Game developers represent the beating heart and soul of the game industry, and game engines are the body they drive. The game engine allows developers to interact with the digital world and forge new experiences for us all. Perhaps you’ve heard some engines name-dropped along with new releases: the Unreal Engine, the Source Engine, idTech, Gamebryo. There are almost as many engines to choose from as there are games which use them. But foremost in the indie developer community is the ubiquitous Unity. But what is Unity?

What is the Unity Game Engine?

From triple-A titles to Ludum Dare game jams the world over, Unity often announces its presence via the mandatory splash screen when using the free version. But pro and other paid users can forgo advertising the engine if desired, meaning it’s even more widespread than you might realize. Powering such diverse games as Hearthstone, Cities: Skylines, Kerbal Space Program, Ori and the Blind Forest, and Escape from Tarkov—just to name a few—Unity seems to handle anything you throw at it with poise and finesse.

So what exactly is Unity? Let’s take a look.

The Unity Game Engine was designed from the ground up to be a multitool, opening everything up to the developer with robust and well-documented Application Programming Interfaces (APIs). These offer easy points of access to interface between the developer’s code and the systems under the hood.

Unity
Unity in Action

Compared to most engines, where the learning curve looks like a weathered seaside cliff, Unity’s looks like a stairway to development heaven. There are plenty of first-party video tutorials to get you started, but thanks to Unity’s market saturation, a thriving community of deeper, more focused tutorials by veteran developers await to ease you into any sort of game you like.

Clearly, a lot of thought went into how to make Unity work for as many developers as possible. That includes their approach with pricing.

Unity Free vs. Unity Plus vs. Unity Pro

No matter your budget, from shoestring to triple-A, there’s a Unity for you. There are currently four tiers available to choose from: Personal, Plus, Pro, and Enterprise, though the latter is reserved for the big fish in the sea.

Unity Personal (Free)

  • The Unity splash screen is forced to show when games start
  • Reserved for individuals or small teams with less than $100,000 in funding or revenue

Hence the stigma—but recognize that free means freedom for aspiring devs. The freedom to try something new. The freedom to experiment and grow. While other engines offer similar licensing terms for free users, it cannot be overstated what a powerful and valuable asset this is for those looking to test the waters.

Unity Plus ($35/month)

  • Pro Editor UI Theme
  • Customizable splash screen
  • Unity Learn (premium access)
  • Increased funding/revenue cap of $200,000
  • Support for in-game Ads and In-App Purchases
  • Limited-time discounts for certain assets on the Unity Asset Store
  • Advanced Cloud Diagnostics handled by the Unity Cloud (and 25GB of storage w/ yearly subscriptions)

This is where things get exciting. The Asset Store discount lowers the hurdle for adding quality assets to your project, especially for developers who find that some hats fit better than others. Moreover, adding your own branding to the splash screen is incredibly important to putting your stamp on a game you’re proud of.

And with Unity Learn Premium, you’ll have handy tutorials, live instructor-led sessions, and cutting edge resources at your fingertips to make the most of your Unity experience.

Unity Pro ($125/month)

  • All of the above
  • No funding/revenue limit
  • Priority technical support
  • Access to Unity’s source code

VIP access to technical support means you can keep focused on development and not on handling engine issues or other hangups. And with access to the source code, you can make the engine your own. Got an idea for how you could improve Unity? No need to wait—you could add it yourself!

Notice: Prices go up on January 1st, 2020. Unity Plus subscriptions will increase to $40/month, and Unity Pro to $150/month. If you’re considering engaging with Unity at some point in the next year, save a few bucks and act now!

What’s new in Unity 2019?

The Unity team has been hard at work in 2019, adding plenty of innovative and exciting features for devs to take advantage of. Full integration of tools like Probuilder and Polybrush allow artists to rapidly prototype and deploy assets right in the engine. Improvements to their Entity Component System (ECS) and the Lightweight Render Pipeline (LWRP) offer lots of flexibility and horsepower for building performant, visually striking games.

Hearthstone was Made with Unity
Made in Unity

In addition, the new Shader Graph enhancement demystifies the arcane craft of creating shaders, making it easy enough that your parents could do it. Ongoing improvements to the AR Foundation and VR toolsets means more full-immersion experiences from developers brave enough to dabble in that realm. And of course, there’s more—way more than we have room to list in this article. Unity 2019 is bigger and better than ever, and given the roadmap for 2020, the Unity team is just getting started.

What Can You Do with Unity?

It’s often easy to identify the engine powering your favorite games by the immaterial and loosely defined “feel” of them. Multiple games running on the same engine can share similarities in player movement, how the player interacts with the environment, visual effects, and other core features.

This often favors one genre from another according to the way the engine was designed. But if you take a look around, it seems like Unity is powering games in just about every genre under the sun. So how is it that Unity can produce so many different experiences with ease?

