Where do you start if you’re a new Virtual reality developer who wants to make an XR application?
With the game engine, of course!
You’ve got multiple game engines to choose from for your next project, but you’ve narrowed the selection down to Unity vs. Unreal. These engines are often brought up for beginners.
If you don’t know the first thing about either engine, that’s okay. We’ll compare Unity and Unreal here, so read on!
Is Unity Good to Use for AR/VR?
Unity is ideal for VR development because of its flexible and lightweight nature. This engine may be frustrating if you’re new to game development, but it’s easy to find tutorials and tips online.
Even if you’re not learning Unity for game development, this engine’s begun moving towards other industries like healthcare and education.
We’ll discuss this engine alongside the Unreal Engine and how they fare in different facets of augmented reality development.
Unity vs. Unreal Engine: Who Wins?
You can’t pit these engines head-to-head properly without first acknowledging what your needs are.
Are you more artistically inclined, or are you a programmer?
Unreal Engine will be ideal if you’re an artist who doesn’t have enough time to learn more programming languages.
This engine has more features and building blocks for you to play with and move from the idea stage to development faster. Plus, Unreal Engine has much more features in its base form.
However, if you’re more experienced with game development and programming, then Unity may be your better engine.
You can get the same results from Unity editor as Unreal Engine with a little more time and effort. While both Unity and Unreal Engine are used for PC games, neither game engine is perfect.
Unity can’t match Unreal’s out-of-the-box graphical quality, while Unreal can’t shake Unity’s foothold as an indie and VR games darling.
Thanks to their different strengths, neither engine really “wins” over the other. We’ll briefly cover Unity first.
Overview of Unity
Unity Technologies, a San Francisco-based company, develops the Unity game engine. This relatively young engine is utilized for game development across multiple platforms.
Unity has gained a reputation for being more beginner-friendly and easier to use for mobile games, but it’s also used for XR content like games or training programs.
Several popular VR games like Beat Saber and Superhot have been built in this engine, along with more “traditional” video games like the 2nd and 3rd installments of the Wasteland series.
Despite being younger than the Unreal engine, Unity maintains a foothold in the extended reality industry because of its built-in support for VR-specific features.
It’s also beloved by indie game developers for its ease of use and wealth of features aimed more at smaller teams or even solo developers.
This versatile engine isn’t just suited for mobile platforms; it’s also ideal if you plan on making the jump toward cross-platform development.
Built-in Render Pipeline
Before we discuss a few of Unity’s various features, we’ll cover the concept of “pipelines” for a better understanding. A pipeline is like a set of instructions that tell Unity the order of things.
Choosing your pipeline at the beginning of development is important because each uses different lighting models. It’s not like porting a game from one platform to another.
The Built-in Render Pipeline is the engine’s oldest and fairly basic pipeline. Despite not having a wealth of features, it’s supported by several different platforms.
Universal Render Pipeline (URP)
The URP is a pipeline developed by Unity and allows XR applications to be easily-optimized and run across various platforms.
URP was formerly known as the Lightweight Render Pipeline (LWRP) but replaced it in Unity version 2019.3. The URP can be installed into a Built-in Render Pipeline project with a few tweaks.
Unity High Definition Render Pipeline (HDRP)
You often can’t run VR games and programs on mobile devices without sacrificing performance. The Unity High Definition Render Pipeline (HDRP for short) bucks this trend.
You can think of this visually-stunning pipeline option as Unity’s direct contender to the Unreal Engine. It’s designed specifically for AAA games and anything that requires very high-quality graphics.
Before choosing a pipeline among these three, note that you need to lock in your choice at the beginning of development to save yourself the time and effort of switching halfway through.
MARS, an extension to Unity’s framework specially designed for VR development, is separate from the 3 pipelines discussed earlier.
Whether you’re developing for headsets, iOS, or Android devices, MARS is meant to speed up the development process.
Unfortunately, MARS is not free to use. It has a free trial for 45 days, then a monthly subscription fee of $50/license.
Unity Features & Specifications
Bolt for easier visual scripting
Unity Store with over 70,000 assets
Extensive Documentation and Tutorials
Greater support for mobile development
Easier to learn for beginners
Supportive community with thousands of fellow developers
Easily customizable and works great as a framework
Completely free to use
Almost too barebones in its most basic form
Pricier for all subscription tiers
Can become bloated with too many extensions
Overview of Unreal
This engine was developed by Tim Sweeney, the founder of Epic Games. The first iteration was released in 1998 and coincided with the release of Unreal Tournament, an FPS (first-person shooter).
