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David Helgason details most ambitious Unity engine yet

David Helgason details most ambitious Unity engine yet

August 22, 2012 | By Christian Nutt

August 22, 2012 | By Christian Nutt
More: Console/PC, Business/Marketing

Calling Unity 4 "the most ambitious version of Unity we've ever worked on," Unity CEO David Helgason opened up the Gamasutra-attended Unite 2012 conference in Amsterdam by showcasing graphically impressive, hit games developed in the engine around the world.

As is usual for Unity, the keynote concentrated on new features that are soon to be implemented in the project and some that are further off, with Helgason discussing new and expanded initiatives, CTO Joachim Ante (pictured) showing features due in Unity 4 -- which will be available as a beta today to existing customers -- and CCO Nicholas Francis demoing advanced features which are in alpha or pre-alpha state and hint at the direction the tool will take down the road.

Helgason began the conference, as always, by sharing some stats about the uptake of the Unity engine. As of now, Unity has over 1.2m registered developers -- 300,000 of them active monthly. 53 percent of mobile game developers use Unity, said Helgason. In fact, he said, the program is so prevalent that "2 to 5 percent of all software developers, of any kind, used Unity in the last 30 days."

Helgason highlighted the Unity Asset Store, which "was created because we saw that studios were having a hard time getting all of the skill sets under one roof, and studios were already sharing and selling," he said.

He brushed aside criticisms that all games made using Asset Store props or textures will look the same by saying "people are too smart" to do that, and showcased an in-development screen of Wasteland 2 with 49 Asset Store packages visible.

"In just four months, they feel they've come as far into a production as they would in a year," said Helgason of developer inXile.

But more interestingly, he discussed the new Online Services initiative for the store.

"Today, there are a lot of services that you need to hook up with... a lot of infrastructure. People are building it. It's not that hard to build per se but there's so much depth, richness, and experience that it takes to build this," said Helgason.

"We used some of our expertise and our connections to explore all of these service companies," he said, and revealed that Unity has picked 14 partners -- including payment platform Xsolla, advertising platform Inmobi, and community engagement platform Playhaven, among others -- to offer new online services that integrate with Unity projects.

Unity 4 Comes

Helgason noted that over 200 developers are working on Unity 4 before turning the stage over to CTO Joachim Ante, who began by demoing the new Unity animation system, Mecanim, which he described as "one of the biggest feature sets we have in Unity 4."

"It really solves some fundamental problems we have in almost every production where you have really heavy character animation," said Ante.

"For the last year we spent taking [the developers'] technology, and building an amazing UI around it, to just make it the easiest to use character animation toolset which has all of these high-end features," Ante promised, before launching into a demo of the new in-development tool.

One thing he highlighted is the ability for "people who never had access to mo-cap data to get access to mo-cap data, and really up the quality of your animations," via the Asset Store. Some will be free, too.

Ante also showcased the company's upcoming DirectX 11 renderer -- a new feature for the product -- by running a live demo of an impressive animation sequence created by production studio Passion Pictures, and then launching directly into the editor to show exactly how the movie was composed and how the renderer works for features like hair and explosions -- a characteristically hands-on example of how Unity runs its conferences.

Though the Unity 4 beta is releasing today, Helgason noted that incremental improvements will continue to come to the engine, as happened with Unity 3 (which begat 3.5.) "When we do releases, we do these longer cycles... over a couple or few years, we'll keep updating and adding, and adding, and adding," said Helgason.

unity 4.jpgSome of those fixes are obvious and big changes that come fast. Some are more unexpected leaps of faith, and these come more slowly -- from "these little teams in the back, kinda working on longer-term more experimental, and in some ways, equally good stuff," said Helgason.

One such team is headed by Nicholas Francis, the company's CCO -- an outspoken believer in producing an engine that's accessible, powerful, and has a simple UI. To that end, he demoed some new technology he's working on -- in a pre-alpha state -- to change the way games are created in Unity.

"We've been taking a step back and saying okay, what is some of the stuff that's missing from Unity," said Francis. "Some of it you already know; some of it is exceedingly obvious," he admitted.

"But some of it is asking questions like, 'What is Unity?'" Big questions lead to new answers, he intimated. "There are many answers to this," Francis said, "But I think one of the core things is that it's a tool for creating interactive 3D content."

For example, he's set his sights on scripting. "In a way, scripting is really really good for doing logic. But when it actually comes to modifying the scene, scripting is actually kind of cumbersome to work with," he said.

He showcased a new timeline function in which you can select and manipulate in game objects, tie them to animations and sounds, and define their behavior in-game, without resorting to scripting. The demo was of a door opening and closing, but he suggested that more complex interactions will be possible.

"I could have done this in code. It would not have been hard, but it would have been cumbersome as hell," said Francis. "This is a start of an attempt from our side to make time and the world state first class citizens in our editor," he said. "For an interactive tool, we should be doing a lot more about interactivity."

He also demoed a new GUI system for in-game menus. "This something I've been working on, feels like even longer than I remember," he sad. The team started by tweaking the old system, but threw it out -- and then threw out four months of new work after that, before settling on a new solution. It's real-time editable, and allows developers to create full 3D interfaces, much like those in Dead Space, that appear in the game world.

Important Platform Partnerships

In a first, Adobe's director of gaming Emmy Huang took the stage to discuss the much-anticipated Flash integration the Unity team has "been working on for a year and a half now, actually," according to Helgason.

"We are able to target over 80 percent of desktop PCs with Stage3D," said Huang, pointing out that those are all addressable for high-performance 3D games via Flash. "Over 40 percent of the web population" has opted in to Adobe's automatic updates, she said, before showing a new Flash-enabled demo of Unity shooter Shadowgun running on Facebook Canvas with new social integration.

Helgason also announced that Unity is bringing Windows 8 and Windows Phone 8 support to Unity -- "in close collaboration with Microsoft" in the case of the latter, he said. It's even up and running already -- "it's not just a fantasy -- it's actually getting close to being workable," said Helgason, though he wouldn't commit to a timeline for release.

"We're always very awake and we're testing things out, and once we decide we want to move to a platform we already have it running... so we can approach it running," he noted, promising more platform support in the future.

As always, the Unite keynote was Unity's way to show the progress it has been making on its tools -- to show promises fulfilled and promises to come, and if the audience reaction was any gauge, the engine provider continues to be on the right track with its fans.

Expect more from Unite 2012, including a Peter Molyneux keynote writeup and an interview with CEO David Helgason, in the near future on Gamasutra.

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