"We're a graphics powerhouse now," Unity CEO John Riccitiello proclaimed Tuesday morning as he triumphantly announced the release of Unity 5, the latest iteration of the engine that has lately become ubiquitous in video games.
If you've followed games at all over the past few years, you've probably heard of Unity. It's the engine known for its flexibility, capable of supporting more than a dozen platforms. First announced back in 2005, it has since become the foundation from games ranging from Gone Home to Hearthstone: Heroes of WarCraft. Never Alone, The Long Dark, and Ori and the Blind Forest are a few other games that serve to show off Unity's range.
Until recently, though, it hasn't necessarily been known for its beauty, the best-looking Unity games relying on strong art and a handful of technical tricks for their visual fidelity. Unity 5 hopes to change that with substantial improvements to lighting, a PhysX 3.3 upgrade, and a much more robust editor. On the stage, one presenter referred to Unity 5's feature list as being "big as a phone book."
The upshot of all this is that Unity 5 will be capable of outputting triple-A quality graphics - a substantial leap from Unity 4. To drive the comparison home, Unity featured Republique Remastered designer Ryan Payton, who enthused, "I love triple-A games, I love making triple-A games, and I love playing them."
He showed side-by-side screenshots of the original Republique and the new remastered version, which was built from the ground up using Unity 5. Using Unity 4, he said, Republique's artists in Seattle had to fake the lighting for areas like The Library. In Unity 5, no such smoke and mirrors were required.
Probably the most dramatic demonstration of Unity 5 was a scene entitled, "The Blacksmith." Invoking the look and feel of top-quality games like Witcher 3, the demo looked as good as anything on the PC or current-generation consoles, outputting spectacular lighting and textures. The implication is clear: Unity wants their engine to be mentioned in the same breath as ostensibly triple-A engines like Unreal.
There's a reason for Unity's emphasis on high-end graphics. Earlier this week, Epic announced that Unreal Engine 4 would henceforth be available for free, with Epic taking a 5 percent royalty on gross revenue above $3,000 per product. The move is a shot across the bow of Unity, which has positioned itself since the beginning as the game engine for the people. Unity now has to justify the value of their engine to developers who might otherwise just go and download Unreal Engine 4.
Hence Unity's full-court press during their event Thursday, in which they trotted out developers, technical directors, and even Oculus founder Palmer Lucky, who promised built-in Oculus support for Unity 5. The program concluded with Unity founder David Helgason arguing that the company has had to push themselves "really, really hard," then proclaiming, "It's all pointed in one direction: the democratization of the industry."
What this ultimately means for you is more advanced, better-looking games, particularly at the indie level. During their event, Unity announced that they will be releasing a "personal" version of Unity 5 for free for startups with less than $100,000 in funding, with no royalties, and that the free version will include all of the engine's enhancements. It is being released alongside a professional version that will include analytics tools, special deals in the Unity asset store, and other perks for $75 per month or $1,500.
Ultimately, what matter is that both Unity 5 and Unreal Engine are being made available more or less for free, offering independent developers the means to create some great-looking games. The arms race, as it were, is on. As Epic and Unity vie for the hearts and minds of developers and gamers, the barriers to entry in game development continue to fall. The tools available to developers at every level are now more powerful than ever, and gamers stand to reap the dividends, no matter which of the 21 Unity-supported platforms that they prefer.
We may not see Witcher 3-quality visuals from three-person teams anytime soon, but the rate of progress is indeed impressive. As we head into the next-generation, Unity's goals going forward are clear.
"High-end visuals are within everyone's reach," said Mike Capps, former president of Epic Games, now stumping for Unity, "and you've got small teams that can now touch the dreams they've always had."