Every time I tell people that I’m a mobile game developer I get asked the same question: Do you use Unity for your games? At first I was happy that word got out about Unity and more and more people learned about it. But over the years the tone and phrasing behind the question morphed into something more condescending. “Are you one of those guys that make games with Unity? Egh”. So what’s with all the hate from gamers?
Your Answer Upfront:
Gamers have a lot of hate towards Unity as a game engine due to associating it’s “Made With Unity” splash screen with low quality games released by newcomers. Professionally designed games by experienced developers or big studios that are made with Unity rely on a professional license that waives the need to display that splash screen. Gamers have no idea that some of their favorite games were designed with the engine they hate.
In this article we’ll talk about the Unity Game Engine, why it’s useful and how it streamlined and improved the pace at which games are developed. And of course, we’ll talk about the positive and the negative sides of the subject. By the end of the article you’ll have a pretty good idea why gamers hate Unity.
What is Unity?
Unity (or Unity 3D as it was known at one point) is a set game development of tools or, better said, a fully featured game engine that can aid in the development of a game. It covers most things you need in order to make a fully featured game from scratch, giving developers access to a high quality editing environment, access to resources and a simplified and streamlined API for development.
Game Development as a Car Manufacturing Analogy
I love using analogies in order to explain the impact of various tools or processes and I’m not going to shy away from this with the subject at hand. So let’s explain Unity’s impact on the game development scene with an analogy.
Imagine working on a game as owning a car factory. You’d have to design a car from scratch, gather the materials to build it, design the engine, chassis and hood, model all the pieces, manufacture all the pieces, assemble them, test them, wrap ’em up and distribute them.
Naturally, you could do it on your own but it would take a lot of time and your output in terms of cars ready to sell per year would be very low.
Now imagine a third party comes to your factory and offers you the following:
- A streamlined piece editor that can generate the pieces according to your specifications. No need to do all the modelling yourself, from scratch.
- An on-demand car piece ordering service from a catalogue of other car manufacturers like you. Why reinvent the wheel when you can order one, for cheap, from other manufacturers.
- The ability to instantly adapt your car design to various countries of the world. After finishing one car, it can be adapted very easily to driving on the left or right side of the road. And it would automatically comply with local laws and legislations.
- Access to thousands of engines designed that can be tweaked according to your needs.
Your car output per year would increase tenfold as much of the time consuming stuff would be automatically handled or, at least, reduced to a fraction of what they once were. And all of that for mostly nothing in terms of cost or investment.
How did Unity help shape the mobile gaming industry?
By the time Unity reached version 3.0 (back in 2010) it already made a name for itself. I was working on a custom engine of my own, trying to create a portfolio that would hopefully get me hired as a Game Designer with Gameloft (spoiler: it did) but I remember enviously reading a press releases about the awards Unity was getting left and right.
Back then, it was MacOS exclusive, but it had support for iOS, Web Publishing and Android. Even though you needed an Apple Mac to be able to use, Unity’s adoption was ever-growing. By 2012 it already had more than 1.2 million developers that were relying on it.
With every new version released, Unity was pushing the boundaries of possibilities incorporating everything a small developer would have wanted. Physics, lightmaps, networking, dynamic lights and shadows and more.
I remember trying to save up enough money to be able to purchase an Apple Mac and a Unity license from my small designer salary (around $500 / month back then) and being extremely excited when Unity announced a Free Version and the ability to run it on Windows (with talks about the editor being brought to Linux).
But why all the excitement? Other engines have the same list of features and some do it better. So what gives?
Game development at full speed
One of the design decisions behind the engine was its ease of use. It had a main goal of making development easier. Let me give you some examples.
Before I adopted Unity, I would write my own games and engines in C/C++ and C# + OpenGL. With each game I’d make, I would have to write a ton of boilerplate code. Boilerplate code is a lot of code every game has that’s needed to initialize the rendering, create windows, handle input and talk with the operating system.
Unity took all of that and threw it away. I cannot express how much of a big thing that was. Even nowadays, when you ask someone who never programmed before what they think of programming – they usually mention a lot of weird looking characters. Something similar to the image below:
Unity had you do none of that and would handle everything for you. You would just tell the engine “Give me a window, make it that size and set it borderless or fullscreen“.
Talking to the OS or rendering API was done in the background and you didn’t have to bother with it. The same thing happened with keyboard and mouse input, joysticks or touch screens programming.
This alone reduces a lot of pointless coding from the development process.
