The Best Game Engines For Beginners

June 2, 2017 Published by 10 Comments

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Here’s the thing with technology: the longer it’s around, the more people will access it. For instance, 10 years ago, nobody would have dreamed of creating a website without programming knowledge. Now everyone can do it in minutes. You can even build a smartphone app in the same way!

So what about creating computer games? Well yes, it looks like we’re quickly getting there. There are now more and more solutions for complete beginners who have never written a line of code in their life. Sounds good to you? Great! Let’s get started with a quick table of contents.

How should I choose my game engine?

Since you’re here, we’ll assume you know that a game engine is a dedicated software, or program, for creating games. You will also know that you need to download and install them on your computer. Roughly speaking, they offer 4 main kinds of features:

  • Full game templates: you basically get a ready-made game. You only change minor details. Import your own artwork or move a few sliders to change the colour of the sky, for example.
  • Drag and drop: very easy to use – no coding necessary. This lets you create events or properties by choosing them from a looooong list. For example, you can add a “solid” property to a platform to make sure your character doesn’t fall through it.
  • Visual scripting: this lets you choose different functions that replicate code without having to script. They are more powerful than drag and drop engines and you’ll need more time to get to grasps with their features. However, they are an excellent way to begin understanding how code works without actually typing anything yourself.
  • Coding: some game engines use their own scripting language, trying to make it as easy as possible for beginners. It’s a great way to learn how to code, especially if you want to later develop complex games. Others rely on well-known scripting languages, and mastering them will give you full control over your game, no matter how complex it is.

Of course, the closer you get to code, the steeper the learning curve gets. But also remember there are other factors to consider. These could be:

  • Your computer: PC or Mac? Some game engines do not support both – so it will limit your choice. You should also check the spec requirements. Older computers might be too slow to run the more powerful game engines.
  • Your game genre: Do your research when it comes to genre-specific engines. For example, if you want to create an RPG (Role Playing Game) without any code, you could use RPG Maker. If you want to create an adventure game, you could try Adventure Game Studio.
  • Your perspective: This is tied into the point above, but some game engines specialise in 2D, while others support 2D and 3D. As you can imagine, 3D game engines tend to be more complex with steeper learning curves.
  • Your art skills: Some engines come with a visual editor that lets you create art directly in them. Usually, this means pixel art or terrain maps (you can always import your characters and backgrounds from other programs too).
  • Your targeted platform: in other words, this is where your game will be played. Do you want to only publish for the web? Or do you want to create an iOS and Android game? Or maybe PCs, Macs and VR? It is all possible (the technical term is “porting”) , but you need to choose the right game engine accordingly. Also note that if you only want to publish to smartphones, we have a dedicated post on how to make game apps.

Unity export window

The Unity export window – choose where you want to port your game

  • Your dedication: This is to say: how serious are you about game development? If you are more of a hobbyist, there is nothing wrong with choosing the easiest solution. But if you’re interested in creating a studio and producing games in the long run, you should aim for an engine with a good reputation and skip our whole list straight to Unity or Unreal. You could even use them as your training ground for learning code – a worthwhile investment.
  • Other features: do you need to work on the game by yourself or with a team? Do you want good support from a community? Is it updated regularly? These are all questions worth asking to ensure your engine is future-proof.

Can game engines make any kind of game?

The short answer is yes. But some genres will definitely require scripting. And let’s be honest here, it would be nearly impossible to build a huge MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game) by yourself without any programming skills. Similarly, don’t expect to create the next GTA or Skyrim in the comfort of your bedroom without some advanced technical knowledge. So to give you a quick overview, we’ve listed some game genres below to let you see how hard they would be to make.

Simple 2D Games: These easy enough to create. You will need to invest time in learning how to use the game engine, and of course in creating your levels, artwork and concept. A few genres are particularly popular with drag and drop game engines, and these are:

  • Puzzles, Platformers, Arcade Games, Racing Games, Text adventures…

Complex 2D Games: games that rely on physics, AI, multiplayer games or with many features. You should also be able to create them, but expect to spend a lot more time learning the basics for:

  • RPGs (Role Playing Games, Tower Defense, Adventure Games, Roguelikes, Fighting games…

Simple 3D Games: Things start getting a little bit more complicated when you work in 3D. The game engines are a lot more powerful, and therefore a lot more difficult to learn. You can expect to spend between 3 months – 1 year learning the basics by really studying how to make things happen for:

  • Adventure games, First Person Shooters, Survival games…

So what about complex 3D games? Well, we don’t want to say they are impossible to make, but it will be very very difficult as a beginner. Expect to spend a few years of your life studying how to create games such as:

  • MMOs (Massively Multiplayer Online games), Sports games, Sandbox, MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena), Real time strategy, VR (Virtual Reality) Games, Vehicle simulation, War games, Life simulations…

Just remember that the amount of time you put in will always result in better long-term knowledge. Also: the Internet is your best friend in terms of technical resources – there are even full game templates you can download to see how things work under the hood.

