2020’s Popular C++ Game Engines for 3D Game Development

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Speed is the main advantage C++ can offer you. When developers discover an application was implemented in this language, they immediately know the thing runs fast. So when game engine creators say their product’s foundational code is C++, expect the engine to give you a smooth game development experience.

But First, What Is C++? 

C++ is a middle-level programming language developed decades ago by Bjarne Stroustrup. It’s an old language, introduced at a time when computers were still in their early stages. It’s no wonder, then, that many systems and frameworks have this language at their core. And what makes people continue using it until today is it’s readable on almost any machine. This applies to any software, including game engines. 

In this article, we want to introduce you to this year’s most popular C++ game engines, all of which are accessible to interested game enthusiasts and seasoned game developers alike.

Image credits to Unsplash

Unreal

What is the C++ Game Engine Unreal?

Unreal is a free, multi-platform game engine that can build 3D and 2D games. It allows game developers to choose between two licenses, which determine the royalties involved in their use of the game engine. Those who intend to publish their Unreal-based project for mass consumption will have to surrender 5% of their royalty fees. 

Epic Games, the developer behind the game engine, created Unreal to develop the engine’s first-ever eponymous shooter game. From there, Unreal branched out to different game styles, such as platformers and action RPGs. Developers have praised Unreal for its “visually stunning, high-quality” graphics. So when it comes to truly immersive gaming experiences, Unreal is the game engine to beat.

Top Features

Everyone knows Unreal as the game engine that renders highly sophisticated and superior graphics. If your goal is to make your game as hyperrealistic and cinematic as it can be, then Unreal is the perfect engine for you. Below are only a fraction of the features that make Unreal a stunning feat by Epic Games.

  • Unreal Editor
  • Cascade Particle Systems
  • Chaos Destruction

The Unreal Editor comprises four basic elements: the level editor, the viewports, the layout customization toolset, and the in-editor testing. The level editor primarily manipulates your game’s scenes. It’s the area where you drag and drop game assets (or “Actors”) into your game’s 3D environment. 

Unreal’s viewports allow developers to view a game’s scenes through different lenses. It contains tools to help developers visualize a game environment in 3D or skeletal 2D. Viewports also give Unreal users the option to look at a scene in other modes, such as the lit, unlit, and wireframe view modes. 

Layout customization lets game developers manipulate the engine’s user interface. And the in-editor testing shows the preview of a game while it’s in production.

Cascade Particle Systems is a particle system editor in Unreal, which basically means it manipulates the visual effects of your game. It provides game developers with an intuitive environment to influence particles’ behavior and properties, some of which concern the particles’ size, color, and movement. Niagara Visual Effects is another tool in Unreal that can execute similar functions. 

And lastly, Chaos Destruction, or simply Chaos, is a tool that mimics the physics of real-life destruction. It aims to bring destruction in a game to a cinematic level. However, in order to access this feature, developers must enable and compile it in Unreal Engine 4.23 first.

Notable Games

  • Final Fantasy VII Remake
  • The Pathless
  • Life Is Strange
Image credits to Unsplash

Panda3D 

What is the C++ Game Engine Panda3D?

Many people associate Disney with different animals, particularly with mice, ducks, and dogs. But little do they know pandas should also form part of the Disney crew because over two decades ago, Disney made Panda3D so they can run 3D experiments for the “happiest place on earth”. 

Panda3D is a free, open-source, cross-platform engine built over two decades ago. It aimed to enhance Disney’s 3D output and create its downloadable games. Today, Panda3D is a general-purpose engine that can produce anything in the realm of 3D. And this includes video games. Its framework is in C++, which developers can also use for programming games. Other languages developers use for scripting in Panda3D are C and Python, the latter being the main scripting language.

