Gameological At E3

Frostbite 3

What’s a game engine, and why does EA want you to care about it?

By Matt Gerardi • June 11, 2013

A game engine—like Unreal Engine 3, the engine that is used to make most of today’s big budget games—is like the heart and brain of a game. It’s the code that takes care of the seemingly simple stuff that’s universal to most games, like interpreting controller inputs, pulling up the appropriate graphics and sound, and modeling the physics. Once all that boring stuff that makes the game go is squared away, developers are free to create the art, sounds, and interactions—the looks and personality of their game—without losing so much time worrying about the technological underpinnings. 

Engines make game development easier and cheaper, but the ubiquity of Unreal Engine 3, the driving force behind everything from Batman: Arkham Asylum to XCOM: Enemy Unknown, appears to have drained some of the color from video games. You can’t blame the engine. It’s just a tool, and there are plenty of colorful exceptions like Bulletstorm and Enslaved: Odyssey To The West. It’s hard to deny, though, that the rise of Unreal seems to have brought a near-universal look to the many games built from it, and it’s a look dominated by brown and gray. 

EA would really like you to know about its new engine, Frostbite 3. It’s a framework built by the wizards at DICE, the studio behind the Battlefield series, and it’s going to be used to make every non-sports EA game. Its logo preceded every last (non-sports) trailer at EA’s E3 2013 press event, and the presenters spouted its name every chance they got. If you were optimistic about color returning to PlayStation 4 and Xbox One games, you might be disappointed. Frostbite 3 appears to be perpetuating the trend of bland, washed-out visuals—a look that, in all fairness, works well for the series it was built for. 

Perhaps the most tragic victim of this color-sapping is the newly announced Plants Vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare, a shooter that melds your typical running-and-gunning with planting violent vegetation and charm. It, too, runs on Frostbite 3. And it’s gone from looking like this:

Plants Vs. Zombies

To this:

While this new shooter retains the goofy winning personality of the original, it’s been sapped of its vivid hues. Instead, it shares Battlefield 3 and 4’s pale, washed-out style—a style  I hope doesn’t come to dominate all games running on the Frostbite 3 engine, otherwise known as all EA games. I don’t think less of Garden Warfare—I’m very curious to track it down on the E3 show floor—but it’s disappointing to see something like Plants Vs. Zombies drained of its vibrancy. 

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23 Responses to “What’s a game engine, and why does EA want you to care about it?”

  1. Enkidum says:

    I’m a bit ignorant here, but surely any decent engine would allow the developers free reign in choosing textures and lighting? So they could choose not to have PvZ – Desaturated Edition?

    Of course that means that Orange Madness – All Orange, All The Time is a deliberate choice on the part of every game studio in the past decade, which is kind of scarier.

    • HobbesMkii says:

      That Orange Box was pretty good, though.

    • Girard says:

      Yeah, this seems more like an art direction issue than an engine one. Though it’s possible the engine has shaders and so on that lend them selves to a certain ‘realistic’ lighting rather than something more stylized, I guess. So maybe it directs toward a certain aesthetic, but it probably doesn’t dictate the aesthetic.

      • wafflesnsegways says:

        I’m also pretty ignorant, but this is my understanding. I also think that games with demanding graphics use a lot of haze, letting them avoid displaying distant objects, and letting them display mid-field objects in less detail.

      • nickeeromo says:

        I’m with you here. It is probably meant to make things more realistic-looking. And that is why PvZ is NOT MEANT to be displayed that way. It is goofy, quirky, and while the gameplay is more like real life (3D field and whatnot), it is obviously not to be taken seriosuly, as opposed to something like Dead Space (which also shouldn’t be washed out for other reasons).

    • The_Misanthrope says:

       It would seem to make sense to create an universal engine that could work for many different kinds of games, from cartoony to super-realistic.  Then again, I tend to think realism in games is not all that important.  How’s your game going to stand out if it looks like all the other games?

  2. Effigy_Power says:

    If ever a game didn’t need a sequel to begin with, it’s PvZ. The game was such a hit because it was perfect in every regard. It set out to do something and achieved it as close to 100% as one can.
    This sequel appears to have its own charm, but it really isn’t a sequel as such… maybe a squeequel if it’s lucky.

    • PaganPoet says:

      That trailer is pretty charming, though. I love the self-seriousness of the flickering words and war-like explosions in the background.

    • Chalkdust says:

       This is a spin-off, technically.  Plants vs. Zombies 2 is in the works as well.  The trailer does a fine job of not actually showing anything, but the core gameplay remains the same albeit with new units, enemies, and a time-travel gimmick.

    • Enkidum says:

      I’d like it if PvZ was significantly harder, or had a harder option, or whatever. I think I lost a level maybe twice before beating the game. Other than that, a fantastic piece of work. 

      So hopefully PvZ 2 doesn’t fix what isn’t broken, and adds some real challenge.

  3. Fluka says:

    Well, at least Frostbitten Mirror’s Edge looked as stark and brightly primary colored as before!  Mmmm…no brown…

    • The_Helmaroc_King says:

      It looks like they dialed down the shooty, but bumped up the face-kicking. Good job, SWAT guys! You were all taken down by an unarmed woman half your size!

      • HobbesMkii says:

        Size is not a replacement for skill!

        …is what they told their supervisor, afterwards.

    • Effigy_Power says:

      Yes, it did look quite hot despite frost-bite. The part of me that wants a strong, female protagonist with fucking skill is pretty much abuzz, even if the gameplay isn’t really quite my thing.

      PS: How uncool to not call it “fROZtbytE” or something gameriffic.

  4. I second Enkidum, I fail to see how could an engine force devs to stick to a color simply refelcts the current trend.

    Besides, other medium have suffered the same fate, remember the “Matrix” look that became pervasive after the movie release.

  5. duwease says:

    It is such a rare treat to get a nice, truly colorful game world to play in nowadays.  Playing Okami in HD is the last time where it just felt *good*.

    Also, in the engine wars, I champion BEARD.

  6. ShrikeTheAvatar says:

    They’re just pushing a brand.  Valve made (and still makes) a pretty big deal out of the Source engine, too.  

    Hyping a game’s engine smart way to get the graphics-obsessed gamers excited before they even see a second of game play.  

    • Chalkdust says:

       There’s also a message to developers in it, like “hey, check out what your game could be like if you license our tech!”

  7. PvZ did not need a dark and gritty reboot.  Nor does it need actual guns.  DO NOT WANT.

    • Toparaman says:

       It’s not dark and gritty though.  Apart from the washed out colors, it retains the same cartoony artstyle.  And it has a sense of humor.