Unreal Engine, created by Epic Games, is one of the most widely used game development engines in the industry. Its advanced graphics, physics, animation, and other systems power some of the most popular games today. But how much does it actually cost to use Unreal Engine? Can you publish commercial games with the free version? This comprehensive guide will answer all of those questions and more.
Brief Background on Unreal Engine
First launched in 1998 for PC and console games, Unreal Engine aimed to provide state-of-the-art graphics combined with powerful developer tools. Epic Games continued improving the engine and releasing new major versions over the following decades.
Unreal Engine 4, released in 2014, brought mobile and VR support. This version gained huge popularity among game developers and expanded Unreal into films/TV, architecture, automotive design and more.
The latest iteration, Unreal Engine 5 launched in early access in 2021 and features next-gen graphics and sound technologies. However, UE4 remains in widespread use today.
Unreal Engine Licensing Model
Unreal Engine is free to download and use. You can build games and release them commercially without owing any royalties or fees to Epic Games, as long as your lifetime revenue stays under $1 million USD.
Once your total gross revenue from a game or other project exceeds $1 million, you must begin paying Epic Games a 5% royalty on further revenue.
So in summary, the licensing model is:
- Free to download Unreal Engine
- Free to use with no limits on revenue under $1 million
- 5% royalty on revenue above $1 million
This approach aims to enable developers to use a professional grade engine at no upfront cost. Epic only shares in the success for highly profitable projects.
Comparison to Other Game Engines
This licensing model contrasts with Unity, the other leading game development engine. The free Unity license also allows unlimited revenue, but limits the commercial organization size to under $100K annual revenue.
Once a studio grows beyond that threshold, they must upgrade to a paid Unity license which costs from $399 to $2,400 per seat per year. Paid Unity licenses do not charge royalties.
So Unity provides free access for smaller developers, while Unreal grants free use of the full engine regardless of commercial success.
What is Included in the Free Unreal Engine?
The free Unreal Engine download comes fully featured. Here‘s an overview of what you get:
Complete C++ source code access – full capabilities to customize the engine code
Blueprints visual scripting – create game logic and behaviors without coding
Multiplatform deployment – ship games for PC, consoles, mobile, and web
Robust 3D rendering – state of the art real-time graphics technologies
Animation toolset – produce cinematic animations and cutscenes
Physics engine – high performance dynamic simulation system
Visual shaders – customize shader code with node graphs instead of code
Hundreds of marketplace assets – free characters, environments, visual effects and more
Sample games and learning resources – from RPGs to first person shooters
So in summary, everything you need for professional 3D game development is included free with Unreal Engine.
Limitations of the Free Version
While you get full use of the engine, the Unreal Engine EULA imposes some restrictions with the free license:
No releasing source code changes – modifications to engine code must remain private
No enterprise features – multi-user collaboration, private source control, etc require paid licenses
So the free Unreal Engine is oriented toward independent developers. Larger studios may need to purchase enterprise add-ons and custom licensing.
Developing games with Unreal Engine requires relatively high end hardware, especially for 3D projects. Here are the official recommendations from Epic:
- OS: 64-bit Windows 10
- CPU: Intel Core i7-4790 or better
- GPU: NVIDIA GTX 970 with 4GB VRAM or better
- RAM: 16GB
- OS: 64-bit Windows 10
- CPU: Intel Core i7-6700K or better
- GPU: NVIDIA GTX 1070 with 8GB VRAM or better
- RAM: 32GB
So you‘ll need a gaming PC or workstation to effectively use Unreal Engine. Note that requirements may be higher if working with demanding projects like open world games.
Additional Monetization with Marketplace
Beyond the 5% royalty, Epic Games makes money from Unreal Engine via the Unreal Engine Marketplace. This is an online store with content creators selling various assets and plugins.
Assets include 3D models, textures, environments, visual effects, animations, and more. Developers can purchase and use these in their games. Epic takes a 30% cut of all Marketplace purchase revenue.
So while the engine itself is free, stocking up a production pipeline with high quality assets involves additional costs. That said, there is plenty of free content as well.
Adoption and Usage of Unreal Engine
Unreal Engine usage has grown steadily since going free in 2015. Some key stats:
- Over 6 million users worldwide
- Support for over 90 unique platforms
- Powers over 50 of the top 100 games each year
- Used by at least 1 game in the top 10 best sellers each year since 2014
And beyond games, Unreal is now used in films (The Mandalorian), TV series (Westworld), architecture visualizations, car design, and more. Mobile games are also picking up steam on Unreal.
