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Unity officially releases its new game engine: Unity 5

Unity officially releases its new game engine: Unity 5

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Unity has released the latest version of its cross-platform game engine. At the 2015 Game Developers Conference, CEO John Riccitiello announced a final version of Unity 5, which is now available on the company's site. Unity 5 was announced in mid-2014 and released in beta last October, and it offers some notable updates over the past iteration, including upgraded animation and physics, a new lighting system, and more audio options. As one might expect, founder and CTO Joachim Ante calls it a "massive release" that touches just about every aspect of the engine. Besides promised improvements in graphics and efficiency, Unity 5 now supports a newer version of the PhysX physics engine, and there are more tools for mixing audio.

Unity's free and pro versions are converging

Unity started as an attempt to democratize game development; it's not the most powerful engine on the market, but it's flexible and offers broad support for desktop computers, mobile platforms, and major consoles. Riccitiello says Unity 5 currently supports 21 platforms, including iOS, Android, Windows, BlackBerry, all major consoles, and the Samsung Gear VR. It's also added support for the browser-based WebGL platform, which makes games very broadly available. Unity's tech demos still don't have the breathtaking graphical fidelity of a top-notch AAA game, because they're not supposed to. But at GDC, we saw a remastered version of high-gloss iPad game Republique, focused heavily on the lighting — it's definitely a notable improvement, with far softer and more natural shadows.

Unity has been particularly conspicuous in one new field: virtual reality. Oculus founder Palmer Luckey came on stage to talk about his work with Unity, including full integration with Unity 5. This feature is in alpha currently, but Luckey says it'll be available to everyone as a beta in around a month.

Besides the updates themselves, one of the big changes to Unity is that it's closing the gap between big studios and personal users. The engine comes in two versions, Pro and Personal: the latter is free, and the former costs $75 a month or $1,500 for a perpetual license. Older versions of Unity stripped some options out of the free version, but Riccitiello has promised nearly the same feature set for both in Unity 5, with the personal license restricted to people and studios with less than $100,000 in revenue or funding. Unity and its competitor Epic have been in a price war for the past year, and earlier this week, Epic announced that it was offering Unreal Engine 4 free for all developers. The catch is that Epic relies on royalties; after a game makes $3,000 in sales, Epic will take 5 percent a quarter. Unity has derided this model. "Free plus five percent of your gross isn't free," said one developer on stage. "That's millions of dollars."

Where Epic has worked on creating state-of-the-art graphics, Unity started with the goal of making game development universally accessible. Since then, they've been moving towards each other. And Unity 5 is a long-awaited step towards that future.