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Unity's GDC 2017 keynote: Access to China, Artist in Residence and Power Rangers

Engine firm gears up for next product cycle as version 5.6 paves the way Unity 2017

Unity hosted its annual GDC keynote this morning, updating customers and the industry on the progress of the Unity Engine and showing off the technology's latest features.

The two-hour presentation of in-depth tech demos and developer success stories was peppered with a few interesting announcements, not the least of which is an expanded partnership that could give developers better access to China.

Having announced its collaboration with Chinese mobile giant Xiaomi back at Unite Los Angeles last year, the firm invited Xiaomi's VP Jerry Shang to the stage, who said that (due to strict government regulations and the multitude of app stores on the market) less than 50 Western games were published in China last year.

"There is no Google Play in China," he said. "A simple solution is needed."

Shang's solution is an expanded partnership with Unity which introduces full support for Xiaomi's widely-used platform in Unity, with the VP promising that it will take just four steps to release a game in China. Xiaomi will also assist developers with obtaining a publishing licence from the Chinese government. The hope is that together the two firms can build a developer portal "that we hope will open China to every Unity creator".

Unity continues to be a dominant engine on mobile platforms around the world. CEO John Riccitiello announced that Unity-based games achieved more than 16bn installs in 2016, a growth rate of 31% since 2016. In the last quarter alone, these games have been installed on more than 2.6bn devices. The engine currently powers 38% of the Top 1000 games on iOS and Android, up from the 34% seen in 2015.

Discussing how far the engine and its community has come since launching two years ago, Riccitiello said the resource dedicated to QA and customer support has been more than doubled - and the stability of the engine is showing improvement. The CEO reported a 38% decline in the number of support tickets raised, while Unity has simultaneously gained 40% more customers.

"That's a massive gain," he said.

Unity invited various mobile success stories to the stage to share their experience, including UK studio Space Ape and Power Rangers: Legacy Wars developer nWay. The latter's co-founder and CEO Taehoon Him then invited classic Green Ranger actor Jason David Frank and the upcoming movie's Black Ranger actor Ludi Lin on stage to demonstrate his title and the use of Apple's Metal graphics API when building a game with Unity.

Riccitiello also recapped the growth in the number of platforms Unity supports: now at more than 30. That's almost double the number supported prior to Unity 5's launch. 16 new platforms have been added over the last two years, most notably a slew of virtual reality devices, including Oculus, GearVR, PlayStation VR, Google Daydream, as well as Facebook Gameroom.

More was said about the latter as Facebook's director of global gaming partnerships Leo Olebe announced Unity 5.6 would introduce support for Facebook Gameroom Premium, enabling developers to release games at any price through the desktop-based games portal.

The firm also gave an update on its EditorVR, which allows devs to build scenes while using a virtual reality headset. The editor has been downloaded more than 6,000 times, with various Unity developers making their own contributions to the codebase and developing new tools that work when building games in VR. Examples included new gesture controls, cameras that follow animation paths from in-game character perspectives, and support for multiple users editing in VR together.

To further drive this development and draw on the community's help in developing the product, Unity announced a competition for developers who wish to create their own tools for EditorVR. There will be a cash prize for the winner, and the best one will be showcased at the Vision Summit in May. Developers have until May 1st to enter.

The firm also announced a new product, the XR Foundation Toolkit, a suite that has been designed specifically for devs building games for virtual, augmented and mixed reality. Features include cross-platform controller inputs, VR-specific shaders and custom physics shaders, and Unity said the toolkit has been developed in collaboration not only with platform holders such as Oculus, Vive, PSVR and Daydream, but also studios that create titles for those devices in order to craft something that suits their needs.

Unity stressed that it is "heavily invested in making this a useful tool for the community" and is planning to release a public roadmap specifically for planned updates to the toolkit, with open beta expected to start in the next few months.

A second contest (of sorts) was announced as Unity revealed it is currently hiring its first ever Artist in Residence. Full details are available through Unity's careers page, but the firm promised the successful applicant access to experimental tools, internal support and the freedom to create any type of project for virtual, mixed or augmented reality. The winner is expected to be chosen within the next month.

Much of the presentation was dedicated to updates on Unity 5.6, the next major point release and the last in Unity's current numbering cycle. Following the launch of 5.6 on March 31st, the firm will shift to a new yearly numbering model, with Unity 2017 expected to arrive this summer.

For Unity 5.6, the firm is adding enhanced lighting tools such as a progressive lightmapper, a revamped navigation mesh system, native support for the Vulkan graphics API, and popular add-on TextMesh Pro built-in to the engine. The current TestMesh Pro on the asset store will now be available for free.

When the company shifts to Unity 2017, Riccitiello promised there would still be significant new updates and additional content every three to four months, and devs will still have the choice of an experimental or stable build.

Throughout the presentation, Riccitiello reiterated the company's core focuses when it comes to additions and improvements to its engine, including graphics, efficiency and quality. Today, the CEO announced a new focus area that will enable significant portions of its userbase to achieve more with the engine: artists and designers.

"Up to now, we've focused on the needs of programmers," said Riccitiello. "That's one third of your development team. Now we want to help the other two thirds."

Riccitiello called CTO and co-founder Joachime Ante to the stage, who gave details on how artists and designers will benefit from Unity 2017. The team is rebuilding its rendering architecture from the ground up to provide a scriptable rendering pipeline and working on a visual scripting system.

Natalya Tatarchuk, Bungie's former graphics lead for Destiny and now Unity's director of global graphics, spoke at length about the ways the company is making the engine most productive for industry professionals in these disciplines.

She was followed by head of cinematics Adam Myhill and product manager Mike Wuetherick, who demonstrated a new cinematics tools coming to Unity 2017. These enabled the duo to define and move cameras while editing in order to create new in-game cutscenes, while automatic blending shifted the perspective from gameplay to cinematics and back.

The example they showed was based on upcoming stealth adventure Ghost of a Tale by former DreamWorks animator Lionel 'Seith' Gallat, and showed the camera zooming in as the main character hid in a chest, then zooming out to the normal gameplay perspective as she emerged. Cameras can also automatically track characters based on where their heads or eyes are. These tools are available today in the Experimental Preview build of Unity.

The conference finished with a few words from co-founder David Helgason - complete with popped collar - who marvelled at how far Unity has come, not only since Unity 5's launch two years ago but since he first started.

"We've been stuck with old parts of the engine that were written a long time ago, but now we're really turning a corner," he said. "Thanks for sticking with us all this way, and thanks for building cool stuff."

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