Unreal Engine is one of the most widely used game development tools available today. Created by Epic Games in 1998, Unreal Engine has been used to develop AAA games like Fortnite, Gears of War, and BioShock. But is Unreal Engine actually free to use? Here is a detailed look at Unreal Engine‘s licensing model and what you can do with the free version.
Overview of Unreal Engine
Unreal Engine is a complete suite of game development tools made by Epic Games. It can be used to create 2D and 3D games and interactive experiences for consoles, mobile, VR, and the web.
Some key features of Unreal Engine:
- Advanced rendering and graphics capabilities, including photorealistic visuals and next-gen ray tracing
- Full C++ source code access and support
- Visual scripting system called Blueprints
- Multiplatform support – deploy to iOS, Android, consoles, PC, Mac, VR, HTML5
- Integrated game editor
- Robust 3D animation and physics systems
- AAA-quality content and assets via the Unreal Engine Marketplace
Originally launched in 1998 for FPS game development, Unreal Engine has evolved into an all-purpose game engine used by indie developers and major studios alike. Top games made with Unreal Engine include Fortnite, Gears of War, BioShock, Borderlands and Batman: Arkham Knight.
Unreal Engine Licensing Options
Unreal Engine is available through several different licensing options:
- Free – For personal learning, non-commercial projects, and revenue up to $1 million
- Creator – For individuals/small teams earning up to $3 million per title
- Enterprise – For professional teams with unlimited revenue and additional support
The free license option allows full access to the engine‘s features and C++ source code access. Limits only come into play once a project starts generating significant revenue.
What Can You Do with the Free Version?
The free version of Unreal Engine is remarkably full-featured. Here‘s a quick rundown of what you can do:
- Create 2D, 3D, VR and AR games and experiences
- Full access to Unreal Editor and all engine features
- Deploy to PC, Mac, iOS, Android, major consoles (with dev kit)
- Sell and monetize projects
- Access complete C++ source code
- Royalty-free up to $1 million revenue per game/project
The free license permits use of Unreal Engine for everything from game jams and hobby projects to commercial releases. There are essentially no limits until a project exceeds $1 million in gross revenue. Even then, royalties are only 5% on additional revenue past the $1 million threshold.
- No Unreal Engine branding/splash screen removal
- No access to source code for Unreal editor
For most indie developers and hobbyists, the free version offers everything needed to bring a game idea to life. Even large studios frequently use the free license for testing and prototype development before purchasing a paid license.
When Do Royalties Kick In?
One common misconception around Unreal Engine‘s licensing model is that developers have to pay royalties from day one. This is not the case.
Royalties only come into play after a game or project using the free license surpasses $1 million in gross revenue. At that point, a 5% royalty is owed on additional revenue above $1 million.
For example, if a game made $1.5 million on the free license:
- No royalties on the first $1 million
- 5% royalty owed on the additional $500,000 of revenue
This revenue threshold provides a lot of breathing room for indie developers to launch commercial titles without any royalty obligation to Epic Games. And even after surpassing $1 million in revenue, the 5% royalty rate is quite reasonable compared to other popular engines.
Is Unreal Engine 4 Beginner Friendly?
While advanced Unreal Engine development requires coding knowledge, the engine provides plenty of beginner-friendly tools. These make Unreal an approachable choice even for those with no prior game development experience.
Key features for beginners include:
Extensive documentation and tutorials – Unreal provides step-by-step written and video tutorials walking through all core aspects of using the engine.
Visual scripting system – Blueprints allow you to program behaviors and game logic without needing to write any code. Great for beginners.
C++ coding – For developers who want to code in C++, Unreal fully supports it and provides sample projects and docs.
Assets marketplace – The Unreal Engine Marketplace offers thousands of high-quality art assets, code snippets, and plugins for purchase or even for free. This allows for game development without much artistic skill.
While having some prior coding knowledge is helpful for advanced development, beginners can get pretty far just using Blueprints and available marketplace assets. The visual tools and tutorials help shorten the learning curve substantially.
How Does Unreal Engine Compare to Unity?
Unity and Unreal Engine are the two most popular free game engines available today. Both are capable tools, but they have some notable differences.
|Coding||Full C++ support with visual scripting via Blueprints||C# coding with visual scripting|
|Graphics||More advanced graphics and rendering capabilities||Simpler graphics, better optimized for mobile|
|Learning curve||Steeper learning curve, especially for coding||More beginner-friendly|
|Platforms||Wide platform support including consoles||Wide platform support except consoles|
|Asset store||Unreal Marketplace||Unity Asset Store|
|Business model||5% royalty on revenue above $1 million||Free up to $100k revenue, subscriptions above|
For most hobbyists and indie developers, Unity tends to be the more accessible choice, especially for 2D and mobile games. The C# coding and wealth of community resources are beginner-friendly.
Unreal Engine has advantages for developers wanting to build high-end games with top-tier graphics, physics, and performance. But it comes with a steeper learning curve, especially for programming.
So while both engines are free and capable, certain projects may lend themselves better to one over the other. But there‘s no reason not to try out both!
Major Games Made with Free Unreal Engine
The free Unreal Engine license has been used to make some remarkably successful indie games. A few examples:
- Rocket League – The hugely popular vehicular soccer game crossed $1 billion in total revenue in 2020.
- Axiom Verge – This acclaimed indie Metroidvania game generated over $5 million revenue.
- Hades – Supergiant Games‘ roguelike dungeon crawler was one of 2020‘s top reviewed titles.
- Mordhau – The multiplayer medieval melee game sold over 2 million copies after debuting at #1 on Steam.
- Satisfactory – Coffee Stain Studios‘ viral building simulation sold over 1 million copies in early access.
These examples demonstrate that Unreal Engine‘s free licensing model places no limits on the potential success and revenue for indie games. Even after exceeding $1 million in revenue, the 5% royalty rate leaves ample profit margin.
In summary, the free version of Unreal Engine provides essentially everything indie developers and hobbyists need to ship a high-quality game. The only limits are on teams earning over $1 million, when a reasonable 5% royalty kicks in.
For new game developers, Unreal Engine‘s extensive tutorials, visual scripting system, and marketplace assets provide a beginner-friendly way to get started. While mastering Unreal Engine takes time, the foundation can be picked up fairly quickly.
Given its top-tier graphics and performance, Unreal Engine is ideal for 2D, 3D, and VR games that demand strong technical capabilities. While other engines like Unity may be simpler for beginners, Unreal Engine remains an extremely capable and cost-effective option.