Introduction to Unity 2D

Sean Duffy


Unity is an extremely popular and versatile game engine that has a long list of supported platforms and devices to its credit. Although 3D gaming seems to be the latest craze, a large portion of mobile, console and desktop games are presented in 2D, so it’s important to understand the features Unity provides for building 2D games.

In this tutorial, you’ll build a 2D space lander game and learn the following skills along the way:

  • How to work with sprites and the camera.
  • How to use Physics 2D components to handle collisions and gameplay.
  • How to set up 2D animation and states.
  • How to apply layer and sprite ordering.

If you don’t already have Unity 5, download it from Unity’s website.

Note: If you are new to Unity, you can read our Intro to Unity tutorial to get you up to speed.

Getting Started

Download the starter project for this tutorial, extract it, and open the LowGravityLander-Start project in Unity.

Open the Lander-Start scene located in the Scenes folder of your Project Browser. You should see the following in the Game view:

It's lonely out in space...

It’s lonely out in space…

The starter project is a functional 2D space lander game, but it has a few problems you’ll need to solve before you can truly call it finished.

Ready for lift off (and a perilous journey down to the closest landing pad)? Time to get started!

Note: 2D games in Unity, quite logically, use the 2D mode of the Unity Editor. You can choose 2D or 3D mode When you create a project from scratch:
This option has already been set in the starter project for you.

Sprites in Unity

Sprites are easy to work with in Unity thanks to a great 2D workflow and built-in editor.

To add a sprite to your game, simply drag and drop it from your Project folder into your Scene view. To see for yourself how easy the process is, select the Scene view, then drag the playership sprite from the Sprites folder into your Scene view:


In the Hierarchy, click the playership GameObject Unity created for you and take a look at its details in the Inspector. Notice that Unity automatically attached a Sprite Renderer Component, which contains your playership sprite, to the GameObject:


That’s all it takes! The Sprite Renderer lets you display images as Sprites in both 2D and 3D scenes.

Delete the playership GameObject from the Hierarchy.

Sprite Modes

There are two different modes in which you can use Sprites:


  • Single: A single-image Sprite.
  • Multiple: A sprite with multiple elements, such as animations or spritesheets with different parts for a character.

A spriteheet is a single image that contains lots of smaller individual images like so:


The reason for using spritesheets is that every image you use in your game will take up one draw call. For a few dozen Sprites, this isn’t a big deal but as your game grows in complexity and scope, this could be a potential issue.

By using spritesheets, you are making just one draw call for lots of Sprites, thus giving your game a performance boost. Of course, organization of your spritesheets is just as important as using them, but that’s for another tutorial.

Sprite Editing

It’s convenient to pack multiple graphic elements into a single image for animations or objects that have lots of moving parts; Unity makes it easy to manage these spritesheets with a built-in 2D spritesheet editor.

You’ll use two spritesheets in this game: one for the lander’s thruster animation and one for an explosion animation. Both of these animations consist of multiple frames, which you can edit and slice using the Sprite Editor.


explosion-spritesheet.png has already been sliced and prepared into an animation for you, but the thruster-spritesheet.png still needs some attention. That’s your next task.

Click thruster-spritesheet.png in the Sprites folder of the Project Browser, then use the Inspector to change the Sprite Mode to Multiple. Finally, click Apply.

Next, click Sprite Editor:


A new window pops up to show the spritesheet automatically sliced into individual frames:


Click Slice, and notice that Automatic is the default slice operation:


Automatic means Unity will attempt to locate and slice your spritesheet on its own to the best of its ability. In this case, Automatic would work just fine, but you could also slice your spritesheet by cell size or by cell count.

Selecting the cell size option lets you specify the size of each frame in your spritesheet using pixel dimensions.

Click Grid by Cell Size under the Slice menu in the Sprite Editor:


Under Pixel Size, enter 9 for X and 32 for Y. Leave the other values at 0 and Pivot set to Center, then click Slice:

Slice and dice!

Slice and dice!

Click Apply in the Sprite Editor window to apply the changes to your spritesheet:

You’re done – you can close the Close the Sprite Editor now. Your thruster spritesheet is ready for use.

