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Unite 11: Unity Aggressively Upgrades Its Engine For A Flexible Future

Unite 11: Unity Aggressively Upgrades Its Engine For A Flexible Future

September 28, 2011 | By Christian Nutt




[At the Gamasutra-attended Unite 11 conference, Unity execs outlined major upgrades to the development tool to ensure its relevance to big and small teams across a variety of platforms, and Gamasutra analyzes these moves. ]

If there were two threads running through the Unite 11 keynote today in San Francisco, it's these. The engine provider is gunning to scale up the quality of the games that can be created with the tool by including new tools to support bigger, more elaborate titles at better performance on today's mobile devices.

The second theme is that Unity is remaining developer-focused, by offering upgrades soon and in the future that improve workflow for big and small teams -- catering to the new constituencies changes in the market have brought as bigger teams form around social, mobile, and browser-based projects, while not forgetting the core, small iOS- and web-focused developers that have made the development platform a success so far.

How Unity Has Grown

The presentation began with CEO and co-founder David Helgason taking the stage to reflect on how far the company has come since it was first formed.

This year, he revealed, 1,200 people registered for the Unite conference, which offers 41 sessions with 70 speakers. The conference continues until this Friday at San Francisco's Masonic Center.

He recollected that the company's first Unite conference -- this is the fifth -- had only 70 attendees and was so underfunded that the company could not afford to pay its catering bill.

However, the team always dreamed big -- even when it was three people. "We always believed and felt that Unity has to be big to fulfill its mission of democratizing game development," he said. "We wanted to take the most powerful game development technology in the world and package it up so anybody could use it."

Early on, a consultant told the team that "The odds of getting there are 1 to 1000," but he believes Unity has that goal in its reach. "We've made a lot of mistakes over the years but we're still getting there as a company... And we've become truly global."

Helgason also revealed the top 10 countries where Unity is most used, in descending order: U.S., China, South Korea, Japan, UK, Canada, Brazil, Germany, Russia, and Taiwan. As far as cities go, in order, it's Seoul, Beijing, Shanghai, Taiwan's Nei-Hu, Melbourne, Moscow, Sao Paulo, Los Angeles, Tokyo's Shibuya district, and Montreal.

The Unity team has expanded to 150 across its offices, and the engineering staff alone has grown from 39 to 64 people. Helgason also announced the company's first acquisition -- of Montreal-based startup Mecanim, which is working on a character animation tool that will be integrated with the product down the road. The Mecanim team was formed by EA and Ubisoft veterans who have worked on titles such as Assassin's Creed and the EA Sports lineup.

"We put out the full release of Android, March this year, and it's already selling half as well as our iPhone product", said Helgason. "We estimate 200 games on Android." That said, "our iPhone product is still the leader of the pack," he confirmed, with 200 top 100 games developed on Unity.

He also noted that, as of recently, "we support all three current gen consoles -- PS3, Xbox 360, and Wii." The first Xbox 360 game built with Unity launched "just a few days ago."

The Asset Store Takes Off

Last year at Unite, the engine provider announced the Unity Asset Store, in which developers can sell tools and assets they developed.

Co-founder and CCO Nicholas Francis came to the stage to talk about the successes the Asset Store has seen since it launched. The vision, he said, was that since "to make a game there's such a diverse skill set you need to have... if you're small it's really nice to be able to not fill these shoes."

"The Unity community is good at really helping each other," he said, and it was a natural outgrowth of that. So far, 1,860 packages have launched onto the store, and $140,000 a month in sales is being generated as of September 2011.

"We now have people full time whose job is to find content out there and get it on the store," he noted. Three tool success stories he pointed out were uScript, a graphical scripting language "designed by some of the guys who had a hand in Unreal Kismet," RAGEspline, a "really high quality" 2D vector graphics tool, and Strumpy Shader Editor, a tool made by a former 2K Australia BioShock developer that is "so awesome we had to go out and hire him," said Francis.

The Asset Store's "top seller will make over $20,000 this month," he said, and the top 15 "on average make over $5,000 a month."

Francis promised "a much, much deeper integration into Unity" for the store. "We actually show the assets in the inspector before you buy... So you know exactly what you're getting... This smooth interaction is going to take us to the next level," he said.

Planning For The Now

While the company announced a slate of upgrades for the tool that are coming in the near-term, version 3.5 update, there were also demos and announcements of a mix of 3.5 and later features -- showing the company's commitment to continuous engine development.

For example, the team is working on a social API which will debut in 3.5. It's "completely cross platform" and will allow developers to hook into iOS' Game Center. Facebook support and native PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 support will come down the road. And, "If someone out there, say OpenFeint, wants Unity games to support their stuff, they just have to support the open API," said Francis.

There will also be a focus on analytics."Everybody thinks they should be doing it; very few people are. Basically everybody's saying it's the key to monetize content... They're right," said Francis. However, he said, "They can be used for far, far more than just revenue."

Unity Analytics will track player behavior with heat maps and statistics from the off; "It's something that can help us make better games right from the very beginning," said Francis. "It's a simple API and you just pull it up inside the editor. We'll be hosting it, basically because nobody likes to set up an analytics server... We can build this to scale it and then we can spread it out."

The company is also adding an in-app purchase API, which will be "one API across Apple, consoles" and more. This will be tied into analytics and social features, too, and integrated with the editor for ease-of-use.

