THERE’S A REVOLUTION GOING ON, AND THE GOOD GUYS ARE WINNING.
They’re not setting up barricades of burning tires, so don’t be alarmed. They aren’t after your stash of survival seeds, either. All they want to do is “democratize” interactive 3D technology across every major device and market. They apparently won’t stop until every entrepreneur who has an idea for a cool new game or application has downloaded the Unity* Engine and put it to the test.
Millions of Internet users have already interfaced with the Unity Web Player to experience a netbook app or play a game on a handheld device. Paying customers for the Unity Engine include Coca-Cola, Microsoft, and NASA, while hundreds of thousands of individuals have hooked up for the free individual license.
With full support for the Intel® Atom™ processor and the Intel® Graphics Media Accelerator, the Unity Engine is good enough to attract top studios such as Electronic Arts (EA), publisher of Tiger Woods Online*, and flexible enough to support Web browsers, smartphones, netbooks, laptops, desktops, and more. The same code base can compile across multiple markets, yielding
potentially lucrative hits and relatively inexpensive misses.
Based in San Francisco, Unity has experienced tremendous growth since its founding in 2006. By September 2010, Unity 3.0 had debuted to wide acclaim among its enthusiastic user base. The next month, the team held Unite 2010, a developer conference for their worldwide coterie of artists, programmers, designers, researchers, and aficionados.
Attention to community and social networking has been a key ingredient in Unity’s success, with abundant sharing and crosspollination between app builders and game makers. In 2010, the company launched the Unity Asset Store, at http://unity3d.com/unity/editor/asset-store, giving all developers an easy way to share their latest art packs, advanced script libraries, new workflows, and other resources.
READY FOR THE NEXT GENERATION
As regular readers of Visual Adrenaline know, the Intel Atom processor continues to fuel the sale of millions of inexpensive netbooks and mobile devices annually. That market caught Unity’s attention early on, and they have stayed connected ever since.
According to Steffen Toksvig, the development director at Unity Technologies, their relationship with Intel is important to the tool’s success. “Unity’s engineers have stayed synched with Intel as our tool has evolved,” Toksvig said. “We take optimizations for Intel’s integrated chips very seriously because the graphics chips represent a significant part of our web player install base.”
“One of our guiding principles is that we take the pain out of game development,” Toksvig said. “Making Unity function across so many devices is a lot of work, but we strongly believe that solving deployment to multiple platforms in a practical way . . . is incredibly valuable. We always prioritize platforms by what we believe a large amount of our customers can actually make money on.”
Yet as much as Unity looks to the future, they keep a firm grasp on the past. “We pride ourselves on our backward compatibility,” Toksvig said. “We even optimize for chips like the [Intel] Graphics Media Accelerator 950, which is still the single biggest graphics chipset out there.”
With the recent debut of the 2nd generation Intel® Core™ processor, the Unity team has been involved in training, demos, and knowledge transfers. They are already up to speed on the changes they’ll see with this new addition to the Intel lineup because they know PC support is a key “must-have” for them. “We have an excellent relationship with the Intel engineers and an ample supply of the latest hardware to test on,” Toksvig explained. That relationship goes both ways, too. “Intel is running our Graphics Functional Test suite internally to ensure that future changes are always compatible with Unity,” said Toksvig.
“We are extremely interested in delivering great 3D content to both the Web and to handheld devices, areas where the [Intel] Atom [processor] has a strong presence,” Toksvig continued. “We use [Intel] Atom [processor] devices in our testing and work with the Intel engineers to make sure Unity content runs correctly.”
The Unity team uses Intel® software tools heavily in the course of optimizing and fine tuning, such as the Intel® Media SDK and the Intel® Graphics Performance Analyzers (Intel® GPA), which is free to download at www.intel.com/software/GPA. “[Intel] GPA is absolutely one of the best performance analyzers out there,” Toksvig said. “We love it. We have an ongoing investment in supporting multi-core architectures, and we are moving heavy tasks one by one to be multi-threaded. This goes for both in the tools and in the engine.”
A TRANSFORMATIONAL FORCE
Unity 3.0 was a major step forward for users, with built-in Beast light mapping and occlusion culling, a debugger, a full editor overhaul, and stunning performance gains. Unity optimized the graphics pipeline and achieved a performance increase on the order of 40 to 60 percent across the board. They added dozens of new features and more than 100 enhancements.
The release was celebrated in the growing user community, as revealed on the Unity discussion boards. It was almost a “statement” as much as a release. “With Unity 3, we’re demonstrating that we can move faster than any other middleware company,” Toksvig said.
The release brought so many new features and upgraded technologies to bear that it moved the needle on application building in general. Toksvig said it showed a fundamental commitment to the industry and the customer: “We’re serious about the long term, [because] high technology made simple is a transformational force.”
