The Face Of Tomorrow’s Indie Games: Unity 5 Announced


In theory I’m working with someone to make a game in Unity, but I’ve yet to progress past the “very long Word documents with overwritten design ideas” stage myself. However, at some point I fully intend to fiddle under the hood to some degree, and as such today’s news of a big old update to Unity is going to affect me at some point. For now though, I’m not the best person to ask about quite why the newly-announced Unity 5 is quite so exciting, but judging from how the throngs of developers took a break from hard drinking and massed backslapping at GDC to light up Twitter with breathless wonder at the listed features for this increasingly ubiquitous game engine, it appears to be one hell of a big deal in devland.

From a games-player point of view, this is very likely to shape a lot of the indie games (big and small) that we’ll be playing over the next couple of years. As far as I can tell, two of the most promising additions are heightened visual spangliness and – potentially – running games in browser without the need for a plugin.

Real-time lighting system and physically-based shaders seem to be the headline feature, as they’ll mean a pretty big graphical boost to Unity games – in theory that much much closer to yer fancier-panted big budget games. We’ll have to see in practice, naturally. People also seem excited about a new audio pipeline and the ability to export to WebGL – which would mean no plugin is required to play in most modern browsers. That is most delightful in principle, I must say.

Here’s a video to look at too:

Beyond that I am useless to you, so please forgive me simply cutting and pasting the list of features below. Unity 5 is available for pre-order now.

Physically-based Shading
Unity 5 will launch with a new built-in physically-based shader system. It is designed to cover a wide variety of real-world materials under all lighting situations and includes a vastly improved workflow, from the art pipeline all the way to the UI. Unity 5 also introduces full deferred shading and baked reflection probes for realistic environment-based specular highlights.

Real-time Global Illumination with Enlighten
Unity has entered into a partnership with Geomerics to integrate Enlighten, their industry-leading real-time global illumination technology, into Unity 5. Enlighten is the only real-time global illumination technology optimized to deliver fully dynamic lighting in game on today’s PCs, consoles, and mobile platforms. Animate lights, emissive material properties and control the environment lighting in real-time. Enlighten’s technology also brings dramatic workflow improvements, enabling artists and designers to work directly in Unity 5’s editor to create realistic and engaging visuals for all game styles. The technology is the lighting solution of choice for some of today’s most advanced and best-selling titles.

Real-time Lightmap Previews
In partnership with Imagination Technologies, Unity 5 will be the first-ever development platform to ship with in-editor real-time lightmap previews based on Imagination’s ground-breaking PowerVR Ray Tracing technology. This exciting addition allows for near instantaneous feedback from changes to global illumination lightmaps by displaying an accurate preview in the editor’s scene view of how lighting will look in the final game. With this technology, artists can continue to iterate and refine the look of a level while final lightmaps update and bake in the background, dramatically decreasing the amount of time needed to make artistic adjustments to scenes.

Audio Overhaul
Unity’s entire audio pipeline has been rewritten to be more efficient and flexible. The first big feature included with the overhaul is an Audio Mixer designed to allow highly complex real-time re-routing and effects scenarios. Designers can take snapshots of mixer settings for dynamic transitions between sound profiles during gameplay.

WebGL Add-on Early Access
Unity’s multiplatform functionality remains one of its most valuable aspects and Unity Technologies is happy to announce its collaboration with Mozilla to bring WebGL and asm.js support to Unity. Starting with Unity 5.0, developers will be able to get early access to Unity’s WebGL add-on to begin creating interactive experiences for plugin-free play made possible in supported modern browsers. Attendees at GDC can stop by the Unity booth to see a demo of Madfinger Games’ Dead Trigger 2 running on WebGL.

Unity Cloud
Unity 5 will also see the launch of the Unity Cloud cross-promotion network, enabling mobile game developers to run full screen interstitial ads in their mobile games, as well as exchange ad units with other Unity developers, to unlock the combined power of over half a billion mobile game installs for free.

Furthermore, Unity 5 introduces many other additions and improvements:
Unity is now 64-bit
New multithreaded job scheduler
NVIDIA PhysX 3.3
Easier and incremental building of Asset Bundles
New 2D physics effectors
SpeedTree Integration
NavMesh improvements
Mecanim StateMachine Behaviours
Loading optimizations
And many other improvements

Out soon, and if you’re at GDC pop by Unity’s stand to find out more.


