When Jonathan van Immerzeel goes on vacation, he packs a decidedly unusual suitcase. In addition to sunscreen, swimming shorts and a passport, the intrepid creator will bring along a drone, green screen and audio recording equipment. This is so he can document every aspect of his environment, mostly pristine wilderness, in as much hi-fi detail as possible.
He does this in the name of research, seeking inspiration for his next hit shader, essentially an image rendering program, which he then publishes to the Unity Asset Store. In fact, Van Immerzeel, creator of ‘Stylized Grass Shader’ and ‘Stylized Water 2’, says that creating these game development tools, understanding the details of nature and translating them into virtual appreciate the actual lovely outside. “My eyes and ears have to be open to new information, paying attention to what many people would find the weirdest things,” Van Immerzeel tells me via Zoom. “That’s just part of the job.”
For the past five years, Van Immerzeel has earned a living creating tools for the Unity Asset Store, an online marketplace for users of the Unity game engine. It’s chock-full of thousands of virtual objects, some beautifully crafted, some less so, put together as if a high-end department store and a thrift store occupy the same seductive online space. You’ll find 2D and 3D models, as well as tools, scripts, and shaders (which is what Van Immerzeel makes) – essentially anything you can think of that brings a video game to life. If you’ve never checked out an asset store, it’s worth spending a few minutes perusing the virtual aisles. For example, you can create a group of Elden Ring-like undead characters roaming an idyllic Japanese street.
Before you know it, your dream video game will resemble a Frankensteinian monster of tropes – distracted, sure, but unique, charming even, in its own cobbled together way.
Admittedly, few game makers make games entirely from the material hosted in Unity’s asset store, otherwise they will face the wrath of players calling their work an “asset flip” (as was common a few years ago). ). Instead, such resources are used for a whole host of reasons: hobbyists fiddling with them to learn the ropes; professionals use them for rapid prototyping (indie open world hit saber started life as a premade hovercraft and sand dunes). Occasionally these resources and tools form the polygonal foundation of commercial titles (the original terrain of sci-fi sliding game Exo One was created with MapMagic 1). In the case of publicly available games, the creators of these tools are sometimes credited, but often not. According to Denis Pahunov, creator of MapMagic 1, this is not a problem. As for him, “They’ve already paid me, so why would they advertise the assets?”
Pahunov and van Immerzeel both started their careers in the modding scene, for morrowind and unreal tournament, respectively. Although the games could hardly be more different from each other, morrowindan epic fantasy RPG, and Unreal Tournament, a high-octane sci-fi FPS, modding allowed both creators to look into the proverbial guts of these titles. Pahunov likens it to disassembling a toy to see what’s inside and then reassembling it with extreme precision. Van Immerzeel recalls opening Unreal when he was 12 years old and realizing that a skyline he’d stared at for hours was just a flat piece of geometry with an image on it (as opposed to a horizon full of models of 3D buildings). . It was a “lifting of the veil,” says Van Immerzeel, an “enlightening moment” that revealed the magnitude of the smoke and mirrors that video games use.
There’s something understatedly beautiful about these former teenage tinkerers who facilitate the next generation of game makers with a suite of digital tools that streamline aspects of a notoriously complicated creative and technical process. These plug-ins, which can be downloaded for just a few dollars, essentially allow game makers to purchase solutions to complex problems so that they can focus their efforts on the bigger picture, for example the game world itself. Between Pahunov’s tools, which also include “Voxeland” and Van Immerzeel’s “Vegetation Spawner”, beautiful virtual landscapes (like Van Immerzeel enjoys on vacation) can be created on both a macro and micro level – miles of rolling hills filled with fluttering grass and trees.
