If you‘re an aspiring game developer ready to start creating your own games, choosing which game engine to use is one of the most important decisions you‘ll make. Game engines provide the underlying framework and tools for building games across platforms, handling rendering, physics, animation, AI and much more so you can focus on designing gameplay and bringing your visions to life.
In the past, professional-grade game engines required expensive licensing fees putting them out of reach for many indie developers. Thankfully, today there are a number of high quality and completely free game engine options available. For those just starting out or with a limited budget, diving into game development with a free engine is the perfect choice.
In this comprehensive guide, we’ll cover the top completely free game engines in 2023, their features and capabilities, ease of use, platform support, licensing terms, pros and cons, and recommendations for getting started. Let’s dive in!
Overview of the Top Free Game Engines
If you’re wondering where to begin your game creation journey, here’s a quick rundown of the most popular completely free game engines available today:
Unity: Extremely popular and versatile engine used by indie and pro developers alike. Offers an accessible platform for 2D and 3D games.
Unreal Engine: Advanced 3D toolset with stunning graphics and rendering capabilities. Industry-leading but has a steeper learning curve.
Godot: Lightweight open source engine focused on 2D with some 3D support. Customizable and flexible.
GameMaker Studio: Drag and drop 2D game builder designed for beginners. Large asset store and community.
Construct: Intuitive visual editor for building 2D games quickly. Better suited for simpler games.
GDevelop: Code-free game builder for 2D games. Great option for younger developers.
Let‘s explore the features and capabilities of each top option in more detail.
First launched in 2005, Unity has skyrocketed to become the most popular game engine in the world with over 60% market share. It powers over 50% of all mobile games and is used by indie developers and major studios alike.
- Powerful rendering and physics engines
- Platforms: PC, consoles, mobile, VR/AR, web
- C# programming with .NET framework
- Visual scripting tools like Bolt
- Asset store with 3D models, environments, scripts, tools
- Smooth editor workflows and rapid iteration
Ease of Use
Unity uses C# programming which will be familiar to many developers. The customizable editor layout and navigation makes getting up and running smooth. Unity is widely regarded as having a gentle learning curve, aided by top-notch official tutorials and community-built learning resources.
According to Unity themselves, "Unity is easy to use because we’ve spent decades making it so." For those with little to no coding experience, Unity does involve learning a programming language but visual scripting tools like Bolt help lower the barrier.
The core Unity platform is 100% free to use with no royalties or revenue sharing once you release your games commercially. Unity makes its revenue through value-added services tailored to large studios and enterprises. For personal use or small studios, you have full access to everything needed to build, publish, and monetize your games completely for free.
Games Made With Unity
As the most popular game engine by far, countless hit games across genres have been made with Unity, including:
- Hollow Knight
- Untitled Goose Game
- Ori and the Blind Forest
- Beat Saber
- Fall Guys
- Pokémon Go
- Among Us
- Angry Birds 2
In 2020 alone, around 50% of all mobile games, 50% of console games, and 20% of PC games released were made with Unity.
- Huge asset store and community support
- Mature tools and workflows
- Stable and frequently improved through updates
- Smooth multiplatform publishing
- Beginner friendly learning curve
- Some platform-specific optimizations needed
- Can be overkill for simpler 2D games
- Interface can feel bloated at times
Created by Epic Games in 1998 to power their Unreal series, Unreal Engine brings professional-grade, cutting-edge 3D tools and graphics rendering to developers completely for free.
- State of the art real-time 3D rendering
- Blueprints visual scripting system
- C++ programming with full source code access
- Advanced lighting, physics, animation, and effects tools
- Robust multiplayer and analytics systems
Ease of Use
Unreal Engine is extremely fully-featured which gives it a steeper learning curve upfront. Blueprints help overcome the C++ programming barrier with visual scripting. Documentation is thorough but still complex for total beginners.
Junior programmer Brandon Padilla described learning Unreal as "intimidating at first" but after several months finds Blueprints help connect the dots, saying "Don’t be afraid to use Blueprints at first before diving into C++."
Like Unity, Unreal Engine is completely free to download and use with no royalties or revenue sharing. Epic Games makes money from the Unreal Engine Marketplace for premium assets and enterprise support.
Games Made with Unreal Engine
The advanced 3D capabilities of Unreal Engine have powered blockbuster franchises such as:
- Gears of War
- Tomb Raider
- Batman: Arkham series
- Mortal Kombat 11
Roughly 15% of games released in 2022 were made with Unreal.
- Cutting edge 3D graphics and rendering
- C++ for high performance options
- Sophisticated lighting, physics and effects
- Industry leading toolset
- Very steep learning curve for beginners
- Overkill for 2D or simpler games
- Significant programming knowledge needed
Godot Engine is a completely free, open source 2D and 3D game engine first launched in 2014. It uses a unique node and scene architecture and integrates its own scripting languages.
- Open source C++ core
- Intuitive node-based architecture
- 2D and 3D rendering
- Animation tools and visual shader editing
- GDScript language similar to Python
- Lightweight and customizable
Ease of Use
Godot offers a gentle learning curve for beginners, especially those with some coding experience already. The flexibility of the node system allows for powerful capabilities without programming complexity. Documentation is excellent.
One developer described their experience: "I tried Unity and Unreal Engine before Godot and it was far easier to make games thanks to the intuitive way it allows you to build scenes."
Godot is licensed under the permissive MIT license allowing complete freedom. Users retain full ownership of their work with no royalties or attribution required.