  1. TechnicalBen says:

    Hmmm. Wish I knew anything about programming. Would love to use this to make a 2d gravity based game. :P

    • Lars Westergren says:

      You don’t need to know much about programming to get started, they have a lot of tutorials on their site. Applying gravity to game objects is literally just a checkbox in Unity. If you want to change direction or force of gravity programatically as the game is running it gets more complex of course, but not much more.
      link to

      • TechnicalBen says:

        I just want something similar to n-body so I can make a toy solar system to destroy… I mean play with.

        • Drakythe says:

          Ahem. Universe sandbox is an excellent toy to play with physics and the universe. Steam is currently being weird so I can’t link it, but its regularly $10 and typically drops to 2.50 during sales. (worth either price, methinks)

          • melnificent says:

            Universe sandbox is currently £2.99 with loads of games at bundle stars link to

          • TechnicalBen says:

            Yes, I have this. But it’s a sim, not a “game” as such. As said, I’d love to do the game bit. Perhaps one day after a loooooong effort to learn some basic programming.

          • citiral says:

            Learning programming really isn’t as hard as you think. In just a day or two you could get started making some simple console programs. With the power of modern day engines like unity that allow scripting, you could already start working on a simple game in a matter of days/weeks. It won’t look like much but the only way to learn is to try! Next time you have a couple of days free time, just download yourself a free copy of unity, open up a tutorial and start having fun!

  2. c-Row says:

    Does 5.0 come with that long awaited 36-hour day to squeeze some coding time inbetween office work and sleep/social life?

    • AngelTear says:

      Tsk. Social Life.

    • Lars Westergren says:

      Is that a plugin? I’d buy it.

    • LionsPhil says:

      Does it also make you less drained from the former so you still have energy and enthusiasm to use what time you have for yet more programming, rather than staring blankly at the TV/Internet/games for CASUALLLLLS?

      • jezcentral says:

        Oh yes, this. I just spent an hour, playing Hexcells, Space Chem and GalCiv Fusion, just because I couldn’t get my head around starting a game of Dishonored, Thief or Spec Ops: The Line. I can’t get my head around anything that needs some thought. :(

        And I’ve just realised there’s a flaw in the AI for my noughts-and-crosses game AI.

        *goes off to play TF2, rather than start a game of Bioshock 3, Batman Arkham City, or, y’know, do some actual coding*

  3. Urthman says:

    Every article about Unity always seems to be about ease-of-use for the developer. But is it’s performance competitive with other engines? Gone Home seems to want a much more powerful computer than what Unreal or Crytek or Eidos’s TR/Deus Ex engine need to render much more visually impressive environments.

    • Sam says:

      Basically, no.
      As you notice, the emphasis of Unity’s own development efforts are in making the thing easier to use, far less in making it efficient. But even if they did pour more effort into optimisation there will always be a trade-off between simplicity for the game creator and performance for the player. If you want to get the absolute best performance working in Unity you end up rewriting much of the functionality that the engine already provides, because you know which parts can be skipped or tweaked for your particular situation. Which rather defeats the point of using Unity in the first place (although it is still nice as a level editor and general workflow management.)

      Looking at it from the player’s view, it’s rare to find a Unity game that will run decently on my laptop. For instance Receiver with its very basic graphics is completely unplayable, but something like Portal 2 is fine on moderate settings. Worth noting that Receiver was made by Wolfire, who have clearly shown their technical chops with Overgrowth so it’s unlikely that they made a pig’s ear of programming it. It’s just that Unity is kind of slow.

    • Baines says:

      I can’t see it beating more dedicated engines like Unreal in performance. Part of Unity’s selling point is its convenience and ease of use, and that convenience comes at a cost.

      But while Unity games can chug a bit, it can be hard to judge how much of that is the fault of the engine itself and how much is just inefficient coding. It is kind of like Flash in that way, in that the simplest way to do something can be relatively bad performance hit.

      It also isn’t always obvious what Unity is doing under the hood, which can lead to unexpected performance issues and bugs on various hardware. I’ve run into issues with Unity games running on an Intel integrated GPU, where parts of the game don’t render. (My guess is that it is a shader-related issue, as that is the weak spot of Intel’s HD graphics.)

