Today at GDC, Unity announced Unity 5.0, which will add a host of new features to the engine -- notably an overhauled lighting system and direct build-to-browser via the WebGL standard, which means that in the future, a browser plug-in will not be required to play Unity games.
In the works for the release -- the timing of which is yet to be determined -- are also an entirely new, physically-based shader system, a new audio system, Unity Cloud
Unity 5.0 will also adopt global illumination middleware Enlighten as its built-in lighting solution as well as, real-time light map previews from PowerVR. The engine will now support direct importation of SpeedTree files, too.
Upgrading to Unity 5.0
"It's such a big release for us," Unity CEO David Helgason told Gamasutra. "The biggest thing is that the whole rendering and lightning system is upgraded massively," he says.
Unity has fully integrated Geomerics' Enlighten global illumination technology in a "really tight collaboration" that will see it as a key part of the engine, not as external middleware that developers have to "spend months integrating," in Helgason's words. "We've had to work closely to make it perfect for Unity," he says.
When it comes to the addition of this and Imagination Technologies' PowerVR raycasting middleware, says Helgason, "it makes me really proud, because with these things we can really add value."
"We've got some really smart engineers, but there are still teams in the world that can build things better than we can -- unless we spend unimaginable amounts of energy on it," he says.
You can see the lighting and other highlighted functionality in the video embedded at the top of this story.
Unity's new physical shader editor (Click to enlarge)
The engine's audio system has been entirely revamped, and Helgason maintains that "audio designers, for the first time, can be fully productive members of the team with Unity instead of working through another program."
Unity's new audio editor (Click to enlarge)
Unity 5.0 will also be "much smarter about scheduling" on multithreaded processors. "We've learned how to do it really well on multiple platforms, including mobile," says Helgason.
The company has also upgraded the engine's 2D physics, its Mecanim animation system, its NavMesh pathfinding, and added loading optimizations. Unity Cloud cross-promotional marketing functionality will also launch with 5.0.
The engine's WebGL integration is perhaps the biggest deal of the new release. A new WebGL build button will be added to the engine, and Unity projects will play plugin-free in browsers that support the standard.
Helgason puts it this way: "We're coming into a world where some browsers will not support the [Unity] plugin, but some browsers will not support WebGL. Us having both means you can cover every browser."
Unity has spent two years working closely with Mozilla to ready this technology, which is being demoed live at GDC in both Firefox and Google Chrome browsers.
"We've been hiring like absolute madmen," says Helgason. " Now that the core engineering team is 150 people... it definitely is the biggest core engine engineering team in the world."
What Going on with Unity 4, Applifier, and Unity 5.0 Free?
Unity is not ending support for the 4.X line of its engine, with the 4.6 release coming soon. "There are very significant things left in the 4 cycle, but we're so close to 5.0 now so we wanted to able to talk about," says Helagson.
The 4.6 update will include the long-awaited GUI system announced at the 2012 Unite conference
The full integration of the Applifier technology that Unity acquired last week
-- its GameAds video advertisements and Everyplay social video sharing -- will not be part of Unity 5.0, though Unity plugins for these technologies already exist. This will come later in the 5.X cycle.
Unity 5.0 (Click to enlarge)
Though no pricing details on the engine have been released, nor has the company announced exactly what functionality will be in the free and pro versions, Helgason did say this: "The difference [between them] has been shrinking if anything else... We'll be adding some new features to the pro version and the free version. Our philosophy is that if we have something to add, we add some version of it to the free version."
The Philosophy of Upgrading Unity
Though the engine's complexity is increasing, Helgason says that the company has learned how to handle adding new features while keeping Unity's core goal of being a simple, powerful tool intact. "It's definitely a balance, but we've gotten really good at it," he says.
He characterized the company's approach as three-pronged: "replacing something with something else easy to use, because at the highest level it's just drag and drop." Then the are "features that are really hard to use, but you have to expose them or otherwise people can't do what they want... it's not dumbed-down technology."
Finally, there are APIs that "experts tend to use" and most others ignore. These can also be exposed to less experienced developers by extensions sold on the Unity Asset Store because "you can create systems on top of them." All in all, the goal is to create an increasingly robust engine that can still power developers both great and small.