The 10 Best Free Game Engines for Creating 3D, 2D & VR Games

best game engines

All set to make a mark in the world of games development? Game engine is the first thing you need to get started with 2D, 3D or VR games development. There are many free game engines available out there in the wild and selecting one can be a daunting task.

Every game creation platform is not fit for creating all kinds of games, and for that reason, it is important to understand the features, functionality and tools offered by various engines before narrowing down to the one for your project.

Options vary depending on whether you intend to make a AAA game, indie game, 2D or 3D game. Virtual Reality development is another big thing, and if that is your foray, then only a handful of sophisticated game engine like Unity, Unreal, CryEngine and few more would do the job well.

Which game engines should you try out?

This is the question that depends on many factors including your liking, skill level, programming experience, learning curve, 2D or 3D or VR, scripting language preference, drag & drop visual tools or programming based, requirements of the game, target platforms, and the list is very long.

You can get started with games development by using a visual drag and drop games creation platform like the one offered by Game Maker Studio or go ahead with script heavy game engine like Unity3d, Unreal Engine, CryEngine or Source engine. Scripting can take a bit of time if you are not a programmer but it gives you endless opportunities, you get power to build anything you can imagine.

Recommended Course (Currently on Discount) – Build 2D and 3D Games for Web and Mobile: Unity and C#

Most of the leading engines in the market (like Unity3d and Unreal Engine) let you create your game once and publish the game on almost all platforms including Xbox, PlayStation, Wii, iOS, Mac, Android, Windows, Linux, VR devices and many more.  

Before we get down to the details of best game engines available in the market as of today, it is important to understand that the market is pretty much skewed with Unity alone holding more than 30% of the market share and another 20% jointly held by Cocos2d, Unreal and Corona, as of writing this article (stats might vary now).

You might like to check out - Best Animation Software and Best JavaScript 3D Game Engines.

Let us take a closer look at what these top gaming engines have to offer –

1.Unity – 2D, 3D, VR, AR Games (C#, JavaScript)

Unity is the leading and most used game maker in the market as of today. The popularity of unity can be gauged from the fact that its customers and partners include names like Disney, Electronic Arts, Ubisoft, Nickelodeon, NASA, Nintendo, Oculus, Microsoft, LEGO, Warner Bros and many more.

Unity is a complete platform for creating 2D, 3D, VR and AR games that can run on any device and any platform including consoles, PCs, web, mobile devices, embedded systems, head mounted displays and anything else.

You are a games fan right, you can easily make out the capabilities of Unity game engine by looking at the games created with Unity that include names like Assassin’s Creed, Satellite Reign, Temple Run Trilogy, Rust, Wasteland 2, Fat City, Lara Croft: Relic Run and many more. 

The power of unity lies in the shear count of developers including hobbyists, indie studios, students and large publishers from around the globe. Unity comes with Unity Web Player that lets you view Unity 3D content directly in the browser with live updates.

Another thing I like about Unity is the asset store, you get thousands of free and paid assets (ready to use) including extensions, tools, plugins, 3D, 2D models, VR kits and much more. Unity has a very powerful and easy to use editor, it supports C# and JavaScript as scripting languages.

Unity is free to download and use, you get the core assets, documentation, tutorials, a bundled script editor and much more. The way Unity subscription works is that you pay nothing till the time your revenue/fund raised is below $100K/annum, after that there are paid subscription options for professionals and enterprises.

Recommended course for VR games -  VR Games: Unity with C# for Google Cardboard.

Check out more about Unity here at – Unity 3D.

2.Unreal Engine – 3D, VR++

Unreal Engine, the baby of Epic Games, is the big daddy of Game Engines, and a creative powerhouse. The first generation Unreal Engine (I) was release back in 1998 as a scalable engine with modular architecture and support for scripting language called UnrealScript. Ever since its release, Unreal Engine kept growing in features and popularity and currently boasts to be the most feature rich game engine available in the market.

Unreal Engine can be used for developing and deploying games to iOS, Android, Oculus Rift, HTC Vive SteamVR, PlayStation VR, Google VR Daydream, Samsung Gear VR, Linux, PlayStation, Xbox One, Mac OS, Windows PC, HTML5, and recently Nintendo announced Nintendo switch support for Unreal Engine games.

Like Unity 3D, Unreal Engine too has been used for some of the very popular games that include names like Bioshock Infinite, Mass Effect Series, Batman Arkham Asylum. Recently, Unreal engine has been upgraded big time for development of VR games and arguably beats Unity by margins in that space.

Unreal Engine’s latest version Unreal Engine 4 is available for free download with access to all the features, integrated tools and the C++ source code as well, to let you extend its feature.

Unreal Engine is free to use but you need to pay 5% royalty after you reach some minimum ($3000 per product as of writing) revenue in a calendar quarter. You can check out their terms and conditions for up to date information on this.