From then until now, the Unreal Engine has consistently been used to set the bar in various ways for games and other technical demonstrations.
Unreal Engine is also the foundation of Fortnite, so you’ve likely seen what this engine can do outside of XR development.
Another landmark moment for Unreal came with the release of the PS5 in late 2020. This engine is constantly pushing the boundaries of what can be done with graphics.
Unfortunately, Unreal’s reputation has led to the widespread belief that it’s only usable for extremely complex and high-budget projects. Epic has been moving away from this notion.
Unreal Engine is also well-suited for VR development along with AAA games. It just requires downscaling and refinement instead of the optimization and pipelines of Unity.
Epic also doesn’t charge for usage of its engine until your game earns a specific amount of money.
Unreal Engine Features & Specifications
Blueprints visual scripting
Unreal Development Kit
Can convert entire scenes from other CAD software
Strand-based hair and fur simulations
Free access to source code
Capable of outputting higher fidelity graphics
Mistakes are easily edited in the script
Difficult to use when working solo
Requires more processing power when in use
UI may be confusing for newer developers
Unity vs. Unreal Engine: Comparison of Features
We’ll break down these engines according to several important aspects for both developers and the games you can make on them. We’ll start with intuitiveness.
1.) Friendliness for Beginners
Many developers want to know which of these engines is friendlier for beginners. Answering this will depend on your initial knowledge of programming and coding.
Experienced developers who know their way around will appreciate Unity. This engine may seem lackluster initially, but it provides a robust framework that can be easily added.
However, Unity is easier to learn if you’re willing to take the time to learn programming languages. It has its basis in C#, which is easier for beginners to learn.
If you want to skip learning multiple programming languages, Unreal is more advisable. It comes with many out-of-the-box features and has a visual scripting aid.
While this may seem like Unreal Engine is better for beginners, we’d recommend Unity. The reasoning concerns the languages they’re based on: C++ and C#, respectively.
Unity has a more beginner-friendly UI than Unreal and is simpler to set up. It’s also based on the high-level language C#, which is easier to learn if you’re new to coding.
This engine has a friendlier UI and is easier to use even if you’re an inexperienced programmer.
2.) VR Feasibility
One of the slight edges that Unity has over the Unreal Engine is its increased capacity to create both 3D and 2D games. Unreal does not lend itself as well to 2D creations.
However, this becomes a non-issue once developers move towards VR. Due to the nature of VR as a platform and its capability, almost all VR games are 3D.
Both of these engines are capable of running VR games and applications, regardless of their reputations and capabilities in other kinds of games.
However, note that XR typically requires stronger setups because of its nature. When rendering 2 displays simultaneously, more processing power is required.
Unity slightly edges out the Unreal Engine here because of its lightweight nature. With the Unreal Engine, a developer has to spend extra time optimizing their VR program to run more smoothly.
In contrast, Unity development can move past that and directly develop the game or program. Higher-quality graphics are optional and can be added later in the process.
Unity wins here, but just barely. A lighter graphical setup is better for VR than a heavier one.
3.) Mobile Platform Flexibility
The most successful fruits of XR development were once limited to gaming PCs and VR headsets. However, they’ve successfully made the jump toward mobile devices.
While this is partly thanks to these engines’ excellent support for different platforms, it’s also due to today’s increasingly powerful smartphones.
Whether you’re developing games for VR or a different platform, Unreal and Unity are up to the task. Plus, VR headsets aren’t limited to expensive plastic helmets anymore.
It’s easy to create a headset at home from cardboard and experience the world of VR programs without shelling out hundreds of dollars.
With the advent of more powerful devices and greater mobile app dev support, VR programs in both Unreal and Unity can be optimized for mobile devices.
Despite these advances, mobile devices still can’t match the power of full PC setups. Its lightweight nature and ease of optimization make Unity a good match for VR programs.
That being said, the Unreal Engine has worked to move towards the mobile world and will work fine with some additional optimization.
Both engines lend themselves well to VR development for mobile.
