The importance of introducing game engines to students

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We know video game engines for the games built upon them. The all-conquering battle royale Fortnite, like so many others, is an Unreal Engine game. Blizzard’s hugely-popular virtual card game Hearthstone was built using Unity. The Chinese Room’s wonderful story-based adventure Everybody’s Gone To The Rapture was created using CryEngine. And the stylish Hotline Miami was developed using GameMaker. All brilliant games, all built upon a solid foundation provided by a game engine.

But there’s more to game engines than video games. They are now used in a wide variety of industries, from architecture and construction simulations to automotive industrial simulations, from film and media to education, environment, digital health and wellbeing. All these industries use the power of game engines to solve challenging problems and to drive both their business and its social impact forward. Game engine expertise was already a sought after skill before the pandemic hit. Now it’s more important than ever ­– not just for the video game industry, but for all industries.

To that end, high-profile video game engine makers engage with educational institutions across the world to help teachers and students alike learn their tools. The likes of Unreal Engine maker Epic Games, Unity, CryEngine maker Crytek and GameMaker’s YoYo Games all play a crucial role in education, with teams of people working with teachers and students to create detailed courses and, in some cases, provide meaningful cash investment. For these companies, it is money well spent.

“The fact of the matter is, there aren't enough people who are skilled enough to fulfil the industry's demands,” says Mark Flanagan, EMEA Education Partner Manager for Epic Games. “We wanted to try and help that happen.”

Part of Flanagan’s job involves speaking with UK universities, letting them know Epic is available to help. The company provides pre-made material and assets via a popular educational portal. Housed here are educator’s guides to learning Unreal – a curriculum, more or less, for 12 weeks. And you can see why it would be useful – there are 7.7 million lines of C++ in the Unreal Engine, sorted into 73,000 files.

Most of these guides include PowerPoints, exercises, notes, and quizzes. All have the goal of helping students get started with Unreal. And, helpfully, all the material is open source under the MIT licensing system, which means students can copy it, change it and distribute it. 

“Absolutely everything we do for education is free,” Flanagan says.

One Epic-provided course worth highlighting teaches how to navigate large codebases – perfect for game engine work. This course delves deep into the structure of Unreal, insight the company is happy to spread across the world.

“The fact that at university you can see how a triple-A games engine actually works at a code level is huge, because a lot of other people don't let people see their source code,” Flanagan says. “We let you see it and we let you edit it, and you can contribute to it and, if it's something which is useful, it will potentially be built into future builds.”

Epic also runs summer and winter seminars. Here, the company invites its academic partners to online events in which the burning issues of game development are discussed. Epic’s academic partner program is designed for schools the company feels are doing particularly well with its tools. After something of a pause, Epic is now growing its network of partners, Flanagan says. 

“It's a case of application and then we'll look at the school. And quite often I'll speak to the people and just see, if they're not at the stage now where they can be academic partners, we'll try to help them over what they need to do to actually get there. It could be they may not have resources – we'll help with that.”

And then there’s the eye-catching Epic MegaGrants, a $100 million fund Epic boss Tim Sweeney founded to support those developing games, tools and educating with the Unreal Engine. The MegaGrants are made available to a surprisingly varied group, too, with grants issued to major scientific projects conducted by university researchers. Flanagan says it has even been used to help fund people doing their PhD.

The Epic MegaGrants tend not to support infrastructure and hardware, however – and with good reason. As Flanagan explains, money spent on hardware tends not to increase in value. Whereas money spent on knowledge or on the development of curriculum tends to increase in value.

Crucially, Epic does not require its grants be paid back. It’s a huge outlay, but it makes sense for Epic, which makes games, runs its own digital games store and provides online services as well as builds the Unreal Engine. 

“We want to make sure the games industry does well, not just the Unreal Engine,” Flanagan says.

Unity is another company that has for some time now invested heavily in education. It provides its professional licence, valued at almost $2,000, free to students and schools across the globe. Over 400,000 students were learning on Unity in 2020, and the majority of Unity professional creators learned to use the engine at their university or even their secondary school.

Unity then supports its professional licence by providing self-paced learning opportunities online, taking a beginner up to an entry-level professional. Additionally, the company has a number of partnerships with UK universities that are “pushing the envelope,” according to Jessica Lindl, Vice President of Social Impact at Unity. Imperial College London is one example, with Lindl adding: “They’ve taken some of Unity’s product offerings and looked at how to push things from a research perspective.”

But why is it so important to introduce game engines, as opposed to other aspects of video game development, to students?

