Do you have an idea for a game that’s been brewing in your mind for years? What if I told you that you could make that idea come to life, even if you have no game development experience? These days, anyone can make a video game with a bit of elbow grease and perseverance.
Of course, that doesn’t mean game development is easy. Not by a long shot. Even something as simplistic as Flappy Bird or Tetris can take a lot of time and effort to make it look and feel good. But thanks to free game development software tools, a game that might’ve required one year can now be made in six months or faster — sometimes without any code!
Note that this list is ordered by least complex to most complex. The simpler free game development tools are easier to pick up but have limitations. As you go down the list, you gain more flexibility at the cost of a greater learning curve.
1. Construct 2
No programming needed. Construct 2 is the best option if you’ve never written a line of code in your life. This game development tool is completely GUI-driven, meaning everything is drag-and-drop. Game logic and variables are implemented using the design features provided by the app itself. Unfortunately, coding is unavailable even if you want to write code.
Create once, publish everywhere. The beauty of Construct 2 is that it can export to dozens of different platforms and formats, and you don’t have to change a single thing in you game to accommodate these various options. Once your game is done, you can export to HTML5, Windows Store, Chrome Web Store, or Facebook. With a paid copy, you can also export to Android, iOS, Windows, Mac, Linux, and more.
Lots of documentation. Construct 2 has some of the best and most comprehensive documentation I’ve ever seen for a game development tool. In addition, there are hundreds of tutorials that will help you understand concepts from basic to advanced, and the forum community is extremely active if you ever need assistance.
Asset Store. Most programmers have no skills in art, music, or animations. But that’s fine with Construct 2 because you can always browse and purchase ready-made assets from the Scirra Store. Most asset packs are just a few dollars, but the professional-grade stuff can price at $30 or beyond. You can also buy sample games with source, which can be helpful for studying and learning new tips and tricks.
Pricing. The free version has all of the core features but is limited to 100 events, 4 object layers, 2 simultaneous special effects, access to only a small portion of the included sample assets, and no permission to sell your games. The Personal license is $130 and lifts all of these restrictions.
Download — Construct 2
2. Game Maker: Studio
Drag-and-drop OR code. Like Construct 2, GM:S allows you to create entire games using nothing more than its drag-and-drop interface for variables and game logic. But unlike Construct 2, GM:S grants more power through its GameMaker Language, which is a C-like scripting language with a lot of flexibility.
Create once, publish everywhere. Once your game is done, you can export to any number of platforms and formats without having to adjust your code. The free version only allows Windows export while the Professional version can export to other platforms (like Android, iOS, and HTML5) using modules that must be purchased separately.
Long history. GM:S has been around since 1999, and it’s still more active than most other free game development engines out there. New versions with feature updates are released at regular intervals, and there’s even a brand new version called Game Maker Studio 2 in the works, which is being rewritte from scratch with even more power in mind.
Built-in advanced features. GM:S is great because it supports a lot of interesting quality-of-life features right out of the box, such as the ability to add in-app purchases to your game, real-time analytics on how users play your game, source control, multiplayer networking, and extensibility through third-party extensions. It also has built-in editors for images, animations, and shaders.
Pricing. The free version can be used indefinitely, but GM:S is a bit pricey otherwise. The Professional version costs $150 with export modules for Mac, Ubuntu, Android, iOS, and HTML costing $100, $100, $300, $300, and $200, respectively. Or you can get the Master version, which comes with ALL export modules for $800 (a savings of at least $350).
Download — Game Maker: Studio
Supports 2D and 3D. Unity started off as a 3D engine, but eventually added official 2D support in 2013. Although it’s perfectly capable of creating 2D games, you may run into the occasional bug or glitch because Unity’s 2D system is actually tacked onto its core 3D system. This also means that Unity adds a lot of unnecessary bloat to 2D games, which could affect performance.
Component-based design. Unity didn’t come up with component-entity design, but it had a huge hand in popularizing it. In short, everything in the game is an object and you can attach various components to each object, where each component controls some aspect of the object’s behavior and logic.
Widespread usage and documentation. To make the most of Unity, you’ll want to use C#. The good news is that Unity is so widely used — among hobbyists and industry veterans alike — that you’ll find thousands of tutorials all across the web to get you started. Unity itself also has an in-depth video series for newbies, and the provided documentation is excellent.
If you’re interested in the coding aspect, we recommend checking out our introduction to Unity.
