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Unity the Underdog

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Business as usual

Things have been rather hectic lately. We’re doing work on a client project with a tight deadline, so we have diverted our focus fully to it while we complete it. Fortunately Unity’s architecture makes it easy to keep things sane and orderly, like any tool should – their purpose is to help with the job, not get in the way. The experience has been so enjoyable that soon Arges will be an Unity-only development studio. This got me thinking about something that has been in the back of my mind for a while.

Unity is greatly underestimated.

The underdog

I love the Unity game engine. Of those I’ve tried, it’s the one that seems better architectured, well designed, and usability tested (don’t get me started on Torque). There’s one thing that they do seem to suck at, however: self-promotion.

That’s kind of OK, too – I’d rather they spend their time polishing the engine than designing magazine ads – but when Cartoon Network switches to your engine to develop their Fusion Fall MMO, you should be shouting it from the rooftops.

On my end, I’ve had an interesting experience. I’ve had three separate groups discuss projects with me in terms of “it’s a great prototyping tool, we love using it while we move to a real gaming engine“. This got me wondering about the reasons, and I think that I’ve figured out the two main ones. Ironically, they’re also Unity’s strengths.

Strengths misperceived

First up is its price. I can imagine that some people look at the $200 price tag for Indie (or even $1500 for Pro) and assume it’s nothing but a glorified Flash with some 3D thrown in. The amount of value the engine gives for that price is excellent, and I really hope they don’t change it, but I can imagine some people shop around a bit and, when faced with price tags for comparable tools easily around the $200,000 range, and believe that the more inexpensive one must be woefully incomplete or underpowered.

The second one is its usability. Unity is really, really easy to get into, and much like abused housewives, we have been slapped around by our tools so much that we are almost conditioned to equate powerful with complex, and can’t imagine it being any other way.

For those that do look a bit closer at it, I’ve heard them point out at the few things left out of the main package. Unity lacks pathfinding, for instance, so in their reasoning it’s OK to pay several multiples of Unity’s price for another tool that does include it, since they can’t take the time to develop it themselves.

The main point that camp misses is that these tools, and more, are available from the community. AngryAnt provides pathfinding and behavior tree tools with a very reasonable license. There is also Rune’s Locomotion system, available for free for use with Unity, which procedurally blends the animations you have on a model to generate actions that look very fluid and natural. As time goes by, the list of available tools will only grow.

Not for long, though

This perception is likely to change soon, for several reasons. Rune will give a talk at GDC ’09 on his locomotion, which will be an eye opener for anyone who had put Unity in the prototyping tool camp. As more games are released, and Unity Technologies gets a breather from the 2.5 release to focus on marketing, companies will see the engine’s potential.

But more importantly, the upcoming 2.5 with Windows support will allow the 90% of the market still using Windows to experiment with Unity as well – I’m sure a lot won’t leave. The client we’re currently working with is one of those groups who originally considered Unity just a prototyping tool, and now they’re in love with the engine and how quickly we are putting an initial demo of the game together.

This is going to be one cool year.

  1. Emil Johansen (AngryAnt)
    Emil Johansen (AngryAnt)03-16-2009

    Everyone – hold fast! The unity rocket is about to blast off!

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