Assigning Sprites to The Lander

Right now, you can’t actually see the lander in your game. That’s because it doesn’t have any Sprite Renderer components attached. There won’t be any spectacular landings – or crashes! – if the lander isn’t visble on the screen.

To fix that, click the Lander GameObject in the Hierarchy. In the Inspector, click Add Component, then type Sprite Renderer in the search text field. Finally, choose the Sprite Renderer component.

Now that you’ve added a Sprite Renderer Component, click the small circle icon next to the Sprite selector in the Component properties and select the playership sprite:


Set the Order in Layer to 1.

Your next job is to assign the landing gear sprite.

Click the LanderFeet GameObject located under the Lander GameObject, then click the small circle icon next to the Sprite selector in the Sprite Renderer component properties. Then choose the lander-feet sprite in the Select Sprite window like so:


Click Play; you’ll be able to see your Lander in the Game view. Use the WASD or arrow keys to fly around the screen:

Houston, we have liftoff!

Houston, we have liftoff!

The 2D Camera And Pixels Per Unit

Unity 2D projects have an orthographic camera view by default. Generally you’ll want to stick with this in your 2D games instead of using the perspective camera view. You can learn more about the differences between Perspective and Orthographic over here.

The image below shows the default camera configuration of your Lander project:


As noted above, the Projection property is set to Orthographic.

Select the playership sprite in the Project Browser and look at its Import Settings in the Inspector. The Pixels Per Unit property is currently set to the default value of 100:


So…what does “100” mean in this case?

A Word on Pixels Per Unit

Units in Unity don’t necessarily correspond to actual pixels on the screen. Instead, you’d commonly size your objects relative to each other on some arbitrary scale such as 1 unit = 1 meter. For sprites, Unity uses Pixels Per Unit to determine their unscaled size in units.

Consider a sprite imported from an image that’s 500 pixels wide. The table below shows how the width of GameObject on the x-axis would change as you render the sprite using different values for Pixels Per Units at different scales:

Screen Shot 2015-10-18 at 8.00.36 PM

How Pixels Per Unit conversions make me feel!

How Pixels Per Unit conversions make me feel!

Still not quite clear? The following scenario will help you think through what’s going on with the unit conversion:

Think about a game that uses a static camera and displays the the backdrop sprite fullscreen, similar to the wallpaper on your computer desktop.

backdrop.png is 2048 pixels tall, and has a default Pixel Per Unit ratio of 100. If you do the math, you’ll find the the backdrop GameObject in the Hierarchy will be 20.48 units tall.

However, the orthographic camera’s Size property measures only half the height of the screen, so to fit the exact height of the backdrop GameObject to the screen in full view, you’d use an orthographic size of 10.24:


You don’t need to change the camera in your project, however, as the current size of 5 works fine for the moving camera in your game.

A Galaxy To Be Proud Of

The Max Size property of the sprite’s Import Settings lets you define a maximum size for your sprite, measured in pixels. You can override this setting for each platform you’re planning to target.

Zoom in to your scene view backdrop on the light blue galaxy. Note that it’s slightly blurry; when you import a sprite, the Max Size property defaults to 2048. Unity had to scale down your image to fit the default texture size, with a resulting loss of image quality.

To clear up your image issues, select the backdrop sprite in the Project Browser, and change Max Size to 4096. Click Apply, then wait for a few moments as Unity imports the backdrop of your Scene View once again. You’ll see the background suddenly become crisp and clear:


Setting Max Size to 4096 lets Unity to use the full 4096 x 4096 texture instead so you can see the detail present in the original image.

However, this fidelity comes at a cost. Check the Inspector’s Preview area shown below; the size of the background texture is now 5.3 MB, up from the previous 1.3 MB:


Increasing the size of the texture increased its memory footprint by nearly a factor of 4.

Note: 4096 x 4096 is a fairly large image file; try to avoid using this size when possible, especially for mobile games. This project uses a large image only as an example.


You can also change the Format of a texture as shown below:


You might want to adjust the Format of some textures to improve their color quality, but that also increases the memory footprint of the image. For example, modify the Format of the backdrop to 16 bits; the size of the texture grows to a massive 21.3 MB. Change the Format to Truecolor and you’ll increase that to 32.0 MB!

