How Unity is trying to create the perfect digital human

Natalya Tatarchuk and Veselin Efremov break down Unity's latest cinematic demo 'Enemies' and why it's important to give more tools to indie developers

Ten years ago, Unity‘s game engine was very different to the powerhouse that’s known, beloved and occasionally cursed by developers today. In 2011, Unity was used to create Temple Run – a mobile game that took over secondary schools across the world with the ease of Red Dawn – and Kerbal Space Program, but not too many other big hitters.

However, the past decade has saw Unity explode in popularity: titans like Disco Elysium, Valheim, Pokémon Brilliant Diamond And Shining Pearl and countless more all owe the success of their inner workings to Unity’s game engine.

Likewise, what the Unity engine is capable of creating nowadays is truly impressive. Recently, the company launched a cinematic demo called Enemies, which sought to highlight the potential of the game engine heading into 2022.

To talk more about just what that entails I spoke to Natalya Tatarchuk, vice president of graphics at Unity, and Veselin Efremov, creative director for Unity’s demo team. The pair are vastly experienced – Efremov has spent the last twenty years working in the games industry (six of them at Unity) while Tatarchuk’s work at Bungie helped to shape the look of sci-fi shooters like Destiny and Halo: Reach.

Though the pair are here to break down their work on Enemies, Efremov notes that the cinematic wasn’t entirely their doing, and the endeavour took a team of 12 around a year and a half to accomplish.

“It’s not like a production that we wanted to start and finish – it was like exploration with an open end,” shared Efremov, who went on to explain why Unity’s demo team landed on trying to presenting a digital human for its latest tech cinematic.

“The mission from day one has been to try to do things that haven’t really been done with Unity before and see why people don’t do that – let’s see the obstacles, and of course we find them and we try to solve them or address them.”

Enemies. Credit: Unity.
Enemies. Credit: Unity.

“We’ve gotten a lot of feedback that developers just really appreciate that we show them what’s possible – and that way they decide to bring up the scope of their own project. In this case we obviously want to have a digital human offering, like people that can make more narrative games with – people [with] emotional experiences of that more high fidelity kind [and] not super-stylized.”

As for what that means for those actually playing the games, Tatarchuk touches on how improved graphics can make a game more immersive for its players.

“I’m a gamer myself, I’m married to a game designer, my kid is swiftly becoming a gamer. We live in a world…where immersiveness matters if we can connect to the characters. We want, as gamers, to experience the stories and be captivated by them, to not be distracted by artefacts or by strange things that seem congruent to what the actual plotline is telling. The technology makes it easier for the creators…to be able to focus on giving you the story where you actually can engage with. These digital humans, they’re really relatable [in] a way that previously wasn’t attainable.”

Unity Enemies
Enemies. Credit: Unity.

“I remember seeing the first shots of the character, and I was blown away by how emotive that character is. It mattered to me as a gamer because I can see a person I can relate to: I know it’s a woman, the woman’s middle aged. I can start thinking about it beyond the obvious “oh, it’s a character in a game” – it adds depth and that’s achievable because of the technology – advanced hair simulation, that advanced material for the skin response…it takes away the disbelief, and that’s critical for us to be able to engage with the stories of the world.”

However, actually reaching that point – having someone be completely immersed in the human on their screen – is much easier said than done. “This is super important work, [but] work on digital humans is very ungrateful because if you do the job perfectly, which is tremendous effort, nobody [knows],” bemoans Efremov.

Despite that, Efremov is confident that the “perfect” digital human – indistinguishable from the real world – is something that’s a matter of when, not if. “To me there is no doubt: the question is, is it 1000 years? A million years? Ten years?”

“I agree with Ves,” Tatarchuk adds. “I think it’s going to continue to evolve. There are incredible expressions in film – if you we look at Avatar and some of the work that’s going to come out very shortly – you will see continuous improvements. But there are also plenty of films that don’t fool the eye in a subtle way, in a way that’s very difficult to pick up. The reason for it is, we as humans have an entire region in our brain that’s dedicated to facial recognition – literally, they took a giant chunk of your brain’s grey matter and that’s what they’ve actually specialised [via] evolution.”

Enemies Unity
Enemies. Credit: Unity.

“For us in games we need to continue to evolve this technology because as humans we’re so inherently sensitive and trained. Our job is to keep evolving the technology so we can make it for creators to push the believability, to push the connectivity of the player with that character. I think we’re getting fairly close to deliver a visually convincing result.”

However, the pair explains that it’s not just about pushing Unity as far as it can go – a key factor in their work is ensuring that the fruits of their labour are accessible to developers, and allowing smaller indie teams to create titles that look good without a huge budget.

“When you have a small team, you can’t necessarily always afford to have engineers that that are dedicated to optimising to make sure your experience will be running well on [players] devices,” says Tatarchuk. With Unity, Tatarchuk says it “enables small teams to focus on what they really need to focus on -creative vision – and then allow technology to deliver the solutions.”

“It’s not just about the technology, it’s about enabling ease of accessible creation for the artist and people who, frankly, don’t think of themselves as artists,” says Tatarchuk. “I might have a brilliant idea, but I’m not as awesomely powerful as Vess – let’s make it easy for me to create my believable character!”

Enemies
Enemies. Credit: Unity.

Efremov, who was an indie developer 20 years ago, says it’s “such a different environment” to the one he worked in.

“I see mobile games made by a single person that we used to [take] a whole team three years back then. That [gives] more outlet for creative freedom. We know the indie industry is what [pushes] gameplay advancements, mechanics, new design ideas and they’ve been very limited by their production capabilities.”

“Let’s look at Valheim. You don’t have to go super far, right? I was on a AAA industry shipping at Bungie, and it’s intense to think that’s what was created by a team of five – and we’re making it happen! We’re going to continue to try to make it even easier, by getting even more tools to these teams.”

With that in mind, Efremov says that Unity’s next cinematic is already in the works. Though he can’t say much, he teases that it will include “a lot of things that we haven’t done before” – though we’ll just have to wait and see what that may include.

For more on the technical side of Enemies, Unity goes into more detail in this blog

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