When Jonathan van Immerzeel goes on vacation, he packs a decidedly unusual suitcase. Along with sunscreen, swim shorts and a passport, the intrepid creator takes a drone, green screen and audio recording equipment. This is so he can document every aspect of his surroundings, usually untouched wilderness, in as much high-fidelity detail as possible.
He does this in the name of research, seeking inspiration for his next hit shader, essentially a program that renders graphics, which he then publishes on the Unity Asset Store. In fact, van Immerzeel, creator of “Stylized Grass Shader” and “Stylized Water 2”, says that creating these tools for game development, understanding the details of nature and translating them into virtual form has helped foster an appreciation of reality. big spaces. “My eyes and ears have to be open to new information, paying attention to what a lot of people would consider the weirdest things,” van Immerzeel tells me on Zoom. “It’s part of the job.”
For the past five years, van Immerzeel has made a living building tools for the Unity Asset Store, an online marketplace for users of the Unity game engine. It’s packed with thousands of virtual items, some beautifully designed, some less so, assembled as if an upscale department store and a thrift store occupy the same alluring online space. You’ll find 2D and 3D models as well as tools, scripts, and shaders (which van Immerzeel does) – basically anything you can think of that brings a video game to life. If you’ve never visited an asset store before, it’s worth spending a few minutes browsing its virtual aisles. You might begin to imagine, for example, a group of Ring of Elden-undead characters wandering an idyllic Japanese street.
Before you know it, your dream video game will look like a monster of Frankensteinian tropes – derivative, sure, but unique, charming even, in its own way.
Granted, few game creators create games entirely from hardware hosted on Unity’s asset store, lest they face the wrath of gamers calling their work “asset failover” (as c was common a few years ago). Instead, these assets are used for a multitude of reasons: enthusiasts have fun with them to learn the ropes of the engine; professionals use them for rapid prototyping (open world independent hit Sable began life like a pre-made hovercraft and sand dunes). Sometimes these assets and tools form the polygonal bedrock of commercial titles (the overarching terrain of the sci-fi sliding game ExoOne was created with MapMagic 1). In the case of games available to the public, the creators of these tools are sometimes credited, but often they are not. According to Denis Pahunov, creator of MapMagic 1, this is not a problem. As far as he’s concerned, “They’ve already paid me, so why should they announce the assets then?”
Pahunov and van Immerzeel both started their careers in the modding scene, for Morrowwind and unreal tournament, respectively. While the games could hardly be more different, Morrowwindan epic fantasy RPG, and Unreal Tournament, a high-octane sci-fi FPS, modding allowed the two creators to peer into the proverbial innards of these titles. Pahunov likens it to taking a toy apart to see what’s inside, then putting it back together with pinpoint precision. Van Immerzeel remembers opening Unreal when he was 12 and realizing that a skyline he had been staring at for hours was just a flat piece of geometry with an image glued to it (as opposed to a horizon filled with 3D building models). It was a “lifting of the veil”, says van Immerzeel, an “illuminating moment” that revealed the extent of the smoke and mirrors that video games use.
There’s something quietly charming about these former teenage tinkerers who facilitate the next generation of game creators with a suite of digital tools that streamline aspects of a notoriously complicated creative and technical process. Downloadable for just a few dollars, these plug-ins essentially allow game makers to purchase solutions to complex problems so they can focus their efforts on the big picture – say, for example, the game world itself. -same. Between Pahunov’s tools, which also include “Voxeland”, and van Immerzeel’s “Vegetation Spawner”, beautiful virtual landscapes (the kind van Immerzeel enjoys on vacation) can be created on both the macro and micro level – miles of rolling hills filled with grass and trees.
