Game Engines: Design, Labour, and Legality

Insight into the software toolsets and proprietary frameworks that enable video game content to be produced and published. Investigating their impact on creative design, labour, and legality.

Australia’s $3billion videogame industry is entirely dependent on technologies known as ‘game engines.’ This will be the first major research project to investigate their impact on creative design, labour, and legality.

This interdisciplinary project will build on an existing NSI / Melbourne Law School seed funding grant — which explores the Unity game engine — by investigating the impact of ‘game engines’ more broadly and through a more in-depth ethnographic methodology. It aims to understand the wider impact of game engines on creative design, labour, and legality in the Australian videogame industry.

Games engines are code frameworks, software toolsets, and proprietary structures that enable real-time interaction content (such as videogame software) to be produced and published on a variety of ‘platforms’ such as consoles, smartphones, and VR devices. Game engines manage low-level computational routines such as rendering, physics, and artificial intelligence, thereby allowing designers, programmers, and artists to streamline their software development processes and workflows.

Game engines such as ‘Unity’ and ‘Unreal’ comprise a significant yet largely under-examined pillar of the current videogame industry. Unity, for example, is deployed as much by large-scale companies and boutique ‘independent’ studios as it is by students, amateurs, and game design educators. As the dominant engine in this emerging industry, Unity is often associated with a broader ‘democratization’ of game development, in that it makes game design tools more accessible to a wider range of users. To this end, Unity adopts a ‘platform-based’ business model: it provides its basic for free, and even allows users to freely publish Unity-developed games and applications, but requires royalties once a Unity-developed product surpasses an annual budget of $100,000 USD.

It would not be an overstatement to say that game engines have completely reconfigured the landscape of creative design, labour, and legality in the global game industry. The large majority of emerging and established game design studios utilize third-party engines to structure their development processes and workflows. Furthermore, game engines are now being used for many non-videogame applications, such as, for example, data visualizations in architectural, archaeological, and medical contexts. However, the implications of these developments are poorly understood.

Therefore, the key question of this project is: to what extent are game engines transforming networks of production in both the Australian game industry and beyond?

To answer this question, this project will conduct embedded ethnographic fieldwork at ‘the Arcade’, a collaborative working space created specifically for game developers and creative companies who are using game methodologies and technologies. The Arcade covers 550 square metres of floor space in Melbourne’s Southbank and is home to several of Australia’s most successful videogame companies. It includes not only game design studios, but also animation, marketing, and publishing companies. The Australian representatives for Unity and Unreal (John Sietsma and Chris Murphy, respectively) are based at the Arcade, as is Antony Reed, the president of the Game Developers Association of Australia. John, Chris, and Antony are participating as external collaborators on this project, and have agreed to provide Dr Benjamin Nicoll with advice, contacts (in both the videogame industry and in enterprise), as well as access to the Arcade and its resources.

Beginning in September 2018, Dr Nicoll will take up a temporary residence in the Arcade for two days a week over a period of three months. During this time, he will conduct semi-structured interviews with designers, programmers, and artists working there. His research will also include observational analyses of the game studios themselves — that is, how game engines structure their workflows, development practices, and everyday interactions.

This research will help us gain insight into Australia’s place in the global context of game engines and real-time interactive content development, and will be of value to our industry partners in discovering how Australia can better harness the potentials of game engines in order to become an international leader in this emerging industry.

Research Team

Research Partners

John Sietsma, Unity Evangalist for Australia and New Zealand, Unity Technologies

Antony Reed, CEO of the Game Developers' Association of Australia

Chris Murphy, Unreal Evangelist for Australia and New Zealand, Epic Games


2018 Seed Funding round

This project is supported by a University of Melbourne research grant jointly funded by the Intellectual Property Research Institute of Australia, the Centre for Media and Communications Law, and Networked Society Institute.