Do you have an idea for a game that’s been brewing for years? What if you could bring that idea to life, even without any game development experience? These days, anyone can make a video game with the right software and a bit of know-how.
Of course, that doesn’t mean game development is easy. Even a simple game like Flappy Bird or Tetris requires effort if you want it to look and feel good. But thanks to free game development software tools, a game that once might’ve taken a year to make can now be made in months or days—sometimes even without any code!
Here are the best free game development tools and software you can use to start making your dream game today.
Note: This list is ordered from least complex to most complex. The simpler free game development tools are easier to pick up, but have more limitations. As you go down the list, you’ll gain more flexibility but steeper learning curves.
1. Construct 3
No programming needed. Construct 3 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.
Create once, publish everywhere. The beauty of Construct 3 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, Android, iOS, Windows, Mac, Linux, Xbox One, Microsoft Store, and more.
Lots of documentation. Construct 3 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 3 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 25 events, 2 object layers, 2 simultaneous special effects, 1 web font, no multiplayer functionality, can only export to HTML5, and no permission to sell your games. The Personal license is $99/year and lifts all of these restrictions.
Download: Construct 3
2. GameMaker Studio 2
Drag-and-drop OR code. Like Construct 3, GameMaker Studio 2 allows you to create entire games using nothing more than its drag-and-drop interface for variables and game logic. But unlike Construct 3, GameMaker Studio 2 grants more power through its Game Maker 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: Windows, Mac, Linux, HTML5, Android, iOS, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and more. The free version unfortunately doesn’t allow exporting to any platforms.
Long history. GameMaker Studio 2 is a rewritten-from-scratch version of Game Maker: Studio, which started way back in 1999. Today, it’s one of the most popular and active free game development engines currently available. New versions with feature updates are released at regular intervals.
Built-in advanced features. GameMaker Studio 2 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 has limitations on how complex your games can be. The Creator plan costs $39/year and allows exporting to Windows and Mac. Or you can unlock individual exports each with a one-time permanent purchase: Desktop for $99, HTML5 for $149, Amazon Fire for $149, and Android/iOS for $399. Exports for Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One are available for $799/year each.
Download: GameMaker Studio 2
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 need to use C#. The good news is that Unity is so widely used—among hobbyist and veteran game developers alike—that you’ll find thousands of tutorials all across the web to help get you started. Unity itself also has numerous in-depth video series for newbies, and the provided documentation is excellent.
Interested in the coding aspect? Check out our introduction to Unity.
Create once, publish everywhere. Unity has the widest export support of any game engine: Windows, Mac, Linux, Android, iOS, HTML5, Facebook, all kinds of VR systems like Oculus Rift and Steam VR, as well as several gaming consoles like PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Wii U, and Nintendo 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 acquire all of this and more on the Unity Asset Store, many of which are available for free.
Pricing. The Personal plan is completely free and doesn’t restrict any engine features, as long as you earn less than $100,000 in annual revenue from your games. The Plus plan is necessary up to $200,000 in annual revenue, and also unlocks the coveted “dark theme” for the editor. After that, you’ll need the Pro plan, which allows for unlimited revenue.
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. In Godot, 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! (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. 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, 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, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Oculus VR, and more.
Pricing. As a free user, you get access to the entire engine (including source code). You only need to pay a 5% royalty on all revenues after the first $3,000 earned every quarter per game. In other words, you only start paying when your game succeeds.
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:
- Defold (like a lightweight version of Unity, except using Lua rather than C#)
- Cerberus X (great for creating 2D games, using a custom programming language)
- Stencyl (very similar to Construct 3 in that it’s drag-and-drop only)
- GDevelop (also drag-and-drop but not quite matured yet)
If you want to get serious about game development, you should really learn some programming. We recommend getting started with these fun programming games to build your skills and learn about how much money game programmers can earn.
Image Credit: Radachynskyi Serhii/Shutterstock
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