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Unity 3.5 gaming tools challenge Apple's ideas

Apple loathes cross-platform developer tools, but Unity believes a Flash partnership and new high-end features in its next-gen software will keep it popular.

Unity logo

Unity Technologies today will show off Unity 3.5, a new version of its game development software designed to match higher-end tools, spread its games' reach to Adobe Systems' Flash Player, and defend the honor of cross-platform programming.

The company--profitable and now grown to 150 employees--aims to make it easier for programmers to write games that, once written, work on multiple devices. Applications today can run on foundations such as Windows, Mac OS X, Android, iOS, and Web browsers via the company's plug-in.

Version 3.5, the centerpiece of the Unite 11 developer conference and due to ship later this year, will expand the number of destinations further. That's because Unity 3.5 lets programmers build their programs also for the newest version of Flash, version 11, which is about to arrive on the market with a hardware-accelerated interface code-named Molehill and officially called Stage 3D. Flash, though under competitive attack by Web standards that can reproduce some of its abilities, remains widely installed on desktop browsers.

Flash will be useful in the case of casual gamers not likely to install Unity's own plugin, said Chief Executive David Helgason. "It makes all the sense in the world to use the Flash export," he said. "It's one more place for people who use Unity to put their games."

But cross-platform programming tools are in disfavor in one prominent area: iOS, a hot market for programmers. As Apple chief executive last year, Steve Jobs wrote that cross-platform tools yield a lowest-common-denominator approach that doesn't take advantage of differing systems' abilities.

Helgason, though, calls this Jobs viewpoint "a fundamental misunderstanding of game development."

"I'm not saying everything should be bland, with the exact same binary running on every device," and indeed Flash isn't up to running large, complex games built with Unity, he said. But cross-platform coding remains essential overall. "The economics for making games are already tough. If you don't have cross-platform tools and the ability to go to new places quickly, you are at a huge risk as a business."

At least some programmers agree. About 175,000 programmers use its tools actively each month. Among games built with Unity are ShadowGun, Bladeslinger, Rochard, Battleheart, Battlestar Galactica Online, Snuggle Truck, Gears, and King's Bounty: Legions, the company said. Unity makes money by selling the higher-end versions of its tools. The basic version is free, and programmers don't have to pay a per-unit royalty.

Flash is for casual games, but Unity is trying to make its technology appeal to the more serious gamer--those accustomed to top-end "triple A" games. To address that crowd, Unity has been hiring and acquiring to beef up Unity 3.5's features.

Among new features in version 3.5 are: graphics rendering that can be split across multiple processing threads; high-dynamic range (HDR) graphics rendering; a system for particle effects (think of flames or wobbling jelly) called Shuriken; integrated technology to assess a system's graphics ability; better caching to load items into memory faster; and many optimizations to dramatically speed up software execution speeds.

"We hired a bunch of guys who have worked with AAA engines before. That's been going on for the last year. With 3.5, we're really starting to see the fruit of that," Helgason said. Programmers believed high-end game engines--Crytek's CryEngine and Unreal Technology's Unreal Engine--are better, he said. "We needed to catch up. 3.5 is the first major step in that direction."

But not the only step. The company also acquired a "handful of people" who constituted Mecanim, a company that focused on high-end animation tools. That technology will arrive in Unity 4.0, the company said.

Helgason also said the tools now work better for multiperson teams rather than individual programmers. "Workflows for large teams is something where we've fallen short," he said.

The company is working on another direction, Google's Native Client technology that lets browsers run code at, theoretically, near-native speeds. It's available in the beta version of Chrome but not yet in the stable version.

Another technology, WebGL, which lets browsers show hardware-accelerated 3D graphics without any plug-ins at all, remains on Unity's evaluation list.

"It's one of those things that's been brewing for a long time. It's quite capable technology. You can do cool stuff with it. But when you're trying to build larger productions, it has performance shortcomings," Helgason said. "That's being worked on rapidly, but there's some time before it really hits prime time--probably a year, more like a year and a half or even two."

When it does arrive, a lot of the work the company has done to adapt to Flash will carry over, he said.

"If it becomes really ready for games," Helgason said, "then we would suck if we weren't trying to help the developers build with it."