Unity’s chief product officer Brett Bibby is very animated about the next-gen console launches.
“I’ve never been more excited about a console generation. I like the fact that we have great choices. And it’s not just, you know, ‘I prefer Microsoft’ or ‘I prefer Sony,’ I think they’re gonna have different kinds of experiences tailored to them this time around. And I think that’s great.”
And it’s great for Unity too. The engine was in its infancy on console back when the PS4 and Xbox One were launched, and while since then it has powered numerous incredibly successful games for the outgoing generation, the new generation marks a major milestone for the engine.
This time around Unity has been involved in the development of the consoles from the very beginning. Years of work to ensure that Unity, and the many developers who use it, were ready for the new hardware, not at launch, but every step of the way leading up to it.
All that effort has culminated in a brand-new, launch day title in The Falconeer for Xbox Series X|S. As well as launch window games, such as the PS5 version of Overcooked: All You Can Eat. Plus many, many more, both upcoming new titles – Oddworld: Soulstorm – and those which have received next-gen enhancements – such as the 120hz patch for Ori and the Will of the Wisps.
In short, Unity is already having a big impact on next-gen.
And while first-party exclusives are thin on the ground, there’s still a huge variety of games to play on both consoles at launch. And that’s in part thanks to Unity (and other publicly available engines of course), giving consumers lineups that have far more variety than the console launches of yesteryear.
“For us it’s been 15 years of vision around the idea of ‘creators first,’” says Bibby. “You talk about it, it’s a slogan, ‘the world is a better place with more creators’, but what exactly do we mean by that?” Well, if you compare this console launch to ones that have come before, you might have a perfect example.
“If you think about [launch lineups] in our lifetime, and you go through all of those titles, and you look at what was required, decisions by committees and publishers, were those really the best possible stories?
“Do you really think that the decisions were made based on a passion to build a game or tell a story? Or was it based on well… ‘EA is going to have the sports games, we shouldn’t do a launch title that will get killed… Ubisoft is probably going to do something with Assassin’s Creed or whatever. Okay, hey, let’s find a space for us… let’s get as much traction as we can get on a new generation’… I don’t feel that those were creator-led decisions.
“I think what Unity has allowed is that because we’re so strong, in so many platforms, we’ve brought so many kinds of creators to the mix. And this is the first generation where you’re seeing Unity creators right out the gate, actually there. And so this is a milestone for us.”
And it’s a milestone that’s been in the making since Unity first set out on its journey to bring creators to platforms everywhere.
LEAP FOR THE PLATFORM
Unity’s core appeal hasn’t changed of course. In fact while the new hardware generation forms a milestone for Unity and gaming in general, they are also examples of how an outlook, be that Unity’s ‘creator first’ or the industry’s more generally ‘player first’ outlooks are now set in stone from one generation to the next. More prosaically, the benefits of Unity remain the same.
“It’s rapid development. An extensible editor, so you can customise it or use other people’s tools and customizations. And then reach – reaching your audience on whatever platform they are on. Those three get you to that rapid iteration that you need to get to the fun, to explore a bunch of ideas, and zero in on the ones that work.”
Of course with the new hardware there are now more platforms to reach and more features to support: SSDs, new controllers, advanced video modes, and more, are all supported.
To achieve that Unity has been working closely with both console platforms for many years, preparing the way for Unity to fully support the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5. The company met many times with key figures in the hardware development teams and received some of the earliest dev kits available in order to ensure that the engine, and the many games that are made with it, was ready for launch.
Bibby admits that, when it comes to console gaming, he’s “biased, I’m an old school guy” and he was therefore incredibly keen to get Unity ahead of the curve when it came to Sony and Xbox’s new devices.
“I went for Sony and Microsoft every time and said, ‘I want to change the world together’. I believe that hardware is growing, that technology is growing. And we need to get so far out ahead of everything else. I want to put consoles back in the living room. ahead of the game.
“That was the conversation six, seven years ago. And on the back of that we just never let up. We just kept in there all the time. showing what we’re doing, where we were going… We deal with all of our platform partners like this. We’re users first and what do those creators want.
“You don’t just throw money at us and we’ll go support a platform. This was us really reaching for it, I mean, internally for years, prioritising, investing and just really trying to make this happen. If we’re going to wait for somebody to pay us to do it, then we’re going to be late. And if we’re gonna wait until the creators, that we love and support, need it, then we’re too late.”
Speaking around the global Xbox launch, Bibby is particularly taken with The Falconeer (see page 54 for more on that), a one-man indie title, with a unique look, made with Unity, which shows how powerful the engine’s workflow can be: “To have a title like this come out. It’s phenomenal. And, of course, there’s others in the pipeline. But you know, just to be able to get there on an indie title at launch. Wow.”
Indie titles, be they single man or smaller teams, remain the engine’s core audience – on console at least. Titles such as Oddworld: Soulstorm, Iron Man VR and Fall Guys, show that it’s certainly moved beyond that uncertain definition. But when will it start to drive the biggest games?
Bibby recounts a story from a major first-party studio he visited, in which he was told that less-than-half of the workforce of hundreds of people, arrayed across the main floor of the office, had ever actually shipped a triple-A title. Because they take so long to make, because of cancellations, because it’s a young and growing industry.
“They’re all newbies, they’re running a marathon, but they don’t know what the end looks like,” notes Bibby. And with the demands of the next generation, those team sizes are only going to grow again, and with that even more of those staff will be inexperienced at shipping games at the highest level. “So the next generation is going to be about who can deliver. How can we capture that creative vision and optimise for creator workflows?”
Unity is certainly flexible in the way users can set it up for the workflow that they want. It’s also potentially easier to manage than an in-house engine can be.
“I’ve got an editor, I made an engine. So I’ve now made an upgrade to it. You know what you have to do? I have to wait till night, everybody goes home, and then I have to deploy a brand new engine, all at once, to every machine. Because I can’t have people on different versions.”
Unity is a somewhat more flexible beast: ”Because of the way our compilation model works, you can actually roll it out. And when somebody gets the latest version, it’ll recompile on their local machine with the content.” And such versioning and support issues will be multiplied by the current shift to work from home.
“Now, when you have all these studios distributed, and the employees are getting Unity, they’re getting an LTS (long term support) version. So even if we’re off by one [version update], that’s still gonna work.”
LONG TERM PLANNING
While the LTS version of Unity is now at 2019.4, those that want the very latest Unity has to offer can now update to Unity 2020.2, which was released at the end of last year.
“Unity has been laser-focused on delivering the updates and features that our users have asked for. We have been actively following their feedback, and have rearranged our product strategies and plans to ensure that we’re addressing their specific needs,” Bibby explains.
“Unity 2020.2 TECH Stream is packed with even more improvements to quality of life – that means improved workflows and better performance across the board. We’re proud to share this next stage of development with our community, and will continue working closely with our users to ensure that the platform is closely aligned with customers’ expectations.”
And those expectations are now broader than ever, with Unity being used in numerous places, as real-time 3D becomes more and more prevalent in our lives. That ubiquity means more Unity users, and they (and their skillsets) represent an opportunity for our industry, as it continues to grow.
Add to that the ability to, relatively easily, reach all the available platforms, and to maintain the engine over a distributed team and we can see clear reasons for the engine’s continued growth right across this generation.