[Intel® Graphics Performance Analyzer] is absolutely one of the best performance analyzers out there. We love it."
—Steffen Toksvig, Development Director, Unity Technologies
“With Unity 3, we spent a lot of time refactoring our code to make it easy to add new platforms that we can publish to while keeping a single authoring environment. We split up the runtime code in such a way that we can do platform-specific optimizations and make sure that Unity runs optimally everywhere,” Toksvig said.
Unity 3 is packed with new technology designed to squeeze out every last bit of performance. Balancing the need for speed with quality and overall performance wasn’t easy, but building tools that allow for rapid prototyping and iterating changes very quickly is a key driving principle for the team, and the successful recipe keeps cooking along.
NEW FEATURES IN UNITY* 3.0 UNIFIED EDITOR
One editor now targets all supported platforms, including Apple iPhone*, Apple iPad*, Web, Nintendo Wii*, Sony PlayStation* 3, Microsoft Xbox* 360, Apple Mac* OS, and Microsoft Windows*. Whatever the target, you can preview the project inside the editor to see exactly how your game works.
Unity 3.0’s new deferred lighting system uses G-Buffers to provide for hundreds of point lights per scene with a marginal cost to performance. Switching on the deferred lighting is literally just a combo box option in Unity.
Beast Light Mapping
Unity 3 features Beast light mapping technology. Beast interacts beautifully with real-time dynamic lights so that as objects come closer, Unity fades to real-time lighting, giving you full shading details.
Unity Pro ships with light plumes, high-quality depth-of-field, internal lens reflections, outlining, depth-aware color correction, and more.
You can access Reverb Zones, filters, tracker file support, and editable falloff curves for all major audio parameters, giving you full control over your sound ambience.
A new content browser shows everything with nice previews—including tagging and searching—so the assets you need are always at your fingertips.
Unity 3 introduces script debugging with MonoDevelop on both Windows and the Mac. You can pause your game, do line-by-line single stepping, set breakpoints, and inspect variables.
Licensed users gain access to Umbra*, a top occlusion-culling system used by many major studios. It works on mobile devices, Web applications, and consoles.
“Licensing Beast and Umbra let us focus on workflow that makes pro features like this accessible for a wide range of developers,” Toksvig explained. “Building stunning light maps is all about tweaking and iteration. We spent a lot of time building good previewing tools that cut down iteration time and ensuring that our real-time lighting model matches the baked light maps closely. We also added a novel technique called Dual Light mapping, which lets us blend real-time and Global Illumination to get the best of both worlds.”
THE HITS KEEP COMING
Unity 3.1 appeared in late 2010, and regular, predictable updates are guaranteed to follow. That cadence has fueled tremendous growth in the company. “We’ve been seeing hypergrowth,” Toksvig said. “We’re now nearing 300,000 developers and 40 million installs of our player.”
The flagship feature of Unity 3.1 is the Unity Asset Store. Accessed directly within Unity, it is the way developers get assets for their games. The store launched with around 70 existing packages included, and from now on, it’ll be the prime repository for art, tutorials, scripts, and libraries.
WHAT'S YOUR IDEA?
Unity empowers users to create the best interactive entertainment or multimedia experience that they can make. It’s a breakthrough development platform for creating games and interactive 3D, such as training simulations, and medical and architectural visualizations. Unity runs on the tiniest mobile devices while retaining the full feature set of top-tier engines. That was all part of the company’s original goal, and so clear was the vision that Unity’s founders are approximately right where they thought they would be at this point in their corporate life.
“We had great dreams when we started Unity,” said Joachim Ante, one of Unity’s founders and its chief technology officer. “We had the vision of democratizing game development and enabling everyone to create rich, interactive 3D.” Ante and his co-founders, David Helgason and Nicholas Francis, knew such a powerful tool could completely disrupt the game engine market, but that was part of the idea.
Unity is still growing. User downloads happen continually, 24/7, because that entrepreneurial spirit is a powerful global dream. Create the right app, and you could laugh your way to the bank. Figure out what the market needs before it knows what to look for, and you can guide a new industry. It used to be called the American Dream, but now it’s gone viral. Racing, golf, puzzles, bird identification, or volcano snooping—there’s no way to predict the next killer app.
“We have a remarkable community of developers,” Ante said. They range “from 14-year-old kids creating amazing content, to the EAs of the world creating super-polished products. This is what continues to blow my mind—that it is actually possible to create a platform that supports such a wide range of users . . . “
SO WHAT’S YOUR IDEA? GO TO WWW.UNITY3D.COM AND GET IN ON THE GOLD RUSH.
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