Epic games company also provides development grant ranging from $5000 to $50, 000 to some of the interesting projects that are built using Unreal Engine 4 and there is no obligation. The game you create remains your IP and you can publish the game and start earning.

Check out more about Unreal Engine here at – Unreal Engine

3.Lumberyard – 3D Games, Virtual Reality

Lumberyard is Amazon’s entry into the arena of high quality cross platform AAA games development. Amazon uses Lumberyard for developing all its games at Amazon Game Studios.

Lumberyard is also available free of cost for anyone and everyone including students, hobbyists, indie developers as well as big game studios. No Royalties, no subscriptions and no licence costs. Amazon makes money from its core business which is AWS services, that any successful game ends up using.

Lumberyard is built using the technology stack that includes CryEngine, Double Helix, Twix and the complete AWS stack including Amazon GameLift which is heavily used for deploying and operating session based multiplayer games.

The history of Amazon speaks by itself, they go big in whatever they get into and with a solid technology at the core, Lumberyard though is in its childhood but still seems to be the most promising Next Gen game engine out there in the wild.

Lumberyard is going big on VR and currently supports Oculus Rift, OSVR and HTC Vive, support for other VR devices might already be there while you read this article.

Read more about Lumberyard here at – Lumberyard Game Engine           

4.Game Maker Studio – 2D Game Maker

GameMaker Studio is the proprietary game creation platform from the house of YoYo Games. The latest version of the GameMaker Studio offers one of the best visual designer/editor for creating 2D games using drag and drop tools. Advanced interactivity and logic can be added using the GML which is a very easy scripting language.

With GameMaker Studio, you create just one source for your game and publish to many platforms including iOS, Android, windows 8, windows Phone 8, Mac OS X, HTML5, Ubuntu, Windows App Store, PlayStation Vita, PlayStation 3 & 4, Tizen, Amazon FireTV and Xbox One.

GameMaker Studio is a great option for beginners who have little or no prior experience in creating games or writing code. The downside is that you cannot create very advanced and high-end games like what you can do in Unity, Unreal Engine, or Lumberyard.

Key features of GameMaker Studio are as given below -

  • Built in support for Box2D – Physics Engine
  • Build in support for Google’s LiquidFun – Particle Physics Engine.
  • GameMaker Language (GML) with drag and drop editor.
  • Analytics to track and improve games.
  • SVN, GIT and CVS for version control
  • 2D animations with Esoteric Software.
  • Seamless integration for in-app purchases

Game Maker vs Unity

This question is asked many a times and the simple answer is that GameMaker studio is for making 2D games with ease, mostly using the visual editor whereas Unity is for making high end games including games for VR systems, and is fit for experienced game developers.

While unity is much more advanced, it would be an overkill and much more effort to make light weight 2D games, where GameMaker is unparalleled.

Recommended learning path - Become a Game Maker with GameMaker Studio  

Official Website – GameMaker Studio

5.CryEngine - 3D and VR Games

CryEngine is the brainchild of the German company Crytek and has powered some of the most successful games of all times including Far Cry, Crysis, Ryse: Son of Rome and Star Citizen. Last year Crytek made CryEngine totally free for developers, with full source code and access to all features, no royalties, obligations or license fee.

Crytek offers membership services at a nominal charge and makes money by providing access to training and dedicated support. There is also a marketplace that lists down tons of materials, 3D objects, sounds and other resources, created by Crytek and by the community.

Off late, Crytek is going all guns to capture some share in the AAA games market which is dominated by Unity 3D and Unreal Engine. Virtual Reality development is relatively new phenomenon and CryEngine’s latest version is fully loaded for VR development. Going big on VR makes CryEngine stand tall against the existing players and hope to attract more developers and game studios.  

CryEngine’s VR first initiative is a big step towards establishing a global network of developers and enthusiasts looking forward to making a mark in the virtual reality development. CryEngine is also making partnerships with game studios and facilitating academic institutions to set up CryEngine equipped Virtual Reality labs for students in the campuses.

If you are looking to try your hands outside Unity or Unreal or evaluating a new game engine for the first time, CryEngine is a great option.

CryEngine Vs Unity VS Unreal Engine

Crytek made the engine free recently and is still in its earlier stages for mass acceptance, and for that reason, it falls far behind the likes of Unity and Unreal in terms of market share. A product for the masses needs to have a smooth user experience and features good for rapid development and troubleshooting, CryEngine seems to be lacking on that front as well, as of today.

CryEngine may not be the game engine for masses like Unity and Unreal but it comes packed with a solid platform to build games of highest Level and with a clear focus on VR.

Official Website – Cry Engine

6.   Panda 3D – Free, No Royalties (Python Scripting)

Panda3D does not compete with game engines like Unreal or Unity, but it comes packed with tons of features to create stunning 2D and 3D games. Moreover, it is open source and completely free, no obligations to pay any royalty fee.