So which game engine is the best for me?

Since we are focusing on beginner friendly features, we’ve listed the following game engines in order of ease of use, features and support. We’ve also separated the list into 2D and 3D (although there is a bit of crossover).

GameSalad – The Educator’s Choice

GameSalad screenshot

A recent Forbes article called GameSalad “the Youtube for Games”, and while the name is slightly misleading, it does tell you that these guys want to be for everyone. Their solution is an incredibly easy to use drag and drop program for creating 2D games that comes with its own physics and simple “rules” you apply to objects. In fact, GameSalad even market their platform at educators who want to teach student how to create games in the classroom. Of course, it is quite limited in terms of features, but it should be enough for mobile apps and addictive 2D casual games.

Watch how to get started with GameSalad in 15 mins

Good for Notable examples
2D Arcade Games Super Spin Tanks
2D Adventure Games Milo & Me
2D Puzzle Games Help Volty
2D Sidescrollers / Platformers Steam Punks


Pros:

  • Very easy to use
  • Publishes to multiple platforms
  • Good community and support
  • Drag and drop
  • 50% off the pro subscription (usually $25 / month) if you are a student, teacher or in the military

Cons:

  • Subscription model
  • Limited features
  • No official roadmap for new features

Buildbox – The one-box-fits-all

buildbox screenshot

Buildbox is slowly making a name for itself as the engine used for some true hits in the last few years. These include dozens of games that made it to the App Store top 100 such as Color Switch and The Line Zen. Their philosophy is to provide users with ready-made templates that let you get started with a game in minutes. However, this puts restrictions on the amount of freedom you can have, and also tends to help create game clones rather than original concepts. Luckily, you can also take control of your game mechanics with more advanced features.

Watch how to get started with Buildbox in 20 mins

Good for Notable examples
2D Puzzle Games Color Switch
2D Clone Apps Dooby Bird
2D Casual Games Impossible Bottle Flip

 

Pros:

  • Easy drag and drop interface
  • Comes with game templates
  • Good monetization options
  • Exports to all platforms

Cons:

  • Templates tend to create game clones
  • Very expensive license starting at $84 / month (paid yearly)

Construct 2 – The Windows favourite

Construct 2 screenshot

Construct 2 is a very intuitive drag and drop for creating 2D games. The learning curve is super fast, and the interface looks a lot like Microsoft products, so it makes it an ideal tool for PC users who have never looked at a game engine before. Sadly there is no Mac OS version, and games can only be exported as HTML5. This means that they need to be converted with a 3rd party service to work as native apps for Android or iOS, which comes at a cost in terms of performance. Similarly, games can be played on Windows, Mac OS, Linux, but only in web browsers.

Watch how to make a basic game in Construct 2 in 20 mins.

Good for Notable examples
2D Racing The Next Penelope
2D Platformers Airscape, Super Ubie Island
2D Puzzle Games Mortar Melon
2D Arcade Games Cosmochoria

 

Pros:

  • Fast learning curve
  • Good support community
  • Regular updates
  • Free trial edition
  • Decently priced, starting at $80
  • Marketplace for extra plugins

Cons:

  • Only works on PCs
  • HTML5 is limiting in terms of performance and flexibility

Clickteam Fusion 2.5 – The veteran

Clickteam Fusion 2.5 screenshot

Clickteam Fusion is the engine used by recent popular game such as The Escapists and Five Nights at Freddy’s. The amazing thing is that it’s been around since 1994! This means that it has an extremely active community of super dedicated fans who submit their own extensions and there is no shortage of documentation on the forums. It uses a visual editor, so you won’t need to type in any code, but you will need to learn what each function is. However, if you can do the maths, they released 2 ½ versions over more than 20 years, and you guessed it, they don’t update it as often as they should…

Watch how to get started with Clickteam Fusion 2.5 in 20 mins

Good for Notable examples
2D Platformers Gravity Island
2D / 3D Survival Horror Five Nights at Freddy’s
2D Arcade Freedom Planet

 

Pros:

  • Drag and drop interface and visual editor
  • Exports to all platforms
  • Passionate and supportive multilingual community
  • Tons of extensions
  • Free version available – cheap license starting at $75

Cons:

  • Dated interface
  • Windows version only
  • Little to no updates
  • Paying iOS, Android and Mac exporters

RPG Maker – The RPG specialist

RPG Maker screenshot

Although it’s worth noting that people have used RPG Maker for multiple game genres, you’ve guessed that this engine only does one thing – and it does it well. It comes with a WYSIWYG editor, and you can also create the 2D art directly in it. One confusing thing is that there are 7 different versions of RPG Maker, all of which allow different features, and it’s worth noting that the learning curve is slightly steeper than with certain drag and drop solutions.

