The Design Makes the Game: Not the Engine

Broderbund and Cyan's The Manhole

Broderbund and Cyan's The Manhole

There's no question about it: video games have evolved a lot as a medium over the past decade or so. After all, it wasn't terribly long ago that the term "indie developer" wasn't common in our daily language; you were called "shareware" and laughed out of the room by the big fish as you limply held your Ziplocks full of home-burned CDs (or going WAY back, floppy disks) not much unlike standing at the merch table at a punk show with a pile of hand-Xeroxed flyers.

So concurrently, the expectations for independent games have changed. As did the way that people talk about games, and get excited for those release dates.

Interestingly, one thing that's changed so much in recent years with the way that indie game aficionados discuss games is that they mention engines an awful lot. Definitely more than the past, and often to the point of setting their expectations for how a game looks and feels. It can be anything from "If a game is made in RPG Maker, it's going to play just like this" to "Well, if it's made in Unity, it must be good!"

First, let's look at this from a historical context.

Shareware and Early Game Engines

So way back before indie developers were known as such, shareware was a thing. You had to go to Egghead, Comp USA, and other now-defunct chains to get computer games as not all department and big-box stores carried software let alone games. But you definitely didn't get what would now be known as "indie games" in those places: like those rare punk and hardcore 7 inches, you had to dig deeper and got some seriously DIY-ed stuff at game conventions. Or to liken it to the punk comps that were a chief way people discovered different underground bands throughout the 90s and early aughts-- I remember happily getting that MacWorld demo disc every month that contained trial versions of many different programs meant just for early Macs, but I always bee-lined straight to the games.

If you also grew up in a Mac household and played shareware games, your heart might flutter when I mention Hypercard and Worldbuilder. These were some early game engines that definitely did have a certain expectation if you frequently played games made with them. Looking at Hypercard in particular, think of it as a spiritual predecessor to Twine. It was based on the HyperTalk language which was meant for beginner programmers (so it was scripting rather than coding) and early Hypercard game makers were referred to as authors back then as a result.

Hypercard birthed easily hundreds of freeware and shareware titles for early Macs throughout the 80s and 90s, and you can find a small sampling on Macintosh Repository. Interestingly, it also made a more well-known commercial appearance in a joint effort between Broderbund and Cyan (then later Activision) with The ManholeThe Manhole definitely has a similar user experience to many other Hypercard titles of the time, albeit with more theatrics. Nevertheless, because so few game engines were really well-known in the shareware world, people still based their expectations less on the engine and more on the genre. Granted, there were also far fewer games back then and computer games were a field still being explored rather than a medium that has grown and still is slowly gaining legitimacy.

The other side of the coin is that because games were a very new field, proprietary game engines were more common among both shareware and established developers. Pulling up my adventure game roots for a minute, Sierra's classic point-and-click adventure games are best-remembered for the AGI and SCI engines that breathed life into King's Quest over the years while SCUMM brought Monkey Island and Full Throttle to fruition over at Lucasfilm. Ergo, people talked about being excited for a new Sierra game opposed to "I'm so psyched that this is made with SCI instead of AGI!" if there was talk of one coming out.

Flash forward to 2017, and the engines are likely to have more PR than the developers themselves since the world of games has drastically changed compared to those days.

Do These Expectations Rely on the Engine's Name Even More Than the Average User Experience?

Bringing up adventure games again, let's take a look at Adventure Game Studio (AGS.) It's an engine that's got a dedicated community of adventure game fans who've persisted in keeping the genre alive, and in general people tend to think more about the genre or developer before "Oh, it's an AGS game so we can expect it to feel like X."

GUIs in AGS can resemble the classic Sierra-style drop-down interface or the Lucasfilm-style verbcoin. AGS classics like Trilby's Notes also have utilized text input, and the renowned Gemini Rue employed a mix of action elements mixed with that classic Sierra feel with just a couple action buttons. More or less, the engine can give the developer a stock UX to work with if they'd rather focus their efforts on other aspects of development, or let them customize it to their heart's content to create a totally unique experience that leaves players NOT saying, "This feels just like an AGS game."

Now let's look at a more ubiquitous engine like Unity. Virtually everyone who plays indie games these days has played at least one game made in Unity. It covers ground in every genre and territory imaginable. There was a recent Twitter conversation I came across where devs discussed how players are forming expectations based on the game being made with Unity instead of what the actual content is, and some see it as problematic. Others even see that expectation of what Unity can accomplish, opposed to RPG Maker or GameSalad or virtually any other dev tool currently out there, as something to drastically change their plans with.

The stark world of Little Red Lie

The stark world of Little Red Lie

I asked Will O'Neill, the developer of critically-acclaimed Little Red Lie for his thoughts on this phenomenon, since he expressed wanting to originally make the game in RPG Maker before taking it to Unity: 

"As somebody whose first game was made in RPG Maker, I know very well how players can react to an engine alone. At the same time, I hope that what I made in it - and what I've now made in Unity - can be proof that unique and interesting things can be made with any tool."

After all, RPG Maker was used to make the tearjerker To the Moon and survival-horror cult classic Ao Oni, which may look like RPG Maker games but sure as hell don't FEEL like them.

So, maybe it's the fact that gamers are more hands-on with devs they like today and are simply savvier about what games they buy than in the past. But while games may be judged for the engine they're made in, don't let it stop you from staying true to your vision. You just might be the dev who breaks the mold for that engine's expectations.