Come to­gether

Unity Tech­nolo­gies adds games to its en­vi­able list of achieve­ments


There’s a com­mon re­frain that we hear re­peat­edly dur­ing our trip to the Copen­hagen of­fices of Unity Tech­nolo­gies, the maker of one of the most pop­u­lar game en­gines on the planet: “We don’t make games.” VP of en­gi­neer­ing Brett Bibby says it a good few times, adding, “We are the 600-per­son-strong engine team for ev­ery de­vel­oper”. Or, “We’re suc­cess­ful only if our cus­tomers are suc­cess­ful.” Smart stuff, you’d think, for a com­pany in the busi­ness of mak­ing tools – but in an ef­fort to beat the com­pe­ti­tion, Unity has now started de­vel­op­ing its own games, too.

Since its foun­da­tion in 2004, Unity’s cen­tral mis­sion state­ment has been “democratis­ing de­vel­op­ment”. That means pro­duc­ing tools in­tended to make it eas­ier for devel­op­ers to cre­ate games – and of­fer­ing them for free to smaller stu­dios. A big part of that am­bi­tion has been about help­ing devel­op­ers to fill game worlds with min­i­mum ef­fort. A quick glance at the Unity As­set Store will turn up free pack­ages of highly de­tailed trees and rocks, or parts enough to build your own 2D plat­former.

Unity’s tools for this are only get­ting bet­ter, as we’ll find out dur­ing the course of our visit – but sheer scale of con­tent isn’t the only thing that mat­ters for the com­pany to­day. Fort­nite, af­ter all, has shown how you can have just a sin­gle map and still be the big­gest game in the world.

Fort­nite rep­re­sents some­thing of a prob­lem for Unity. Along with other re­cent mul­ti­player hits in­clud­ing

Player un­known’s Bat­tle­grounds and Ark: Sur­vival Evolved, it was built on Unity’s main com­peti­tor, Un­real Engine 4. More­over, its suc­cess has helped re­shape the engine it­self. Unity has de­scribed

Fort­nite as a “de­vel­op­ment sand­box”, guid­ing the way TV-sized games get ported to mo­bile and push­ing the engine to op­ti­mise its mul­ti­player per­for­mance for much larger groups of play­ers. That makes Un­real even more at­trac­tive for any­one look­ing to de­velop the next world-dom­i­nat­ing mul­ti­player game.

Mean­while, devel­op­ers us­ing Unity – of which there are over a mil­lion ac­tive each month – are more likely to be cre­at­ing smaller in­de­pen­dent projects such as re­cent suc­cess sto­ries Hol­low Knight, Over­cooked and Bat­tleTech. On the hori­zon, the most high-pro­file ti­tles be­ing built with Unity in­clude Moon Stu­dios’ Ori And The Will Of The Wisps, and Campo Santo’s In The Val­ley Of Gods. All ex­cit­ing games that will do well, but Fort­nite has moved the goal­posts some­what. If Unity does have an equiv­a­lent, it’s Poké­mon Go – but the work­ings of that game are so par­tic­u­lar that it can’t re­ally serve as a blue­print for suc­cess. “The next big first-party game for the PS5 be­ing made in Unity,” Bibby says, day­dream­ing. “That’s what suc­cess looks like.”

In the mean­time, though, Unity is plan­ning to just pro­duce its own paragons of what the engine has to of­fer to­day’s devel­op­ers. So, yes, at least tem­po­rar­ily, Unity does make games. Not full ones, but sam­ple games that it’s hop­ing will in­spire devel­op­ers. The first of which, prob­a­bly not co­in­ci­den­tally, is a mul­ti­player FPS.

This as-yet- un­ti­tled shooter has been built by a team of six, formed last Au­gust specif­i­cally for this project. They’re led by pro­gram­mer Peter An­dreasen, who has spent around two decades on the other side of the fence, work­ing on games such as Hit­man: Blood Money and Kane & Lynch: Dead Men. “We wanted to do a mul­ti­player game, to show users how you can do it in Unity,” An­dreasen tells us. “We heard a lot from our users that they would like to do mul­ti­player, but it’s a pretty tricky thing to en­ter into, so we’d like to give them a start­ing point.”

This is the en­tire point of the game’s ex­is­tence. Ev­ery­thing from its asym­met­ri­cal de­sign to the back­story of its world was picked be­cause it serves the tech­nol­ogy on which it is built. The ac­tion sees a race of alien ter­raform­ers strug­gle with na­tive ro­botic min­ers, as each group tries to cap­ture and de­fend three points on the map.

