Unite 2015 Boston Conference Highlights

Brian Moakley

logo_boston_ff0066_00ccccUnite is a conference that is run by Unity Technologies to promote their key product, the Unity gaming engine.

It isn’t so much as a conference, but rather an experience. With a keynote being presented to an audience of over a thousand attendees to an expo with all the latest gaming tech, it was hard not be swept up in the festival like atmosphere of the convention.

As the Unity team lead at raywenderlich.com, I had a unique opportunity to attend the convention in my home town of Boston. Not only was great to be back again to watch some Red Sox games with my fellow New Englanders, but it was simply awesome to hang out in crowd of passionate gamers eager to produce and play content made in Unity.

In this article, I’ll give you a brief of tour of Unite, providing you a rundown of the various announcements and sessions, and ultimately give you the skinny of whether it is worth your time to attend any future Unite conferences.

Training Day

The training session was packed from start to finish.

The training session was packed from start to finish.

Like many conferences, Unite started with an optional training day. I assumed the training session would be in a small room with sixty or so other developers, but I turned out to be quite wrong. The room was quite big with around two hundred developers, sitting squeezed behind tables in front of two large screens.

The session was lead by Will Goldstone and and James Bouckley. The pair worked well each other, bouncing off jokes off each other as well as filling in details that the other may have forgot. It was a nice balance especially during the later half of the day when the content grew technical and the coffee grew sparse.

The training day focused on building a local multiplayer game called Tanks whereby two players battled each other in several rounds. With all the art assets in place, the session walked users through the process of making a game from it.

While Tanks turned out be a complicated project, the multiplayer match at the end was a great way to finish.

Tanks was complex, but a fun way to finish.

This turned out to be quite an ambitious exercise. Because the game was being built from scratch, complicated topics such writing the camera tracking as well as managing the game state had to be covered in a short a time as possible.

There was also extensive coding involved with some advanced topics covered as such coroutines. The trainers did their best to explain each line of code, but it was clear that some were lost.

The training day may have been better served with a less complex game, but the game itself really shined at the end of training. After a typical session of Q & A, the trainers randomly selected four attendees on stage where they played the game in bracket style competition with the grand prize winner taking home a Unity Pro license. It was a great way to end the session.

Keynote

John Riccitiello lays out Unity's vision.

John Riccitiello lays out Unity’s vision.

The keynote started with John Riccitiello, CEO of Unity Technologies, taking the stage and laying out the vision behind Unity. Unity’s goal is to “democratize” game development. Instead of having a select few companies controlling the direction of game development, they want everyone to create games.

You can see this approach throughout the engine from the emphasis on visual design to the asset store that allows other developers to sell plugins. For Unity, game development is not island, but a thriving community that benefits when everyone participates.

Unfortunately, making a game, nevermind a good game, is not enough. Thus, Riccitiello announced that Unity would be assisting developers with not just the game tools, but the marketing as well.

Unity is offering a new service to help games get discovered. They are calling Made with Unty and you can investigate it but heading over the madewith.unity.com web site. The idea behind this site is to not only promote games that are doing awesome things with Unity, but also to allow developers to share their “stories” with the community. Unity is trying to find a way for developers to discover new fans.

You can think of it as a social network for game developers connecting with gamers. It’s a way for you to build your audience while building your game. After all, what’s the use of making a game if no one knows about it?

Made with Unity is way for game developers to connect with their audience.

Made with Unity is way for game developers to connect with their audience.

While this is a nice tool, I was disappointed that they haven’t appeared to address the real Made with Unity elephant in the room. That is, games made with the Personal version of Unity.

If you produce a game using the Personal version, your game gets a Made with Unity splash screen. Unfortunately, a lot of games produced with the free version haven’t been, shall we say, produced with high quality standards. Or in some cases, there’s been no quality standards at all. Some developers are just packaging assets with little care for design or quality, and pushing the product on Steam

Gamers are noticing this and there is some push back against Unity games. This is like readers blaming Microsoft Word for producing badly written Twilight fan fiction, but is a real problem in the Unity community and it would be nice to see Unity Technologies address it. Somehow.

Feature Announcements

And then came the announcements. Those glorious, glorious announcements.

Creating advanced platforms will soon done entirely inside of Unity.

Creating advanced platforms will soon done entirely inside of Unity.

First up, Unity 2D is getting a whole bunch of new awesome features features. It’s getting something Unity is calling procedural textures. It’s way of take sprites, nine slicing them, then creating landscapes by simple dragging on handles.

Unity 2D is also getting tile maps with the ability to write custom brushes. This will allow you to create “smart tiles”.

For instance, if you were drawing a road using horizontal road tile and that road intersected with a vertical road tile, your brush will automatically select an intersection tile or maybe a curve tile. In other words, based on your brush, the tiles are context aware. Brushes are simply C# scripts that you write, allowing you to designate the layout rules of your tile map. You can also layer multiple tile maps as well as incorporate them with 3D elements.

In regards to building your game, Unity is now offering a free plan for their Cloud Build service. This service automates your builds for you.

Unity Cloud Build now offers a free tier.

Unity Cloud Build now offers a free tier.

Once you fire off a build, Unity does the grunt work then deploys your build to a device for testing. It’s now offering custom targets so that you can configure your build for various platforms. Cloud Build is now supporting PC, Mac, and Linux platforms.

For those of you with a heavy data bent can now integrate analytics into you game with a click of button. The SDK is now apart of Unity itself. This allows you to track how your players are actually playing your game, and give you the knowledge on how to tune it. One killer feature of analytics is the inclusion of heat maps. These maps visually show how your players are moving in your game. This allows up to determine bottlenecks in your level design as well as provide incentives to get players out of their comfort zone.

