If you play video games, you've probably seen the effects of Autodesk's work. Autodesk owns the Maya and 3ds Max modeling software, the Scaleform rendering engine, and a variety of animation and texture-making tools. But the meat of the game will (usually) be made in an engine like Unity or Unreal, both of which have spent years courting developers with low prices and approachable tools. On August 19th, though, they'll see a new competitor: Autodesk's own engine, called Stingray.
Stingray was first announced in March, but it's technically existed for several years as an engine called Bitsquid, which Autodesk acquired in 2014. Bitsquid is behind, among a handful of other games, chaotic cooperative shooter Helldivers. The core of Bitsquid, says Autodesk's head of games Frank Delise, isn't changing much. But among other things, it's using a different interface and is more tightly integrated with the rest of Autodesk's design tools. "We really liked that the engine was separated from the user interface, so we can make very user-specific versions of the technology," says Delise. It's hard to tell exactly how good Stingray games will look — the major test for any engine — but the screenshots don't look too bad.
AUTODESK BOUGHT THE COMPANY THAT MADE ITS ENGINE LAST YEAR
The theory is that while it may not be easy to learn the finer workings of Stingray, anyone on a game development team — like an artist, animator, or texture designer — should be able to preview their work simply and in near-real time, especially when Autodesk owns every step of the process. Make or modify a character in Maya, for example, and it can (in a controlled demo, at least) show up almost instantly in the Stingray editor. There's also a visual, drag-and-drop programming tool to perform simple tasks without learning the Lua scripting language that Stingray uses.
"If you're a AAA developer, what you do is buy 3D tools, and then buy other tools that you need or make them in-house, and then you either buy a game engine or you build your own engine, and then you get your teams to customize this massive pipeline around it," says Adams. "What we're trying to do is create more of that out of the box." Autodesk is also promoting the Creative Market, which it acquired last year, as a place for developers to buy and sell models or other game assets.
"FREE IS ALWAYS SUCH A WEIRD THING."
One of the most obvious differences between Stingray and its competition is that the general public can't get it for free. Like its other products, Autodesk sells subscriptions to Stingray; it costs $30 a month for "basic" support, with discounts for longer commitments and a free option for students. Unity, by contrast, offers its basic editor and engine for free, with a $75 monthly subscription for team licenses and additional features. Epic charges a 5 percent royalty for Unreal Engine 4 games that make more than $3,000 per quarter. "Free is always such a weird thing. I like this way because it's more basic," says Adams. "You don't have to worry about suddenly owing a whole lot of money to somebody else once your game takes off." He notes that Stingray will be included with a subscription to the lightweight Maya LT later this year. This still aims it at developers that are closer to the professional side of things, not people learning how to make games for the first time.
Easy access to engines like Unity helped make high-gloss game design accessible to more developers, lowering the bar of entry for our current boom of indie and mobile games. The actual staying power of Stingray has yet to be seen, but if nothing else, it's introducing more competition into the field.