Watch how to get started with RPG Maker in 15 mins.

Good for Notable examples
2D RPGs (duh) Clock of Atonement
2D Arcade Touhou Wandering Souls

 

Pros:

  • Good for artists
  • Excellent tile editor
  • WYSIWYG editor
  • Helpful and passionate community
  • Has simplified code

Cons:

  • Confusing versions with different features
  • Not all versions can export to all platforms
  • Slightly difficult for complete beginners
  • Genre limitation

Stencyl – The code teacher

Stencyl screenshot

A few years ago, MIT (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology) developed a visual programming language called Scratch. It’s a fun method to teach students how code works without overburdening them with too much technical knowledge. The way it works is more like a puzzle, where you have to find the right pieces to create actions and reactions in your software. Well Stencyl is based on this model, and as such is an excellent way to create a simple game without coding, but in a way that should give you a good understanding of how coding works! Unfortunately, it is very limited at the moment, so don’t expect to build anything but a basic 2D game (although some people claim you could build Stardew Valley with it).

Watch how to get started with Stencyl in 20 mins

Good for Notable examples
2D Action Horror Lakeview Cabin
2D Platformers Ghost Song
2D RPGs Reaching Finality
2D Arcade Games Mibibli’s Quest
2D Tower Defense NeoCon TD

 

Pros:

  • Good for simple games
  • Teaches the basics of code
  • Has “Kits” (ready made templates)
  • Create pixel art in it
  • Has little marketplace
  • Exports natively for multiple platforms

Cons:

  • Subscription model
  • Limited features
  • Not ideal for smartphone games

GameMaker Studio 2 – The hit maker

Hyper Light Drifter screenshot

What do games like Hotline Miami, Undertale and Hyper Light Drifter have in common? Yes, they all sold millions of copies, and they were all made using GameMaker Studio. This powerful simplified code engine supports both 2D and 3D, but is more often used for 2D projects. One big advantage is that it lets you create all the assets for your game so you can quickly see how things look (of course you can also import them from Photoshop or anywhere else). The drag and drop interface also makes it ideal for quick prototyping, even for advanced game developers.

Watch how to get started with Game Maker Studio 2 in 20 mins.

Good for Notable examples
2D Sidescrollers Death’s Gambit
2D Roguelikes Hyper Light Drifter
2D Point & Click Games Fran Bow
2D Arcade Games Downwell

 

Pros:

  • Fairly fast learning curve
  • Free trial and decent price tiers ($99 to $399 one of fee)
  • Advanced features
  • Great for artists
  • Good marketplace
  • Great tutorials and resources

Cons:

  • Costs extra to export for certain platforms such as Android or iOS
  • Not fully drag and drop – you need to learn some basic code
  • Own scripting language called Game Maker Language – if you learn how to script in GMS2, you will be limited

Honorable mention for 2D game engines:

  • GDevApp (very basic games, extremely easy to use, export to web only)
  • WiMi5 (visual scripting, builds HTML5 games, good for in app purchases, takes 30% of your profits)

GameGuru – The FPS Template Solution

GameGuru screenshot

Moving on to 3D game engines now, and GameGuru is probably one of the easiest to use. That’s because the engine gives you 20 game templates to start your own, from FPS to horror survival games, and it supports multiplayer. You can easily create maps and manipulate certain settings with sliders. The downside is that all games tend to look the same – also, they only run on Windows.

Watch how to get started with GameGuru in 8 mins

Good for Notable examples
3D First Person Shooter The Big Escape (game template)
3D Horror Game Asylum

 

Pros:

  • Games work pretty much out of the box
  • 20 game templates
  • Has marketplace
  • Supports multiplayer
  • Exports natively for multiple platforms

Cons:

  • Dated graphics
  • Very limited features
  • Windows only
  • Only exports to WIndows

 

CopperCube 5 – The Lightweight 3D Engine

CopperCube 5 screenshot

Another basic engine that lets you click pieces together to create your 3D game. CopperCube 5 comes with a terrain editor and lets you import your 3D assets from elsewhere. Strangely enough, even though it’s not exactly powerful, it has interesting support like the ability to export VR games for the Oculus Rift.