So it remains one of the most widely adopted professional grade game engines available today.
Is Unreal Engine Beginner Friendly?
Unreal Engine features visual scripting and an intuitive editor to accelerate the learning process. Complete beginners can get started building simple games without needing to write C++ code.
However, to unlock the full potential of Unreal for large scale games, you will need strong C++ skills. The engine is highly extensible and customizable via code.
There are ample learning resources available including official Unreal courses and user communities. But expect a meaningful time investment to gain proficiency.
Time Investment Required to Learn
How much time you need to learn Unreal Engine depends heavily on your starting experience level.
- Complete beginners – Expect at least 80 hours working through intro tutorials to publish a simple first game
- Developers new to Unreal – May take 40 hours to get comfortable with the editor and visual scripting
- C++ programmers – Can start extending games after 20 hours learning key classes and workflows
- Experienced Unreal devs – Immediately productive on new projects
These estimates assume full time dedication. Learning in a few hours per week will extend the timeline significantly.
What Game Genres is Unreal Engine Best For?
While you can create any genre with Unreal, it shines for:
- 3D games – especially first and third person games like shooters, action RPGs, adventure games, etc.
- Open world games – tools for terrain, foliage, buildings, and streaming massive maps
- High fidelity graphics – unique rendering features allow photorealism and movie quality cinematics
- Online/multiplayer games – built-in networking and servers to handle connected gameplay
2D games are possible but Unity is generally more productive for 2D/2.5D projects. Unreal also enables emerging genres like VR, AR, and mixed reality games.
Key Features and Strengths of Unreal Engine
Here are some of the standout capabilities developers gain using Unreal Engine:
- Nanite – virtualized geometry streams massive amounts of film quality detail to scenes
- Lumen – fully dynamic lighting adapts to changes and bounces light naturally
- Chaos – state of the art physics simulation with advanced destruction
- Animation/Sequencer Tool – cinematic animation pipeline for games and film
- Visual Shaders – intuitive node based shader programming
- Blueprints – extend games visually without coding experience
- Scalability – run games on everything from mobile to consoles to PC
These tools and others enable stunning AAA quality experiences while accelerating development workflows.
Limitations and Weaknesses
No engine is perfect across all use cases. Some aspects where Unreal Engine falls short:
- Steep learning curve – C++ and editor complexity increase ramp up time
- Performance optimization – getting games to run smoothly takes expertise
- 2D support – lack of native 2D tools and workflows
- Mobile deployment – large app sizes and performance limitations
- Source access restrictions – inability to share engine modifications publicly
So while Unreal shines for cutting edge 3D games, it comes with greater development demands compared to some competitors.
Major Games Powered by Unreal Engine
As a testament to its capabilities, Unreal Engine has powered many outstanding games across PC and consoles over the past decade. A few examples include:
- Gears of War series
- Batman: Arkham series
- Bioshock series
- Borderlands series
- Mass Effect series
- Mortal Kombat 11
- Kingdom Hearts III
- Tekken 7
And many more. Unreal Engine 5 will likely power the next generation of AAA game franchises over the coming years.
Usage in Film and Television
Epic has pushed to establish Unreal as a content creation tool for filmed entertainment:
- The Mandalorian
- More than 100 cinematics in Fortnite
- Production pipeline for Avatar sequels
- Industrial Light & Magic partnerships
By integrating game engine tools into Hollywood pipelines, Unreal enables greater creative freedom and cost savings in productions with virtual sets and characters.
What‘s New in Unreal Engine 5?
Unreal Engine 5 takes graphics, sounds, and capabilities to new heights. Key innovations include:
|Virtualized micropolygon geometry for cinematic assets
|Fully dynamic global illumination and reflections
|Powerful new procedural audio
|Massive open worlds and quick streaming
|and many more
|Niagara enhancements, Chaos Physics, VR updates, etc.
These grant developers an unmatched toolset to craft next generation experiences, evident in technical demos like The Matrix Awakens.
Is Unreal Engine the Right Choice For You?
Hopefully this guide provided a comprehensive overview of what comes free with Unreal Engine and its capabilities. While learning it takes dedication, Unreal enables crafting games at a AAA level.
The zero royalties for projects under $1 million in revenue make it very appealing for independent developers. And full C++ source access grants unlimited control.
But it may not be the best choice for all uses cases. 2D games often benefit more from Unity‘s workflow. And advanced C++ skills are highly recommended.
For developers focused on next-gen 3D games with photoreal graphics and cinematic stories, Unreal Engine 5 provides an unparalleled toolbox. Just be ready to spend meaningful time mastering its depths.