That said, asset manufacturing is still a business. For van Immerzeel, it started when he was made redundant from a warehouse job in the Netherlands while studying art and technology at Saxion University of Applied Sciences. With a surplus of spare time, van Immerzeel set about creating what would become “Stylized Water Shader”. When it was done, he posted it on the Unity subreddit, the message exploded and, well, the rest is history. The creator has since graduated, got into freelance contract work, but finds himself drawn to the Unity Asset Store — as he should be, judging by his earnings. In 2021, “Stylized Water 2” alone grossed just over €33,000 (about $34,700). Pahunov, meanwhile, turned to the asset store full-time from 2017 to 2019, between game development jobs, bringing in more than $5,000 a month at his peak.
For others, like Noah Ratcliff, part of the co-op of worker-owned game studios Esthetician Labs, the Unity Asset Store offers, if not a deluge of dollars, then a reliable trickle. Ratcliff’s tool, “Easy Feedback Form” (named with admirable simplicity), was developed as a personal project during college, but now supplements the studio’s income, bringing in over $7,000 to date. For Ratcliff and their two friends, still early in their careers in game development, this goes a long way towards covering basic costs and the occasional short-term contractor. “Easy Feedback Form” even appeared in the credits of 2021’s hit trading card game Registration – a way for developer Daniel Mullins to refine the clever and playful meta title. As Ratcliff jokes, “we like to say we’re technically an award-winning asset now.”
But like so many forms of freelance digital work, whether it’s being a YouTuber or Twitch streamer or developing video games, living off these kinds of tools and assets can be extremely precarious. You make a business deal not just with yourself, your potential customers, and the ebbs and flows of market demand, but with companies like Unity that you basically depend on. Their algorithms dictate what appears in search results for potential buyers.
Just ask Brandon Gillespie, a 3D artist who has spent days and weeks planning and creating mind-blowing assets such as “Peacekeeper Robot” and “Apocalypse Houses”, to only sell one or two units. . For comparison, “Farm Field”, which came together in a few hours, moved over 200 units, while “Greeble City Kit” sold over 650. These are not numbers by any means. huge. This unpredictability is a huge problem for Gillespie, who treats asset building as a side hustle to his full-time job as a medical entertainer. That said, the “random situation” is one of the reasons he hasn’t posted more. As with video games themselves, quality is by no means a guarantee of success.
Another factor for potential asset creators to consider is the regularity with which Unity updates its engine. “Be careful,” warns van Immerzeel when I broach the subject. “There’s a lot to be said for that.” Maintaining assets so that they continue to work with each new release of Unity is a time-consuming activity, especially with a growing portfolio that likely contains asset packages containing many models. When you consider that Unity may perform differently on different hardware, well, the range of variables for a patch can quickly add up. “Sometimes things happen that you can’t anticipate, like a weird shader issue on PlayStation 5,” van Immerzeel explains. “You don’t have the development hardware, so you hope customers won’t run out of patience while you try to fix it.”
Despite these issues, as well as contract work which saw him work on a host of notable games, including Annapurna Interactive’s Last stop and super cool postal delivery game Lake, van Immerzeel thinks his future, at least for now, lies with the Unity Asset Store. He is able to follow his curiosity. Most of the time this results in profitable assets, but sometimes it does not. According to him, if he didn’t do that, he would be working in a studio doing exactly the same thing, but without the same degree of autonomy.
Pahunov, however, views the work a bit more dogmatically. “I consider video games to be art,” he says. “I want to be a painter or a sculptor, not a brush artist. Even if the whole community uses my brush, it doesn’t bring me closer to being an artist.
For Pahunov, his tools have helped him achieve precisely that goal. He is now employed as an expert technical artist by Ubisoft RedLynx, encouraged by the studio’s former creative director, Antti Ilvessuo, to apply. Ilvessuo was impressed with what he saw on the asset store. Van Immerzeel, meanwhile, has his eyes set on his company’s next innovation: sound. The recording equipment he takes with him to the farthest corners of the planet is part of the plan, a way to stay one step ahead in a highly competitive game.
“Everyone is offering environment packs, but they’re still missing the audio,” he says. “It’s such an essential part of games, and I think there’s a market for it on the asset store.”