In the age of free AAA game engines, are we still relevant?


The game development industry just got hit by a tidalwave of free. Unity 5, Unreal Engine 4 and Source 2 all give away their flagship product for free now. They’re all different brands of “free”, but who cares? The average game developer certainly won’t. The little guy now has access to more tools than what could be mastered in a lifetime. There’s absolutely no excuse any longer: Go make that game!

But.., what about open source? What about it indeed. Glue a Stallman beard on me and call me an idealist, but I actually believe there’s no stopping open source (in game development) at this point. Open source is a feature, and an incredibly appealing one as such. When you start competing to be “the most free”, open source is the inevitable end-game.

So supposing that’s where the behemoths are headed, where does that leave us? Are, are we still relevant?

pffft, of course we are, and here’s why.

We keep the big guys honest

This just in: Physically Based Rendering isn’t dark magic, cross platform publishing is not the thing of fairy tales, and a solid asset pipeline is not exclusive to a million dollar budget. They’re not easy; faaar from it. But as long as we can show that these things can be accomplished by a part-time hobbyist just for the heck of it, the end user gets a fair price (i.e. free!), and our fellow hardcore misfits will continue trying to solve the most difficult problems the industry has to offer.

Open source done right means “everybody wins”

If this exciting new thing called “free” keeps going in the right direction, everyone still in the race gets a leg up.

A lot of big words have been tossed around in these recent announcements.

Deep in Unity’s culture is the principle of Democracy. The goal is to price in such a way as to reflect our principles. Democracy is the principle we were founded on, and it means we do our best to put Unity in the hands of developers, Indies or Pros, that may not have the resources to pay for it. Its about enabling most everyone to create with the best tools we can make.

Whatever your development aspirations, Epic stands with you, both as a technology provider, and as a fellow game developer counting on UE4 to power our own games.

These are people who decided to make a living by making games. They’re geeks; I know where they’re coming from; I believe them. I just wish they wouldn’t completely downplay the fact that this is also damn good business.

Jabs aside, fellow game developers, let’s democratise game development! You came together behind Vulkan, the next generation of OpenGL. How about tackling these next?

  • FBX – a closed, proprietary format owned by a company that sustains itself by monopolising digital art creation – is the industry standard exchange format(!). This is ridiculous. Either get behind OpenGEX or try make something even better (the former is preferred).
  • Video playback is a copyright-riddled mine field. I don’t really know where to start… Get cozy with maybe?
  • Graphics card drivers are a mess. Huge props to Valve for making great strides in this department. I guess just follow Valve’s lead and try do even better.

The democracy you speak of is already in place. You just need to give vote for the right candidates.

Games must never stop being weird

If Unity and UE are the Legos of game development, jMonkeyEngine is the crazy uncle who just gives you the key to his entire toolshed with its powertools and lose wires and just says “try not to get yourself killed” (we actually care a lot about UX and our users praise our support — extreme analogies are just more fun to write). Many kids will be intimidated by that level of freedom, but some odd few will make things that could not have been conceived within safer confines.

Plot twist: “the most free” isn’t the end game

Web development is currently setting the gold standard for open source. From your CMS all the way down to the server it runs on, all the best-of-breed technology is completely open source. Facebook’s React and Google’s Angular are facing off against Ember and Meteor on (relatively) equal footing. They’re all competing to make the best free framework. Why? Because (very simply put) if they woo the best developers, their technology stack will progress faster, which means faster moving products, which means a competitive advantage. It’s a classic open source win-win-win- ad infinitum.

So what do these frameworks do to attract more developers when they’re all basically at feature parity? They compete to be the best open source citizen. Best Transparency. Best Community. Best Workflow. Best Documentation. It all just keeps getting better!

Game development is lagging behind in this race, but we’re definitely part of it, now more than ever. And small time indies like jMonkeyEngine have an easier time being exemplary open source citizens. We can speak more freely and make tougher decisions in the name of software freedom. We encourage the big leagues to take as many pages out of our playbook as they’d like.

This is where I believe game development is headed. All that remains to see is how quickly we can get there. In the meantime, jMonkeyEngine is and always will be unambiguously free. Down to the last byte.

