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Unity 6: A Deep Dive Into the Update's New Features & Enhancements

In light of Unity 6 Preview's recent release, Unity Technologies' Mathieu Muller has joined 80 Level to provide an in-depth overview of the update, discuss the new graphical features and improvements it introduces, and explain how you can get the most out of the engine's new version.

Earlier this month, Unity Technologies delighted thousands of Game Developers and Digital Artists by launching Unity 6 Preview, allowing creators from all across the globe to try out new features and improvements of the engine's upgraded version ahead of Unity 6's full launch, set to take place later in the year.

First announced at Unite 2023, Unity 6 Preview is described by the team as a supported release that gives users a head start in utilizing the engine's cutting-edge features currently in the stages of discovery or prototyping. The release brings a host of rendering and performance enhancements, new lighting options, upgraded multiplayer game creation tools, expanded web and XR features, and AI tools.

To shed light on the Unity 6 Preview, Mathieu Muller from Unity Technologies has joined 80 Level to offer a comprehensive insight into the update, delve into its graphical elements and enhancements, and explain how you can get the most out of the engine's new version.

Tell us a bit about what you do at Unity.

Hi! My name is Mathieu Muller, and I'm a Product Manager for Graphics. Our mission as Product Managers at Unity is to choose "what we'll do next", interacting with our engineering teams and a lot of users from all kinds of teams, departments (dev, art, tech art, tools, etc.), industries and creating content with various visual styles on many platforms.

One of the highlights of Unity 6 Preview was its improvements to the engine's Universal Render Pipeline (URP) and the High Definition Render Pipeline (HDRP), which both saw significant performance enhancements, resulting in accelerated production across different platforms. The newly introduced GPU Resident Drawer allows developers to efficiently render larger, more detailed worlds, while GPU Occlusion Culling, boosts the performance of GameObjects by reducing the overdraw per frame. Here's what Mathieu told us about Unity 6's graphical enhancements:

What are the upcoming features for graphics in Unity 6?

Our main focus was performance optimization in both HDRP and URP, and for this, we did a lot of optimizations across the board. We also developed dedicated new systems, including the GPU Resident Drawer to improve CPU performance, GPU Occlusion Culling, Foveated Rendering for XR, as well as a genius cross-platform temporal upscaler called Spatial Temporal Post-Processing (STP) to improve GPU performance.

To allow developers to save performance and battery consumption on mobile, Render Graph revolutionizes our rendering framework on the Universal Render Pipeline (URP) making it easier to extend the rendering pipeline while leveraging low-level optimizations.

To improve visual fidelity on a wide range of hardware, we are introducing a brand new probe-based global illumination system called Adaptive Probe Volumes (APV) with automatic placement, fast baking, fast iterations, beautiful static and dynamic object lighting, and new possibilities like Sky Occlusion and Scenario Blending to create different times of day.

For PC and Consoles, in HDRP we added volumetrics to underwater rendering, atmospheric scattering, ozone simulation, and night sky to make the physical Sky system even more realistic at any time of the day.

We also added a lot of functionalities and features to various systems, like Screen Space Lens Flares, VFX custom HLSL blocks, HDR display support, customizing UI shaders with Shader Graph, and tools to optimize performance like the Heatmap color mode in Shader Graph or the VFX Graph profiler.

When gearing up for a software update, it's important to study the community's needs first in order to ensure that the implementation of new features serves to benefit users rather than simply adding them for the sake of it. Discussing the Unity 6 release, Mathieu delved into this aspect, elaborating on what the company prioritized during its preparation and how these innovative additions are poised to benefit game developers.

Why did you prioritize these updates in particular?

Unity 6 is about polishing, optimizing, and stabilizing all the new systems that we introduced incrementally over the past years since Unity 5. For our users, performance and stability are always the number one priority, because whether they are on mobile, consoles, or XR, they want to reach the widest audience possible. 

Their second priority is extensibility and productivity. If you look at games made with Unity released in the past 12-24 months, you will see a wide range of beautiful and stunning visual styles and game genres, like Dave The Diver, Harold Halibut, Sea of Stars, and Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader. They all require polished tools and often customization to create their unique look or graphics gameplay features.

Finally, with Unity 6, we wanted to improve the out-of-the-box user experience and toolset for artists. For Lighting Artists, faster authoring and improved visual fidelity of indirect lighting with APVs and the new Light Baking Architecture. For Technical and VFX Artists, an improved authoring experience, onboarding, feature set, and platform support. For Environment Artists, the ability to easily add realistic water, sky, clouds, and SpeedTree vegetation.

How do the new features benefit game developers?

The performance features (GPU resident drawer, GPU occlusion culling, STP, XR foveated rendering) can be configured in just a few minutes when moving to Unity 6, and each gives various gains of performance that will depend on the scene and effects used. In some scenes, we have seen more than 2X performance thanks to the GPU resident drawer (when lots of instances are used) and/or STP (when the GPU is bound by full-screen effects or fill rate).

