LOS ANGELES ― Technology has leveled the playing field in many industries, making it possible for amateurs and enthusiasts to compete or collaborate with professionals in ways that would have been impossible even a decade ago.
The latest industry to experience this revolution is games. Thanks to a wave of new products that simplify and streamline the game-development process, an aspiring game maker no longer needs a degree, a big team or a job at a major development house to make professional-grade games for others to enjoy.
One of the most prominent services to push this kind of innovation is the Unity game engine.
"We as a company have always focused on what we call the democratization of game development, making high-quality tools available at a very affordable cost to the widest range of developers," Brian Bruning, director of developer relations at Unity Technologies, told TechNewsDaily in an interview at the E3 gaming expo.
Unity 3D is a game design tool that allows users to create game environments, scripting, storylines, and events in a simple software kit. Unity makes it possible for developers of all skill levels to make a great game. That includes developers who aren't professionals … yet.
"We've seen a lot of hobbyist game programming, and we're excited by that. A lot of innovation happens from that core. But even more importantly, that core of students and hobbyists and weekend coders, they feed the next generation of game developers," Bruning said. "Some are just in it for the fun of it. They have their day jobs and they just want to see what they can do.
"We've seen some guys that created companies around what they did one weekend and are now bringing that game to market."
Tools from Unity and other services are fueling a rapidly growing interest in amateur game design. A year and a half ago, Unity released a free version of its game design tool. Since then, the number of downloads has jumped from around 7,000 to well over 500,000, with a consistent user base of 150,000 each month. While major studios such as EA are using Unity because it is such a fully featured creation tool, a large portion of its users are not professionals. They're just like you or someone you know: a person with a great idea and the will to see it through.
In its six-year history, Unity has been used to create over 10,000 games. With the growing interest in mobile gaming, developers are increasingly using Unity for iPhone games. A third of those 10,000 games were made for iOS.
Unity is unique not just for making a game engine that can export to any platform (including Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network, PC, Flash, iOS and Android), but for helping developers market their games.
"We recognize that it's not just about creating a great game, it's how you market and sell the game after it's been created. That's one of the harder parts," Bruning said.
Unity offers a service, called Union, that helps the developers choose the right market and get into closed platforms, such as iOS. Unity takes 20 percent of game revenue; the rest goes directly to the developer.
Another huge hurdle in game design, especially for small teams or individuals, is creating the assets needed for a game, including the audio, character models, textures, physics engine and more. So Unity created a store where designers can both buy and sell their assets.
"There are developers making more money in the asset store than they made on a game," Bruning said. "We see it as a way to help the community build better games. It's just a different approach. We've got a guy who created a whole game using nothing but assets from the asset store. An entire game, which is a big milestone for us."
Unity has even struck deals with major record labels to include popular songs and a large library of background music for sale in the asset store. In other words, Unity isn't just a tool, it's a one-stop shop for game designers.
This versatility has made Unity especially useful in the professional industry.
"You can get pretty deep into it, but it's also very high level, such that an artist or producer can throw something together in order to show his team," Bruning said. "We're seeing this sort of rapid prototyping and collaboration among teams happening a lot more because of the ease of use of Unity."
Rapid prototyping is a prized feature among independent developers and one of the reasons Unity is so widely used in game jams, marathon sessions of game making during which independent developers try to make a complete game in a short deadline.
"Around 30 percent of the submissions for Global Game Jam were built in Unity, because people can create a full, interesting game in 48 hours using our tools," Bruning said.
While the major game publishers are still taking in the vast majority of game revenue each year, Unity is helping independent and amateur developers carve out their own piece of the game market. And in the process, they're democratizing a technical field, showing game lovers everywhere that they too can feel the thrill of seeing their name on a real game.