"When you run your store in your game, you can see all this data, and you're just in the flow. This shouldn't be hard, these aren't hard problems to solve; they're just annoying to solve. And that's why you shouldn't be doing this -- we should... This is not something we'll be shipping around the corner, this is more of a long stretch thing," said Francis.

Going AAA?

Helgason retook the stage to talk about what he called Unity's "AAA initiative". This is the point at which it became clear how much Unity is gunning to improve the tool to the point where both large and small teams can approach console quality games with ease.

"As we grew as a company and our stature in the market grew, it turned out people wanted more," said Helgason. "It turned out that Unity has fallen short in some things," but "we realized around a year ago we actually had the energy to fix this."

"We recruited people behind the leading triple-A engines today," said Helgason. The company has set up an office in Stockholm, Sweden to focus on the the AAA initiative.

However, said Helgason, "Beyond setting new standards, we felt that Unity could not break, and we couldn't fork into two products... And everything has to benefit all products, not just those pushing Unity hard. Everything we're doing to push this high end agenda benefits everyone, and we felt that was totally key."

To do this, "we embed ourselves and develop with these teams" who are pushing the boundaries of Unity, "and the technology is on our terms, and goes back into the product," said Helgason. Luma Arcade's upcoming Bladeslinger and Madfinger Games' recently-launched Gears of War-esque shooter Shadowgun are the two games chosen to spearhead this initiative.

As far as Shadowgun goes, said Helgason, "Both Apple and Nvidia have agreed with us that this is the highest end game to ever run on a mobile device."

The New Tools

CTO Joachim Ante took the stage at this point to demo a host of new features the team has added to the engine -- a very developer-centric approach that contrast last year's Unite keynote, which was more of a slick, Apple-esque press conference with carefully chosen facts and figures.

"It's really about scaling Unity up in various ways," said Ante. "The most important one is that Unity has always worked really great when you're a small team... and we want to make sure you have a really smooth process of working with Unity if you're a one man team or a 100 man team."

The graphics pipeline has scaled up to allow developers to render "really big" scenes, and live LOD support has been integrated directly into the engine. AI pathfinding -- "our first step into AI," said Ante -- has also been added, with quick generation of nav meshes in-engine. There's also now an integrated crowd simulation system.

Occlusion culling has been completely rewritten using new technology which greatly speeds up the process and squashes bugs in Unity's old implementation. "Previously in the old system, it took 10 hours to bake. In the new system it takes five minutes," said Ante.

A new light probe tool offers colored, blended lighting at very low cost. The theme of high-performance, low-cost tools was all over the presentation; it's clear that Unity sees console-quality browser and tablet games as its primary target. The new rendering in the tool offers tech that was pioneered in console games like Halo 3, said Ante.

Again, to service large teams, said Ante, "We wanted to make sure we can actually scale Unity projects -- when you're working on a team people didn't want to use the asset server... So what we did was make a built in UI for perforce and SVN... You can commit assets from directly inside Unity."

And the new GPU profiler allows you to target specific assets or shaders to see what's eating up performance -- important for low-spec machines. "We've spent a lot of time improving performance in Unity," he noted. When you load a Unity 3.4 project into Unity 3.5, you could see "up to a 2x peformance increase depending on your scene," he said. Though some scenes might only see 10 percent performance upgrades, others are seeing as much as a 3x increase.

The team has also added a new particle system called Shuriken, which offers 100 parameters to tweak live in the tool.

Soon: Flash Support

And Unity's Lucas Meijer came out last to demo a very interesting tool that, while not making Unity 3.5, will certainly make an impact when it does release. With Adobe launching 3D-accelerated Flash, "we started an investigation," said Meijer. "We wanted to find out how Unity could help people target this flash 3D platform. We didn't know where we were going to end."

The result is a tool that will build a Unity project directly to a flash SWF file. He demoed a build of Angry Bots, the Unity demo game, running in an Internet Explorer window on Windows 7 -- clearly just a SWF file. The full-3D game ran smoothly on the MacBook demo unit, live on stage.

"There is no plugin install required other than the new Flash player," said Meijer. It's "the exact same project... as all our other platforms," he said. While the tool is "not quite there yet," the team is working hard on it.

What It All Means

Again, it's clear: Unity is aggressively working to upgrade its product, offering a mix of solutions for big and small teams, and with its head-on charge at Flash support and its first acquisition, of Mecanim -- now Unity Canada -- means to make sure that the engine quickly continues to evolve as a flexible and powerful development tool for developers at many different levels of size.

However, it's also clear that with the AAA initiative, and the integration of workflows that better suit studio environments, and with an exec name-dropping Kismet and BioShock on stage, the company has its eyes focused on growing the possibilities for Unity dramatically.

But at the same time, performance is a primary concern; with every demo Ante made of a new feature he made a point of pointing out how little it costs from that perspective -- showing the company still considers mobile and browser games its bread and butter. With the demo of Shadowgun, the message was clear: we are approaching current gen console quality on tablets (and don't forget that the next generation or two of devices will close that performance gap, undoubtedly.)

Unity, then, means to be ready for the increasing complexity of mobile games, the increasing performance of mobile hardware, the shift of development teams from big console games to social, mobile, and free-to-play titles, and the shifting marketplace which will demand a variety of target platforms for titles, as even high-end console games grow mobile tendrils.


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