March was an exciting month for game developers. The latest version of Unreal Engine – UE 4.11 – was released on the 15th, only to be followed by the launch of Unity 5.3.4 on the 31st. While Unity continues to hold a healthy lead as far as the most popular game engine (48% of game-makers worldwide use this tool) is concerned, Unreal Engine also has a loyal following – particularly among those who wish to make their game graphics more interesting. Let us here compare the Unity 5 and Unreal Engine 4 tools on the basis of some key parameters, and try to find whether any one of them can be termed as better than the other:
- Platform compatibility – Epic Games’ Unreal Engine 4 is hardly a match for Unity 5 when it comes to platform support. While both the tools are used for Windows, Mac OS, Android and iOS game development – Unity can be used to code for games on a much larger set of other platforms than what is possible with UE 4. Wii U and Playstation Vita are two significant platforms that are not compatible with Unreal Engine, along with Samsung SMART TV (Unity supports all of these). The only platform where UE 4 is supported and Unity 5 is not is HTML5 – but that’s a small factor.
Note: Both the tools can be used to make PS4 and Xbox One games.
- Community Support and learning opportunities – Another one that is too close to call. The greater frequency of Unity training sessions and live seminars probably gives this tool a slight edge, although many experts from the field of iPhone and Android game development feel that the overall documentation for UE4 is qualitatively better. As far as online tutorials, forums and discussion sessions are concerned, both tools have equally solid resources (in spite of Unity being a much ‘older’ engine). Irrespective of which tool is being used, it is easy to seek (and find) help on the web.
- 2D vs 3D games – Unity 5 is, comparatively speaking, the ‘lower-level game tool’, and it is extensively used for making relatively simple 2D mobile games. Indie game developers, in particular, prefer using Unity over UE4 – simply because the latter’s cutting-edge graphics are not required in most of the games they make. Unity’s 3D development tool is also multi-featured – but Unreal Engine 4 is on an altogether higher level over here. Let’s just say Unity is the go-to- tool for making 2D games, while for more intricate 3D mobile game development – UE4 offers far better solutions. Scalability is not the strongest suite for Unity, and that holds it back somewhat.
- The price factor – Till February 2015, developers working with Unreal Engine had to fork out a monthly fee of $19. With the arrival of UE 4, there is now a completely free version of the tool. Unity 5 has a free version as well. However, there is a catch to using the free versions of either of the game development engines. A 5% royalty charge is applicable on UE developers/companies whose games make over $12000 annually (or, $3000 per quarter) – in order to access all the resources of the tool. The free version of Unity 5, on the other hand, lacks several important elements (Asset Bundle creation, for instance). Full-time game developers almost invariably have to purchase Unity Pro, at a monthly subscription fee of $75. In addition, iOS and Android app developers have to pay the stipulated license fees for using the Unity tool.
- Graphics features – UE4 practically blows Unity 5 off the park (even with the improvements in the latter), when it comes to the sheer ‘beauty’ of mobile games. All the custom graphics that can be created with Unreal Engine – right from particles and lighting/shadows, to process effects and terrain – seem just that bit better, more interactive and life-like. To give credit where it’s due, the new PhysX 3.3 feature in Unity 5 has given the lighting options in the tool a definite boost. Both the tools can be used to develop triple-A (AAA) rated games – but if you wish to make really pretty games, you should go with UE4.
Note: John Riccitiello referred to Unity 5 at the GDC 2015 event as a ‘graphics powerhouse’. The tool, however, still has quite a bit of catching up to do with Unreal Engine 4 on this count.
- Resources in Asset Stores – The initial release of Unity happened way back in 2005, while first iteration of Unreal Engine arrived only in 2011. Not surprisingly, the Unity Asset Store is larger for mobile game developers, than its counterpart for Unreal Engine. While a varied range of custom props, particle effects and characters are available at both the asset stores, Unity offers a lot more additional stuff, like software for motion capture and tools for intuitive animation (at GUI level). The Unity assets are also, on average, slightly cheaper than the UE assets. While there is hardly any qualitative difference between the Asset Stores of either game engine, it is the sheer size of the Unity Store (15000+ assets) that puts it at an advantage.
- Proprietary vs Open Source – Unreal Engine 4 is an open-source video and mobile game development tool – and that helps it earn extra brownie points (Unity 5 is a proprietary tool). As is the case with any open-source software, those who make games can directly contribute to the overall resources and knowledge base for the Unreal Engine tool. The process of debugging and app testing is also simpler on UE4. Using a proprietary tool like Unity often requires a larger investment, and the risks associated with it.
- Additional Services – Another factor that swings things back in Unity’s favour. Much has been talked about the innovation-focused development fund (worth $5 million) that Epic Games has launched – but the services of Unity Tech are still quite a long way ahead. Those creating Unity games can easily avail of services like Premium Support, Multiplayer and Performance Reporting – along with several other useful functionalities. Like the UE Asset Store, its add-on services also have plenty of scope for improvement.
- User experience – Unreal Engine 4 churns out the ‘more beautiful games’ – but the actual process of development is quicker and easier on the Unity tool. In comparison with the Unity Editor, the UE editor seems slightly complicated and slower. Game developers often report that importing assets on UE 4 requires more time than what is needed on Unity 5. There are, in many cases, additional steps to be performed (for the same task) on the editor of Unreal Engine. The end-product might be more good-looking with UE4, but developers have to put in harder yards to get there.
- System requirements – Yet another factor behind the widespread preference of Unity3D among small-scale, indie mobile game developers. The engine works absolutely fine on relatively lightweight, older systems (yes, even Windows XP works fine with it). At the other end, there is Unreal Engine which, for optimal performance, requires an updated, 64-bit Windows 7 system. Recent tests have revealed that UE4 drops to as low as 5 fps on older machines – machines on which Unity 5 works without any glitches.
- For mobile games – Let us turn our attention exclusively on mobile games for the moment. While Unreal Engine, with its latest iteration has made rapid inroads in 2D game-making and has gained some traction among mobile developers – the fact remains that Unity is still the dominant tool on the mobile platform. The tool has a fantastic range of plugins for a variety of tasks, from app analytics and in-game advertising, to game center support and in-app purchases. UE4 has its own share of mobile-optimal features, but they cannot hold a candle in front of those available with Unity.
Till recently, a major disadvantage of the Unity game engine used to be the absence of a Profiler in its free version (free Profiler was added in January 2016). As is pretty much clear from the above Unreal Engine 4 vs Unity 5 comparison, both the two tools have their own share of advantages and slight drawbacks. For games that are visually superior, UE4 is undoubtedly better – but Unity 5 (thanks to its plugins) is more tuned for making mobile games.
The tussle between Unity and Epic Games has helped in making game development easier and more customizable for developers, and lowered the overall barriers to entry in this field. While it is difficult to call a clear winner between the two – both Unity 5 and UE4 have done a great deal towards lifting the standards of game development in general.