The Crunched setting takes a long time to compress, but it gives you the smallest possible file size of 1.2 MB and you can tune this even further.

The human eye would be hard pressed to see much difference between Compressed and 16 bits, so set the backdrop Format back to Compressed for the best ratio of texture size to quality.

When developing your own games, you’ll need to play with the Format settings to find the combination that results in the smallest texture size that still gives you the quality you’re looking for.

2D Colliders And Physics

Unity lets you adjust the gravity for the Physics 2D system just as you can in 3D games. Unity’s default gravity settings for a new project are the same as Earth’s gravity, by definition, 9.80665 m/s2. But you’re landing your spaceship on the moon, not Earth, and the gravity on the moon is roughly 16.6% of Earth’s, or 1.62519 m/s2.

Note: The gravity in your starter project was set to -1 to make it easy to fly around and test the game right away.

To modify the gravity of your game, click Edit\Project Settings\Physics 2D and use the Physics2DSettings Inspector panel to change the Y value of Gravity from -1 to -1.62519:


Click Play to run the game; fly around a bit and see how the gravity changes the motion of your ship:


One small step up of gravity, one giant leap required for our thruster power!

One small step up of gravity, one giant leap required for thruster power!

Colliding With Objects

If you’ve already tried to navigate the Lander around the scene, you’ve likely collided with a rock or two. This is Unity’s 2D collision system at work.

Every object that should interact with gravity and other physics objects requires a Collider 2D component and a Rigidbody 2D component.

Select the Lander GameObject in the Hierarchy; you’ll see a Rigidbody 2D and Polygon Collider 2D Component are attached. Adding a Rigidbody 2D Component to a sprite puts it under control of Unity’s 2D physics system.


A Quick Lesson on Physics Components

By itself, a Rigidbody 2D Component means gravity will affect a sprite and that you can control the image from script using forces. But if you want your sprite to interact and collide with other objects, you’ll also need a Collider 2D component. Adding an appropriate collider Component makes a sprite respond to collisions with other sprites.

Polygon 2D Colliders are more performance-heavy than other simple colliders such as the Box or Circle Collider 2D Components, but they make more precise physical interaction between objects possible. Always use the simplest collider shape you can get away with in your game to ensure you achieve the best possible performance.

Colliding Polygons

Explore the Collider on your spaceship by selecting the Lander GameObject in the Hierarchy and clicking Edit Collider on the Polygon 2D Collider:


Hover your mouse cursor over the collider edges in your scene view; handles appear to let you move the collider points around; you can also create or delete points to modify the shape of the collider:

Editing a Polygon Collider 2D

Leave the shape of the Lander collider as-is for now.

Note: The code in the Lander.cs script attached to the Lander GameObject uses OnCollisionEnter2D to handle collisions with other objects in the game scene. If the magnitude of the collision force is above a certain threshold, the lander will be destroyed.

Your landing pad also needs a collider; otherwise your spaceship would fall straight through when you tried to land!

In the Hierarchy, click the LanderObjective GameObject, and press F to focus on the landing pad. In the Inspector, click Add Component and choose the Box Collider 2D Component:


Unity adds a Box Collider 2D component to the LanderObjective GameObject and automatically sizes the collider to match the sprite size. Cool!


There are a few other things to keep in mind regarding Rigidbody and 2D Collider Components:

  • Enable Is Kinematic on Rigidbodies when you want to move your physics bodies via a transform component instead of letting gravity affect them alone.
  • You can also modify mass, linear drag, angular drag and other physics properties on your Rigidbody components.
  • Colliders can be used in Trigger mode; they won’t physically collide with other physics objects, but instead they let your code react to an event using the OnTriggerEnter2D() available on all MonoBehaviour scripts.
  • To handle collision events in your script code, use OnCollisionEnter2D() which is available on all MonoBehaviour scripts.
  • You can assign optional Physics2D materials to your Colliders to control properties such as Bounciness or Friction.

Note: You may not notice it when there’s only a few objects in a game, but when you have hundreds of objects onscreen, all involved in physics interactions, using simpler collider shapes will greatly improve the performance of your game.

You may want to re-think your strategy of using Polygon Collider 2D components if you have lots of objects colliding!

You may want to re-think your strategy of using Polygon Collider 2D components if you have lots of objects colliding!