This set-up was, An­dreasen ad­mits, “an ex­cuse to pro­duce a wide range of con­tent”. The two races al­lowed his team to de­velop two distinct char­ac­ter classes, with their own weapon types. The fic­tion, such as it is, led to a map that runs from bar­ren waste­land, through in­dus­trial in­te­ri­ors, to ex­otic flora.

The game wasn’t pri­mar­ily de­signed to be fun – al­though there’s much whoop­ing and hol­ler­ing as the rest of the dev team duke it out dur­ing our visit. Like a reg­u­lar tech demo, it’s a show­case for what Unity is ca­pa­ble of. On top of that, though, it’s in­tended to be a learn­ing tool – for devel­op­ers that use the engine, cer­tainly, but also for Unity it­self.

“Ide­ally, users who are build­ing their own game can look in here and they can say, ‘Okay, this light­ing, I’d like some­thing like that in my game’, and they can open it up and see how it’s done,” An­dreasen says. “We left all the tools in there. It’s not just the run­time as­pect of the game, it’s also the dif­fer­ent editor tools that ev­ery­one has to build in or­der to make a pro­duc­tion. So we left them here for peo­ple to take and maybe use in their own projects.”

There’s a hope that this sam­ple game might also pro­vide an ac­cess point for peo­ple look­ing to take their first steps from play­ing to cre­at­ing. “Many of us ac­tu­ally en­tered de­vel­op­ment by mod­ding, or pro­gram­ming stuff that had been open­sourced,” says An­dreasen of his team. “For a lot of peo­ple, tin­ker­ing and ex­per­i­ment­ing is a very ef­fec­tive way of learn­ing things.”

Mean­while, within Unity, the sam­ple game is a way of test­ing new fea­tures in a con­trolled re­al­ity be­fore send­ing them into the world, like an in­ter­nal beta test. Or, to use the tech com­pany par­lance, ‘dog­food­ing’ – us­ing your own prod­ucts to bet­ter un­der­stand their prob­lems and thus, po­ten­tially, the so­lu­tions.

“For a lot of peo­ple, tin­ker­ing and ex­per­i­ment­ing is a very ef­fec­tive way of learn­ing things”

The team’s glass-fronted of­fice is lo­cated (in­ten­tion­ally, we’re told) right in the midst of the R&D depart­ment, to en­cour­age col­leagues walk­ing past to poke in their head and men­tion a new fea­ture that could do with test­ing, or to ask for feed­back on some­thing.

It all sounds great in the­ory. But in prac­tice, what have they ac­tu­ally learned from the project? An­dreasen can’t point to any dra­matic changes to Unity that have been specif­i­cally trig­gered by the de­vel­op­ment of this game. It’s mostly im­prove­ments within op­ti­mi­sa­tion and per­for­mance, he says. Okay – so, given the team don’t have to worry about sales like most game devel­op­ers, what does suc­cess look like?

“Be­cause all of us have a back­ground in game de­vel­op­ment, we con­stantly think about, ‘What would some­one like me find use­ful, if I was on the out­side?’ So the best test of whether some­thing is use­ful is if it makes other peo­ple suc­cess­ful. If, in a cou­ple of years, I meet some game de­vel­oper who has made a runaway hit with Unity, sold ten mil­lion copies, and I fig­ure out that team started with this sam­ple game, even if they ended up chang­ing ev­ery sin­gle line of code… I’ll be very happy. That’ll be suc­cess for me.”

If the sam­ple

game is a re­flec­tion of what off-the-shelf en­gines need to of­fer devel­op­ers to­day, we’re also shown a more tra­di­tional tech demo, with a much grander scope, that shows what Unity will be ca­pa­ble of in fu­ture. A fly­ing car, look­ing like it could have been ripped straight from the orig­i­nal Blade Run­ner, darts be­tween bru­tal­ist tow­ers lit by dusty sun­light. It’s Gor­meng­hast as cityscape, a sprawl of gnarled sky­scrapers pep­pered with neon signs and ex­oskele­tons of scaf­fold­ing, that stretches hor­i­zon­tally and ver­ti­cally as far as you can see.

Fly­ing through the midst of all this spec­ta­cle, it’s hard not to feel the in­flu­ence of a cer­tain E3 demo on this cy­ber­punk vista. But, hon­estly, it makes Night City look pos­i­tively pro­vin­cial, al­beit with a few im­por­tant caveats. This is a city pop­u­lated only by other air­borne ve­hi­cles, form­ing lines of traf­fic in the sky above and be­low, rather than the streetlevel bus­tle that CD Pro­jekt has been show­ing off. And it is, at least for now, strictly a tech demo. Nonethe­less, the sheer scale is dizzy­ing. There are some­where in the re­gion of ten mil­lion game ob­jects in this demo, we’re told, and 3.5 mil­lion of them are vis­i­ble at any one time. A large-scale Unity game ap­par­ently con­tains around 100,000 – equiv­a­lent to just one build­ing in this city.