Create once, publish everywhere. Unity has the widest export support of any game engine: Windows, Mac, Linux, Android, iOS, WebGL, Facebook, all kinds of VR systems like Oculus Rift and Steam VR, as well as several gaming consoles like PS4, XB1, Wii U, and Switch.
Asset store. Want a minimap system in your game? Or how about a commercial-grade networking solution? Maybe you need 3D models, HUD graphics, and environmental textures? Or even a dialog system for your action-adventure RPG? You can buy all of this and more on the Unity Asset Store, many of which are available for free.
Pricing. The free version has no engine restrictions and can be used royalty-free as long as your revenues stay under $100,000 per year. A Plus plan ($35 per month) unlocks some advanced editor features and increases the revenue limit to $200,000 per year. A Pro plan ($125 per month) grants access to the Unity source code and allows unlimited revenue.
Download — Unity
4. Godot Engine
Supports 2D and 3D. Like Unity, Godot supports the creation of both 2D and 3D games. Unlike Unity, however, Godot’s support is far better. The 2D aspect of the engine was carefully designed from the start, which means better performance, fewer bugs, and a cleaner overall workflow.
Scene-based design. Godot’s approach to game architecture is unique in that everything is divided into scenes — but not the kind of scene you’re thinking of. A scene is a collection of elements like sprites, sounds, and/or scripts. You can then combine multiple scenes into a bigger scene, and then those scenes into even bigger scenes. This hierarchical design approach makes it very easy to stay organized and modify individual elements whenever you want.
Custom scripting language. Godot uses a drag-and-drop system for maintaining scene elements, but each of those elements can be extended through the built-in scripting system, which uses a custom Python-like language called GDScript. It’s easy to learn and fun to use, so you should give it a try even if you have no coding experience.
Create once, publish everywhere. Godot can deploy to multiple platforms right out of the box, including Windows, Mac, Linux, Android, iOS, and HTML5. No extra purchases or licenses necessary, though some restrictions may apply (like needing to be on a Mac system to deploy a Mac binary).
Built-in advanced features. Godot iterates surprisingly quickly for a game engine. There is at least one major release every year, which explains how it has so many great features already: physics, post-processing, networking, all kinds of built-in editors, live debugging and hot reload, source control, and more.
Free and open source. Godot is the only tool on this list that’s actually free through and through. Because it’s licensed under the MIT License, you can use it however you want and sell the games you make without any restrictions. You can even download the engine’s source code and modify it to your heart’s desire if you so wish. (The engine is coded in C++.)
Download — Godot Engine
5. Unreal Engine 4
Developed by industry masters. Of all the tools on this list, UE4 is the most professional. It was created from scratch by the geniuses behind the Unreal franchise — people who know what’s needed in a top-shelf engine and what it takes to deliver next-generation features. Suffice it to say, they know exactly what they’re doing.
Cutting-edge engine features. One of UE4’s driving principles is allowing you to iterate and develop as quickly as you can, so you get features like live debugging, hot reloading, a streamlined asset pipeline, instant game previews, plus hundreds of included assets and systems like artificial intelligence, terrain, cinematic tools, post-processing effects, and more.
No code necessary. The unique selling point of UE4 is its Blueprint system, which lets you create game logic without touching any code. It’s advanced enough that you can create entire games, even complex ones, without ever opening a source editor. But if you want to code your own Blueprints, you can do that too.
The best tutorials on the planet. The UE4 YouTube Channel has over 800 videos that take you through every inch of the engine, and most of those videos are between 20 and 60 minutes long. That’s more content than you’d get from a semester-long course at university. If you need step-by-step guidance, UE4 has you covered.
Create once, publish everywhere. Starting to see a pattern here? All of the best engines allow seamless exporting to multiple platforms, and UE4 is no exception: Windows, Mac, Linux, Android, iOS, HTML5, PS4, XB1, and more.
Pricing. As a free user, you get access to the entire engine (including source code). Once you earn more than $3,000 in a quarter, you pay a 5% royalty on gross revenue beyond the threshold. You only start paying when your game succeeds. How awesome is that?
Download — Unreal Engine 4
Other Notable Free Game Development Software
There are a handful of other game development tools that didn’t quite make the cut for Top 5 but are still worth checking out, especially if the ones listed above are too complex or simply aren’t what you’re looking for.
Which free game development software tool is most appealing to you? Are there any others that we missed? What kind of games are you itching to make? Share with us down in the comments!
Originally written by Joel Lee on Feb 10th, 2010.