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Unity game engine embraces Google's Native Client

The cross-platform game software now reaches Google's software for faster Web apps and previews support for Flash. Also: new features and better performance.

Five browser logos

Startup Unity Technologies released version 3.5 of its video game engine that now includes support for Google's Native Client browser-boosting software.

Unity's software is a cross-platform tool that lets game programmers reach a wide range of devices--everything from iPhones to Windows to browsers. Cross-platform tools are only worth it if they reach a broad number of platforms, though, so it's important to expand, and the company has been working on Unity 3.5 for months.

Native Client is Google software built into Chrome that lets programmers run lightly modified C or C++ software directly in the browser. Ordinarily running such native software, compiled by programmers and downloaded over the Internet, would be a security nightmare. But Native Client, aka NaCl, comes with security protections--it only lets permitted instructions run, and it executes software in a protective sandbox.

So far other browser makers have treated Native Client with reactions ranging from indifference to disapproval. But Google's browser is gaining in popularity, and Google has its Chrome Web Store to distribute NaCl apps. If a significant number of programmers embrace NaCl in favor of JavaScript, WebGL, CSS, and other Web-app programming technologies, though, it's conceivable browser developers could overcome their NaCl aversion.

NaCl got its start on x86 processors from Intel and AMD, but Google has been working to adapt Native Client for ARM-based systems. However, Google doesn't support NaCl in its new Chrome for Android browser, which runs on ARM-based mobile phones.

Unity 3.5 also has a "preview release" of support for Adobe Systems' Flash Player 11 plug-in, whose most notable difference over predecessors is support for the Stage 3D interface for hardware-accelerated 3D graphics. Flash is widely installed on personal computers, but Adobe abandoned an effort to bring it to mobile devices.

In addition to the new platform support, Unity 3.5 includes a number of new programming features, too. Among them:

• The Shuriken system for particle-based visual effects to simulate things like fire and smoke

• Better and faster lighting effects such as high dynamic range imagery

• Smarter "pathfinding" algorithms for directing characters around obstacles or through crowds

• Better performance through improved "occlusion culling," which means a computer doesn't have to waste as many resources handling objects that can't be seen

• An interface for social gaming

The upgrade is free for Unity 3 developers. The software comes in a free basic version or costs $1,500 per developer for Unity Pro.