    • WhaleboneMcCoy says:

      This is not so much a fault with the engine. As it’s so easy to use, people don’t tend to optimise their own code and you end up with massive memory leaks everywhere.

      If you’ve played some of the large scale mods build with unreal you’ll notice similar occurances.

      Basically it’s just that a lot of unity developers are poor, and lazy, thus they work to get things finished, not to get things finished well.

      • Baines says:

        To be fair, if you are using the free version, you don’t get access to the performance profiler, which makes it more difficult both to optimize your code and to learn which ways are the “wrong” way to do things. The free version also lacks some of the optimization options.

        But for the rest, I think users (both hobby and professional) can underestimate just how much a performance sink some things can be. And how the easiest way to do something can sometimes be about the worst way possible.

        They can also fall into the trap that their game runs on their machine, and thus think it works on everyone’s machine. (But of course professional coders not even using Unity can fall into that trap.)

    • fuzziest says:

      Game engine performance isn’t usually like a car engine performance or something where it is an abstract metric. If a game engine has a low barrier to entry it allows you to work in a much messier fashion than a stricter engine which indirectly tends to lead to poor performance.

      If you use Unity and follow the same practices another engine absolutely force you to do than you are going to have fairly comparable performance. If you look at the terrible performance of M&MX it wasn’t because of Unity but because they did a whole lot of sub optimal things in development that Unity let them get away with and still happily compile that UE wouldn’t have allowed. Mind you, I don’t think M&MX could have been completed by so few people so quickly with another engine so that’s the compromise you make.

      Of course UE4 and Cry have some specific snazzy features Unity lacks but that’s also what a few hundred more grand get you.

  4. KillahMate says:

    Whelp, I guess that time has finally come for me – when I opened this article in my feed reader, my brain automatically recognized the header image as a real-life photo. I’m getting old…

  5. Lars Westergren says:

    Any audio pro who could tell me what “sending” is in this context?

    • slight says:

      Not an audio pro but it’s about sending an audio channel to an effects unit via the mixer.

      • shaydeeadi says:

        To add to this, sending traditionally will be a variable portion of the sound sent on to an auxiliary effect channel. So you can have a small amount of each audio source running into (most likely) a reverb or delay. This is not to be confused with insert effects which will be direct on the audio source the effect is applied to.

        I guess it means you can have, perhaps some sort of positional reverb effects being calculated on the fly (potential massive performance hogging though.) I’m not quite sure what else it would be useful for in this context, but I haven’t watched the video since I am at work so this could be way off the mark.

  6. pkt-zer0 says:

    Still no Mono update, or a decent GUI system. Those would go pretty high on my list of things contributing to ease of development. Not sure why they’re going for fancier shaders instead.

    • Keyrock says:

      Chicks dig shaders.

    • Baines says:

      Shaders have, for better or worse, become the go to solution for coding these days.

      And it gives them pretty pictures.

    • Highstorm says:

      It takes a bit of digging, but in the press release, they do say that their much anticipated GUI system overhaul is on the way (ctrl+f for “GUI” and you’ll find it). It’s coming with the Unity 4.6 update in fact, sometime this spring. I’ve been using NGUI myself, and while I’ve been eagerly anticipating the new system, I’m not looking forward to remaking my entire GUI from scratch… again.

      • c-Row says:

        Unless the new GUI is a complete revelation I will stick to NGUI and DF-GUI as well, thank you very much. Though I have to admit that switching from 2DToolKit to the built-in 2D system was quite a breeze.

        • Highstorm says:

          Could I ask your thoughts on DF-GUI as compared to NGUI? I actually hadn’t ever heard of it until your post. Looking through the reviews on the asset store, there were many people that thought it was better than NGUI. Easier and quicker to use and such, but I’m sure the story is deeper than that.

          I’ve been using NGUI for about 10 months now and while it was a vast improvement over Unity’s built-in GUI system, I still find myself running up against frequent headaches. ScrollViews will be the death of me, I swear it!

  7. agent1138 says:

    Pah everything made in Unity seems like cheap plastic and mediocre physics. I mentally throw up every time i see something in unity.

