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Indie game developers rally behind cheap-to-use Unity Engine at Unite 2012

Still from Unity 4 demo

This week, Unity Technology showed off the latest build of its game engine, got praise from prominent developers, and handed out awards to up-and-comers at Unite 2012, a conference dedicated to showcasing the ambitious multi-platform game development engine.

While the Unity Engine is missing some of the flashy visual features that the Unreal Engine offers, it has never been about making triple-A epics. Low licensing fees have made Unity an attractive proposition to developers with more creativity than cash, and the ease with which it supports porting between consoles, PCs, and mobile devices has led eternally-ambitious developer American McGee to proclaim it ” the biggest boon for… a cross-platform developer.”  Recent announcements about the Unity Engine being optimized for Windows 8 phones and ported to Linux further cement the company’s reputation as friend to the common man.

Even if Unity can’t render buzzwords like “multi-layered luminosity dispersion,” the most recent tech demo proves that it’s capable of generating all the sloshing water, gentle shadows, waving hair, and breaking glass that a game needs.  Unity’s recent acquisition of Canadian animation-tools developer Mecanim also means that the engine provides a much smoother pipeline for making movement consistent and believable.  Mecanim-originated tools make it easy for Unity developers to test animation loops, blend different movements together smoothly, and even buy canned (but fully modifiable) animations from the Unity Store.  Unity CEO David Helgason is happy to say that while it may not be pushing pixels as hard as some, the company is “interested in solving problems more than anybody else.”

So far, Unity’s small-developer-friendly approach means that it’s very popular among beginning programmers and indie games, but it hasn’t yet made the jump to powering major titles. Cthulhu Saves the World and Snuggle Truck are delightful games, but they aren’t the kind of big hits that convince the industry that your engine is worth mastering.  The enthusiastic support of Peter Molyneux could be as much bane as blessing, given his reputation for over-promising and under-performing.

But Unity’s support of neophyte developers could be its secret weapon. Wired has been running a “Geek Teen” feature showcasing young gamers to try rolling their own, and the Unity Engine is their platform of choice. Developers on low-investment platforms like iOS and Facebook see a lot to love in an engine where licensing fees won’t bloat the budget before you build a single asset. Recent iOS delights like Beat Sneak Bandit demonstrate Unity’s philosophy of scrappy originality trumping high-spec graphics.  And many of the announcements at Unite 2012 focused on the Unity Asset Store, which Helgason says will speed up development for startup studios with “sharing and selling” options for buying pre-packaged hunks of code to cover the game design elements a studio might not be able to generate in-house.  Unity will also be partnering with payment services, community engagement specialists, and advertising suppliers to make it easy for developers to build alternative revenue streams into their games.

No one wants to see boundary-pushers like Unreal go away.  But Unity’s committment to helping independent developers make great games means that the Unity Engine could become the Honda of the gaming industry: unglamorous, middle-class, and absolutely indispensable.

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