But it also meant you didn’t have to waste so much time having to research various implementations. Dynamic lights, shadows and ground shading? 80% of the published developers on the Play Store have no idea how to implement it from scratch (and I’m pretty sure I’m being conservative with this estimate). Heck, a ton of the games released on the asset store use Unity’s default lightning settings and skybox.
Don’t know how to work with the touchscreen for your first game? Not to worry, Unity defaults to mouse input as the first finger so you can begin taping and touching really, really fast.
Suddenly any wanna-be designer with a modicum of programming knowledge could start prototyping his or her ideas. And they didn’t stop there. They made it extremely simple to acquire code and assets needed for next to nothing.
Streamlined asset procurement
There used to be a saying that cubes and squares were programmer’s art back in the day. That’s all we needed to start working on a game. Placeholder graphics, pink backgrounds, blue triangles and red squares and you knew what each object represented.
Nowadays programmers art can be a really detailed and extremely optimized Orc model with a ton of animations and 4K textures that you had lying around, from one of the asset packs you bought during a sale.
I used to pay thousands of dollars for some 3D models in order to have custom graphics in one of my games and I always ran the risk of never ending up releasing the game due to various circumstances.
But Unity came along and said: “Alright, what if we give you guys access to a repository, where artists can upload their work and you can license it from them for a small fee?”.
Suddenly – they managed to optimize and streamline the requirement for having an in-house artist. Sure, every game needs an actual artist around for custom graphics but for 90% of the stuff in the game? Like the grass, rocks and that one medieval house model that everyone uses? $10 can get you more than you need on the asset store.
Suddenly a solo programmer with a bit of game design knowledge could start pushing out games on par with smaller development teams.
Take the plumber model from there, the castle from there, write a bit of code to have it move around using Unity’s AI navigation system and hello – you have a small prototype of a game that took you hours or days instead of actual months.
Why do gamers hate Unity?
Let’s get to the topic at hand now. The previous chapter explained how Unity grew to prominence amongst devs but all the ideas outlined in there? They also serve to give Unity a bad name amongst gamers.
Lowering the ‘barrier to entry’ in game development
The ease of use and streamlined approach to game development meant a lot more people could download Unity and start making games with it. The insane adoption and growth of modern smartphones meant new developers had a potential market of billions of people that could see and play their very first game.
Thanks to distribution stores like Google’s Play Store that had a more lax vetting process (Google just wanted as many apps out there as possible) and the small cost to sign up and release apps ($25) a lot of people started releasing their own games. Their very first games.
The “Made with Unity” splashscreen in the free edition made the brand be associated with low quality games
Unity had (and still has) a free edition that millions of developers still use. In exchange for using the engine for free, games need to display a splash screen at startup that says: “Made With Unity”.
All those millions of first time developers that released their first game made with Unity? They never paid for a commercial license and displayed that splash screen. And gamers saw the splash screen and saw those beginner games with few polishes and a lot of problems (your first attempt at anything won’t be your best work ever) and began to associate low quality games with the engine.
Unity’s amazing marketing stunt to garner support for developers was a huge hit – both in terms of install base and adoption as well as a huge hit to their marketing and branding.
When a player downloads a game for the first time, sees the words “Made With Unity” and then see the game is bad he associates the game with the engine. Experienced developers normally build their games using a commercial or professional Unity license. Those licenses waive the need for the splash screen.
A lot of gamers have games that they love to bits that were designed with the Unity engine, but that information is not made available anywhere in the game. I saw a lot of them condemn Unity over the years without knowing that games like Wasteland 2, Fallout Shelter, Pillars of Eternity, Deus Ex Go or Hollow Knight were built using the engine they “hate”.
All of this could have been avoided if Unity chose to pay or require professional developers to use the Unity Branding in their games. The very splash screen that drove adoption for the engine also gave it a bad name.
It’s a bit ironic isn’t it?
Where To Next?
You’ve reached the end of our article and I sincerely hope you know understand why Unity receives so much hate from gamers. If you liked this article we have many more just like it with original research and examples.
I write extensively about the mobile gaming industry, their tactics and how greed influences a game’s design. I believe that you might be interested in more articles on game monetization. So if you want to stick around, you can check out “How Do Free Mobile Games Make money“, “Why Do Mobile Games Have Fake Ads” and “Why Do Mobile Games Have In-App Purchases“.
There’s also a monster post (about 4000 words) that answers the question: “How Hard Is It To Make A Mobile Game“. It goes in depth with actual examples on how Experience, Resources and Financials affect the difficulty of developing and releasing new mobile games!
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