Unity Technologies showed game developers an early peek at Unity 2017, the next-generation game engine coming in April.

Unity CEO John Riccitiello made the announcement at an event at the Game Developers Conference 2017 in San Francisco. The move was the latest salvo in the San Francisco company’s battle with arch rival Epic Games, which has its own press event on Wednesday morning. In this competition, Epic is coming down from the high end of Triple-A games while Unity is rising from the low end of game development from mobile and lighter projects.

Unity 2017 will get new features and improvements across graphics, performance, stability, efficiency, and platforms as well as a new dedicated focus area: artists and designers. To improve team productivity and collaboration for non-programmers, Unity 2017 will bring the start of a series of features designed specifically for artists and designers across disciplines, from technical artists to lighting artists, animators, and more.

Riccitiello said that the Unity 5.6 release coming on March 31 will be the final installment of Unity 5. After that, the beta version of Unity 2017 will be available.

“What stays the same is the same focus on spectacular technology,” said Riccitiello at the event regarding Unity 2017. “What changes is we dial up our vision even more. The ambitions we have for Unity 2017 are that much higher. We also are adding a new focus area: artists and designers.”

Artists and designers have been outside the focus of Unity, which has spent most of its time making programmers happy. Now Unity will add visual scripting tools and storytelling tools for both artists and designers, said Joachim Ante, chief technology officer at Unity.

Unity games were downloaded more than 16 billion times in 2016, up 31 percent from the year before.

Key new features available in Unity 5.6:

● Progressive Lightmapper speeds up iteration and testing of lighting scenarios and reduces baking times.

● Navigation Mesh system adds A.I. and pathfinding to more easily control character navigation through giant game worlds.

● New video player supports smooth 4K playback to provide immersive video and enable the creation of 360 video experiences.

● Native support for Vulkan graphics API provides better performance across Windows, Tizen, and Android platforms while consuming less device power.

● TextMesh Pro provides improved control of text formatting and layout through Advanced Text Rendering and is now available for free to users of 5.3+, with native Unity integration coming in Unity 2017.

Also at GDC, two Unity partners announced new opportunities for Unity creators seeking global distribution and discovery:

● Xiaomi, one of the top handset manufacturers and Android app stores in China, is now offering Western developers direct access to the Chinese market. Interested developers can learn more in the new Xiaomi-Unity Developer Portal.

● Facebook announced Facebook Gameroom Premium support, inviting developers of premium games — like The Eyes of Ara and Skyhill — to bring their content to the social gaming platform’s growing portfolio. For developers using Unity IAP to implement payments, the company also announced that Facebook payment support will be available in Unity 5.6.

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