Unity is also providing a unified solution for in app purchases (IAP). Previously, to incorporate IAP required you to learn the target platform’s SDK then integrate the solution into your codebase. For one platform, this wasn’t a big deal but several platforms, it created a spaghetti monster of proprietary calls. Now, Unity will take care of it for you using a streamlined API. This is a huge win for developers!

IAP under one roof!

IAP under one roof!

That said, all in all, it was a great keynote with some awesome features that will keep us busy in the coming years. But don’t take my word for it, you can view it online over here.

Sessions

Unity's Pete Moss demonstrating the HoloLens during Unite's keynote.

Unity’s Pete Moss demonstrating the HoloLens during Unite’s keynote.

Like all conferences, Unite had plenty of sessions. These sessions spanned the range of Unity development, but if you took an “eagle eyed” view of all the sessions, you’d notice a common theme. That is, virtual reality (VR). Virtual reality was represented all over the place and if you were unfamiliar with VR, then the expo had you covered. More on that later.

Unity obviously sees VR as the future and they want all their developers on board. From the few VR related sessions that I did attend, the messaging was consistent. Developers determine the future and those developers are you!

Needless to say, Unity is taking advantage of this opportunity. Since the release of Unity 5.1, it now provides native support for VR. All you have to do is click a checkbox and you can work in a VR world. In fact, not too long ago, we produced a video tutorial series on that very subject.

That said, Unite provided plenty of other sessions besides VR. One session called “Writing Shaders: YOU can do it” talked about the basics of writing simple shaders to a standing room crowd. Never have I seen an audience held at rapt attention for a code heavy session at three in the afternoon. While the session was deep, the overall message was that it’s possible to understand.

Another session titled, “Best Practices for Multiplatform Distribution” covered the process used to port the game “School of Dragons” to several different platforms. The most impressive part of this talk was how the developers configured Unity to enable or disable assets and shaders for the build depending on the platform. It goes to show that not only can you write scripts for your game, but Unity provides deep scripting control of the actual editor itself to suit the needs of your business requirements.

School of Dragons shows that build process can be just as complex as the game itself.

School of Dragons shows that build process can be just as complex as the game itself.

Finally, one of the interesting sessions was a Q & A session with all the managers of the various subsystems of Unity. Each manager provided a roadmap, and then opened the floor. Being that this site is iOS based, I had to ask a burning question since WWDC 2015. That is, will we see an open source Swift be ported to Unity. The answer, unfortunately, is no. Cue sad trombone here.

Unity's roadmap shows an exciting future!

Unity’s roadmap shows an exciting future!

Expo

Project Morpeus at Gamescom 2015, Photo by Sergey Galyonkin

Project Morpeus at Gamescom 2015, Photo by Sergey Galyonkin

If the sessions were the brains of the conference, then the conference floor was the beating heart. Through a pair of double doors presented a large showroom floor with scores of vendors showing off their gaming tech.

The first booth in the floor was, not surprisingly, a Playstation booth. Unity has just announced native support for Sony’s VR headset also known as Project Morpheus.

Sony was demoing a couple of headsets in a cops and robbers game that combined the VR headset with the Playstation Move. Players held glowing controls in place of guns and took part in high speed shootout. It was an excellent use of the technology that was never short of willing participants. Throughout the entire conference, long lines snaked around the Playstation booth just to get a chance to try it out.

Sony wasn’t the only vendor demoing VR tech. There was lots booths featuring different perspectives of the technology. One booth had participants ride stationary bikes to power their craft. Another demo featured a strange suit coupled with fake gun. In short, VR was everywhere and if you had not experienced it before, you had plenty of opportunities to do so.

That said, there can be no doubt that Google stole the show. They had a small booth to feature their Project Tango initiative. Project Tango is a tablet that does augmented reality. In their booth, they had attendees aim nerf guns with Project Tango tablets attached to them. The tablets projected a shooting gallery at the far wall with targets to hit.

Project Tango was a big hit at the conference!

Project Tango was a big hit at the conference!

When a attendee beat a certain score, they won a prize – a $600 dev kit for Project Tango itself. This wasn’t known at first. Half way through the first day, people started walking around the conference with boxes. When word got out they were toting actual hardware, the Project Tango booth got very busy.

The second day before the start of the sessions, a massive line formed outside the expo. There looked to be hundreds of attendees. Later in the day, when Google ran out of dev kits in their booth, they announced they would be giving out more dev kits to the first five attendees to show up at any of the Project Tango sessions. I didn’t bother to look, but I imagine that there were attendees camping outside the session rooms like an iPhone launch day.

That said, the expo also allowed you to sign up for one on one sessions with Unity’s developers. And of course, if the convention wore you out, there were free back rubs to ease your sufferings.

All in all, it was really great conference with lots of good times.

Me, with a perpetual grin, throughout the entire conference.

Me, with a perpetual grin, throughout the entire conference.

Where to Go From Here?

Unite is a really fun conference. If you are Unity developer, you have to go at least once. It’s the equivalent of going to WWDC. Besides the things I mentioned, Unite also featured an awards ceremony, lots of floating parties, and game stations placed through the conference floor.

Unite, at its core, isn’t just about one thing. The total experience is far greater than each individual part.

What’s truly great about the conference is that everyone you meet has a passion for games. People use Unity because they love it, and being in a conference full of them will infect you with enthusiasm that will make you want to get out there and make your own games.

Where you at Unite and if so, what was your favorite part of the conference? Let me know the comments! See you at the next conference! :]

Brian Moakley

Brian is an instructor at Razeware who develops courses and screencasts on a wide variety of topics of iOS development. When not teaching, Brian plays board games, studies aikido, and tries to keep up with his wife and two kiddos.

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