Flash Gaming Summit 2011: Has Unity turned a major obstacle into a springboard to success?

Enemies to friends: Unity supports Flash

Unity today took a punch on the chin as part of its masterplan to rapidly expand further in the lucrative browser games space.

The firm announced its developers will soon, and for the first time, have the option to export projects to Flash – Adobe’s dominant competitor to Unity’s own browser games player.

The Unity Web Player recently surpassed a 35 million install milestone, yet many indie developers believe it offers a limited market when compared to the famous ubiquity of Flash.

Now Unity CEO David Helgason has, on the day of the 2011 Flash Gaming Summit in San Francisco, told his customers they will soon have the choice to either publish their browser game on the Unity Web Player, or on Flash, or both.

“Isn’t it about time to remove that ‘vs’ from the phrase Flash vs Unity… and replace it with a heart?” Helgason asked on his Twitter account.

The timing of the announcement spoke volumes. Adobe today revealed that a major new edition of Flash – codenamed ‘Molehill’ – is available to download. Though the ubiquity of Flash has always been its key selling point, Adobe’s tech hasn’t been able to efficiently display 3D graphics the way the Unity Web Player can.

Molehill, however, is the first edition of Flash that features hardware-accelerated 3D support – something which challenges one of Unity Web’s biggest selling points.

Unity’s response has been magnanimous, though not defeatist, and perhaps ingenious.

“In the past few months, our engineers have been investigating the possibility of adding a Flash Player exporting option to Unity. That investigation has gone very well, and we’re moving into full production,” the company said.

“Is this the end of the Unity’s own Web Player? Absolutely not. The Flash and Unity Web Players both have their strengths. We’re excited by the opportunity to target the Flash Player and all of its features with Unity, but there will be plenty of experiences that the Unity plugin is better suited for.”

Unity added that “it will be up to developers in the end to decide whether they want to target only the Flash Player, only the Unity Web Player, or some combination of the two”.

Gift or Trojan horse?

On that last point – the chance to release a 3D game across both players – Unity said this is where “things are getting interesting”.

That claim planted a seed which many Flash Gaming Summit attendees had cultivated into speculation.

Could it be, one industry analyst asked Develop, that Unity is trying to freely advertise its own web player through Flash?

The suggestion is that, since it appears that Unity Web still has better 3D capabilities than Molehill, Unity wants its developers to release a basic 3D game on Flash and a premium version on its own browser player.

That would mean those playing the game in Flash could be pointed to an enhanced edition on Unity Web and, in theory, would lead to more Flash users downloading Unity’s player.

It also, of course, gives Flash game developers more incentive to develop through Unity.

The speculation remains unproven, though if true would demonstrate the kind of business acumen Unity has a glowing reputation for. The Unity enterprise has soared in the past five years, and in this instance the firm’s executives could be turning Adobe’s huge obstacle into a giant springboard.

The company has yet to announce whether Unity on Flash will support the full Unity feature set, or any other details on capabilities. Information on full and beta release dates, as well as price, is not yet available.

“These, and many other questions, we cannot answer just yet,” Unity said.

“We can say that it will be as good as we can make it and we’ll do it as fast as we can do it.”

The company did add, however, that Flash developers would be able to use Unity’s ActionScript API directly from Flash.

Meanwhile, Unity developers can work in C# or JavaScript or Boo, and the code will automatically translate to ActionScript. How effective this translation will be is a crucial detail, though at this stage is unknown.

“This is an important development for us,” Unity concluded, “and we hope you’re as excited as we are to see your content reach further than ever.”

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