Making WoW - The Pros and Cons of Making a Game Engine, AMA with Author John Staats
Last year, John Staats published The WoW Diary, a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of vanilla Warcraft. With Classic WoW now launched, we thought it was the perfect time to check back in with Staats and highlight the book again!
We're excited to announce that every week or so, we'll be publishing an essay about vanilla WoW by John Staats. This week's essay is
, discussing the pros and cons of a game studio writing their own engine in-house.
Have any questions on the essay or vanilla WoW development in general? He'll be checking out the comments section and answering them, so you may learn something new!
A million years ago, I designed and built half of the dungeons in vanilla WoW. If you have any questions about making the game, I’m happy to answer, here on Wowhead. - John Staats
A game engine is a software framework used to create and run a game. Before starting a project, every studio must decide whether to write their own engine or start with an existing package, licensed by another company. Pre-written engines offer a variety of attractive features, including cross-platform support, close integration with other tools, a user-friendly interface, flexibility, and, of course, all the latest graphical bells and whistles. Despite these compelling arguments, Blizzard wrote their own engines because the pros always outweighed the cons.
Pros of Writing a Game Engine In-House
Perfectly Suited for the Task at Hand:
In-house engines are more efficient in terms of processing power because they are optimized from the ground up to perform the type of task that is the focus of the game. If a game needs lots of textures to render at once, programmers can tailor the game to do precisely that. There are no wasted features; if the game doesn’t need powerful graphics, the programmers can dedicate the processor to performing other tasks, such as reducing load times or improving the artificial intelligence.
Better Long-Term Profitability:
Licensed engines come at the cost of losing a percentage of future revenue. Writing an in-house engine avoids this, and it opens up the possibility of licensing your own game engine to other companies or giving it away to fans to buoy brand loyalty.
Not only does focused optimization mean that the game will run faster, but it can be targeted to run on low-end computers, which dramatically increases potential sales.
Engineers don’t need to work with unfamiliar code. Because they know what’s going on at the root level, it makes debugging, iteration, and improvisation much easier down the road. New engines can also integrate well with a studio’s existing in-house tools.
Fewer Policy/Communication Headaches:
Working on someone else’s engine invites communication issues. Writing an engine in-house means fewer cooks in the kitchen, and the studio doesn’t need to deal with another development team and work under another company’s policies.
Cons of Writing a Game Engine In-House
Longer Dev Cycle and Lower Morale:
Everything takes longer. Artists and designers experience more fatigue waiting for the engine to support their art assets and gameplay. Until the engine is robust, an atmosphere of complacency could reduce productivity. Designers who are unable to prototype gameplay early often cannot answer questions, which erodes the staff’s confidence in them, and that’s dangerous because they are supposed to lead the team.
More Expensive and Harder to Schedule:
There are far more upfront costs in writing a proprietary engine, mostly in terms of salaries. Not only does it mean hiring more programmers, but also companies can’t hire key employees if the project isn’t ready for them. This is particularly painful because some specialists are difficult to find. Because engine readiness makes staffing less predictable, the schedules are nearly impossible to keep, which increases the risk of exhausting the project’s financial runway.
Prototyping Is Harder:
Prototyping can rarely be performed early, and changes can only be made by programmers (which is costly, since their code will likely be throw-away). This means designers might not get a feel for the game until the tail end of the dev cycle. This introduces a risk because a studio might not know whether their game is fun until the bulk of its capital is spent.
Studios make engine decisions early, often before funding. Delays from either wrong decisions or bad programmers could doom the project and everyone’s job. Doesn’t game development sound fun?
If you found this essay interesting, consider purchasing The WoW Diary on Amazon:
WoW Diary Book on Amazon - $29.99
Special Boxed Edition on Amazon - $79.99
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