4.) Asset Variety
Normally you’d need to hire modelers and artists to help you construct your VR games, regardless of which platform you’re developing for. However, this isn’t a requirement anymore!
Fledgling game developers have bypassed this extra step by creating an assets store and filling it with useful tools for faster game development.
Both Unreal Engine and Unity have these marketplaces. Despite calling them “ marketplaces, ” both stores have several free resources and asset packs.
But which game engine has more available assets? As it stands, Unity has more available resources thanks to its bigger community of developers and users.
This means Unity developers can access more models and asset packs for their virtual reality games. Since Unity is easily expanded with tools, developers don’t need to jump through hoops to expand their capabilities.
While Epic Games have made their store, it isn’t as widely supported as Unity’s. It isn’t as feature-rich since it hasn’t been online for as long as Unity’s marketplace.
Despite being a younger engine, Unity’s older marketplace and larger community have more resources for newer devs.
5.) Languages Used
Once you get past the initial planning stage and want to “look under the hood” of these engines, you’ll need to get into programming languages. These game engines use different languages.
Unity uses C#, and the Unreal Engine uses C++. To give a better explanation of the difference between these two languages, it’s necessary to briefly explain “high-level” and “low-level” programming languages.
Multiple languages are used in programming, and they’re often classified according to how close they are to everyday human language.
A high-level language is closer to how you normally speak than a low-level one. These languages are more complex and require more puzzle solving to properly use.
Unity uses C#, which is high-level, making it easier for beginners to use and master. Meanwhile, Unreal uses C++, which is low-level.
While C++ will allow developers to do more within its confines, it’s also harder to grasp and has a much steeper learning curve than C#.
Its native support for C# makes it easier for beginners to hit the ground running.
6.) Usability for Non-coders
VR development can be daunting, and not everyone has the proper skills right out of the gate. Fortunately, both engines have made it easier for non-coders to get into VR development.
Unity has an XR interaction toolkit that speeds up the testing process for XR programs and lets developers skip the hassle of coding their VR programs from scratch.
This toolkit provides quick feedback and lets you manipulate different elements of your XR program. Developers still in a more preliminary stage aren’t left behind, either.
Both Unreal and Unity have visual scripting programs to allow developers to alter elements of their games without writing code. Unity has Bolt, while Unreal Engine has Blueprints.
With Blueprints and Bolt, artists and designers can exert finer control over their programs instead of being sidelined.
These visual scripting programs give artists greater control over the final program without coding their changes. It also allows for greater collaboration between different departments !
Both engines provide non-coders with enough tools to significantly affect their games.
7.) Graphical Quality
If you’re planning on getting into mixed reality or AR development, you may need a certain amount of graphical fidelity to render more complex models.
However, this will also depend on the limits and purpose of your VR application. Unity is preferred for social VR and training programs.
This makes Unity accessible to a wider audience in traditional video games and VR development. However, developers are constantly pushing the limitations of these engines.
XR applications that want to provide their users with stunning visuals should consider using the Unreal Engine. Unreal sees more use in AAA games that require heavy processing power.
This comes at the cost of requiring more optimization and fine-tuning before your VR program is ready for widespread rollout.
To simplify matters, think of it like this: Unreal Engine’s graphics are initially incredible but may need to be scaled down for VR development.
Unity games may not be as stunning as Unreal games, but they’re less demanding and can be scaled up to match anything that Unreal can output.
WINNER: Unreal Engine
Despite Unity’s efforts to match Unreal’s graphical prowess, UE5 remains the leader in stunning imagery.
8.) Community and Support
An engine can only remain popular when given enough support, and Unreal and Unity are both shining examples of this concept in action.
Despite both Unreal and Unity providing excellent support and detailed documentation for the latest version of their engines, it’s common for real-use cases to crop up that cannot be solved alone.
Both engines have large communities of developers that beginners can rely on for aid, but Unity has long been considered more accessible to a wider audience.
This translates into a larger community. Any beginner stuck at any stage of development will have an easier time finding tutorials with Unity.
Unreal also has a large community, but the resources and aid that the Unity community provides beat it out. That being said, Unreal may outstrip its rival in this respect.
As of now, developers who use the Unity suite have more resources to use.
9.) Real-Time Rendering Capability
As games increase in complexity, the need to render objects automatically becomes a greater need. This is more pronounced in VR, where loading screens are more intrusive.
