Remember how at the beginning of this latest season of South Park, Kenny returns with no explanation?

Here’s something I see a lot of people getting screwed up and/or confused on, so I’ll shed some attentive light on the subject.

id Software’s 1992 shareware smash Wolfenstein 3-D spawned a lot of sales, and a lot of imitation. Suddenly everyone wanted to clone the first person shooter. Some created their own engines and others licensed the Wolfenstein Engine for the tune of $50K. Most of the games were bad, and the ones that did come out based off of the Wolfenstein Engine (like Blake Stone: Aliens of Gold) took on the order of two years or more to make, whereas Wolfenstein 3-D took between six and eight months to write, including engine coding. By the time Blake Stone came out, DOOM had been released.

And the process more or less repeated itself with a vengance, even giving rise to the term “DOOM Clone”. And again, none of them came close, even the ones that had licensed the DOOM Engine. Pretty much the coda to this period is the title Duke Nukem 3D, which pretty much bested DOOM, but Quake was right around the corner.

About this same time game developers/publishers realized that their games would not have to best the current game on the market, but rather be competitive with the next game on the market, since that was the timeframe most were thinking of. Also they realized the potential was with the “game with single word name and groundbreaking graphics”. To this end many started work on their next game with their sights set on id. The two big ones were 3D Realms’ Prey and Epic’s Unreal.

Unreal‘s big claim to fame was to be its use of MMX, a set of added instructions Intel had added to the Pentium chip, but this idea was ditched in favor of the rapidly-progressing 3D graphics card market. Unreal came out some time after Quake II and blew everyone away with its 3D accelerated graphics and visual style. Despite the fact that it had been delayed numerous times, it delivered when it finally was released. So impressive was it that 3D Realms, who had since killed off their Prey switched their Duke Nukem Forever project from the Quake Engine to the Unreal Engine.

Which is another lucrative practice id Sofware begat. They licensed out their engines to those who were adept and could afford it. id Software has always re-written their engines more or less from scratch for each game. Wolfenstein 3-D and Wolfenstein: Spear of Destiny shared the same engine, as did DOOM and DOOM II (both of these were shareware games with retail sequels). Quake was a new engine, and Quake II was a revamped Quake Engine game. Quake III was a new engine, and DOOM III will be a new engine as well. Ergo, when you license an engine from id Software, you license “the Quake Engine” or “the Quake III Engine” – a particular version of a particular engine named after a particular game.

Epic, however, went a different route with the Unreal technology. Instead of starting over, they added to it and expanded it. However, since id Software set the trend of the engine being different with each game, people figured that the same thing happned with Unreal, i.e. – Unreal Tournament uses the “Unreal Tournament Engine” and while this was harmless enough for a while, it’s not true. It’s all the Unreal Engine. Whatever game comes out with it doesn’t use the “Unreal ____” engine, they just use the latest code drop of the Unreal Engine. Tim Sweeney admitted in an interview that it might have been a mistake to call the first game simply Unreal.

So here’s a recap:

Unreal (1998) – The first Unreal Engine game, it had single and multiplayer components.

Unreal: Return to Na Pali (1999) – single player expansion to Unreal, developed by Legend.

Unreal Tournament (1999) – The follow-up to Unreal, it was a multiplayer-only affair. Coincidentally it came out around the same time as the also-multiplayer-only Quake III Arena. Also on the Sega Dreamcast and the Sony PlayStation 2.

Unreal Tournament 2003 (2002) – Sequel to Unreal Tournament, stirred controversy due to its faster pace and naming scheme implying a yearly series. Also available on the Macintosh.

Unreal Championship (2002) – Xbox-only Unreal Engine game, multiplayer-only and capabale of playing over Xbox Live.

Unreal II: The Awakening (2003) – Single player only sequel to Unreal developed by Legend, regarded as marriage of specacular graphics and unremarkable gameplay.

Each one of the above games used a more advanced version of the Unreal Engine (except for the expansion pack and to some degree the console versions). A version of the original Unreal was planned for the PlayStation but never completed (it likely would have been horrible had it been completed), and early in the pre-life of the Dreamcast, Sega boasted how Unreal compiled and ran with no difficulty on their console, but never released.

The Unreal Engine has powered too many games to fully list here, but amongst them are Splinter Cell, The Wheel of Time, the free America’s Armygame, the two PC Harry Potter games, a TNN deer hunting game, a Nerf game, and a horrible Klingon game. To say nothing of games like Duke Nukem Forever which have yet to be released. Ironically Epic’s eagerness to license the engine has resulted in a larger number of bad games using it as opposed to the Quake Engine.

Up next is Unreal Tournament 2004, the realization of the fear of gamers once Unreal Tournament 2003 was named. It is known that it will incorporate everything from Unreal Tournament 2003 and at least 100% more content and reverse compatibility, but whether gamers will have an “upgrade path” or have to fork over from scratch remains to be seen.

Also known is the title Unreal Warfare, but it remains to be seen what this title means – it may be another Unreal game, it may be the abandoned name of Unreal Tournament, it may be some new concept (like a PlanetSide-esque MMORPG).

So that’s the Unreal Engine in a nutshell.