The simple answer is the industry needs people skilled with game engines to survive. Lindl says the job demand for those who have game engine expertise “has just exploded.” Programmers are always coveted, adds Flanagan, with C++ most in-demand “because it's more performant.” Technical artists who are able to do scripting, are good with shaders and understand rigging “will always find work.” And Flanagan suggests course leaders encourage students along these lines, because “they're more or less guaranteed jobs.”

Of course, there’s more to game engines than simply learning programming. They’re the best playground for budding game designers, too.

“The engine is the tool by which you express your game design,” Flanagan says. “The best way to learn to be a game designer is to make games. You can learn a lot of very good principles of game design with pen and paper and with making board games – and some game design courses actually do that. But if you want to learn video game design, the best way to do it is to actually make them. And to make them you need to have some kind of structure on which you can build. Being able to use pre-existing engines means it's an awful lot easier.

“It's the equivalent of saying, we're going to teach filmmaking, but we don't have cameras. You can do acting and you can do an awful lot of the art and the scriptwriting, but they come together when you actually make the film. Game design, development, programming and art come together when you actually make games. Just make more games. The engine is the way in which you can actually see if your ideas work, and make something interactive quickly.”

Lindl says an added benefit of game engines is their ease of distribution and access. With a game engine, a student can publish their creation from the comfort of their bedroom to multiple devices on a global stage. Echoing Flanagan’s comments, Lindl describes a game engine as an innovative platform that “lets anybody’s story be told.”

The pandemic has affected us all in a variety of ways. Game developers were forced to move their productions to a work-from-home environment – not an easy task when you consider the complexity of some triple-A games and the challenges involved with keeping the hundreds, sometimes thousands of people who create them on-track. 

Similarly, Epic and Unity’s work with educators had to evolve. Seminars became webinars, real-world meetups shifted online via likes of Zoom. Unity saw a significant demand for upskilling and reskilling as the pandemic brought the service economy to its knees. A few weeks after the pandemic hit the Western world, Unity gave its premium learning offering, which it had charged for, away for free to meet this demand for reskilling. Now, Unity is committing to keeping all 350-plus hours of courseware accessible in perpetuity.

Unity also launched Learning Pathways as a response to the pandemic. Focused on those not privileged enough to have access to a university or able to pay for university, Unity’s Learning Pathways help a student go from having no technical skills to having enough technical skills to move into an entry level junior programmer position on a Unity platform – all in just six months. This is a free service, and Lindl insists it will remain free, with the goal of equipping more than 80,000 people with the skills they need to advance a career with Unity over the next three years.

Away from game engine makers themselves, UK university organisations are encouraging students to dabble with game engines. 

National Student Esports (NSE), the official body of university esports in the UK, with Barclays sponsorship, is running a new Games Innovation Challenge that encourages students to get involved with engine work. This challenge tasks UK students to create an innovative game in-line with the theme of competition. Submissions will be judged by a panel of industry experts with a prize pool of £5,000 for the best entries. 

“It could be Pong,” Sam Hibbert, head of partnerships at NSE, explains. “It could be an arena shooter. It literally could be anything. It's anything from games like Flash games all the way through to really well thought-out and detailed Unreal Engine games. We will be looking out for games that have a unique twist – something that maybe hasn't been seen before, and ones that can be played competitively.”

The goal of the Games Innovation Challenge, Hibbert says, is to help game design students think outside the box, gain some game engine experience and to receive valuable feedback from industry experts. The hope is the challenge becomes an annual opportunity, maybe even a staple within the students esports and game design calendar – and an eye-catching line on a CV.

The Games Innovation Challenge is yet another example of the good work being done with UK students to introduce them to game engines, work that is more essential now than ever before.

“The raw material of the games industry is people,” Epic’s Flanagan says. “We're here to help provide you with your colleagues of the future. Without having more people in the industry then we don't do well, the industry doesn't do well, the students don't do well, and the universities don't do well. We have the ability to help.”

Lindl says Unity considers technology literacy to be just as important as maths literacy or language literacy. “It’s really a critical foundational skill for any career in the 21st century, not just a programming career,” she says.

Game engines in this context are the perfect gateway to this technical literacy for students of all disciplines. After all, almost every young person in the world has grown up playing video games. Beneath their technical jargon, game engines have a familiarity just bursting to be unearthed.

This sense of game engines breaking down barriers extends beyond games themselves. “Software is eating the world,” engineer Marc Andreessen famously wrote nine years ago. This is the idea that software is embedded within every industry. Unity sees game engines in the same way, Lindl tells us. 

“It’s not just, what’s the game industry going to do?” she concludes. “But how can the power of real-time 3D impact every single industry we’re a part of for more positive change?”

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