These days, one tool has essentially unlocked the world of game development for the masses.
Since it was introduced in 2005, Unity has tried to make creating video games possible for everyone regardless of technical know-how or budget. It was first announced at Apple’s 2006 Worldwide Developer’s Conference and showcased as the first fully powered game engine—a platform with basic graphics capabilities, physics calculations, and some game behaviours already coded in but extensible—for the iPhone. Unity stood largely uncontested on that platform for a couple of years and quickly became a well-known tool among developers.
But while Unity grew with the iPhone, today, games made with it are popular on all platforms. According to Unity, more than 6 million registered developers use the platform, and 770 million gamers enjoy Unity-made titles. The software has become to small-team game development what the Adobe suite is to creative professionals in many other lines of work.
As you might guess, many independent developers praise the tool—some even say it’s what made success possible. You could make a case that Unity is partially responsible for the boom of independent and artistic games over the past half-decade; everything from Firewatch to Pillars of Eternity came into existence with the help of Unity. Going forward, new improvements and technologies the company is working on could open the landscape up even further.
“Democratising development—in our minds, we don’t think is the wrong thing, we think it’s the right thing,” says Marcos Sanchez, head of global communications for Unity. “You want more people understanding, and everyone’s gotta start somewhere.”
But at some conferences and online developer communities, a growing and vocal subset of content creators doesn’t share this enthusiasm. These denizens of Reddit and game development forums believe the democratisation Unity works toward has an unanticipated side-effect—it lowers quality standards for gamers. And worse for those trying to earn a living in this world, the new glut of Unity-bred games makes earning a profit harder in an already difficult market.
“We have a family, we have a house,” said Rebekah Saltsman, the CEO and co-founder of Fiji (a small studio behind some lesser-known indie favourites like Canabalt and Panoramical), at this year’s Game Developers Conference. “And I can’t destroy that because I work in a volatile market.”
A decade into the Unity era of game development, those in the industry have plenty of strong opinions about one of the most popular tools of the trade. So Ars spoke with developers to hear about the good and the bad: how is Unity (and other factors) making projects achievable that used to only be dreams? And what new challenges are arising for devs hoping to turn game-creation ideas into viable businesses?
“I wouldn’t be here if not for Unity.”
Chicago artist William Cher’s game Manifold Garden breaks many rules—mostly laws of physical space. The game tasks players with solving enormously complicated puzzles in Escher-like environments by manipulating gravity. In making it, Cher is also breaking a longstanding rule of game development: you need to be a highly technical software engineer to make a 3D game.
Instead, Cher has worked for years as an installation artist and a sculptor. He calls himself “an artist working at the intersection of art and science.” Talking to him, it’s clear he’s a bright guy, and he can code. But Cyr says he doesn’t have the deep technical know-how required to program a graphics engine. Manifold Garden is his first game, and he chose Unity to close that knowledge gap for him.