Unity and the democratisation of game development

How the popular engine has inspired a new generation of indies.

Hearthstone, Thomas Was Alone, Kentucky Route Zero, Republique, The Forest, Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty, Gone Home. The list of independently made video games produced using the Unity engine goes on and on – well into the thousands, if you count mobile platforms. Founded in 2004, this Danish startup conceived an engine that would democratise game development, allowing anyone and everyone to use its tech at a reasonable price.

Bankrolled by venture capitalists, Unity Technologies got off to a steady start. Now, however, its engine is used by well over half of mobile game studios, boasting upwards of a million registered developers, while an unprecedented deal with Nintendo means anyone with a Wii U developer license will receive a free copy of Unity as the established software development kit for the console. With the forthcoming Unity 5.0 promising to be the biggest step forward for the engine so far, it’s evidently come a long way in ten years.

Moon Studios’ stunning platformerOri and the Blind Forest is one of many forthcoming games made in Unity.

Unity’s success is partly down to a combination of accessibility and its emphasis on portability. Having originally been developed for Mac OS, this cross-platform tool supports 15 individual formats. Tens of millions of players have downloaded the Unity browser plugin, though it was arguably the smartphone boom that really saw it begin to flourish among the development community. Unity was one of the first engines with full support for the iPhone, a move that reaped significant dividends as the App Store took off.

“Unity is the Photoshop of game development.”

It’s hard to find a developer with anything bad to say about Unity. Mike Bithell used the engine to make his debut PC hit Thomas Was Alone, which has sold more than a million copies since release, and been ported to five additional platforms, including consoles and smartphones. “Unity as an engine has been a great leveller,” he says. “Especially with the free version. You no longer need to be an incredible coder to make and publish successful games.” Luis Hernandez, one half of Necrophone Games, which made surreal spy comedy Jazzpunk using Unity, describes it as “the Photoshop of game development.”

“I think it’s the equivalent right now of portastudios becoming available,” Hernandez continues. “Tascamportastudios became very popular in the 1980s, because it was very cheap compared to going to a music studio and having your tracks recorded on a two-inch tape. You could get any cassette tape, record it on a portastudio and mix a little four-track demo tape. That opened the floodgates to everybody, [because] you didn’t need too much money or investment to do something like that. It’s the same with Unity. It’s an entire editing suite where you can basically begin building your game from the ground up on it. I mean, we’re a two-person studio, and we made an entire game! Obviously with some other stuff as well - I have some equipment that I did the audio on – but it was well within our reach.” Just Add Water’s Matt Glanville says Unity was invaluable during development of the studio’s recent Abe’s Oddysee remake, Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty. The studio switched from its original engine to Unity part way through the process, and Glanville says he saw the benefits immediately. “With Unity you can make adjustments while the game is running. Before, you had to stop, then come back and try again. Now you can just tweak a number here or a value there, and see it [in game] as it happens.”

Madfinger Games’ Dead Trigger 2 was used to demo Unity’s WebGL compatibility – Unity games will run in Firefox web browsers without requiring a plug-in.

Industry veteran Lorne Lanning has similarly high praise for the company’s attentiveness. “I've been working in software a long time, since the mid-Eighties, and I've never worked with a company where they have that much growth happening that fast and yet they're responsive to your individual needs. I mean, they've demonstrated authentic interest in making their lighting more dynamic and their animation [tools] better. Maybe that’s because we were really pushing it, maybe we got more attention than someone who was just running into walls and didn't have anything very exciting to show. But all that said, it was a very unique phenomenon at a business software engine level.”

“Now they have this much market penetration, they have to figure out how to take that to the next level.”

Lanning adds that Unity now faces some interesting challenges having “saturated its engine” into the marketplace. “They did something brilliant where they were able to get all these people using it, this huge amount of individuals who had an accessible engine that they could do something pretty real with. Now they have this much market penetration, they have to figure out how to take that to the next level. If you were Id [Software] back in the day and you were selling an engine, you took it to the next level by having Doom. What I've heard a lot back west is that Unity needs more killer apps.”

New ‘n’ Tasty itself is a terrific showcase for Unity, of course, and its debut on PlayStation 4 suggests the company is already well-positioned to cope with the multiplatform curve for the new console generation. But the next big step is surely Unity 5.0, revealed at this year’s GDC. The new tech offers a wealth of improvements to visual and audio tools, though it comes at a cost: a subscription to Unity Pro is $75 a month, or developers can opt instead to buy perpetual licenses for $1500.

Compared with Unreal Engine 4’s aggressively priced monthly fee of $20, it seems expensive, though unlike Epic’s offering there are no royalties to pay. Its iOS and Android SKUs are reportedly more stable, too, though Unity’s real ace in the hole is its Asset Store, which offers quick and inexpensive solutions to circumvent the kind of problems small developers in particular might be struggling with. As Mike Bithell puts it, “rendering a silhouette when the player moves behind an obstacle, or handling palette swapping characters, used to be done on a game by game basis. Now I can buy a standardised solution for the price of a pizza. That frees me to put more energy into the unique elements of my game.”

Unity might face a fight on its hands if it’s to fulfil its aim to become the de facto choice for multiformat games, but one thing’s for sure: it’s got the market penetration, the investment and the confidence to tackle its challenges head on. “They’re not going away,” says Lanning. “Once they make that next step, people aren’t going to recognise Unity. I’d bet on them – I mean, we already have in our own way – but I’d buy stock.