Unity focuses on small teams doing big things at its GDC event

Unity's GDC press conference was geared toward not just showcasing Unity 5, but marrying the company's longtime message of democratized development with a focus on how damn good Unity games can look.

Unity's GDC press conference was geared toward not just showcasing the power of the new version of its engine, Unity 5.0 -- which released today, and which has a host of new features -- but in particular marrying the company's longtime message of democratized development with a honed-in focus on how damn good Unity games can now look -- particularly even when made by small teams.

A few years ago, you might recall, the company began to beat the drum for triple-A adoption, and hired engineers from DICE to get the engine in shape for that. But it backed away from that strategy before too long.

The implication this time around is different. Yes, the engine can do triple-A quality visuals -- but with small teams. That was the message this morning in San Francisco: Look how great our tech really is -- for you, the independent developer.

New CEO John Riccitiello hasn't changed the development of Unity as such; he hasn't been at the company long enough, and his comments to Gamasutra were carefully phrased to explain his goal: to "amplify" what's already good about the engine.

He also hasn't eclipsed co-founder and former CEO David Helgason, who took the stage late in the presentation.

But the "new Unity" under the Riccitiello reign, if you can call it that, is slicker and more focused on competing with other engine providers -- at least as evidenced by its presence, and message, at this GDC.

With Unreal Engine now targeting not just large, triple-A studios but even the smallest indies (and free to download, to boot) it's no surprise to see that Unity has "grown up" to meet it in the middle. (With VR on the cusp of a breakthrough, one could argue this is now essential.)

But rather than show big games made by huge teams -- partially because, let's face it, they don't yet exist in Unity -- the company showed small projects that look amazing, and made an effort to showcase how easy it is to create them, live on stage.

After a greeting from John Riccitiello, CTO and co-founder Joachim Ante took the stage to showcase the impressive, new "blacksmith" demo -- and then deconstruct and remake it (more or less, anyway) in moments.

"This [kind of graphics performance] is something you can create, something you can ship games with when you're targeting PC," Ante pointed out.

The point of the video was to show how good Unity can look now; the point of the demo was to demonstrate how easy it still is to create a scene in Unity, no matter how good it looks. It was Ante's way of saying: We're still the easiest-to-use engine -- we're just that much better now.

Ante segued seamlessly into the new lighting engine -- the demo having been created to show off Unity 5's graphics, it only made sense for him to demo the new bounce lighting. And Ante also promised the demo would be released both in full and in part, along with instructive blog posts on how it was created: Development remains democratized.

And then he ceded the stage to a developer.

"I love triple-A games, I love making triple-A games and I love playing them." - Ryan Payton, head of Camouflaj, developers of Republique

Payton (who worked on Metal Gear Solid and Halo titles earlier in his career) took the stage for a very distinct purpose: To show what Unity 5 can do, right as he releases the latest iteration of his team's game. Cleverly, he showed the "remastered" edition of the game, complete with before-and-after shots of Republique running under both Unity 4 and Unity 5 -- with vastly improved graphics, both technically and aesthetically.

Small team (with triple-A knowhow) makes big game, was the implication. "This is where democracy comes alive," Riccitiello intoned, to ram home the point. "We want every developer on the planet, whether they can afford the tools or not, to have the power of Unity 5.0," the CEO said.

Then former Epic man Mike Capps took the stage -- not as a Unity employee, but as a friend of the company, it seems -- to bang the gong for the graphics improvements in the engine (notice a theme?)

"I can't resist sharing this message of democratization, because I think it's really important," Capps said. "Every team I've worked with has a vision that they want to get to that's a beautiful vision -- but they can never get there."

With Unity 5, Capps said, "you're going to get there faster, or at least have a chance of getting there. ... High-end visuals are in everyone's reach, and you've got small teams that can now touch the dreams everyone had."

Unity's Ralph Hauwert took the stage to showcase two important slices of technology that power the future of the engine: He talked up Unity 5's WebGL publishing, which is truly an important new feature, and showed a beautiful, if non-interactive demo playing in a browser at a very solid framerate.

He also talked up its "IL2CPP" scripting solution (Hauwert's blog post here) illustrating speed gains the tech offers on mobile in particular: This is going to matter as performance becomes ever-more imporant (with low-end mobiles ascendant and virtual reality so hungry for framerate.)

"This allows to you rethink what you can do in your game," he said. "The ease of use of C# with native performance."

There is, of course, the engine's platform spread to consider:

And because it wouldn't be a press conference without a pot-shot at the competition, John Earner, founder and CEO of London-based mobile studio Space Ape, aimed squarely at Epic: "Take it from a free-to-play guy -- free plus 5 percent of your gross is not free: It's millions of dollars."

Though he didn't have much to say, Oculus co-founder Palmer Luckey bounded on to stage to bestow his blessing on Unity and remind the crowd that Oculus has "been collaborating with Unity for two years, and the results are awesome."

And the event ended with former CEO and co-founder David Helgason emerging to rain his trademark enthusiasm down on the audience. He's retreated from the chief exec role to return to Europe and focus on engine development, and though his words were not very specific, the intent was to remind the crowd that Unity is always moving forward, guided by the people who have always been at the helm. 

"We have to push to the most advanced graphics, the most flexibility, the most productivity," Helgason said. "We had to think about how to bring technology further. We had to hire a lot of smart people. We had to push ourselves really, really hard."

It was a capstone to an optimistic event. And why not? The company released its latest engine today, and remains a big success. Developers are still going to carefully consider whether or not to use its tech before they begin development. And a robust free version of the engine means that Unreal won't completely beat the company with its own free-to-download offering.

The engine wars heated up at GDC 2015, and they are only going to get hotter.

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