Unity is a “game engine”, used for making 3D games or interactive experiences in general. Unity projects can be distributed on Mac, PC, Linux, Web, iOS, iPadOS, Android, Switch, Playstation, & XBox. It is the de-facto standard for AR, and is the dominant player in the world of VR. It’s closest competitor is the Unreal Engine, or the more modest open-source project Godot.
Start by creating a free account on the Unity website:
You can use any one of the free tiers, either student or free. There is no need for you to sign up for a “pro” account.
Always install whichever version of Unity you prefer via the “Unity Hub”.
Important: Ignore the “Choose your version of Unity” button and instead install your preferred version of Unity directy from within this “Unity Hub”. It will allow you to add and/or remove the various (large) components of your Unity installation at a later date, depending on the platform(s) you are targetting.
Open Unity Hub on your computer and login to your account. From this hub, download the latest
LTS version of Unity.
LTS is the “Long Term Support” version of Unity and will last for at least two-years, i.e. the length of a masters programme. Currently we are using Unity 2020.3.x. The last number is just bug fixes and is compatible with any other 2020.3.x release.
Special note: constantly, always, without fail, someone will ask: “Isn’t Unreal better than Unity?”, “I read that Unreal is better than Unity”, or “But I saw this YouTube video that says…”, and so on. So: tell me, is it better? Yes, if you insist. But also: no, it isn’t. Or, maybe. Or, whatever. Ask someone else. It’s usually the wrong question. Unreal is not “better”. It is “different”, even if there is an overlap and they are definitely competitors. Unreal is awesome for cinematic immersive 3D world explorations. The latest Meta Human stuff is incredible, but Character Creator works with Unity, so maybe it isn’t that incredible after all. We’ll see. Again, wrong question. Some people think it’s easier to learn Unreal; many people think it’s actually harder. All those people are right or wrong, depending on who you ask. We use Uniy for a bunch of stuff Unreal doesn’t doesn’t do as well. Does that make Unity better than Unreal? No. Next question. What? You want a better answer? Hmmmm… Unity is ok to good for some of the things Unreal does really well, but is usually better for our needs because it does everything else, especially if you want to make 2D interactive games or experiences. But for 2D game design you can find a gazillion other alternatives. And there is always Godot, and even the cool 2D-oriented P5.Play plugin for P5 by none other than the amazingly-awesome Molleindustria. So, final word: I don’t know. Maybe you should ask better questions.
If you are looking to make the next Mandalorian — i.e. you are working on a virtual set — or you want really high-end graphics for an interactive installation where you can control the quality of the hardware you will be using to render your game/experience/installation/performance, then the Unreal 5 is looking to be the ultimate high-end game engine over the next cycle of 3D hardware.
Unreal has a visual system for designing the behavior of your game experience called Blueprints. It allows you to code your experience using a node based system of blocks, sililar to Max/MSP, Blender, vvvv, PureData, or TouchDesigner. Alternatively, you can code the behavior of your project using a code-based solution, in the C++ language.
The Unreal 5 interface looks like it will be a lot easier to teach for beginners. That said, beware: Unreal is a big tool, like Unity, and you will not be up and running as fast as you would probably like.
We use Cinema 4D for creating speculative scenarios, world building, and exploring narrative through 3D. It is not the ideal tool for CAD-style design of physical objects.
There is a very affordable a “teacher & student” licence for Cinema 4D:
If you are already an expert in some other “animation” or “game design” oriented 3D tool such as Blender (cf. below), Maya, 3DS Max, etc., you can stick with that tool. There are many ways to make 3D.
Blender is a free, open-source alternative to Cinema 4D, and is currently the rising platform for all things animation/game 3D. It is not the ideal tool for CAD-style design of physical objects. If you know Maya (another 3d modelling tool) inside and out, and you’re happy with it, good for you — stick with Maya. If you don’t, and you want to learn all the basic tools of asset creation for games, along with rigging tools, texture mapping, etc., just hunker down and learn Blender:
3D Object & Character Stores
There are many online virtual stores are quickly developing as new economic driver of the next generation of 3D tools: lots of packs, and suites of characters, objects, textures, animations. Often, for example with characters, these stores propose characters with costumes and movements already configured, and that you can download for a price and import directly into your game engine. The problem of course, especially for students, is the question of price.
A lot of these marketplaces, such as Sketchfab and Quixel have recently been bought out by Unreal, in order to make it easier and faster to generate virtual sets for cinema and games, and populate these sets with objects and characters. Unreal’s goal is clearly to create a one-stop-shop for building entire worlds, populated with characters, all in high resolution graphics.
Character Creator & iClone
You might have noticed that there is a new generation of 3D human characters that are appearing in video games and immersive narratives. These characters have more realistic body types, richer and more dynamic skin that reacts better to light and shadows, and they even have somewhat decent facial expressions. This last aspect — facial expressions — still needs more technical advances and better tools, but we are inching closer and closer to pseudo-cinematic experiences within real-time programmable interactive game engines.
One of the reasons for the sudden rise in quality characters, is an improvement in the tools used to build virtual people. It is simply too time consuming to create people vertex by vertex in 3D modelling tools, and then attach their 3D model “skin” to a “rig” of “bones” so that they can be animated in Unity or Unreal (cf. above).
The most popular, and also the most expensive, is Character Creator which, as it’s name implies, allows you to create a fully rigged character just by moving around sliders (taller, shorter, older, younger, eye color, arm length, etc, ad nauseum). The same company also has an animation tool (that also does other stuff) called iClone, and that too costs a lot — even with student discounts. So be careful.
Make Human is not pretty like the two above character tools. But it is open-source, and work with the same principle of moving sliders to adjust the body shape and height of your characters. These characters come fully rigger, and can be imported with little fanfare directly into Unity to be animated with whatever means you want.
Mixamo is two things: an auto-rigging tool and a library of animated movements (idle, walking, jumping, dancing, etc). The auto-rigging tool is the magic part: create a 3D shape in whatever tool you want. It was to vaguely ressemble a humanoid with arms, legs, a torso, a head, positioned in a “T-Pose” with their arm straight out to the sides. Upload this character to Mixamo and after about a minute, it will have generated a fully animated 3D rigged marionnette that you can now control in Unity or Unreal.
Mixamo is another one of those amazing tools that was bought by Adobe, and who subsequently abandoned it in the elements and is just letting it wither away. For now, it is still usable, but it has not evolved in years and it is probably just a matter of time before Adobe pulls the plug. Adobe just doesn’t get (or care about) 3D.
The original idea of Mixamo was to use AI in order to “auto-rig” 3D characters, thereby removing one of the most tedious steps in transforming a humanoid shape into a character that we can animate in a game or interactive story. This still required having a basic 3D humanoid shape to start with. The above character creation tools (Character Creator, Metahuman, Make Human) have made this even easier by creating a slider-based solution that spits out characters automatically: all you have to do are adjust the parameters.