For quite a few years, the video game industry has been broadening to serve many more demographics. While games were once considered a hobby for young people, the age of the average gamer is now situated somewhere in the mid-30s. This tells us that video gaming has grown broad enough that it’s meant for everyone, of any age. With that broadening, many more people have been getting into the business of independent game development–a demanding field that remains very “sink or swim” in spite of its size. Today, we’re going to take a look at the best “game engines” that you can use for 2D game development. If you’re an aspiring game designer, this is information that you’ll want to know!
And even if you’re not, it can be a ton of fun to take a peek at the technical expertise that goes into making some of your favorite titles.
For the uninitiated, game development can be something of an obscure, mysterious art. And we absolutely should call it an art. Whether it’s a collaborative effort made by the tiring work of a whole team of people or the efforts of a single person, the end result is no less artistic than a film or a book might be. The only difference is (and a lot of people get hung up on this) games are interactive, whereas films and literature are static.
And like any form of art, game development requires an intense amount of knowledge and mastery over a wide selection of tools. While many people will describe those tools as a single “game engine,” the reality of this knowledge is actually far more complex than a single term makes it sound.
Developing a game within a specific engine doesn’t involve learning one thing. Typically, one game engine requires developers to learn how to use multiple types of software, work with many different types of files, and incorporate the products of several different areas of work into one, cohesive whole. For example, many AAA studio games are developed using the Unreal engine, but the developers responsible for making these games are using a massive number of different resources. The products of those resources, however, come together beneath the game engine in order to make the game playable.
With me so far? Good, because as we start to talk about the different game engines that you could make use of even when developing a 2D game, it’s important to understand that we’re not talking about a “best of” software list. We’re looking at entire development ecosystems.
What does this mean for the prospective game designer? That choosing which “game engine” you’re going to design for is a much more critical choice than one might make when choosing a particular software solution. The work that you do in one game engine’s tools might not be easily transferable to another. Thus, it’s largely a sign of commitment to a particular way of doing things. Remember what we said above–sink or swim, right?
Game Engine Tools
Most types of software that we use are limited in their functionality, and even though they might be nuanced, the exact purpose to which we apply them is always pretty straightforward. Microsoft Word is for composition and document creation. Adobe Photoshop is built for image manipulation. Apple Garageband is a consumer-grade music mixing engine.
A “game engine” differs from this dichotomy quite a lot. More than just a type of creation software, it’s a framework that holds together many separate elements that are critical for actually being able to run a video game.
The Best 2D Game Engines
To be certain, there are plenty of options out there when it comes to game engines that you can work within. They all offer different features, each has particular specialties, and not all of them are going to be suited to the same types of games. Even when we niche the topic down to 2D games, specifically, you have plenty to choose from.
Many developers working on 2D games like to implement advanced features that are common in contemporary games. Realistic physics don’t have to appear exclusively in 3D titles, and Godot has utilities that allow developers to create physics animations and effects for characters, objects, and environment pieces. Godot does this exceptionally well, and while this alone might be reason enough to give it our first mention, it has other useful features as well.
Godot uses a proprietary scripting language called GDScript. It has a lower learning curve due to its similarities to Python, C++, and Java, but it’s still a coding language which means that it’s going to require some dedication.
You can download Godot at no cost since it’s an open source engine that’s constantly seeing new updates and additions.
This is one of the darlings of the game development community and a frequently used engine by dozens of independent game developers. It’s just as accessible as Godot, above, but in the opinions of many, the associated learning curve is much steeper. However, since it is quite probably one of the most popular 2D engines in use, the community surrounding it has accumulated a vast amount of resources and expertise about it. If you’re a developer that’s struggling with any facet of libGDX, getting answers is fairly simple.
It’s also capable of being purposed across many different platforms, which isn’t an option with every other 2D game engine out there. The assets might take a while to learn–because they’re cobbled together modules, most of which are free and community-developed in the first place. In spite of any drawbacks, however, the sheer number of people and teams currently using this option in their own development merit its serious consideration.
You’ll have to pardon the pun, but if you’re looking for a fast and easy development engine, LÖVE might be a place that you want to look. It uses Lua, which is one of the easiest scripting languages to learn and implement. This is why it’s used everywhere, from web applications to games to mobile apps.
There are several larger studios that make use of LÖVE as well, which has resulted in quite a lot of referenced expertise accumulating online. Though some of the resources for LÖVE are juvenile (catalog libraries named HUMP or LUBE), it’s nevertheless a very good 2D game engine.
I would feel guilty calling Gideros an “underdog,” in spite of it being somewhat smaller than the other development tools that we’ve discussed above. After all, quite a few successful mobile apps and games have been developed using it, and it would be mildly unfair to critique something solely based on the number of people using it.
Gideros is quite good. It’s primarily used to create mobile games, but its usefulness doesn’t simply end there. Check out the list of example objects created to work within its frames. Like LÖVE, above, it uses the Lua scripting language for most of the work completed in it.
There might be something of a trend in this list, with regard to our fondness for open-source software development. Many of the tools were created by a community of professionals rather than a software company, and Oxygine 2D is no different.
It’s built fully on C++, a language that many developers and coders learn early in their careers. For this reason, it’s a great choice for people who are delving into 2D game development for the first time. Using Oxygine, you can develop for almost any platform currently popular, from mobile devices to current-generation game consoles. It’s also useful for developing web apps!
We’re including this one last, primarily because it can do so much more than 2D game development, alone. Unity is an engine utilized by professionals from all over the game development industry. It originated on iOS–which gives you an idea of how flexible it is–but has expanded to practically every major console platform currently in use, including Windows PCs and Macs.
While Unity is currently being flexed to perform some amazing feats in AR (augmented reality) and VR (virtual reality) settings, it can be used just as easily for 2D game development. It can suit your uses perfectly, but we’d be remiss in not pointing out that this is a powerful set of tools that was made with development professionals in mind. If you have a gaming vision that you think the world deserves to see, try it out!
Truth be told, any one of the game development engines on our list will allow you to develop 2D games. They’re all quite different from one another, so some further research is due before you pick the one that you’re going to use to bring your vision to life. Meanwhile, if we can elaborate on any of our picks, let us know in the comments below! Consider sharing our list of the best 2D game development engines on social media, so we can spread the word on these useful tools a little bit more!