That said, asset creation is still a business. It all started for Van Immerzeel when he was fired from a warehouse job in the Netherlands while studying art and technology at Saxion Hogeschool. With a surplus of spare time, Van Immerzeel threw himself into making what would become “Stylized Water Shader”. Upon completion, he posted it to the Unity subreddit, the post exploded and, well, the rest is history. Since then, the creator has graduated, dabbled in freelance contract work, but is being pulled back to the Unity Asset Store — and it should, judging by his earnings. In 2021, “Stylized Water 2” alone brought in just over €33,000 (about $34,700 USD). Meanwhile, Pahunov turned his attention to the asset store full-time from 2017 to 2019, in between game developer jobs, earning more than $5,000 a month at its peak.
For others, like Noah Ratcliff, part of the worker-owned Esthetician Labs game studio, the Unity Asset Store offers, if not a torrent of dollars, a reliable trickle. Ratcliff’s tool, “Easy Feedback Form” (named with admirable straightforwardness), was developed as a personal project during college, but now supplements the studio’s income, raising more than $7,000 to date. For Ratcliff and their two friends, who are still early in their game development careers, this is a long way to cover basic costs and the occasional short-term contractor. “Easy Feedback Form” even appeared in the credits of the popular 2021 card game encryption – a means for developer Daniel Mullins to refine the tricky, playful meta title. As Ratcliff jokes, “We like to say that we’re now technically an award-winning asset.”
But like so many forms of independent digital work, from being a YouTuber or Twitch streamer to actually developing video games, the life of these types of tools and resources can be extremely precarious. You enter into a business arrangement not only with yourself, your potential customers and the ebb and flow of market demand, but also with companies like Unity on which you essentially depend. Their algorithms dictate what appears in search results to potential buyers.
Just ask Brandon Gillespie, a 3D artist who has sunk days and weeks planning and creating dazzling assets like “Peacekeeper Robot” and “Apocalypse Houses,” only to sell a unit or two. In comparison, “Farm Field,” which came together in a matter of hours, shifted over 200 units, while “Greeble City Kit” has sold over 650. These are by no means huge numbers. This unpredictability is a huge problem for Gillespie, who sees asset creation as an afterthought alongside his full-time job as a medical animator. That said, the “volatile situation” is one of the reasons he hasn’t published more. As with video games themselves, quality is by no means a guarantee of success.
There is another factor that potential asset creators should consider: the frequency with which Unity updates its engine. “Careful”, warns Van Immerzeel when I bring up the subject. “There’s a lot to say about that.” Maintaining assets to keep them running with each new version of Unity is a time consuming task, especially with a growing portfolio that is likely to contain asset packs with numerous models in them. Considering that Unity can work differently on different hardware, the range of variables for a solution can quickly add up. “Sometimes things you can’t predict happen, like a weird shader glitch on PlayStation 5,” says Van Immerzeel. “You don’t have the development hardware, so you just hope customers don’t run out of patience while you try to fix it.”
Despite these issues, as well as contract work where he has worked on many notable games, including Annapurna Interactive’s Last stop and super chill mail delivery game More, Van Immerzeel thinks his future, at least for now, lies with the Unity Asset Store. He can follow his curiosity. Usually this results in profitable assets, but sometimes not. The way he sees it, if he didn’t, he’d be working in a studio doing exactly the same thing, albeit without the same degree of autonomy.
Pahunov, however, views the work a little more dogmatically. “I treat video games like art,” he says. “I want to be a painter or sculptor, not a brush maker. Even if the whole community uses my brush, it doesn’t bring me any closer to being an artist.”
For Pahunov, his tools have helped him achieve exactly this. He is now employed as a technically skilled artist at Ubisoft RedLynx, encouraged by Antti Ilvessuo, the studio’s former creative director, to apply. Ilvessuo was impressed by what he saw in the asset store. Van Immerzeel has meanwhile set his enterprising eyes on his company’s next innovation: sound. The recording equipment he takes to far corners of the planet is all part of the plan, a means of staying one step ahead in a highly competitive game.
“Everyone offers environment packs, but they always miss the audio,” he says. “It’s such an essential part of games and I think there’s a market for it in the asset store.”