When the game engine licensing business started to take off in the mid 90's we saw a lot of pain and suffering occur. Publishers bought bulk licenses and would force the technology on game teams, sometimes halfway through development. In other cases the thinking was, "we just licensed this really expensive tech so we don't have to keep a bunch of expensive engine programmers on staff." This was obviously dangerous thinking and a lot of projects crashed and burned due to lack of technical capabilities. There are some cases where you can get away with treating licensed tech like a black box. For example, RAD Game Tool's Bink Video has been used in over 4,000 games. It just works and I doubt most people using it read the source code thoroughly. However in the case of a 3D Game engine, where it is the central nervous system of your game development effort, it's important to know the technology inside and out in order to use it efficiently.
Rule #1: Successful game engine licensing requires you have the technical capability to create the technology but choose not to.
This has several implications:
- You only need a team capable of understanding the technology completely but not necessarily the manpower to create it from scratch. This could be one person leading a team of less knowledgeable and less experienced programmers. Obviously strong leadership here is critical.
- Choosing not to create the technology is why you license in the first place. However, teams still find reasons (NIH) to gut and rewrite large portions of the engine. This is a recipe for failure and requires serious technical discipline to overcome.
- Choosing not to create the technology but having the capability to do so allows you to focus on differentiating features rather than reinventing the wheel.
Equally important albeit more obvious is when licensing an engine the game design should be adjusted to play to the strengths of the engine.
Rule #2: Technology and Design must be adapted to fit one another. If one can not bend, the other must.
It's important to be realistic about this up front. Some game designs are created well before the technology and the development process is largely about creating the engine to accommodate the game design. This can work if planned properly, however if you bring in a game engine expecting to apply it directly to a game design you could be in for a world of hurt. A good game designer will work with the programmers and technical artists to understand the strengths and limitations of the technology and adapt the game design to fit. In the case of a licensed engine, design needs to be the more flexible. Otherwise you're likely not playing to the strengths of the engine. Spend your technology capital where it counts; on differentiating features.
Licensing technology can be a big win, especially for a small company looking to bootstrap their business while keeping overhead low. It is half of the equation for us and we'll be discussing the other half in future posts. Stay tuned!