Lander Animation

Your lander would not be complete without visible thrusters boosting out to counter gravity. Right now the thrusters work, but there is no visual feedback to tell you they’re firing.

Unity Animation 101

To assign animation to GameObjects in your scene, you attach an Animator component to the GameObject(s) you wish to animate. This Component requires a reference to an Animation Controller that defines which animation clips to use and how to control these clips, along with other “fancier” effects such as blending and transitioning of animations.

An Animation Controller for Thrusters

In the Hierarchy, expand the Lander GameObject to reveal four other nested GameObjects. Select the ThrusterMain GameObject; you’ll see it already has an Animator component attached, but it doesn’t reference an Animation Controller:


With the ThrusterMain GameObject still selected, click the Animation editor tab. If you don’t see this tab in the editor’s main window, click the Window menu, then Animation:


Click the Create button to create an Animation Clip:


Enter the name ThrusterAnim and place it in the Assets\Animations folder.

You should now see two new animation assets in the Animations folder of the Project Browser. ThrusterAnim is the animation clip that will hold the animation for the thruster effect, and ThrusterMain is the animation controller that will control the animation:


You should see an animation timeline in the Animation window at this point; this is where you can place and order the individual thruster sprite frames.

Click Add Property and choose Sprite Renderer\Sprite as the type of property to animate:



Your editor should now look like the following image:


In the Project Browser, click the Sprites folder and expand the thruster-spritesheet.png sprite. Highlight the four sliced thruster sprites and drag them onto the ThrusterMain : Sprite timeline in the Animation editor.

The sprite frames end up bunched together on the timeline; you can fix that yourself. Start with the rightmost sprite; click the sprite, drag it over to the right and space it five seconds (0:05) apart from its neighbor:


Select the last frame and press Delete to remove it.


Click Record once in the Animation window to toggle off record mode for this clip; this prevents any accidental changes to the animation:


Time to configure the animation controller.

The Lander.cs script currently sets Animation Parameters to true or false, depending on whether or not the player is firing the thrusters. The animation controller will evaluate these parameters and allow certain states to be entered or exited.

In the Project Browser, click the Animations sub-folder, then double click ThrusterMain.controller. This opens the Animator editor, where you’ll see the controller Unity automatically added for you when you created the animation clip on the ThrusterMain GameObject:


Right now, the thruster animation is running continuously. Logically, the thruster animation should only run if the player is currently firing the thruster.

Right-click the grid area of the Animator editor, and click Create State\Empty:


Use the Inspector to name the new state NoThrust. This is the default state for the animation when there’s no player input:


From Entry, the animator should flow directly to NoThrust and stay there until a boolean parameter becomes true. For animation state changes to occur, you’ll need to add connections using transitions.

Right-click the Entry state and choose Make Transition. Click the NoThrust state to add a transition arrow from Entry to NoThrust. Right-click NoThrust and click Set As Layer Default State. NoThrust should now appear orange as below:


The orange color indicates that the state will be the first state that will be run.

Using the Animator editor, click + in the Parameters tab to create a new parameter type Bool. Name it ApplyingThrust:


Right-click NoThrust, click Make Transition, then click ThrusterAnim. This creates a transition that allows a state change between the two states. Now perform the same set of steps, but this time create a transition from ThrusterAnim to NoThrust:


Click the NoThrust to ThrusterAnim transition line, then click + in the Inspector to add a Condition. This selects the only condition available – ApplyingThrust.

Ensure true is selected in the drop down. This indicates ApplyingThrust must be true for the animation to move to the ThrusterAnim state.


Now edit the transition line from ThrusterAnim to NoThrust to use the same ApplyingThrust condition, but this time you’re checking for the false condition:



Your finished animation controller should look like the following:


You can tweak the animation playback speed in the Animator editor to suit. Click the ThrusterAnim state, and in the Inspector, change the Speed property to 1.5:


The thruster animation should react quite quickly to reflect the hair-trigger reactions from the player to appear responsive. Click both transition lines (the ones between NoThrust and ThrusterAnim) and use the Inspector to change the Transition related settings to 0. Uncheck Has Exit Time and Fixed Duration as well:


Finally, you need to apply the same animation and controller to the left and right thrusters. Select ThrusterLeft and ThrusterRight from the Hierarchy, then drag and drop ThrusterMain.controller from the Animations folder in the Project Browser to the Animator component’s Controller property:


Click Play to run the game; try out your new thrusters out with the WASD or arrow keys:


Houston, we have lift off! :]

Sprite Sorting And Layers

No 2D engine would be complete without sprite-sorting abilities. Unity lets you sort and order sprites using a system of Layers and Order in layers.

