Unity boss: Game worlds will become reusable movie sets
Game developers often talk about themselves as world builders; God-eyed architects that raise mountains, split rivers and pour denizens into simulated cities. They’re also used to seeing their environments used and discarded like crumpled crisp packets. Take a game like Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate, set in an intricate version of 19th-century London. It’s a vast place, but after the adventure it’s shelved; all those streets and alleys used for nout but one game. What a waste.
The chief of game-making engine Unity thinks that is about to change. Instead of developers building huge environments for singular titles, he sees a move to even bigger environments – but ones that are used and reused for multiple projects, with portions of the world becoming stage sets for multiple game and film projects.
“This is without doubt going to happen,” John Riccitiello tells me at Unity’s Unite conference in Amsterdam. “Someone will build a complete world. They’ll allow the world to age. They’ll shoot three movies in it and ten games in it. It’ll get reused, and edited, from Gotham city to something else.”
According to Riccitiello, both the movie and games industries are moving towards a point where traditional filmmakers and game developers will increasingly leverage shared art, based around environments that can be used and reused for different projects. Unity, of course, wants to be the tool at the heart of these common worlds, and the company’s CEO hints that upcoming features for the engine will push things in this direction.
“I think that’s probably, with Unity, around six to 12 months out – to have a world designer create a whole place with functioning aspects, and then the film directors taking part of it and filming this scene or that scene. I don’t think it’s so much about taking [one] product and making it into another, it’ll be about building an environment and leveraging that across multiple things.
“For the films they might capture Matthew McConaughey running around, then drop that into the world thanks to a green screen. And that [virtual environment] will be identical in every way to the game world.”
In many ways, all of this sounds similar to the old Hollywood system of permanent film sets that are reused for multiple pictures. You might have a Western stage set, for example, or a court-house interior, both used for dozens of movies. If you’ve seen the Coen brothers’ film Hail, Caesar!, you’ll have a rough idea of how the movie business saved money by shooting a conveyor belt of movies in the same environments. Imagine something similar, but in a virtual space where landscapes can be edited with a few clicks and swipes.
In the short term, this all connects to tools Unity is showing off at its conference. The latest build of the engine brings intuitive cinematic-editing tools into the game-making studio, and makes it easier for developers or directors to mush pre-existing games into new products. Riccitiello pitches it as a means for artists to create without having to mediate through programmers, potentially appealing to those that want to work with virtual spaces, but may not know masses of code.
In the long term, the idea of games and films moving towards shared worlds could make things much more accessible for budding developers and animators, with the onus being less on building a vast space from scratch and more on what story you use the space to tell. This being virtual, there’s plenty of scope for creators to take a base world and tweak it to their specific needs – although I do like the idea of production on a Harry Potter spin-off film being shut down because Dark Souls got out of hand.
Unity isn’t alone in its vision of shared virtual environments. The Ubisoft game Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon used the same environments to its forbear: Far Cry 3. More recently, the UK company Improbable has been making headlines for designing persistent universes that can unite up to millions of players via the cloud. The company recently secured $500 million in funding, with some holding up Improbable’s method as a future direction for socially focused VR.
Joining millions of players is one thing, however, but creating a vast set for handfuls of games and films is another. Personally, I’d welcome the chance for different artists to inhabit the same virtual spaces. While Assassin’s Creed might take on the whole of 19th-century London, what would a game look like that used only one of the game’s thousands of buildings? What about a game that was set solely in that environment’s sewer system?