Panda 3D is simulation and game engine, originally created by Disney and currently it is maintained by Entertainment Technology Center of Carnegie Mellon University.

Many universities use Panda 3D for education projects and it is quite popular among students, mainly since it allows development in Python programming language and has a very low learning curve, helps you complete your project and get your game published within no time.  

Read more about Panda 3D here at -  Panda 3D Free.

7.Corona Labs – 2D, Free, Lua Based

Corona is another powerful 2D game engine in the wild that supports multi-platform publishing, you can develop apps and games once and publish to devices including iPhone, iPad, Android Phones, tablets, Mac, PC, Windows, Amazon Fire, Apple TV, Fire TV, Android TV etc.

Corona development is based on Lua programming language which is open source, lightweight, fast and used by makers of games like Angry Birds, Civilization and Warcraft. The core functionality of Corona can be extended by Plugins or by using any third party native C/C++, Java, objective C libraries, via APIs.

It is a 2D game engine with more than 200K active developers. Corona supports a marketplace for buying assets and selling what you build, an interactive community forum and priority support. The Core Features of Corona are totally free for indie developers as well as big game studios, no royalties.

Check out more here at – Corona Labs

8.Source Engine -3D, PC Games++

Source Engine is from the house of the company named Vale corporation which was founded back in 1996 and has developed some of the very popular games. Valve also happens to be the creator of the game platform named Steam, which is used to manage and distribute games to game lovers across the globe.

Source Engine’s debut game was Counter-Strike which saw great success and led to further big titles like Half Life-2 Portal, Dota and Left 4 Dead.  Source Engine is not only used by Valve corporations but also by other big Game studios, some of the third-party games created with Source Engine include Titanfall, Infra and Dear Esther.

Source Engine started to gain popularity announced as free to use back in 2015, with the release of Source 2. Source 2’s debut game happens to be Dota 2 titled Reborn and was ported from the original Source Engine.

PC gaming is still on an Valve Corporation has taken a step further in that direction, the Source 2 Engine is released as Vulkan compatible. Vulkan, if you don’t know, is fast becoming the next standard for 3D graphics API and brings in the best out of the compatible hardware and software.  

Read more about Source Engine here at – Source Engine

9.Cocos2d – Open Source, Free

Mobile gaming is a big market and I am not able to resist one of the most used frameworks for creating mobile games and apps - cocos2d family. Cocos2d is collection of frameworks and tools that are used for creating cross platform games and applications. The most popular cocos2d forks include cocos2d-x, cocos2d-XNA, cocos2d-objC and cocos2d (Python).

Cocos2d-x is among the widely used engines and is behind some very successful games like Badland, Castle Clash and Tiny Village listed on both AppStore and Googleplay stores. Cocos2d-x has APIs for Lua, JavaScript and C++ and you can write games for Android, iOS (most popular), windows Phone, Mac OSX, Linux and Windows Desktop.

The popularity of Cocos-2dx can be gauged from the fact that most popular game developers like Glu, Xynga, Gameevil, Konami and Fingersoft etc. too have used Cocos-2dx for developing their own games. Cocos-2dx keeps on getting regular upgrades and boasts a very active community with engineers from companies like Google, ARM, Intel and Chukong.

Cocos2d family is not into console games as of today. So, if you want to develop AAA games for consoles including Xbox and Playstation, you might want to look at Lumberyard, Unity or Unreal Engine etc.

Read more about cocos2d and family here at – Cocos 2d Products.

10.LibGDX

If you love programming, already know Java and need full control on your game, LibGDX is a great option. It is not a game engine like Unity or Lumberyard etc. but is a framework for developing games, mainly 2D. 3D games can be developed too but it would be time consuming, not recommended.

LigGDX is totally free, licensed under apache 2.0 and is maintained by community of developers. You can use LibGDX to publish games on Mac, windows, iOS, Linux, Android and HTML5 with same code base.

Read more about LibGDX here at – LibGDX Game Development

In Summary

The market for game is expanding exponentially and geared toward reaching 66 billion in Console/PC gaming and 52 billion in mobile gaming by the year 2019. Irrespective of whether you are a hobbyist, indie developer, start-up or a large publisher, there are tools and game engines available to turn your dream into reality

This article was our humble attempt to make the game engine selection process easier for you, all the game design engines offer core features free of cost, and few are totally free. The cost comes only when you start earning yourself, or need some tool to market, publish, sell asset and more.

In short, download what you need, don’t wait, and build the next blockbuster. Good Luck.

Further Reading -  1. Android Emulators 2. Mobile App Builders.

About The Author: noeticsunil

Sunil is the founder and contributing editor at noeticforce.com. He writes about anything and everything that makes modern mobile apps, web apps and websites possible. Passionate about coding in any language including Python, Swift, JavaScript, PHP, Java, Android & iOS dev, not excluding CSS/HTML. 

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