Gamescom may have only just finished, but there’s another tentpole developer event that’s fast approaching.
Unite, an annual celebration of Unity’s game developer community, returns to Amsterdam this November, taking place as a physical event for the first time since 2019.
“We're just really excited to get everybody back together,” says the president of Unity’s Create division Marc Whitten. “Unite is always this incredible opportunity to get some of our best and most passionate developers together with our teams… It's a jam-packed event with really great talks exploring what’s coming down our pipeline.”
At Unite 2023, Unity will show developers how it is bolstering its core product while still innovating for the future. Over the last year, it strengthened its multiplayer services to support smooth, high-concurrency, connected experiences; it launched the 2022 LTS which promises maximum stability and performance; and recently Unity announced a new suite of AI tools in closed beta that it hopes will revolutionize game content creation.
Starting with multiplayer, the demand for connected gaming experiences has never been greater, and Unity has been focused on delivering a suite of solutions to support the creation of multiplayer games spanning all genres and platforms - from networking stacks to dedicated hosting, friends list management and in-game voice chat.
Unity’s Game Server Hosting, in particular, is very popular and has been adopted by some of the biggest games in the world, such as Apex Legends and Among Us. It boasts robust high-concurrency servers with 99 percent uptime.
As such, it’s a part of Unity’s offering that receives a great deal of attention.
“We've really been focused on the self-serve feature for Game Server Hosting recently. This means that any studio, of any size, can immediately start making their multiplayer title,” Whitten says. “That’s on top of observability and the DevOps side of the pipeline to ensure developers have more control and have a better understanding of what's happening in the multiplayer sessions for their game.”
He continues: “Getting Game Server Hosting right is all about the data that comes back – are developers tuning their matches and matchmaking and the way sessions work? Do they understand the cost structure? Some minor modifications on the game side could actually have a significant impact on how much it costs to run sessions. We've been really investing to ensure that creators have that level of control over their games.”
The evolution of Unity’s Game Server Hosting service isn’t limited to technical improvements, either.
“Game Server Hosting is one part of a rich set of gaming services that are necessary to build modern live games,” he says. “That really feeds into things like community. We've been developing better community management tools, in order to help games foster really vibrant and positive communities. A good example of that is Safe Voice, our recently announced toxicity detection solution that leverages advanced acoustic and semantic intelligence to identify in-game toxicity at scale. This allows moderators to take action faster and allow for a healthier community experience. Toxicity can be one of the key factors that actually drives people off your game.”
In terms of recent updates to the Unity engine, the company released the 2022 long-term stable (LTS) version of the tech in June of this year. The big headlines for the 2022 LTS were improved iteration via the multiprocess AssetBundle pipeline, a more streamlined Package Manager and faster compilation thanks to the Burst engine. That’s on top of graphical upgrades, including the High Definition Render Pipeline, which allows developers to create beautiful environments.
"Safe Voice, our recently announced toxicity detection solution, allows moderators to take action faster"
But perhaps the biggest change was Unity fully integrating the Data-Oriented Technology Stack (DOTS) within the engine’s editor. DOTS allows developers to have much richer games by being able to support more objects in a particular game session and world. The tech is already being used in a number of games, including Paradox Interactive’s upcoming Cities: Skylines 2. That said, DOTS has experienced significant change, evolution and improvements since it’s been in pre-production.
Unity’s early pre-release versions of DOTS used a particular structure of programming that was more tuned to how a computer thinks than how a human thinks. This meant developers had to have a deep understanding of how computers manage memory and the machine’s utilisation of CPU and GPU hardware. Developers essentially had to think like a computer in order to use DOTS. This could be precarious at times as well, in that if they got something wrong, they could adversely affect performance rather than improving it. With the production-ready, DOTS 1.0, Unity focused on shrinking the gap between how a computer thinks and how a human thinks so that DOTS is more accessible.
“We've been working on this for many years. Lots of games have shipped on DOTS already using our pre-release version, but it wasn’t part of the editor workflow; developers often had to do a bunch of custom work in order to migrate those components together to work in a game.
“But with our production-ready version of DOTS 1.0h we’ve simplified processes and the technology is a lot easier to use. You can see more and more games that are using DOTS to high success in production games.”
One of the major trends right now in broader tech and games is artificial intelligence. Generative AI apps like the text-based ChatGPT and image-centric Stable Diffusion have generated plenty of press attention, and Unity is eager to introduce similar tools to games development.
“We strongly believe that essentially every system in a game will be touched by AI, from creation to runtime,” Whitten says. “Our Unity Muse platform is lowering the barrier of entry by making it easier for people to understand how to make a game, to create content that they might need for their game, and to increase their productivity when making a game.
“A great example is DOTS again; despite us making it easier to use, it still has a bit of a learning curve. There are really not many people with experience using DOTS in the industry because it's actually been in pre-production for a while. Using Unity Muse, you can get a lot of help on exactly how to do a type of technique or how to approach a problem with DOTS so that it works inside of your game. That's a good example of using AI to get help on both technique, algorithm and code to go faster with what you're trying to do inside of Unity.”
Unity Muse is only one of the company’s AI offerings; the other is Unity Sentis, which allows developers to embed artificial intelligence models in their projects.
“We have a strong belief that a lot of people are going to be running neural networks essentially inside of every frame loop in their game,” Whitten explains. “With Sentis, what we're trying to do is to make it easy for developers to use the device’s capabilities to run that neural network.”
"AI will be an accelerant for both professionals and a tool that allows the water level to rise for people who aspire to become creators"
There’s been a great deal of discourse surrounding the impact that generative AI will have, especially in creative sectors. Whitten acknowledges there is uncertainty, but believes it will ultimately make things easier for professionals and amateurs.
“We believe that even though there’s a lot of real-time 3D content in the world right now, including games, there’s going to be much, much more to come.The problem is that it's too hard to make the core content. My common example of this is when a game developer puts out a teaser of a game that they're going to release three years from now. Then three years later, the game ships and it seems the project regressed from that footage.
“Of course, what happened is that it's so hard to make all the worlds and elements in the game. At Unity, we challenged ourselves to offer tools that would make it ten times faster, ten times easier and ten times cheaper to create the content to fill all these worlds. That's one of the things that AI can help create. There are a lot of weird twists and turns that we're going to go through as we all understand how these tools are useful, how to make them really work well for artists and to ensure that artists feel in control. There will be a lot of evolution that happens but AI will be an accelerant for both professionals and a tool that allows the water level to rise for people who aspire to become creators.”
Looking towards Unite 2023, Whitten is excited not only by the prospect of meeting developers, but to showcase everything Unity has to offer, such as the new products and improvements that will help creators address the biggest challenges of game development today, and to spotlight new innovations that will future-proof them for the challenges of tomorrow.
“We're just looking forward to really being in front of our creators in person again,” he says.
“Our focus is always to really find this balance between the stability that developers need to make great games now and investing in where the future is going. What we find when we go to Unite is you have this mix of people who are deep in production with their game and they're all about whether the tools are stable. But then there are the people who are in pre-production thinking about where they are going next – they're really pushing us on the tip of the spear, asking how Unity can make them successful three or four years from now. ‘We’re excited to show everyone attending the event how much Unity has to offer.”