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Five things we learned at Unite Europe 2017

From a bigger focus on mobile to a push away from games altogether
Five things we learned at Unite Europe 2017
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Unite Europe 2017 may not have had any particularly huge annoucements, but it was still an insightful and interesting look at how the engine is moving forward, and what the developer wants to do with it.

Over 100 speakers offered their insights and expertise across two talk-filled days, and a handful of developers got the chance to show a wide range of games at the conference's expo.

It's still incredibly developer-focused, as one might expect from a conference run by an engine developer, but there was still plenty to learn whether you're an experienced coder or not.

Every day's a school day

We were there to take in talks and speak to developers, and we've come away with a few lessons we learned not just about Unity, but as the games industry as a whole.

From the fact that Unity is set on being far more than just a game engine, to the efforts being made to increase diversity within the games industry, there was plenty to learn and ponder during the show's duration.

So here are the five things that we learned at Unite Europe 2017, and why we think they matter to the industry at large.

Unity really wants its developers to think about mobile

One of the big surprises of Unite Europe 2017's keynote - besides Unity CEO John Riccitiello not making an appearance - was its focus on mobile.

Specifically, it focused on a team of Unity developers working together to convert premium PC game Shadow Tactics into a free-to-play mobile game.

The process involved scaling down the graphics, redesigning the gameplay for a touchscreen input, splitting it up into smaller levels, adding IAP and ads, and looking closer at user analytics such as retention.

Cross-platform thinking

It was interesting that Unity decided to take this approach - it has always shown strong support for mobile, but this approach put the platform front and centre in such a way to encourage PC developers to think outside of their comfort zone.

The presentation itself may have been a bit simple in its execution - you can't really develop a mobile game in the space of an hour, of course - but the message was clear: it's time for PC and console developers to start giving mobile games more of their time.


Unity isn't just for games anymore

The other big reveals at the keynote were the Timeline and Cinemachine features that are coming in the next Unity update.

Timeline is a tool that allows developers to drag-and-drop animations and blend them together directly from the Unity editor, much like a video editor.

Cinemachine takes this one step further, allowing teams to create a seperate camera that can automatically track elements in a scene, and follow a certain track designed by the team - without the need to hard code it.

Its "Dolly Tracking" system lets developers set down a track directly in the editor, adjust it by moving and dragging nodes and waypoints, and set the zoom and angle as they see fit.

A new perspective

The whole package may not seem like a big deal - Unity itself introduced it quite casually - but it actually opens up a world of possibility within the engine.

Designers can now get their hands on the camera directly, without interrupting the developers, meaning those with a better understanding of film and camerawork can make their mark in a world that has typically been operated by the programmers.

And it means that creating actual films in Unity - like the studio's Adam short film - will be made a lot easier, opening up the engine to whole new areas beyond simply making games.

Unity's new Timeline feature in the editor
Unity's new Timeline feature in the editor

A lack of diversity is still a problem - but things are improving

A quick look at the speaker list for Unite Europe 2017 reveals that there's around 100 speakers across the two days that the event runs.

Of these 100 speakers, only 15 are women. Of these 15 women, only six of them don't work for Unity in some capacity.

It's a staggering ratio to think about, and a clear sign that there really is a diversity problem in the games and tech industry.

New voices

But there are steps being made in the right direction. Casual games developer Wooga, for example, sponsored five female developers to come to the conference, with the help of Unity.

Maike Steinweller, Wooga's PR Lead, is also actively trying to make a difference both within her company and in Germany, bringing in consultants to teach Wooga staff about diversity and hosting workshops designed to teach girls how to code.

And Unity has promoted diversity through its Unity Without Borders program, through which it sponsored 40 developers from countries affected by the US travel ban to come to Unite Europe.

There's still plenty of work to be done - and plenty of women who deserve a voice at events such as this - but it's encouraging to see that companies are at least making some changes in the right direction.

Unity's Unity Without Borders program sponsored 40 developers to come to Unite Europe 2017
Unity's Unity Without Borders program sponsored 40 developers to come to Unite Europe 2017

VR is alive and well, but AR is attracting the most excitement

Make no mistake, virtual reality games and technology is still a big thing for developers - there were plenty of headsets and dedicated VR rooms around Unite.

And the technology is still coming along. Every developer was quick to state that they were making great leaps to solving the motion sickness issue in their games, and it certainly seemed true.

One game, Eclipse: Edge of Light on Google Daydream, managed to cram in full exploration and even a jetpack, and stomachs remained unchurned.

The new hotness

But while VR is settling in and sorting itself out, augmented reality is still the exciting new technology that everyone is looking forward to.

Talks from major developers and companies such as Google and Ubisoft covered how they're developing with AR (in Unity, of course). Even representatives from car manufacturer Volkswagen gave a talk on how AR is used in car development.

And, of course, there would usually be someone in a talk having a quick game of Pokemon GO.

Unity is continuing to support both AR and VR with its updates, but its interesting to see that companies are now investing almost equal amounts of time in both platforms.


Programmers are still the kings of the development world

Unity wants to be a program for everyone - adding in features like Timeline and Cinemachine is evidence of this, along with its existing development tools that give power to non-programmers in a variety of ways.

But step into almost any talk at Unite Europe and within minutes the speaker will break out a coding demonstration or start speaking in technical jargon that only fellow programmers can keep up with.

Even in a talk on monetising mobile games, designed to show off how easy it is to get ads set up through Unity, there was a quick break to physically code what is supposed to be a relatively codeless feature.

Keep it simple

Unity is still working to bridge this divide - Product Manager Mike Wuetherick was keen to talk about how much energy is being spent on opening up the Unity engine for everyone to use, whether they can code or not.

But until the developer can reach a point with its engine that an artist alone can come in and create an entire game, we're still going to be seeing in-depth code tutorials that only those with years of experience are going to understand.