Re­mark­ably, this scene was all built by two artists, on loan from an­other project, in the space of three weeks. At least, its skele­ton was – pro­duc­tion of the in­di­vid­ual high-res as­sets was out­sourced to ex­ter­nal artists. Unity has built an en­tire city just to show off the lat­est fea­ture of­fered by its game engine: the not es­pe­cially sexy-sound­ing ‘nested pre­fabs’. The team use var­i­ous analo­gies to ex­plain these – “build­ing blocks”, “Rus­sian dolls”, “Lego” – but ul­ti­mately, they’re just a smart ex­ten­sion of how Unity han­dles as­sets.

“A pre­fab is a re­us­able ob­ject,” Niko­line Hoegh, user ex­pe­ri­ence de­signer at Unity, tells us. “An ob­ject could be a can, trash bags, a build­ing – these are all game ob­jects in the world. I can put an ob­ject some­where, cre­ate a lot of copies of it, and if I up­date just one of them, they’re all go­ing to change. This was al­ready the ex­ist­ing sys­tem, and the way that games and worlds are built with Unity to­day. What’s new on top of that is the abil­ity to ba­si­cally take a pre­fab and put it in­side an­other.”

This al­lows smaller ob­jects, from walls to win­dow shut­ters to air-con­di­tion­ing units, to be as­sem­bled into big­ger tile-sets, which can in turn be com­bined to form blocks as large as an en­tire sky­scraper. It is, es­sen­tially, tile-sets all the way down. If this sounds like it would make for repet­i­tive en­vi­ron­ments – well, that’s not vis­i­ble in the fi­nal re­sult. Risk crash­ing your hov­er­car to go in for a closer look, and you might no­tice some of the same neon signs dot­ted around, but the over­all ef­fect is of some­thing be­spoke. The build­ings are formed, al­most co­ral-like, out of apart­ment-sized pro­tru­sions, and it’s hard to spot any pat­terns in the way they’re ar­ranged.

Unity claims this kind of en­vi­ron­ment sim­ply couldn’t be built with­out nested pre­fabs. It be­lieves the fea­ture will solve a prob­lem that’s putting strain on even the big­gest devel­op­ers as they push for in­creas­ingly open worlds – the sheer work­load in­volved in cre­at­ing high-fidelity en­vi­ron­ments at scale. “If you look at the ex­plo­sion in res­o­lu­tion, I can’t build 50 lev­els of 8K-dis­play-wor­thy rich pho­to­re­al­is­tic con­tent,” says Bibby. “It’s too much work.”

There is talk of spin­ning out the Mega City project into its own sam­ple game in fu­ture, but it’s just one of the op­tions be­ing dis­cussed. “What Peter’s group is do­ing is mov­ing us from be­ing [neu­tral] Switzer­land to some­thing more opin­ion­ated,” says Bibby. “If we were go­ing to build an FPS, this is how we would build it – and we want to do that in dif­fer­ent gen­res.”

The idea is to pack­age each sam­ple game with all the be­spoke so­lu­tions you’d need to make some­thing in that mould. RTS, MMO and fight­ing games are all on Unity’s hitlist. Each of those is a pri­mar­ily mul­ti­player genre, but each re­quires very dif­fer­ent tech­nol­ogy, from ren­derer to net­work ar­chi­tec­ture. This is part of a broader move by Unity, to­wards of­fer­ing a more mod­u­lar tool to devel­op­ers. “We be­lieve that one size does not fit all,” Bibby says. The idea is that it will of­fer spe­cific engine pack­ages for in­di­vid­ual gen­res. And be­yond that, devel­op­ers will be able to cus­tomise Unity, strip­ping away any tools they don’t need in or­der to cre­ate the engine which best suits their spe­cific project – whether that’s an eye-catch­ing in­die game or, per­haps, the next world-dom­i­nat­ing mul­ti­player shooter.

There are some­where in the re­gion of ten mil­lion game ob­jects in this demo, we’re told

The Mega City land­scape is con­structed out of just a few hun­dred com­po­nents, but like Lego blocks they can be com­bined to build nearly in­fi­nite per­mu­ta­tions

Brett Bibby, VP of en­gi­neer­ing

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