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Why develop in-house game engines?

Pearl Abyss, Smilegate, Com2us say advantages outweigh cost increases

Pearl Abyss’ Crimson Desert (IGN)
Pearl Abyss’ Crimson Desert (IGN)

In the world of games, game engines are the ready-made architecture that developers use to design and run their games. So choosing what game engine to use from a list of readily available options from world-renowned firms is often the first step of game development.

Yet, some South Korean game firms are taking a different path, choosing to spend money and resources on building their own game engines.

At the forefront is Pearl Abyss, which scored 488.8 billion won ($432.5 million) and 157.3 billion won in revenue and operating profit last year. It is currently developing its own game engine for their upcoming release Crimson Desert.

There are several key advantages in doing so, the firm explained.

“Pearl Abyss’ next-generation game engine can express realistic textures and natural lighting effects and therefore breathe distinctive characteristics into Crimson Desert,” the official said.

After the firm posted an official trailer in December, Crimson Desert received much attention among global players for its impressive graphics and motions that some users even said, “I’ll only believe it when it comes out.”

Pearl Abyss has made continuous efforts to build expertise in game graphics. In 2019, at the world’s biggest computer graphics conference SIGGRAPH, the company shared ideas and know-how on how it created the effect of natural sunlight under different skies, cloud formations and atmospheres.

Most game companies, including Nexon and NCSoft, use foreign game engines such as Unreal Engine and Unity because it’s cost-effective. Using out-of-the-box options can guarantee a certain level of quality at an affordable cost. For mobile games, in particular, where trends change really fast, it could have more advantages, the company official explained.

In developing its own game engine, Pearl Abyss aims to come up with a product that excels that of third-party engines in quality, the official continued.

“Despite the higher costs at early stage, we can offer high game quality, quicken development speed and enhance platform compatibility and customization,” the official said.

“Renowned foreign game firms have also developed or are developing games with their own game engines, exemplified by From Software’s Elden Ring, Punch Productions’ Ghost of Tsushima and Santa Monica Studio’s God of War.” 

Pearl Abyss’ Crimson Desert (IGN)
Pearl Abyss’ Crimson Desert (IGN)

Set for launch this winter, Crimson Desert is an open world action adventure game and a sequel to Pearl Abyss’ flagship product Black Desert, which reaped more than 2 trillion won in revenue between 2014 and 2020.

Freedom and control

For Smilegate -- a local game developer which breached a 1-trillion-won mark in revenue for the first time last year -- an independent game engine offers freedom and control.

According to Smilegate, developing a new gamed based on a borrowed game engine compromises its ability to respond to errors and bugs should they occur later in the game.

“With our own game engine, if there are minor bugs in the game, we can just fix them right away. However, with a borrowed game engine, we have to wait for the engine to be updated,” a Smilegate official said.

Even in case of a serious error, the game company would have to sit and wait, because it isn’t allowed access to the source codes of a borrowed game engine, the official added.

On top of quick troubleshooting, Smilegate pointed out optimization as another key advantage of using its own game engine. 

Smilegate’s mobile game Epic Seven (Smilegate)
Smilegate’s mobile game Epic Seven (Smilegate)

“In the development of Smilegate’s hit mobile game Epic Seven, we wanted the game to be operational on Galaxy S2 as a minimum requirement. However, with a commercial engine, it couldn’t be done. So we decided to develop our own game engine for optimization,” the company official said.

According to Smilegate, commercial game engines have limits in maximizing the performance of a smartphone’s processor. However, an independent game engine can optimize settings to bring out the best performance from a multicore processor.

Com2uS, which saw a revenue and operating profit of 508.9 billion won and 112.9 billion won last year, is another game company that benefited from using its own game engine. 

Com2uS’ mobile game Summoners War Sky Arena (Com2uS)
Com2uS’ mobile game Summoners War Sky Arena (Com2uS)

After its global release in 2014, their hit mobile game Summoners War Sky Arena became the first homegrown product that breached 1 trillion won in revenue. As of last year, the game has raked in more than $20 billion won in global sales.

Behind the game’s global success, Com2uS said its in-house game engine played a crucial role.

“With its own game engine, Com2uS developed Summoners War as light as possible so that the game can run on low-end smartphones. Thanks to the optimization, Com2uS offers a single version of Summoners War to all players in different parts of the world,” a company official said.

Above all, Com2uS was able to save a tremendous amount of license fees it might have owed if it had used a foreign game engine.

In 2018, Krafton sued Epic Games for charging excessive licensing fees. Krafton, which developed the one-hit-wonder PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds based on Epic Games’ Unreal Engine 4, was footed with a 50-billion-won bill.

When Krafton signed a contract with Epic Games to borrow Unreal Engine 4, it promised to give 5 percent of profits generated from PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds in royalties. However, the game achieved an unexpected global success, recording sales of over 1 trillion won in 2019. As a result, the royalties Krafton owed to Epic Games snowballed.

“Though we can’t reveal the details of lawsuit against Krafton, the lawsuit has been resolved,” an Epic Games official said.

By Kim Byung-wook (