The game engine that is quietly fueling the indie gaming boom
If you pay enough attention to indie gaming over a long enough period of time you're bound to notice the single factor that binds dozens of modern indie titles together. Many of them are developed with the same game engine.
The Unity engine hasn't come with the fanfare or applause of the Source engine or the flashy tech demos of Unreal Engine 4, but it's been quietly supporting the indie gaming boom with tech that is both inexpensive and highly valuable for small teams.
The Wild West
“The video game industry is like the wild west right now,” said Chris Cobb, cofounder of Ragtag Studio, the company behind Ray's the Dead. “The primary reason we went with Unity is that we knew that the landscape of the market would be changing drastically, even just over the course of our development cycle. Unity supports pretty much all platforms, so we wanted to be sure that we could support whatever platform felt right when the time came. For example, when we started development of Ray's the Dead, the PS4 didn't even exist! Now it does, and its easy for us to support it.”
One of the major advantages of the Unity engine is that it is very easy to create games that work across multiple platforms with minimal additional labor.
“Unity has so much of the groundwork laid down for you for things that are necessary in basically any game that developing prototypes of games and game ideas could take place literally over night,” said Rob Storm, lead developer behind Intruder and Project Stormos.
“There was a version of Project Stormos that we were working on in XNA before, where it took us some weeks or a month just to get some basic gameplay coming out, without any flashy stuff,” said Storm. “That was with a group of people. In Unity, by myself, I was able to get the same level of gameplay plus extra features in 3 days. And then I have something that can be output to PC, Mac, Web, now linux too.”
Everywhere I go it seems like I run into another indie developer who is using Unity, and their reasoning is always different. It's international, too. Developers I've spoken to in Nigeria and Brazil are thinking about using Unity for their next project.
“The code that you write for your game, you can iterate very quickly,” Ben Vance, creator of the Oculus Rift title Irrational Exuberance told me at E3. He also said that it's very easy to get Unity and Rift working together. “The time from when you make a change to when you see that on screen is very short. In other engines, you might have to recompile the whole game which can take minutes, but in Unity it's seconds.”
Oh, and it's free
Despite all of the stated advancements and advantages for indies, it's also available completely free of charge. There's not really even a revenue sharing model involved either as is often the case with game engines. If you want to make a mobile, PC, or web game, you can download it yourself and give it a go. The free version of the software is all that's needed to publish a game, while there's a premium version available with more advanced features. All they ask is that you sign up for a premium membership if your company starts grossing over $100,000 a year.
It's not just the non-existent price tag that has made it popular with indies though.
“We were the first big engine to support iOS and Android development and that helped solidify us as a go-to resource for indie devs as, at the time, it was nearly all independent developers making games for mobile,” said David Helgason, CEO of Unity Technologies.
“From then on, we’ve kept the momentum up by providing more powerful and complete tools while introducing unique democratization initiatives such as the Asset Store.”
The Asset Store is Unity's own online store filled with sound effects, art, animations, and tools created by the community that are available for purchase for a fraction of the price it would cost to hire out to a contractor or to spend time away from development creating those from scratch. And of course, it's a source of funding for those who want to sell their wares on the store. Wasteland 2 is being built using crowdsourced assets that will then be sold on the store.
Not just for little games
Helgason pointed out that it's not just an indie development tool though. “Battlestar Galactica Online, which was a full fledged massive multiplayer game, was created with Unity,” he said. “Nexon built a full-scale MMO called The Three Kingdoms in Unity. And many really big projects are underway. Games like Endless Space, Guns of Icarus, Wasteland 2, Project Eternity, Dreamfall Chapters, HARDWARE, City of Steam, and a load of others are really big projects that are already or will be incredibly deep games.”
The people I talked to didn't really have anything negative to say about their experience with Unity. The consensus in online forums seems to be that Unity is great for developing 3D games, and it's the rare piece of software used to create games that is nearly ubiquitous, yet rarely discussed outside of development circles.
The combination of a nearly non-existent price tag, lightning fast iteration, and the ability to makes games across multiple platforms has made Unity an important part of the indie scene, even if it doesn't have the name recognition of other engines.