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Unity vs. Unreal Engine: Which is Best for Real-Time VFX

By: Kseniya Serebrennikova

Are you planning to create VFX for games, virtual experiences, or animated movies? Then you probably want to know which engine would be a better choice - Unity or Unreal Engine. This is a never-ending debate, and the short answer is that it all comes down to your creative needs.

Both of these applications are designed to do the same thing – create games. So while  it might seem like they are similar, there are some core differences between Unity and Unreal Engine. To begin with, they are based on different programming languages, and that is something to take into consideration even if you’re trying to avoid coding in all its forms. Plus, production studios normally stick to one game engine and use it for all their projects. If your goal is to get hired at a very particular company, you might want to find out what their software of choice is. To make the Unity vs Unreal dilemma a bit easier for you to solve, let’s dig deeper and look at the main dissimilarities between these apps.

Coding... Again

Unity uses C sharp, which is easier to learn as a beginner, especially if you’ve never coded before. Unreal Engine uses C++ which is harder to master but it has a huge perk – pretty much every app you use on a daily basis is written in C++. This includes Adobe software, Google’s applications, the whole range of Microsoft’s apps, and more. Unsurprisingly, major gaming studios often have custom game engines that are based on C++.  If you want to create VFX for games, C++ is definitely worth learning but if that’s not the case, C sharp should be just enough for you, especially at the very beginning of your career. 

The biggest advantage of using C# is that you don’t need to manage memory – the programming language does it for you. If you create an object, you won’t have to delete it once the object task is complete – the garbage collector will gladly do that for you. With C++, you need to perform memory maintenance by yourself. 

C++ has more complex features and a more sophisticated hierarchy than C#. The thing that makes C# especially awesome for beginners is that it tracks errors and often gives you warnings if the code seems to be off. C++ does not do that, meaning it virtually allows you to write and execute any code there can be, including the one that is going to be the last code your PC ever sees. 

One more important thing to take into account when choosing between Unreal Engine and Unity is the accessibility of the source code. This is crucial for those who do a lot of coding because with source code, you can customize an application or build a new one based on it. Unreal Engine gives all its users access to source code, while in Unity only those who have the Pro and Enterprise plans can access the software source code.

And if you want to skip the coding part as a whole, both apps have visual scripting systems – Bolt and Playmaker in Unity and Blueprints in Unreal Engine. 

Visual Scripting Systems

Playmaker is a life-saver for game developers as it allows you to make your workflow more intuitive. Even though it’s not the same as traditional coding, it doesn’t mean you’re limited to a small set of predefined commands – you can create new actions and browse those made by other users. Speaking of which, instead of nodes, Playmaker uses States, Actions and Events. Playmaker’s environment is non-overwhelming which can be a huge relief for beginners. The only downside is that it costs $65 making Unity not so free to use anymore. 

Bolt, on the other hand, is included in the package starting with the 2021.1 release. In essence, Bolt is a visualized version of C# coding – it does everything you’d normally write in C#. It is more complicated than Playmaker and takes more time to figure out but it gives you much more creative freedom. 

Units are Bolt’s basic coding elements, just like actions and nodes in other programming tools. You connect them using Ports and eventually create Flow Graphs and State Graphs. Since Bolt is based on C#, it performs predictive debugging and code analysis for you, which saves plenty of time and brain cells (the stress that comes with coding is no joke). 

Unreal Engine’s Blueprints or Blueprint Visual Scripting is a node-based visual scripting system that is similar to Unity’s Bolt. Just like Bolt, it already comes with your Unreal Engine application and it’s completely free to use. Blueprint allows you to program inside Unreal Editor which can be way more convenient than writing lines of code inside UnrealScript

While Blueprint is still no match to coding in C++ in terms of flexibility, you can create a complete, finished game using its tools. The main types of Blueprints are Level Blueprints and Blueprint Classes. Level Blueprints allow you control what is going on inside your game level and what it looks like, while Blueprint Classes handle all the interactive elements in your environment. Again, if creating expensive AAA games with next-level mechanics is not what you’re planning to use the engine for, Blueprints should be more than enough of coding for you.

VFX Systems

Both Visual Effect Graph and Niagara are powerful tools for creating stunning real-time visual effects. They’re both great for stylized and photorealistic visuals. Pretty much anything you can ever think of is doable with either of these VFX systems. Whether it’s smoke, fluids, particles, or some complex fantasy effects, you can make them using VFX Graph or Niagara. 