It’s all in the APIs.

Gaze long into the Unity Scripting Reference, and it shall gaze back into you. The reference is essential for all Unity developers and reveals how the APIs come together to make the magic happen. Audio, UI, 2D and 3D rendering, and even the bare-bones representation of an object’s position, rotation, and scale in space are all available to you via the scripting APIs to play with as you will.

Unity in Action
Unity in Action

There are very few engine components you can’t manipulate or extend the functionality of via code. This allows the savvy developer to harness the power within for whatever purpose they desire—from a real-time strategy game to a first-person shooter or a flavor-of-the-day mobile game. Though Unity doesn’t have a true 2D mode, with 2D and 2.5D projects rendered in 3D space through an orthogonal camera, it can still get the job done.

Unity’s choice to favor C# over C++ or other programming languages means that digging into your code is more like taking a shovel to soft soil instead of hard-baked clay. Sharing more in common with Java than legacy C code, C# further eases the learning curve with the conveniences of a modern, high-level language. And rest assured that previous programming experience will transfer painlessly to C#, even if Unity is your first exposure to it.

Yes, Unity can build to just about any platform too. You can build to PC, of course, but you can also build to Switch, Xbox One, or PS4 to add the console audience. This sort of flexibility is core to the design philosophy for Unity—nothing is out of reach.

Unity vs Other Game Engines

The other engines often mentioned in the same breath as Unity are Godot and Unreal.

All three offer free and paid versions with robust API documentation. All three can also flexibly handle 2D, 2.5D, and 3D games with relative ease. So why choose Unity over the others? Truth be told, it’s largely a matter of preference and opinion.

But how do they compare?

Godot

Godot

Godot is largely focused on 2D development, though their 3D renderer has made significant strides in recent years. The community isn’t as large—or at least not as prolific—as the Unity community, leaving you searching more often for the right solution to an issue.

That said, Godot does allow developers to choose between their own proprietary GDScript, C#, and C++ for their development language. This presents a major leg up for developers with extensive C++ experience.

Godot is also completely free and open-source, which is hard to beat if you’re a proponent of the libre software movement. Unlike Unity and Unreal, Godot is restricted to building to PC and mobile only, with consoles left high and dry as far as first-party support is concerned. But thanks to the magic of open source, console support is only a particularly motivated developer away!

Unreal

Unreal

Unreal seems to be the industry standard these days, especially for triple-A studios. The renderer and graphical fidelity is hard to beat without extensive work when compared to other engines. Unreal also offers codeless programming via visual scripting out of the box with Blueprints, allowing you to prototype or tune systems with ease without touching a line of code. While Unity does have their own visual scripting feature in the works, Unreal has the first-mover advantage in this space.

The Unreal Engine can also build to just about every platform as well, though it only supports C++ as far as programming languages go. For veterans in the industry, that isn’t likely to be a problem, but newcomers may find C++ to be like jumping into the deep end of the pool.

All things considered, each engine has it’s pros and cons. It’s hard to beat Unity when it comes to ease of access. But that ease of access may come with an unspoken price tag.

Unity: The Little Engine that Could

Unity has made a name for itself—and perhaps a bad reputation—as the easy and free-to-use game engine for new indie developers. Just about anyone with a dream and a game in their heart can churn out a playable build with a few tutorials and API references. As anyone who’s cruised itch.io and other repositories of indie titles can attest, some of these efforts may have benefited from a little more time in the oven before consumption—and that’s where Unity’s reputation, good or bad, was forged.

Indeed, many gamers have come to associate the Unity splash screen with haphazard design and assets that can be found in a dozen other titles they played just this month. But Unity is simply a tool, as potent as the skill and know-how of the person wielding it behind the screen. More and more titles powered by Unity hit digital markets every day, and not all of them advertise the association. Can you blame them? It’s hard to shake a poor first impression.

Ori and the Blind Forest
Made in Unity

It falls to developers to raise the bar, taking full advantage of the tools at their disposal and recognizing that game development is fundamentally an art form. And if all the new artists are using the Unity brand canvas, should gamers be so quick to write off anyone else’s art before they have a chance to experience it simply because of the tools used to make it? Perhaps we could do to be more thoughtful in our approach—but time is a rare and valuable commodity.

Maybe we simply need more gamers willing to experiment; to learn what it takes to create the sort of experiences we enjoy every day. Perhaps they’ll even create a unique experience of their own in turn. Unity is proof that the age of the garage developer didn’t end in the 90s; it’s alive and well, waiting for the right people with the right ideas and the discipline to see them through.

And with Unity-powered, innovative titles like Kerbal Space Program, Hearthstone, and Cities: Skylines making waves across the industry, the future seems bright for indie developers and fans alike.

Further Reading

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