between games that are actually selling and making money on PC versus new age consoles. Following the law of averages I would say this shows that we as developers are at least 10 times more likely to sell our games if we can get them on console.
Apple mobile devices however are a HUGE and growing market. Making games directed for the app store have found their holy grail. If your main marketing goal is the app store and you are not interested in venturing into PC or Console markets then you can really stop reading here. To put it simply, there may be cheaper options but if you design small (maybe $1) games, the single $99 license would suffice and you would not likely surpass the $50,000 cap. Therefore you gain the most powerful game engine and tool set for a mere $99!
The great divide:
Here is what further pushed me as an independent developer away from the UDK. There is a HUGE divide between creating a Windows PC / Apple Mobile project and porting that project to console. As of right now there are two main ways that I know of for small independent teams to make it on to consoles, the first is through Microsoft's creators club (leading to the live indie marketplace). Or to receive funding / publication from an accredited marketer and or developer. In order to go the first route Microsoft will limit you to C# and XNA (which are a very powerful Microsoft created managed api). However UDK is powered by a C++ powered core engine that is not supported in the indie market.
This leaves us with our only option to be to come up with $10,000 for each console license, pass Microsoft and Sony's regulations and testing THEN come up with an additional $450,000 for a FULL Unreal Engine 3 License (also passing Epic's regulations and testing). WOW, that means it's going to cost me $470,000 just to port the game to console?!? What the hell there has NEVER been an indie project that profited $630,000 (the amount you would need to make after UDK royalties to have $470k in your hand).
Ok, lets not panic here... Maybe we can simply get some major studio to co-release the console port for us... Although this IS a possibility, with most teams and projects this is not a practical option. You have to think of things this way, you are basically asking another developer to publish your game under their license. They are staking their studios name, credibility and over $470,000 worth of licensing on your project. Now your adding in another source of regulations you must meet, even more testing criteria, and will more then likely be asked to change things so as that your publishing source feels comfortable that your project is worth marketing.
Regulations and Testing?!
You will notice I make mention of various regulations and testing. Let me clarify this a bit and I will start with Microsoft. For Microsoft to even consider your team for a full license and XBox360 dev kit you must have prior game releases under your belt. You must be an officially licensed company with a business mailing address. Your project must be 100% operational and bug free in the eyes of Microsoft beta testers. So assume you as a team have already released a project or two, maybe you do have a registered company and a PO box for your mailing address. Of course your game is flawless and ready to go, it's built with UDK! You will still need to wait for months while the Microsoft Team tests your project.
Epic's regulations are basically the same, and from the last I have heard they do not do the testing of your project. Sony has similar regulations and will need to do their own testing like Microsoft does. Sony may also take months to do this testing, if you are lucky you can schedule both of these testing simultaneously so as to not lose to much time.
Ok, I think I have rambled enough about the basic concept of UDK as an indie technology. Let me recap with a little example break down of what a team is really looking at when using the UDK to produce their titles.
[Windows PC / Apple Devices (App Store)]
- Complete your design document
- Install UDK and begin development
- Pay Epic $99 to start selling your game
- If your game makes more then $50,000 you will need to also start paying an additional 25% royalty to epic
[Console Devices (The big bucks)]
- Complete your design document
- Register your team as a real company
- Register with Microsoft / Sony (assuming you meet the qualifications)
- Pay MS or Sony $10,000 for a license
- Register with Epic (assuming you meet qualifications AND are registered with MS or Sony)
- Pay Epic $450,000 for a FULL Unreal Engine 3 License
- Install the Unreal3 tool set and begin development
- Obtain MS or Sony testing approval
- Obtain marketing (Disc distribution / live marketplace / psn)
- Do I finally make money?!? Yeah, if people buy it
I apologize if some of this entry comes across as cynical, I was actually quite devastated to learn how much money it would cost to actually port a UDK project onto to console systems. I was also shocked to find out that the PC gaming sales are dropping so exponentially. However personally I have decided to do my best to keep up with the devices that are most popular (and yet still easily accessible by me). UDK simply put up way to many borders between me and the illusive console market. As my goals are to A: Make money doing what I love and B: to make popular games, I simply can not afford to ignore consoles any more.
By no means to I wish to break anyone spirits or crush any teams here but I did feel that this concept and realization of what it's actually going to take to get a UDK project on the big screen so to say is need to know information for serious teams. It is important to know of major hurdles such as these prior to designing, planning and marketing a new project. So long story short, if your goals are to ever get a given project to the console and you are starting out or just a small indie team. UDK will kill you with a BFG470! However if your aim is the app store or a PC only release then UDK may still be within your means.
Thanks for reading!