Although my friend and I are not interested in game development, we like creating tools. We would really like to give life to our own game engine, however, we don't want to put effort into something useless. Develop something what can be used by smaller or "medium-sized" companies. It's not about the most modern graphics and technologies. Something like WoW's engine 10 years ago or GTA III's would be a dream.

So, is it possible that 2 (assuming) experienced programmers can create something like that?

  • \$\begingroup\$ There's another tired clone of just about every tired genre coming out of Unity every few minutes. Until quality resumes prevalence over quantity, you might just consider building prefabs and content for Unity ("tools"). \$\endgroup\$ – Jon Mar 20 '16 at 20:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ Reopen requests should be justified in the comments, or be implicitly defined by an edit to the question... \$\endgroup\$ – Vaillancourt Mar 21 '16 at 9:17

Although my friend and I are not interested in game development [...].

You have your answer: don't do it.

To build a game engine, you have to know how to create games. And you'll have to create games with your engine to prove that it can work well (in a single genre or in many genres, as @Philipp mentions in his answer) and display what cool stuff you can achieve with it. You'll not only have to be interested in it, you'll have to be passionate about it.

Thus the logical conclusion is: chose another type of project.

On a broader side of the answer, if you're interested in tool development, however, there are a couple of paths you could explore:

  • create an external tool that fills a need (like Tiled, a map editor for 2d games)
  • create a plug-in for an already existing engine that adds features to it (e.g. an AI module for Unity)
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To estimate the market potential of your engine, you might want to look at what else there is on the market. When you are going for a general-purpose game engine, then you will be competing with engines like Unity, Cryengine or Unreal Engine which are all available in a price range which is very affordable to the target demographic you mentioned.

Don't take it personal, but I doubt that a two-person team could create anything which can compete on that market.

When you say "Well, these are 3d engines, let's do something simpler and stick to 2d" (relevant again due to the smartphone gaming boom): That market is covered as well. There are Clickteam Fusion and Game Maker for example.

However, what could work is when you create an engine designed for a very specific game genre. There is, for example, RPGMaker which is a game engine especially made for creating 2d JRPG's. It is a far less ambitious project than a general purpose engine, but still has a large userbase because the one thing it does, it does extremely well (and that for over 20 years now).

When you find a different genre without a specialized engine yet, then you might find a market niche which you can fill even with just a two-person team.

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