Today, Unity Technologies announced plans to update its Unity development tools and graphical engine. A graphical engine like Unity is a piece of software that lets a developer make a game without having to program all of the graphics from the ground up.

Unity 4 will improve in-game animations, add DirectX 11 support, and allow for publishing to Linux. The full suite of additions should further solidify the game engine’s place as the go-to tool for developers operating on a small budget, especially in the mobile space.

Unity Tech hopes that developers will flock to the new software’s Mecanim character animation system. “The introduction of the Mecanim suite of animation tools into Unity will completely change how developers integrate interactive animations and will result in awesome new gameplay experiences from the Unity community,” said Robert Lanciault, lead animation developer at Unity Technologies.

In addition to the DX11 and Linux support, Unity 4 will allow developers to export their U4 creations or existing Unity 3 works directly into Adobe Flash. This will streamline the process of bringing fully 3D games into browsers like Chrome and Firefox.

While Gears of War developer Epic’s Unreal Engine 3 continues to power many big-budget console games, Unity is also capable of producing admirable in-game visuals.

Developer Zero Point Software bills its still-in-production first-person shooter Interstellar Marines, built on Unity, as “the most ambitious indie game in our solar system.” It looks almost like a true AA title from any of the huge publishers. Parts of the game are available to play now in-browser for free at Intersterllar Marines’ official website.

While anticipation for Interstellar Marines was initially very high, a game titled Hawken has since impeded Zero Point’s momentum. Hawken is a first-person shooter in which players pilot giant, bipedal robots. It runs on Epic’s Unreal Engine. It will be free to play andlooks phenomenal.

This represents a real threat to Unity’s business. It is clear that Epic has had great success in licensing its Unreal Engine out to other development studios. It is the most prolific middleware tool in use on the market. The biggest games — like Mass Effect 3, BioShock Infinite, Batman: Arkham City, and Borderlands 2 — all run on Epic’s Unreal development kit. Other options are available. Crytek has its CryEngine, which will power Homeland 2. EA uses the Frostbite 2 engine from the Battlefield series on many of its games. That used to leave the small indie games to Unity, but Hawken could signify that Epic is now looking to drink Unity’s milkshake on the lower end of the budget spectrum.

Hawken wasn’t made on a shoestring, but it is a free-to-play PC FPS that looks as good as anything on Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3. If this is what free-to-play looks like, it will become very hard for developers to justify Unity games that don’t look quite as detailed.

Which brings us to the battle for mobile-game developers. The economics of free and $1 iOS apps often dictates an even tighter budget than an indie game on PC. In this realm, Unity still seems to hold an advantage. Dozens of games on Android and iOS currently run on the Unity platform. Only a handful use the more expensive UDK. Unity Tech hopes to strengthen this position with the Unity 4 update.

“Mobile platforms have also received a boost in visual fidelity with optimizations and new features [in Unity 4],” reads the press release announcing U4. “It’s easy to make extremely high-end visuals that scale across the best of what’s available on modern PCs and the most advanced mobile graphics chips.”

The engineers at Unity Technologies know that graphics matter. While a game like Cordy that runs on Unity looks pretty, it can’t compete with something like Infinity Blade 2 on Unreal. We won’t know if that gap has closed until we play a few games built from the ground up on the new platform, but with Retina displays on every device going forward, the quality of the 3D will be more noticeable than ever.

Unity 4 will be demonstrated in detail at the Unite 2012 developers conference in Amsterdam on August 22 – 25. Interested developers can pre-order the development kit from and will receive early access to the U4 beta.