Are custom game-engines what make games feel "magical"? (Why are YOU builidng your own engine?)

Old games have special charm. Why? Some of this is due to the novelty and mystery of the “wild west” industry which was creating games prior to the year 2000. But, something else changed, then, right? I read that most games for systems older than the SNES tended to be written partially/wholly in assembly. I doubt that a commercially available “mega-engine” as-in unreal, source, etc. existed until at least a few years later. So most of the games for the end of the twentieth century were made in “custom” engines.

I wonder if custom engines are the reason why old games are charming. The reasons might not be intuitive.

If a requirement to be a game-programmer prior to the year 2000 was being comfortable writing and debugging assembly, did that mean that the programmers we had making games were more driven and clever? Is it true that in making compilers stronger and more lenient the dumbass-filter was removed? That might mean that a difficult feature a project manager has planned for a game might never be added because the programmers are incapable of adding it, in one of many ways. It could be said that one purpose of a game engine is to prevent a programmer from writing low-level code, so this could be attributed to the use of engines.

It could be because when we use Unreal/Unity/Godot and we don’t know what to do, we look up a tutorial and that tutorial ends up being a part of the game. And so it’s easier to add things to the game which have already been done, and thus, the game ends up being pushed away from being a product which is unique and closer to being a product which is familiar. And then the players find something which is familiar and it feels less mysterious and less “magical”. I wonder if this is true for many of the uninspired indie games made in unity.

Anyways, lots of companies use proprietary engines and have people smart enough to write low-level stuff. Lots of big games released today have “custom” engines. All of my favorite studio games were made with in-house engines (Binding of Isaac, Team Fortress, Dota). Frankly, I feel like it shows when a new AAA release was made with a commercial engine- I think it tends to make the game less fun. This could be due to an effect where smaller studios/budgets are able to reach higher with commercial engines, and therefore it’s unfair to compare them to their counterparts which use custom engines on a higher budget.

When I think of fun games which use commercial engines, I first think of Slay the Spire and Undertale. And of those two, Spire isn’t really novel, it’s just exciting because humans like to collect rare things, and Spire can consistently provide the experience of collecting valuable trading cards. So, I guess the Slay the Spire devs were very, very clever to use someone else’s engine. As for Undertale, I think it’s a marvel that the game feels unique and novel despite using a commerical engine. Maybe it’s because 2D engines are a bit less influential over the final design, or just that the game developer was very intelligent and put a lot of energy into making each moment of play enticing.

Why am I writing my own engine? Mostly because I feel like within my engine anything can happen. When I got discouraged porting my engine to different platforms months after starting, I considered using Godot, but I ended up choosing not to because of the “tutorial effect” and because it felt like no matter what, I couldn’t really power through the sense that I would be creating a bunch of things which had already been created.