Converting your project to use Adaptive Probe Volumes (APV) it is fast to set up and bake thanks to automatic placement and the new Light Baking Architecture. With per-pixel or per-vertex lighting, they allow improving the visual fidelity of dynamic objects (e.g. characters, vehicles, vegetation, destructible objects, etc.) and even large static objects, which allows to reduce or sometimes totally remove the need for lightmaps. They also offer powerful off-the-shelf functionalities, like automatic streaming and scenario blending or sky occlusion baking for large worlds and time-of-day scenarios. Global illumination in real-time in Unity (raymarched or raytraced Global Illumination) or in any engine can be very expensive at runtime. A pre-baked system like APV allows it to reach great fidelity with very little runtime cost and is enough in many scenarios. It can even be combined with real-time global illumination systems to reduce their costs while allowing more dynamic scenarios.

Shader Graph and VFX Graph are getting capable of almost everything that users have been asking for and more! For example, UI is very important in many games, and the possibility to create shaders for it with Shader Graph has been a top request for years. Users have felt that they were hard to learn or use, but they now both have many shortcuts to accelerate productivity, learning samples accessible directly in-Editor, and VFX Graph has new templates to more easily share effects across teams and projects.

Environment effects like sky, clouds, water, and vegetation in HDRP have been historically done internally by studios. However, with rendering becoming more and more complex, these effects became more expensive to develop in order to work correctly with all other graphics systems (transparency, anti-aliasing, reflections, depth of field). With our off-the-shelf implementation, we both save studios development money that can be spent elsewhere and empower teams with no graphics engineers or even solo artists to build complete interactive or cinematic worlds just using our high-end renderer.

Finally, URP Render Graph combines and takes customization and performance optimization to a new level! Usually, the render loop is hardcoded with various render passes and injection points for customization. This means that on one side each time we change the way it is hard-coded we might break all users, and on the other side, our way of hardcoding things might not be the most efficient depending on usage and customization. The way a renderer uses its render passes can have a drastic impact on performance and battery consumption, especially on mobile devices where tiled-based rendering architectures can be highly optimized by reusing frame buffer resources. With the URP Render Graph, our render loop is not hardcoded anymore. We automatically and dynamically rearrange passes so that they are always efficiently used, and you get control of the dependencies of your custom passes to make them also the most efficient and gain battery consumption.

Which features do you think users will be interested in the most?

It will depend on which users and which platforms. Mobile devs will love Render Graph for the battery efficiency, PC/console devs will like it for the degree of customization that it offers, XR devs will like foveated rendering, lighters will love APVs, VFX Artists will get lost in VFX heaven with custom HLSL blocks and UX improvements, UI Designers will love Shader Graph support for UI, Technical Artists will love the Shader Graph quality of life improvements and learning and reference nodes samples, Environment Artists will love the new HDRP environment features, and everyone should love the cross-platform performance improvements!

Are creators today already using some of these new features?

We have a lot of positive feedback from the community with many users getting their hands very early on new systems, and actively participating in helping us make the features better. However, it is often just tests, prototypes, or demos. Productions tend to ship games on an LTS version, and most did not have the opportunity to use them until Unity 6 GA. 

However, there is a very good example of a production that used a lot of the new features (and which is, on top of that, a masterpiece and one of my favorite games): Harold Halibut by Slow Bros studio.

I have known Onat Hekimoglu (one of the founders) for many years and he has always been eager to test the latest things, and coming from live-action, he always finds a great usage of any feature. I think the game uses every single HDRP feature! But in particular, it uses the new Adaptive Probe Volumes for global illumination, the water system, and our upscaler STP that we decided to backport in order to test it in a real production environment on multiple platforms and which allows the game to run an amazing visual fidelity on Steam Deck.

What would you like to tell people who are considering updating to Unity 6?

If you update to Unity 6 you should get the best performance and most complete production toolset, while being on a version with a longer release cycle which means you will not need to do major updates for a while and will get the best stability.

If you are considering moving from the built-in Render Pipeline to URP or HDRP, consider moving directly to Unity 6 to get the latest features and performance benefits but more importantly not have to recode your custom renderer features and post processes that are changing between 2022 LTS and Unity 6.

Check our Unity 6 Preview upgrade guides in our documentation to get a head start on upcoming Unity 6 features. If you upgrade, keep in mind that Unity 6 is in preview and will only be production-ready later this year. If you find issues, bugs, or regressions, please report them using the in Editor bug report.

We look forward to you joining us on the Unity 6 Preview Forum, where you can find feature support and ask us questions directly. Please share your experience with us, seeing the amazing things that our creators do with our tech is what motivates us every day.

Why should people check out Unity 6 Preview?

All the latest features are now available in Unity 6 Preview so you can test them all. The sooner you can provide feedback the sooner we can address any issue in order to guarantee the best production-ready release.

Mathieu Muller, Senior Product Manager for Graphics at Unity Technologies

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