Click Play in the Editor to run the game once again; use your worst piloting abilities to crash the lander into a nearby rock. Take a look at the Scene view in the Editor when the Restart button appears and notice how some of the rocks have disappeared behind the backdrop image:


This happens because the rendering engine can’t decide the layering order of the sprites. All sprites, except for the ship, are currently set to use the Default sorting layer with a rendering order of 0.

To fix this, you can use a system of Layers and Order in layers to separate sprites. Unity will render sprites on these layers in the defined order of the layers. For each individual layer, Unity will use the Sprite’s Order in Layer numbering on each sprite to determine in which order it should render each sprite.

Click the Edit menu, then click Project Settings and choose Tags & Layers. Expand the Sorting Layers section.

Click + to add three new layers:

  • Background
  • Rocks
  • Player

Click and drag the handles next to each layer to ensure they’re ordered as listed above. The ordering of your layers here determines the rendering order in which Unity will render sprites on these layers:


Click Backdrop in the Hierarchy; on the Sprite Renderer Component, click the Sorting Layer drop down and choose Background from the list:


Expand the Rocks GameObject and highlight all the child rock GameObjects. Use the Inspector to change the objects to use the Rocks Sorting Layer like so:


Since the rocks in your scene tend to overlap each other, they’re a good object to demonstrate how the Order in Layer property works for sprites on a specific Layer.

If you didn’t give each rock in the Rocks layer separate ordering values, you would notice rocks randomly ‘popping’ over others during gameplay. This is because Unity won’t consistently render the rocks in the same order, since they all have an order in layer value of 0.

Look for overlapping rocks and assign the ones in the front a higher Order in Layer value than the rocks behind them:

Overlapping rocks ordering in layer

Overlapping rocks ordering in layer

Change the Sprite Renderer Sorting Layer properties for the Lander and its child GameObjects, and all Fuel GameObjects under Pickups to Player. This will ensure they are rendered in front of everything.

There is one problem however. What about the sprites for the thruster animations (and the lander’s feet that normally hide behind the lander)? If we don’t set a specific Order in Layer number for these and for the Lander itself, we will see some odd rendering problems!


Change the Order in Layer property for the Lander itself to be 2. Select each Thruster child GameObject, as well as the LanderFeet GameObject, and set their Order in Layer values to 1.

When the lander touches down on the landing pad, the pad sinks down a little to show that you’ve landed. The landing pad and rock sprites overlap each other, so for the effect to look right, you’ll have to order the landing pad behind the rock.

Change the LanderObjective sprite to use the Rocks layer, and assign it an Order in Layer value of 0.
Set the rock underneath the LanderObjective to use a Order in Layer value of 1:


Finally, click the Explosion prefab in the Prefabs folder and change its Sorting Layer to Player:


Click Play and test your piloting skills by picking up fuel supplies and touching down on the landing pad – just be careful not to apply too much thrust in any one direction so you avoid the rocks! :]


Where To Go From Here?

You can download the completed project from this tutorial here.

You’ve covered most of the important 2D design features of Unity, and you have a fun little gravity lander game to show for it!

If you’d like to dive deeper into Unity’s 2D tools and features, you should definitely start by reading through the official Unity 2D game creation page.

Hopefully you have enjoyed this tutorial – please join in the discussion using the Comments section below and post any feedback or questions you have. I look forward to chatting with you! :]

Sean Duffy

Sean is a software engineer by day, and hobbyist game and tools developer by night. He loves working with Unity, and is also a Unity Asset Store developer with a special focus on 2D tools to help other game developers. Some of Sean's more popular Unity Assets include his 2D Shooter Bullet and Weapon System and 2D Homing Missiles assets.

You can find Sean at his personal blog or on Twitter

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