First glance: Unreal.js

With Christmas coming up, I don’t exactly have the time to write those 2,000-word monologues that I’ve been doing. But I want to post something, if only because laziness would intervene otherwise. Inertia would take over, and I’d stop posting anything at all. I know it would happen. I’ve done it once before. So, these last few Wednesdays of 2015 will be short and sweet.

This time around, I want to talk about something I recently found on a wonderful site called Game From Scratch. It’s called Unreal.js, and it’s open-source (Apache license). What does it do? Well, that’s the interesting thing, and that’s what I’m going to ramble on about.

You’ve probably heard of UnrealEngine. It’s the latest iteration of the game engine used to power a wide array of games, from Unreal Tournament to AAA titles like the newest Street Fighter and Tekken to hundreds of up-and-coming indie games. The most recent version, UnrealEngine 4, is getting a lot of press mainly because of its remarkably open development and friendly pricing scheme. (Compared to other professional game engines, anyway.) Lately, Unreal has become a serious competitor to Unity for the middle tier of game development, and competition is an indisputably good thing.

But Unreal has a problem compared to Unity. You see, Unity runs on Microsoft’s .NET framework. (Strictly speaking, it runs on Mono, which is a Microsoft-approved knockoff of .NET that used to be fully open, to the point where most Linux distributions preinstalled it a few years ago. Now…not so much.) Anyway, Unity uses .NET, and one of the nifty things about .NET is that, like the JVM, it’s not restricted to a single language. Sure, you’re most likely to use C#, but you don’t have to. Unity explicitly supports JavaScript, and it used to have full support for a Python clone called Boo. (Supposedly, there are ways to get other languages like F# to work with it, but I don’t know why anyone would want to.)

Unreal, on the other hand, uses C++. From a performance perspective, that’s a great thing. C++ is fast, it can use far less memory than even C#, and it’s closer to the hardware, making it easier to take advantage of platform-specific optimizations. However, C++ is (in my experienced opinion) one of the hardest programming languages to learn well. It’s also fairly ugly. The recent C++11 standard helps a lot with both of these problems, but full support just isn’t there yet, even 4 years later. C++17 looks like it will go a few steps further in the “ease of use” direction, but you’ll be lucky to use it before 2020.

The makers of UnrealEngine know all of this, so they included a “visual” programming language, Blueprints. Great idea, in theory, but there are a lot of languages out there that you don’t need to invent. Why not use one of them? Well, that’s where Unreal.js comes in. Its developers (some guys called NCSoft; you may have heard of them) have made a plugin that connects the V8 JavaScript engine from Chrome/Safari/Node.js/everywhere into Unreal. The whole thing is still in a very early stage, but it’s shaping up to be something interesting.

If Unreal.js takes off, then it can put Unreal well ahead of Unity, even among hobbyists and lower-end indies. JavaScript is a lot easier on the brain than C++ (take it from someone who knows both). And it has a huge following, not just for webapps and server stuff. The Unreal.js project page claims support for “(Full) access to existing javascript libraries via npm, bower, …”

That’s huge. Sure, not all npm packages are of the highest quality, but there are plenty that are, and this would let you use all of them to help make a game. Game engines, historically, have been some of the worst about code reuse, 3rd-party libraries, and other niceties that “normal” applications get to use. Well, that can change.

And then there’s one other factor: other languages. Since Unreal.js is pretty much just the V8 engine from Node, and it can load most Node packages, that opens the possibility of using some of the many “transpiled” languages that are transformed to Node-friendly JavaScript. Think CoffeeScript, TypeScript (which recently released its new 1.7 version), or even my April Fools’ Day joke language Elan.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Unreal.js will fizzle. Perhaps it’s destined to join the legions of other failed attempts at integrating game development with the rest of the programming world. I hope not. The past few years have seen a real move in the direction of democratizing the art of game-making again. I’d like to see that trend continue in 2016 and beyond.

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