A Flash of inspiration

A Flash of inspiration
Will Freeman

By Will Freeman

November 11th 2011 at 9:00AM

Develop talks to the Unity team about what support for the Adobe platform means for its engine users

When adobe revealed the forthcoming 3D capabilities of Flash, Unity knew it presented the engine company with an opportunity to extend its famed concept of democratising game development.

Enabling its users to publish their creations on Flash Player would mean Unity could increase the reach and scope of the games to which it serves as engine, and in doing so enable more of its customers to make a living making games.

Within a very short time of Adobe announcing that the Stage 3D rendering ability would expand Flash Player 11’s power as a gaming platform, a band of Unity’s most experienced engineers began work to see if they could support export to Flash player for Unity-authored projects.

The team demoed Unity’s new ability to export to Flash at the recent Unite 11 conference, which brings together the company and its fervent customer base to talk over new features and refinements.

“We’re trying to benefit everybody as much as possible,” explains Unity’s Flash expert Ralph Hauwert, previously famed for his work on PaperVision3D.

“The first thought we were having with Flash export, at least once I was on the team, was that people using Unity should be able to target as many platforms as possible without having to do too much modification or work on multiple projects. In that way it really is just adding another build target to Unity.”

OUT FROM THE SHADOWS

Seeing a Unity authored game like Shadowgun – the current benchmark of what is possible with the engine – running in Flash is certainly impressive, but an obvious question remains. Why move to support the Flash Player when it is effectively a rival to Unity’s own web-player?

For Unity, the answer is a simple one; Flash Player will allow Unity users to reach a great deal more opportunities.

”By publishing to Flash you can now reach even more people,” offers Unity engineer Lucas Meijer.

“Parallel to that – whether it’s Flash, Unity Web Player or a mobile device that you’re targeting – there’s always the question ‘How do I make my game run fast?’.

"In that context, as I spoke about on stage at Unite, the best way to have your game run faster is to not do stuff. If that isn’t an option then just do less stuff.”

Certainly, Flash is less powerful than both the Unity Web Player and many of the other platforms the engine supports, but fortunately for Unity users working to export to multiple platforms, there is very little they will have to strip from their games when optimising for Flash.

“Unity publishing to Flash player will have very similar performance characteristics to some of the other platforms,” says Meijer, who admitted on stage at Unite that the Unity Web Player’s relatively small user base is a frustration for some publishers.

“The only thing that is very different is that the GPU is very cheap, and CPU is going to be more expensive, because we have to do this conversion process, and the engine code actually runs in Actionscript.”

FEATURE RICH

Unity-made games running in Flash will be able to harness features like physics, lightmapping occlusion culling, customer shaders, lightprobes, particle effects, navigation meshes and a wealth of other elements more typical the higher-end platforms supported by the engine.

“The good news about that is that the features that don’t work for Flash are generally not features that are essential to a game’s existence,” confirms Meijer.

“Things, for example, like advanced audio features such as reverb and echo filters; advanced effects that happen on top of the audio.

“The features that do kill your game if they aren’t in there; those features work. The features that are the extra icing on the cake; you may need to remove that extra icing and find something else for the Flash version of your game.

"We expect that not to happen all that much, and it pales in comparison to targeting different devices with very different performance characteristics.”

While no details of how and when the first version of Unity’s Flash support will become available (and how pricing will work remains a mystery), one thing is clear.

Both the Flash and Unity communities are itching to explore the potential the new authoring ability will give them, and curious to see if it means there will be more use of Unity for web design and the other use cases Flash has made its own since its launch back in 1996.

www.unity3d.com