What are... game engines?

A monthly tech explainer series about the technology shaping our world today, from the Garage.

By Jeff Wise — December 13, 2022

When the video game “Bright Memory: Infinite” came out this year, reviewers were blown away by the first-person action game’s “satisfying punchy combat” and “top notch visuals.” By any accounts, its creators had pulled off a winner — but what was more impressive was that the game wasn’t made by a team of developers, but by a single software engineer, Zeng Xiancheng, working alone.

It was a testament to the power of a type of software framework called a game engine, a common chassis that underlies a whole family of video games in much the same way a common automobile chassis is used in a family of vehicles. This prepackaged suite of capabilities allows developers to create detailed environments much more easily than would otherwise be possible. It’s a huge business, worth $2.4 billion a year in the US alone.

Eric Chow

How it works

Game engines work under the hood, carrying out the main functions needed to bring a game’s world to life. Major components include a rendering engine to create the visual environment, a physics engine to calculate how the characters and the parts of the environment will interact with one another, and the main game program, which carries out the logic of the game itself.


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The a-ha moment

In the early days of video games, consoles and computers had very limited memory and computing power, so game developers had to craft each game from beginning to end to maximize performance. As machines became more powerful, the software didn’t need to be so efficient, and that allowed developers to recycle components into other games. First-person shooter games like “Doom” (1993) and “Unreal” (1998) were so impressive for their time that other developers were keen to repurpose the underlying software.

What it means for everyday life

Modern game engines make it easier to build a game from scratch, in some cases with minimal coding skills and with normal consumer-grade computers. For industry heavy-hitters, they enable them to build expansive blockbusters worth billions with smaller development teams. Two of the most popular are the Unity engine, which emphasizes ease-of-use in order to be used as widely as possible, and the Unreal engine, which powers the mega-hit “Fortnite.” Many engines are free, either open-sourced or have a “freemium” model, and widely available for download.

How it might change the world

Not only will game engines help bring more games to market, they’re not even just for games anymore. Hollywood directors are using them to spin backdrops from pure imagination for TV shows like The Mandalorian and films like The Lion King. Architecture firms use them to show clients more vividly what a proposed project will look and feel like. And as the metaverse grows, game engines will be right there with it, adding lifelike details and realistic physics to the virtual world. In the years to come, our digital environment will become ever more immersive, more engaging, and realer than real — and to a large extent it will be game engines that we’ll have to thank for it.

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