Heresy | Canto1: The Forsaken Path | Unreal Engine 5 Cinematic
Heresy | Canto1: The Forsaken Path | Unreal Engine 5 Cinematic

Unity’s VFX Graph is a lot like Shader Graph: you work with nodes and see the results of every alteration in real time. One more system that Visual Effect Graph is similar to is Unity’s Particle System. These two, although technically interchangeable in most cases, are quite different. 

VFX Graph relies on the power of your GPU while Particle System uses CPU power. Visual Effect Graph can create simulations with millions of particles (Particle System only works with thousands) making it better for complex effects. Even Unity themselves state that in case you’re planning to create VFX with a high particle count that would need highly customisable behavior, it’s better to use the Visual Effect Graph instead of the Particle System. Unlike Particle System, VFX Graph is not a built-in tool so you’ll need to install the package to start using it.

Just like Unity, Unreal Engine has an older and simpler particle system and a powerful next-generation VFX system. Cascade is a particle editor that allows you to create real-time VFX and control them using various modules like Spawn, Velocity, Collision, and others. Plus, you can view the effect as a map representing shader complexity to see if you might want to optimize it. 

The biggest advantage of this system is that it’s been a part of the Unreal Engine package for years. This means that there is an abundance of articles and video tutorials on how to use it, created both by Epic Games and by the UE users. It also means that Cascade has been tested through and through and polished to perfection so it is not likely to surprise you with a sudden error or a random lag. 

Meanwhile, Niagara is quite new and the knowledge base on this system is not as plentiful. However, this VFX system delivers absolutely stunning results. It is perfect for advanced photorealistic simulations where you need to have control over every micro movement. 

Every visual effect created with Niagara has four core elements: systems, emitters, modules, and parameters. Systems are combinations of multiple emitters that are all supposed to be part of an effect. Emitters are combinations of modules that you set up to make your effect work. Modules represent behaviors that determine how your particles move. Finally, parameters are an abstraction of data related to your effect. 

Overall, Niagara is a more complex tool than Cascade and it will take a while to master, but the beautiful cinematic visuals are worth it.

Graphics

One more thing to consider is the graphics. Here everything is pretty straightforward – Unity is unbeatable when it comes to creating stylized 2D scenes, games, and experiences, while Unreal Engine is superior when you need that crisp hyperrealistic look. Unity, however, has been pushing its graphics forward at an enormous speed lately, so if you’re going for photorealism, you can achieve that using Unity, too. Same with 2D in Unreal Engine – while it’s all about 3D by default, you can create 2D projects using its sprite-based system called Paper 2D

Even if you take a look at the list of games made using Unity and Unreal Engine, you will see that there are stylized 2D/2.5D games and incredibly detailed realistic 3D games on both lists. Games created with Unity include Cuphead, Hollow Knight, Escape from Tarkov, Ori and the Will of the Wisps, Pokémon Go, Among Us, and Genshin Impact. 

Games created with Unreal Engine include Final Fantasy VII Remake, the Little Nightmares series, Fortnite, the Borderlands series, PUBG: Battlegrounds, the Gears of War series, and Stray. To sum it up, you can use both for stylized 2D projects and cinematic 3D projects, but it would make more sense to create 2D scenes in Unity and realistic 3D scenes in Unreal Engine.

unity game
stray from annapurna interactive

Pricing

Finally, let’s talk a bit about how much these two cost. The short answer is – as long as you’re an independent solo artist who uses these applications for small-scale projects and personal work, both are free. According to Unity, their Unity personal plan is free to creators with revenue or funding (raised or self-funded) below USD $100K in the past year. If you make more than that (but less than $200K), you will have to get Unity Plus for $399/year per seat. There’s also Unity Pro and Unity Enterprise for bigger studios and creators. 

With Unreal Engine, it’s free until the lifetime gross revenue from your product created using Unreal Engine exceeds $1 million USD. In this case, a 5% royalty will go to Epic Games (the first $1 million will be royalty-exempt, though). Apart from that, you can choose a custom licensing plan or Unreal Enterprise program if you want more functionality and premium support. 

Ready to Start Creating Real-Time VFX?

If you feel like Unreal Engine would be the best option for you, we’ve got just the right courses to help you on your creative journey! Check out our Intro to Unreal Engine course where you will learn to create mind-blowing visuals using the power of Unreal Engine. This course is great for beginners and it’s a perfect place to start both for aspiring game designers and VFX artists. 

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