    • Cyda says:

      The physics in Kerbal Space Program seem pretty good to me and I’m pretty sure that’s a unity game

      • Sam says:

        Kerbal is a really interesting case study of Unity.
        Squad (the developers) made the orbital dynamics system themselves, but use Unity’s physics engine for local simulation of the vessels. It shows nicely the great flexibility of Unity, which was surely never designed to simulate such a range of scales, yet can be made to do so with some work from the developer. But if you’ve ever tried to assemble a large space station you’ll know the game quickly becomes unplayable and the physics system unstable. Unity’s physics engine just can’t seem to handle so much stuff being active and joined together at once.

        There are various hacky ways to address this, with mods that allow you to make the engine treat groups of parts as being a single physics entity, but it remains a fundamental limitation of the Unity engine and so of Kerbal Space Program. If they’d built it on their own engine they could now spend their early access megabucks on optimisation of the physics, but as Unity is closed source they can’t really do that. But being realistic, if they’d built it on their own engine they’d probably have never got the prototype working before they ran out of funds.

        Speaking more generally, although the physics engine is fine it also produces a certain feeling of similarity between Unity games. There’s a particular feel to interactions associated with the use of a rigid body physics engine in a game with low levels of polish. Things like Surgeon Simulator use it for comic effect. But there’s a definite feeling of cheapness that comes from “oh, they turned on physics on a bunch of cubes.”

        It’s not because the physics engine is miscalculating angular momentum, but because players are really very good at recognising when they’re interacting in a familiar physics world. Because physics is so easily done with Unity everyone tends to just turn it on without much thought. Very often a game design is better served with custom made and unrealistic physics. Ocarina of Time wouldn’t have been a better game if Link had a capsule collision volume around him that knocked crates flying when he moved.

        • Baines says:

          There is something weird about Unity’s physics that I just can’t place my finger on. Something beyond it just creating a similar look in different games. That such similarity is noticeable is presumably an artifact of that weirdness, which makes people think “Oh, Unity” instead of “Oh, that looks just like reality”.

          Some of it is a feeling of floatiness. I don’t know if it is the weight being off, or something wrong with inertia or friction, but Unity physics objects tend to act like some kind of generic artificial object. An object that can, as agent1138 said, look like cheap plastic.

          With only a few seconds of crate manipulation video, I could tell Rochard was a Unity game. The crates didn’t look like they moved like crates. They looked like Unity’s generic (plastic toy like) physics objects.

          • Rapzid says:

            It’s the physx engine unfortunately. They should drop deprecate it and bind to bullet.

        • Memphis-Ahn says:

          “Ocarina of Time wouldn’t have been a better game if Link had a capsule collision volume around him that knocked crates flying when he moved.”

      • LionsPhil says:

        The actual ship physics in Kerbal are kind of awful for the task, and lead to Kraken attacks.

        My biggest worry is that it’s a major part of gameplay which Squad have only marginal control over. I think it’s actually PhysX under Unity—if the latter decided to switch to, say, Havok, it might have huge effects on people’s on-going games of KSP. That’d be one big breaking update, and Squad would have to stick with older Unity until they were at a good point to roll that out. (For an now-“early access” game, they seem to be doing alright at not breaking the world every iteration.)

        The most amazing thing is that the Ferram Aerospace mod fixes up the crude aerodynamic physics to be something actually flightsimmy.

        Edit: In fact, the change list in the article even mentions that it’s PhysX, and is being version-bumped. OTOH, 64-bit! Might help stop people with towering stacks of mods from bumping up against the 4GB barrier crashing all over the place.

  8. Tom De Roeck says:

    Still cheaper, from a development standpoint, than building an entirely new engine from scratch.

  9. Lobotomist says:

    Game making is getting easier every day, completely eliminating need for programmers
    – now , all you need is idea.
    From Construct 2 where absolutely everyone with zero knowledge can make a game and faster than it was possible ever before – to Unity where with some basic knowledge of scripting you can make games with same tools professional studios use.

    No wonder there is so many games now. And even AAA developers are forming small DIY studios.

    • Lars Westergren says:

      > Game making is getting easier every day, completely eliminating need for programmers

      Depends on how complex a game you want to make.