Games Made With Godot
Popular games built in Godot include:
- Just Shapes & Beats
- Duckworld: Legend of the Masked Emblem
- Luxor Evolved
- Dead Cells
The number of games launched with Godot grew over 50% last year as the engine continues gaining popularity.
- Free and open source
- Lightweight and customizable
- Excellent 2D support
- Intuitive node-based architecture
- 3D rendering not as advanced as Unreal/Unity
- Smaller asset library and community size
- Learning GDScript can have a curve
First launched in 1999, GameMaker Studio specializes in making 2D game development more accessible for beginners via its drag-and-drop interface and code-free options.
- Intuitive drag and drop workflow
- Built-in physics, particle effects, lighting
- Tilemap and level editors
- Scripts for advanced behaviors and logic
- Cross-platform publishing
Ease of Use
GameMaker makes creating 2D games extremely approachable for non-coders through its visual workflow. Some coding is eventually needed for more complex games.
According to YoYo Games, "Everything in GameMaker Studio 2 is designed to put you in control." The interface is intuitive and designed for building 2D games without programming experience.
GameMaker Studio 2 offers a robust free version for non-commercial use. Paid licenses start at $9.99/month for commercial projects while unlocking additional features.
Games Made With GameMaker
Notable games built with GameMaker Studio include:
- Hyper Light Drifter
- Hotline Miami
In 2020, GameMaker powered over 40% of Switch eShop releases showing its strengths for indie 2D games.
- Extremely easy 2D game creation
- Massive drag and drop asset library
- Point-and-click interface ideal for beginners
- Affordable commercial licensing
- Primarily for simpler 2D games
- Limited 3D capabilities
- Eventually requires some coding
Other Notable Free Options
Here are two other free game engines worth mentioning:
GDevelop is an open source engine providing a completely free and accessible 2D game creator with visual scripting and no coding required. It‘s a great option for younger developers.
Key Factors When Choosing an Engine
When selecting which free game engine to invest your time into learning, here are some key factors to consider:
Coding vs Visual Scripting
Do you have experience with C# or C++? Or would you prefer a visual scripting system? Unity uses C# while Unreal relies on C++ but includes Blueprints visual scripting. Godot uses its own GDScript. GameMaker and Construct 3 are code-free.
2D vs 3D Capabilities
Some engines excel at 2D like GameMaker and Godot, while others like Unreal are built for cutting edge 3D. Unity works well across both. Make sure to choose an engine suited for the type of game you want to build. Engines focused on 3D also tend to require stronger hardware.
Community Size and Support
The quantity and quality of documentation, tutorials, forums and ready-to-use assets can greatly accelerate your learning. Unity and Unreal have massive built-in communities while Godot and GameMaker‘s are growing.
Consider what platforms you want to publish to. Most engines now support mobile, desktop, web, and consoles, but some handle cross-platform exporting better out of the box. Godot and GameMaker have web advantages.
Business Model and Licensing
While the core engines here are free, compare license terms if releasing commercially. For example, GameMaker requires a paid license for commercial publishing while Godot gives you full ownership.
Recommendations for Beginners
If you‘re just starting out, here are some top recommendations:
Unity is likely the best all-around choice for beginners with its versatile 2D/3D capabilities, huge learning resources and large asset store.
GameMaker Studio is great for getting into 2D game creation quickly and easily without needing to code.
Godot offers a nice open source alternative tailored for 2D games with some coding experience. Lightweight and customizable as you progress.
Unreal Engine brings triple-A graphics capabilities but has a high learning curve. Blueprint visual scripting helps ease the barriers.
Construct 3 is extremely accessible for quick 2D browser-based games with its visual editor and behaviors.
Ultimately there‘s no one-size-fits all solution that will be ideal for every genre and developer. Trying out a few engines can help you find the right fit for your goals and learning style. The great news is you can experiment risk-free with these completely free game engines, allowing you to turn your game ideas into reality without financial barriers.
Frequently Asked Questions
Does Unity take a cut of your game sales?
No, the core Unity engine is 100% free with no revenue sharing or royalties. You keep full ownership of your games. Revenue comes from their value-added services.
Can you publish commercial games with Godot?
Yes, Godot places no restrictions on what you can publish commercially and takes no revenue cut since it‘s open source. You retain ownership.
Is Unreal Engine free until you publish?
No, Unreal Engine is free to download, use, and publish games commercially with no royalties or licensing payments. Revenue sharing only kicks in after $1 million in gross revenue.
Does GameMaker take a percentage?
The free version of GameMaker is for non-commercial use only. Once you purchase a commercial license ($9.99/month+) there are no revenue sharing fees and you fully own your work.
Can you build 2D games with Unreal Engine?
Yes, while Unreal Engine is optimized for cutting-edge 3D, it has robust 2D capabilities as well via its Paper2D plugin and blueprint tools. Many excellent 2D games have been built in Unreal.
Starting game development as an indie developer or hobbyist is now more accessible than ever thanks to high quality free game engines like Unity, Unreal, Godot, GameMaker Studio and more. Each has their strengths depending on your goals and experience level.
For quick 2D game creation, Godot, GameMaker and Construct are great options to prototype ideas without coding. For polished 3D games, Unreal Engine brings AAA-quality tools. And for an excellent all-around starting point, Unity is hard to beat with its large asset store and smooth workflows.
The world of game development is now at your fingertips. Just download a free engine, start following tutorials, and let your creativity run wild to bring your game ideas to life! The supportive communities will help you learn along the way.
With persistence and passion, the next hit indie game could be made with a completely free game engine. The only limit is your imagination.