Top Features

Panda3D might not be the first game engine that comes to mind for many companies because it’s time-consuming. Its environment doesn’t allow you to drag and drop game assets, and you have to be an advanced programmer to use the engine properly. But the good news is game developers have complete freedom over how they want their game to look and act. Plus, it has several features and extensions that make game development easier:

  • Render Pipeline extension
  • Scene Graph 
  • Incredible libraries and community support 

Panda3D’s Render Pipeline is a graphics-enhancing extension. It lets Panda3D developers execute deferred rendering, where rendering happens after all the objects have been fully formed, and physically-based rendering, a process that makes 3D objects appear more realistic through proper lighting. Another time-saving feature in the engine is the scene graph. It’s a collection of nodes arranged in a tree structure to facilitate and organize the assignment of commands. In Panda3D, you have access to nodes for lighting, camera lens, and 3D models. And of course, you can cut development time short with libraries and the comprehensive and timely support from Panda3D’s community. 

Notable Games

  • ToonTown
  • A Vampyre Story
  • Ghost Pirates of Vooju Island
Image credits to Pixabay

Urho3D

What is the C++ Game Engine Urho3D?

Urho3D is a free and open-source cross-platform game engine capable of rendering 3D and 2D games. It was released under the MIT license, which means game developers have free rein over their Urho3D output, including its publishing and commercial distribution. Originally called Bofh3D, this C++ game engine was eventually named Urho, meaning “hero” in Finnish, to commemorate a legendary and tyrannical fish king, which died in 2009. Coincidentally, former Finnish President Urho Kekkonen was known to love fishing. Also notable is the fact that the game engine was inspired by two other engines, namely Horde3D and OGRE.

Top Features

Developers can code games with a good list of languages in Urho3D. These languages are C++, AngelScript, and Lua. Apart from having easy programming languages at their disposal, developers can also access many other features in Urho3D to create high-quality, realistic 3D graphics with little effort. Some of these features are:

  • Inverse Kinematics
  • Physically-based Rendering
  • Geometrical Mipmapping

Inverse kinematics gives developers a wider range of movement. With this feature, game developers are able to create movement relative to the end effector, the point where animation is manipulated. For example, a game character needs to pick up an object. Developers will use the hand, which is the end effector, to govern the arm’s movement. From there, the hand will be able to accurately calculate the movement and distance it needs to pick up the object, resulting in animation that appears more natural and fluid.

Geometrical mipmapping (geomipmapping), on the other hand, is an efficient and speedy approach to rendering a game’s terrain. This method was first developed in 2000 by Willem de Boer, who discussed the technique at length in Fast Terrain Rendering Using Geometrical MipMapping. What geomipmapping essentially does is lower the resolution of terrain blocks that are far from the game’s camera, thereby cutting down load time and improving users’ experience with your game. 

Notable Games

  • Infested
  • Hellbreaker
Image credits to Pexels

Spring Engine

What is the C++ Game Engine Spring Engine?

Initially released in April 2005, Spring Engine (formerly known as TA Spring) is a free, open-source, cross-platform 3D game engine that generally builds real-time strategy (RTS) games. It’s under the GPL license, which means you have complete freedom and control over your output’s distribution. Stefan Johansson, Jelmer Cnossen, Tomaz Kunaver, and other members of the Swedish Yankspankers developed Spring with the goal of enhancing the engine that made Total Annihilation, an iconic RTS game. Presently, the engine is maintained and improved by its growing community.

Top Features

Being an RTS game engine, Spring places importance on landscapes and gamer control. The game’s landscape is formed through map development, where players interact. And players experience the game’s features smoothly with an intuitive user interface. How does Spring achieve this? With extensive map development tools and a graphical user interface (GUI) framework made specifically for the game engine.

Spring’s map design tools let game developers create highly-textured terrain. These tools flesh out the environment’s details, such as its lighting, bodies of water, and any expanse within the game environment. Spring’s class-based GUI framework Chili aims to help developers easily build GUIs with great flexibility.

Notable Games

  • Zero-K 
  • Kernel Panic 

Special Mention to the Following C++ Game Engines

  • CryEngine
  • Godot

Learn about CryEngine and Godot on our blog post The Top 4 C# Game Engines of 2020 You Should Check Out!

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Justine Jordan

Justine Jordan is a content and copy writer. She has written for a popular business daily in the Philippines and for various startups across the globe before transitioning to work for NarraSoft. She graduated cum laude from the University of the Philippines-Diliman with a bachelor's degree in journalism.