Watch how to get started with CopperCube 5 in 20 mins

Good for Notable examples
3D Survival Games PostCollapse
3D Multiplayer Platformer Painted Legend

 

Pros:

  • Easy to use
  • Visual editor
  • Terrain editor
  • Oculus Rift support
  • Exports to PC, Mac and Android

Cons:

  • Dated graphics
  • No console target
  • Lack of tutorials

Unity 3D – The Serious Gamedev platform

Unity3d screenshot

Ready to join the big leagues? This is where the action happens. Unity, the game engine developed by Unity Technologies targets 27 platforms including the latest consoles such as the Switch and all mobile phones. This San Francisco company (who started in Denmark) now has more than 5 million registered developers who use the engine on a monthly basis.

While it is an extremely powerful platform that favours coders, there are a number of solutions for beginners who want to use visual scripting instead. These are all paying, but should give you all the tools you need to get started. If this is the road you want to take, you should therefore look at investing in beginner friendly plugins such as FlowCanvas, uScript, Adventure Creator or PlayMaker.

Watch how to get started with Unity in 20 mins

Good for Notable examples
3D Space Simulators Kerbal Space Program
3D RPGs Wasteland 2
3D Survival Action Adventures Rust
3D Endless Runners Temple Run
3D Action RPGs Assassin’s Creed: Identity


Pros:

  • One of the best Asset Stores with tons of free assets
  • Excellent resources and tutorials
  • Use it for free until you make more than $100K from your games
  • Exhaustive list of platforms supported
  • Good for learning C#
  • Popular with indie developers

Pros:

  • Overwhelming for beginners
  • Need paid plugins to avoid scripting
  • Not the best toolkit for 2D games
  • Self-centered engine – Unity users can’t really apply their skills anywhere else

Unreal Engine – The best AAA graphics

Unreal engine screenshot

Another hugely powerful engine, Unreal was used to create AAA games such as Deus Ex, BioShock, Borderlands or even the Final Fantasy VII remake. As you can see, it is a trusted platform with a focus on spectacular graphics and lighting effects that is trusted by big companies and indie developers alike.

Of course, you will need a big team of developers to complete big projects like the ones mentioned above, but one advantage is that Unreal comes with a beginner-friendly solution called Blueprint that lets you get started without any coding knowledge.

Watch how to get started with Unreal in 1 hour.

Good for Notable examples
3D Adventure Games Abzu
3D Action Adventure Batman: Return to Arkham Asylum
3D RPG Kingdom Hearts III
2D / 3D Fighting Games Street Fighter V
3D Puzzle / Platform Snake Pass

 

Pros:

  • Built-in beginner solution with Blueprint
  • Multi-platform export including consoles
  • Outstanding next-gen graphics
  • Good online resources
  • Free to use until your games make a profit

Cons:

  • Heavy and demanding on performance
  • Even harder to pick up than Unity
  • Marketplace not as full as Unity’s
  • Royalty based payment system

Honorable mention for 3D game engines:

  • Skyline (still in Beta, drag and drop, growing community, no mobile targets yet)
  • 001 Game Creator (PC only, very basic, dated interface, ready made templates)
  • CryEngine (highly realistic nature effects, requires knowledge of C++, has marketplace)
  • PlayCanvas (like Unity’s younger sibling – lightweight and cloud based – very focused on team game development)
  • Godot (increasingly popular for 2D and 3D, good for animations, has own coding language, hard for beginners)

Final Thoughts

As you can see, the market for beginner game engines is a fierce battle ground, with new challengers popping up all the time. This is particularly the case in the world of mobile app games, where a lot of platforms want to offer you ready made solution, claiming that you can easily create the next App Store hit.

However, if you are serious about game development, the market is shrinking by the day. At the moment, it looks like Unity and Unreal are the two main champions, and they are relied upon more and more by indie developers and AAA studios alike. Sure, the learning curve is a bit steeper, but once you get the hang of these products, you will truly feel like your next game can be anything you want.

Did we miss anything? Have a preferred game engine? We’ll be investigating more solutions in the future, so don’t hesitate to comment / ask questions below!

Florian

Written by Florian (1 posts)

Florian is a fan of great design, particularly when it comes to websites, games and apps. He’s also a father of two, so that’s his excuse for the peanut butter on his keyboard.

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