Before Halo and Call of Duty, before Half-Life and Goldeneye there was Doom, Quake, and Wolfenstein 3D. id Software made a name for themselves by defining an entirely new genre of game, the first-person shooter. Taking elements from classic vector-based combat games like Battlezone and injecting it with some incredibly advanced (for the time) technical work, legendary programmers John Carmack and John Romero defined modern gaming.
It wasn’t long before challengers arose though. Before id’s first decade was through, Mark Rein and Tim Sweeny released Unreal as the flagship title for Epic Games’ new Unreal Engine. The engine gave developers easy access to a complete development environment and directly rivaled the widely-used id Tech engine.
For the remainder of the late 90’s and the early 2000’s both Epic and id would battle relentlessly, enticing more and more developers to use their prefabricated studios rather than write their own from scratch. Other studios came and went their own way (Valve, 3D Realms) but the war raged on between the two.
Things started looking grim for id Software in late 2005. Microsoft had released the Xbox 360 and with it announced Gears of War as a flagship platform exclusive. The Unreal Engine 3 had already picked up a lot of traction amongst console developers for the breadth of genres it could produce (only 4 games designed with id Tech were not FPS), but the visual splendor of Gears of War left developers clamoring for more and the id Tech engine in the dust.
Fast-forward to the present and a large majority of modern games are developed using the Unreal Engine 3, almost 100 games using the most recent version alone with many more in development. id Software has slipped in to irrelevancy with only 6 games released on the current id Tech 4 engine and very few planned for the future.
A New Spark
All is not lost for id Software though. Recently purchased by Bethesda-parent ZeniMax Media the studio has received a new lease on life. With a new iteration of the id Tech engine under development, including support for iOS devices things are looking up.
Their first showcase piece, Rage HD has hit the iTunes App Store to tremendous success. With incredible visuals and the first solid example of an FPS on the iPhone, id Software is repeating the path that lead them to PC dominance, only this time in miniature.
Though, unlike the past iterations of the id Tech software, the engine will not be licensed out to other studios. ZeniMax is planning to keep the engine in-house for their own purposes. Using the tech only on games they publish could either attract a wealth of developer attention, or toss the engine in to obscurity once more. It’s a fine line to walk for ZeniMax and id, especially when they’re no longer the only big player out there.
An Old Challenger Approaches
Since Rage HD’s release Epic Games has responded with their own high definition iOS game. Infinity Blade, developed by the Epic-owned Chair Entertainment has shown gamers what the Unreal engine can do on mobile.
Offering an immersive fantasy-combat experience and visuals that rival early Xbox 360 games, Infinity Blade is a power-house showcase for the Unreal Engine 3 technology. With remarkable sales figures the game has proven that gamers are willing to pay for quality development on a mobile device, and Epic can expect plenty of developers interested in banking on that.
In To the Future
While it looks like the old battle between Epic and id is about to heat up once more there are some key differences between the graphics-war of the 90’s and today.
Gamers aren’t as interested in impressive graphics as they once were, the success of the Wii and casual gaming in general is testament to this. Games now sink or swim based on their gameplay, and no development suite can automatically inject good design.
The price of mobile gaming is also dropping, meaning developers no longer have the luxuries a $40 game’s budget would offer. These engines don’t guarantee sales success and cost a lot to develop for. Developers looking to make the next big mobile game have to work frugally during development and sell a lot of units to make back their investment. This could hinder the appeal of using id Tech or Unreal for a mobile game, and slow the overall progression of mobile graphics.
While these may sounds like fairly ostentatious setbacks the outlook for the future of high-performance mobile gaming is bright. Both id and Epic have proven that high-fidelity games can succeed on a mobile phone and with their success more will surely come. The only question remains, how long until one of these engines becomes the predominant leader?