      • Lobotomist says:

        Of course. But the need is getting less. Already many of indie games are made by game designers that hired programmer for help on thing or two. But the bulk of the game was done by engine script. Or even visual script.

        • LionsPhil says:

          Scripting langauges are still something you program in.

          Usually with less discipline and worse tools, which leads to greater pain as the project scales up, no less.

        • Rapzid says:

          .net languages are compiled. Regardless, programming in a scripting language would still be programming so don’t let it fool you.

    • Lemming says:

      Sadly, you still need a artistic capability. :(

  10. Sleepymatt says:

    Re: 1:11 I opened this at work and was APPALLED by the PORNOGRAPHIC PANTING!!! Are you sure this isn’t Cara posting in disguise?! Won’t you please think of the CHILDREN!!1!!1

  11. Geebs says:

    Real men/women/furry creatures from Alpha Centauri write their own shaders.

    P.s. I think they could have condensed most of that down to “added fresnel”

  12. Rao Dao Zao says:

    Well, my game is going to have the graphics of a late-90s shooter, so this all means nothing to me.

    I guess the audio stuff will be nice.

  13. Lemming says:

    I’ve yet to progress past the “very long Word documents with overwritten design ideas” stage myself.

    The last 10 years for me, right there.

    • Arren says:

      ::raises hand::

    • Memphis-Ahn says:

      Don’t let it bother you, armchair game-designing is much more fun than actually making a game anyways.

  14. Gap Gen says:

    Linux editor or gfto.

  15. islisis says:

    likely the most succinct animation ive seen of everything wrong in modern gaming

  16. PopeRatzo says:

    Why would we want to encourage anyone to develop games to run in a browser? I mean, geez.

    Has the entire world gone mad?

    And somehow, I get the feeling that all these wonderful new features will still end up in a bunch of arch 2D low-def F2P games. And lots and lots of spectacular kickstarter trailers.

    • Thrippy says:

      And Blizzard’s Hearthstone likely to become the most successful Unity engine game yet. Or will it be Homeworld: Shipbreakers? Oh, if only.

      Unity driven games in my Steam library: Guns of Icarus, Air Buccaneers, Dejoban’s ….AAAaAAAAA!!!, Shad’O, March of War, Cities in Motion 2…

      I got over my Unity discrimination when Battlestar Galactica Online turned out okay, performance wise at least, using it.

    • P.Funk says:

      [quote]Why would we want to encourage anyone to develop games to run in a browser?[/quote]
      Because in the future convenience of having your twitter feed one tab over from your games will be more important than the games themselves.

      Why go for immersion in an activity when you can constantly be reminded of the inane babbling updates your pseudo-friends are making on your sundry social media links? Also, if its in a browser then it doesn’t need to force alt-tab your game to bring you to the store page where you re-up on whatever arbitrary in-game currency you’ve run out of.

    • Sam says:

      A slightly less cynical take on why in-browser games are still useful:
      “Discoverability” is a huge problem for indie games, and only getting harder to solve. There are hundreds of games released each week [citation needed] and the great majority of them are never heard of. It’s like how 50% of academic papers are never read by more than 3 people, except this is about games rather than the advancement of humanity and so is much more important. As someone (probably Cory Doctorow) said, creators don’t worry about their work being pirated, they worry about it never being seen.

      Although coverage of indie games has increased, the rate of creation of games has also increased. We all hope that our game will shine forth with its innate brilliance and be picked up by everyone as the hot new thing. It worked for Minecraft, so of course it’ll work for me too, right? Dozens of people every year get wildly rich from playing the lottery. But that’s quite a risk to take on something you’re spending years of your life working on. Better to make the barriers to getting people playing your game as small as possible.
      Convincing someone to click through to play a trailer is already quite a struggle. Convincing them to download an .exe from your totally legit dropbox account is herculean. If the game can be experienced with the ease of watching a trailer you greatly increase the number of people who will experience your game. Of course most Unity games end up with hundreds of megabytes of texture and sound data, so they’re awful for in-browser experiences. But if the game is a good fit for people quickly trying it out (both in terms of file size and the game’s mechanics), in-browser is a really useful way to get a game played.

  17. SpinalJack says:

    Brilliant, just as soon as I bought Unity4, Unity5 goes on pre-order