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I'm currently in the process of developing a technology incubator in my region to cater to game development professionals and aspiring devs and I'm curious about what engines are best to use, with regards to flexible licensing (e.g. right now we're on a shoestring budget) and also performance/popularity and a solid community/company backing.

As my background is in web development my focus with this group is more of the management and logistics while other professionals will be on the board to handle the other aspects, but I'm still trying to pick a few solid engines.

Garry's Mod at the moment seems to be the most feasible option since I've used it a lot and I know it's simple to pick up, but I wanted to ask if there is anything similar to that.

Also, this group is purely for PC gaming so we're not handling consoles and we are ideally looking to do 2-D and 3-D development or even game engine coding.

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Garry's Mod isn't an engine at all, it's simply a modification to the Source Engine (which powers Half Life 2 and lots of other games from Valve). Garry's Mod is purely a sandbox game. –  thedaian Oct 12 '11 at 12:21
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I'm a little confused as to what you mean by incubator.

Are you talking about an incubator like Tech Stars or Y Combinator in which you bring in teams and help them with the development process? If that's the case, wouldn't the decision for which engine to use generally be left to the people running the individual projects?

You may decide to focus on Unity and UDK, sure. But what about when someone comes in wanting to make a purely 2D game, and they've already developed a large code base on top of something totally unfamiliar to you like SDL or Monocle. I'd say you'd be better served diving into a project using whatever tool makes sense at the time and building your general knowledge so that you can help future teams that come through.

The only other type of organization that I can think of as an incubator would be a sort of collective, where you work on projects and provide a way for people to come in and get experience working on a game. Then your concern about choosing an engine would make a little bit more sense. Even still, you would have to factor in the skills and professional goals of your first batch of team members.

What languages and libraries are your programmers familiar with? Do you have programmers? If you have all pixel artists then forget about UDK or Unity, look at something 2D like SDL, SFML, or even Flash with Flixel, FlashPunk, or the standard Flash graphics api. Since you say your background is in web development, maybe think about a design with multiplayer, or at least something that would require or benefit from storing player statistics in an online database so they could be publicly viewable through a web interface.

A group that I worked with initially started writing 2D games in C++ with SFML. Later we switched to as3 and Flixel to reduce development time. Then we decided to give XNA a shot since a lot of our artists were primarily 3d modelers and animators and wanted to be able to hone and showcase their skills in that area. Unfortunately that project ended up going nowhere because it was chaotically managed and blew up in scope. That's another thing to consider, you probably don't want to start off the bat with the kind of project that UDK would be useful for.

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Thanks very much for the info. A collective actually is a much better term to describe what we're doing since we're doing more of building teams and helping them achieve success rather than taking existing startups and pumping in money/resources to help them reach the next level. Also thanks very much for the thorough detail! Very helpful for my research. –  theonlylos Oct 14 '11 at 14:53
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I think you will learn the most by doing it from the ground up.

Now having said that having an engine or two to start poking around with does not seem like it to be too bad of an idea either.

Unity seems to be a popular engine as of let. I have not used it myself but the licensing seems fair and the deployment range, though not of interest to you right now, is always a possibility later on down the road.

I would also recommend looking at the Unreal and CryTek engines. To release a full game on them I think is very expensive, but they are free to play around and mod with and for PC game engines, I think it safe to say they are top of the line.

In and around wanting to learn, I can recommend previous ID Tech engines. ID Software has released full source code to many of their previous engines (Under GPL licensing for the most part I believe). I am currently unable to produce direct links to the different engines as their FTP site (ftp.idsoftware.com) where they reside seems non-responsive. Various links can be found on their website however at www.idsoftware.com.

Good luck and I hope this helps.

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Thanks very much for the info. As it turns out, my business partner has been focused on Unity and Unreal from day one -- and we're planning to work with a couple of local universities to help hone the educational foundation -- but overall all the info you provided is an excellent springboard. –  theonlylos Oct 12 '11 at 2:50
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