The Unity engine is becoming even more affordable to independent and hobbyist developers, as Unity Technologies has retired the $200 "Unity Indie" offering and replaced it with a free license, simply called Unity.
Developer Unity Technologies is keeping the full-fledged Unity Pro license priced at $1500. Alongside the new pricing shift, Unity is moving from version 2.5 to version 2.6, adding new graphics and pipeline capabilities. And Unity CEO David Helgason tells Gamasutra the company has Xbox 360 support in the works as well.
Features new to Unity 2.6 include full integration with Visual Studio and support for external revision control solutions like Subversion and Perforce. Both these inclusions Unity says are aimed at allowing the engine to better slot into existing large-scale developers' production pipelines.
Also new to 2.6 are graphics and performance capabilities like post-processing-compatible anti-aliasing, screen space ambient occlusion, and background fully-threaded asset streaming.
Gamasutra spoke with Helgason prior to his keynote address at the currently-underway Unite Conference in San Francisco, and he discussed the company's thinking behind its new free license, how the engine's Mac roots helped development even as it hindered growth, and why Unity can help restore faith in humanity.
What was the thinking behind eliminating the $200 fee for your lower-tier option?
David Helgason: The thinking was that Unity Indie isn't generating a significant portion of our revenue, and we've always had this vision of democratizing our tools. We have over 13,000 customers using our product, so we figured, let's take Indie and just give it to everyone. Whether that becomes a cash flow positive or a cash flow negative -- and some people will upgrade -- is not really important. What's important is to get this in the hands of as many people as possible.
Are you hoping that Indie will further position itself within the hobbyist and indie community that there is a certain baseline familiarity with your tools that will pay off in the long run?
DH: That's definitely part of it. It's also that Unity is just really infectious. You get your hands on it and you don't want to let it go. That's across the indie communities and educational communities, but also the pro studios. Often, our MMO customers and big guys like the Tiger Woods [PGA Tour Online] developers went with Unity because somebody on the team had Unity and had played around with it. That will get us more big-ticket items.
For the pros, the difference between a $2000 fee and a $0 fee is almost nothing, except that individual developers can just try it out for free and fall in love with it. We think it's really exciting. The [Unite] conference is already underway, and we already had a couple hundred people do classroom sessions.
Who do you see as your competitors in the development environment space? There's GarageGames with Torque on the more accessible end, all of the big names on the higher end. You seem to be going for both.
DH: That's a good question. Really, everyone is always competing with everyone. Even when you're doing something for the web, you have to decide between 2D and 3D -- if you're doing 2D, you go Flash, and if you're 3D, you go Unity. We're not competing with Flash directly, but there's competition on the edges.
There's a team called Nurien, who built this dance game using Unreal Engine 3 in Asia, and they're coming to the West with the product as well -- but they found the download size was getting too big [for most broadband connections in the West], so they're using Unity to remake it for the West. But are we competing with Unreal? Not really.
The platforms compete, and we're waiting for you when you want to go to the platforms that people realize matter most.
Your big targets are PC online and iPhone right now, but you have Wii support. Will you be targeting more consoles?
DH: We do Nintendo Wii, and there are a handful of titles both disc-based and download-based. We're also announcing that we're going to Xbox 360 as well. We're excited about consoles, but we're more excited about mobile and the browser. The really big opportunities are mobile and the web.
How much do you focus on positioning Unity for non-game purposes?
DH: The way we see it is that Unity is a really broad platform. It enables all kinds of stuff, including medical visualization, furniture fitting for apartments. We love all those non-gamey things, but we don't need to focus on them so much as just enable them. The tool and the workflow and the polish just fills itself.
DH: Definitely. We've been thinking about that for a long time. We're mostly covered in the game developer media, but when we met her, she really saw some applications outside the game space. She's a real visionary, obviously.
How much of your business do you think that could be?
DH: Well, we know that currently a third of our audience is using Unity outside of the game space. That's things like product visualization, art projects, stitching interesting projects together -- if you search, you can find a crazy 3D Etch-a-Sketch art project done with Unity.
Give powerful tools to people and they'll come up with crazy things, and use the tool to solve their problems. There's something called the Visible Body, which allows you to browse the entire body in 3D, and it's used as a training tool for doctors.
Most of these applications never come outside of their companies, because they're for trainings, but there are applications for people in retail stores, for the military and for rescue [professionals], for pilots -- someone created a program to train pilots securely. We see some of those publicly, but it's usually private stuff.
Then the last thing is semi-gamey virtual worlds and social spaces, people building meeting spaces.
What about social games on Facebook and other networking sites?
DH: Some of our customers are doing this already. There's Paradise Paintball, a multiplayer game that lives inside Facebook but also elsewhere on the web, and as a widget for Mac OS. Everyone plays on the same server as a team shooter, Counter-Strike-style, and you can buy weapons with microtransactions. There are some other early things going into Facebook, but that's the biggest success of our application in Facebook so far.
Do you plan to add direct hooks into Facebook through an official API?
DH: Unity's so flexible that it won't get in your way, but one of the talks this week is by one of the creators of Paradise Paintball, and they'll be discussing how they integrated Unity into Facebook, and they will give away some of their binding code to be freely available to anyone. We don't even have to build it in. It's so flexible that they can just add that on top, and you can bring it to other social networks, or use Facebook Connect to get information into the games.
You're holding your conference here in San Francisco as usual, but you've also relocated here. Is that process complete?
DH: It's been happening slowly over the summer, but I'm permanently based here now, and the headquarters are here, although development is still in Copenhagen. We're getting marketing and sales now, though, and becoming a more normal company. [laughs] Until now, we were still primarily engineers, and ex-engineers who became other things. But it's been happening."
Going back to Unity's earlier days, what effect do you think it had to be Mac-only for so long? Do you still feel reverberations of that decision today.
DH: It's a good question, and it's impossible to know how else it could have been. We kicked ourselves for years for going to the Mac first. We knew we had to go to PC at some point, but we had to wait until we had the resources to do it.
The good thing though, and I think this was a good thing, is that we grew up with that love for simplicity and polish as Mac guys, and a respect for the user. If there's a decision that needs to be taken, instead of giving tons of options, think what the actual use case is. In the back end, you have the flexibility, but you start with less flexibility and then open up when people need it. Then you get much cleaner design and a better project in the end.
So it definitely benefited us. And people feel that. They love how it's designed, and that the naming conventions are logical, and it all builds on that. They realize it's all been thought through, foreseeing the things they would need, and they're super happy when they experience that. And you can see it on our forums and when people blog about it -- actual joy. They don't just think it empowers them, they're happy when they're being empowered.
For the longest time, we had no funding. It was just organic growth. But when you create something that makes people happy, it makes it easier when you're dealing with not having that funding or marketing budget to keep pushing up.
I've seen that reaction from developer friends of mine who use Unity in their spare time.
DH: It's always really cool. We get the most incredible emails. One of the most recent was, "I've been using Unity for four days now, and I've regained my faith in humanity."