Fortunately, both engines have made great strides toward ensuring that images are loaded quickly and seamlessly. However, Unreal Engine’s graphical pedigree aids it here.
While Unity has recently improved its rendering capabilities, this is achievable only with great optimization. In contrast, Unreal Engine has these features out-of-the-box.
Unreal has more options for customizable rendering than Unity, which locks you into using a pipeline.
WINNER: Unreal Engine
This engine has an increased capacity for real-time rendering.
Unity vs. Unreal Engine: Frequently Asked Questions
Any budding game developers should check out this section for more info about VR development in Unity and Unreal!
Which Engine Will Provide Source Code Access?
You may run into a stumbling block throughout VR development that can only be fixed by fiddling with the source code. It’s rare, but you never know.
You’re out of luck if you’re a Unity developer on a budget. Unity will let you take a closer look at its foundational code, but you cannot change anything unless you have an enterprise license.
This license costs a jaw-dropping $4,000/month for the smallest package. Before paying through the nose for a license, check the Unity asset store for a fix instead.
You’ll be fine if you’re using Unreal Engine for XR development. Epic Games offers their full source code for completely free, with 1 small condition.
Once your game with their code has made $1,000,000 in revenue, Epic will take a 5% cut as a royalty payment for all income past the $1M mark.
What’s the Difference Between MR, AR, and VR?
We’ve thrown around multiple terms referring to MR (mixed reality,) AR (augmented reality,) and VR (virtual reality.) All of these applications fall under XR or extended reality.
If you’re still with us, here are the differences between them:
Mixed Reality – Any virtual objects created by your headset can be interacted with as if they were physically present, and they respect the boundaries of what is in your physical environment, like walls and furniture.
Augmented Reality – VR headsets produce digitally overlapped objects on top of the real, physical world. An example would be Pokemon Go, where the creatures don’t interact with physical boundaries.
Virtual Reality – You should be familiar with this one thanks to the many VR games that have been released. Instead of mixing the physical and virtual, VR brings the user to a completely simulated environment and seeks to immerse them. VR headsets “override” the physical world, so to speak, and move you to a “different” place.
What Kind of System Will You Need for VR Development?
You may be worried about the kind of high-end hardware you’ll need to run your chosen game engine. Fortunately, you won’t need a blazing-fast gaming PC to make your VR games.
Regardless of OS or platform, both Unity and Unreal Engine have listed the system requirements for their engines. You can find Unity’s system requirements and Unreal’s system requirements here.
Note that Unreal development, especially in Unreal Engine 5, will require higher-specced hardware than Unity Editor. One non-negotiable tool you’ll need is a VR headset.
Developers will need VR headsets to playtest their games and give better feedback. We’d advise choosing a headset that supports the same platform you want your game to be on.
Which Game Engine Supports More Platforms?
Before you can begin visual scripting or mess around with virtual reality, it’d be wise to see which platforms your virtual environment will run on.
There’s no winner in this bout of Unity vs. Unreal because both engines support the same number of platforms. They have some small differences, though.
Unreal Engine supports Microsoft Windows Mixed Reality, SteamVR, and Oculus. Unity supports Microsoft Hololens 1 and 2, Windows Mixed Reality, and Playstation VR.
Mobile devices aren’t left behind, either; both of these game engines have support for Android and iOS devices. Apple has ARKit, and Google has ARCore for Android.
Final Verdict: Which of the Two Game Engines Is Better?
Now that we’ve laid out the basics of these engines, it’s time to distill them into their most basic forms.
While they’ll both make fine choices for cross-platform applications, here’s a quick guide to what each engine can offer you:
Choose Unity If:
Your team is comprised of more experienced developers who need more flexibility.
You want to roll out your VR game more easily.
You’re new to programming but still want to develop a VR game.
Choose Unreal Engine If:
You want to skip the programming and get on with the game development.
You want to create more graphically-demanding games.
You have experience with using C++.
Many developers wonder, “Should I learn how to use Unity or Unreal? Or both?”
We’ve compared Unity vs. Unreal here regarding XR development, but remember that the engine you choose should depend on your game development needs.
Unreal Engine and Unity are more tools for your kit as a developer, and you shouldn’t find yourself bound to one or the other.