Notable Replies

  1. zanval March 8, 2015, #

    I use Unity at work (since sept 2014) and develop an mmorpg with jme in my free time with 2 friends.

    It is safe to say that the progress we have made with jMonkey would not be possible with Unity.
    A simple and important fact is that Unitydoes not support refactoring, our most valuable tool as coders.
    Rename a C# class in Unity and all links to it within scenes and prefabs are lost.
    => Tools like Unity try to abstract coding as far as possible, which handicaps a coder.

    Full source, refactoring in a powerful IDE like IntelliJ IDEA, and using jMonkeyPlatform for asset management.
    I cannot imagine having this productivity and power with Unity.


  2. bloodwalker March 9, 2015, #

    I have been working in games since 2006 and I am an Unity Developer since 2009, from freelancing to my current job and I am using JMonkey for my personal projects. I tried Unreal and CryEngine and other engines that offer a "free" edition to try my game projects, I was always coming back to JME. Their concept of "Free" is laughable in all senses.

    I don't own a licensed copy of Unity. Unfortunately I had to obtain a temporary license many times In order to put food on my table as a freelancer (I never launched a product, I just did my work and delivered the unity project so they could publish with a paid version) since I mostly work with plugins and stuff that needed a paid version. I am ashamed, but I had no choice since 4500 was too much.

    The other reason I chose JME was programming paradigm. With Unity and other commercial engines I was "encouraged" to use a standard to develop my projects. While those standards make development easier in many cases. They become a serious obstacle once you want to do something "out of the ordinary". Either you change some source(if you can, thanks Unreal) or force yourself to the standard and hope for the best.

    I am porting my Unity game to JME and I hope to share some screenshots with you guys soon


  3. Tryder April 8, 2015, #

    All joking aside personally I feel that among the available engines today one is not necessarily better than or more relevant than another, but instead the various options have particular niches that they fit well.

    Unity, for instance, is great if you're just starting out and have little experience as a coder or game developer. It's super easy to use, but what it gains in ease of use it loses in flexibility.

    UE4 I can't comment on because I was never able to install it due to an apparently rare and never solved crash in the installer.

    jME is well suited for myself I think because I particularly like the Java language and am rather stubborn about doing things my own way. wink I know this about myself and have learned to live with it.


  4. hansdevries April 10, 2015, #

    For me the important difference is that JME works outside the Ms Windows World. I tryed most of the popular Solutions, but if you realy want to work natively on Linux there are just a few. From these there are less complete Solutions as JME seems to be. Using Java and OpenGL makes a great os-indepency possible. Integrated IDE and onboard editors
    makes handling easyer. With Gimp, Blender and JME3 i have a good toolchain to spent time on my hobby - making 3D Models and bring them to life in a Game. Even if its not the state of te Art in every aspect, it offers a very good and complete starting Point for an hobbyist like me.


  5. Ecco July 20, 2015, # someone who was in the past, 'bitten ' by development(commercial) with closed source system, i no longer have any desire to start any new project with system which is not open is relatively difficult to explain what does this mean, to people who didnt went commercial path with their creation, so i will not go there, but so called 'free' systems out there, suffering from 2 fundamental flaws, in terms of been 'free' .
    1) Actually none of them are free. It is easy to observe that if you carefully read license scheme.
    2) As a developer, you cant really be sure that 'free' version you using right now, is not going to turn in to financial nightmare over night. Always keep in mind that so called 'free' tools, turn to be 'free' due nature/saturation of their respective market, so now is about milking out probably investors (eg. Unity making more debt that you could know) and neverending dreamers, so called bedroom coders, who now are able to make AAA games they always desired. Except, making AAA game was not really that much about underlying tech, but almost always content/media production. And at the end, im confident that fidelity wise, opensource systems exists today, are capable to create just as good visuals as any other 'AAA' freeware newdays, but, lets admit, its hard to remove shine of Crysis from eyes of the lone coder, who hold 'ultimate gun of victory' in his hands. Road will be long and bumpy, much more as many of them think, but only way to salvation is trough a bit suffering smile be it..Ill stick with Open Source smile


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