C# vs C++: Complete Comparison Between Unity and Unreal Programming Language
August 27 2021
Learning a programming language takes a lot of time and effort, especially for someone who’s just starting in the development industry.
So it’s only natural to compare programming languages before committing hours and weeks to learn them and platforms that utilize these languages.
And when it comes to choosing between C# and C++, the difference can be career-defining.
Both C# and C++ programming have been around for decades and serve as a backbone for many entertainment and business projects in both the gaming and VR/AR industries.
In this article, we’ll talk about the differences between both programming languages, their main features, and how to pick the one that suits your needs the most.
C# and C++ Programming Language Overview
C# is a high-level class-based component-oriented general-purpose programming language built as an extension of C. C# was developed in Microsoft around 2000 by Danish software engineer Anders Hejlsberg and his team as a part of the .NET architecture. At the moment, C# is on its 9th release.
In addition to Unity, C# is frequently used to develop desktop and server Windows applications.
C++ is a lower-level general-purpose language that was also built as an extension of a C language, hence why sometimes it’s called “C with classes”. C++ was developed at Bell by a Danish programmer Bjarne Stroustrup who worked on C++ for nearly two decades before the language was standardized in 1998. Over time C++ evolved significantly and currently merges object-oriented, generic, and functional features with low-level memory manipulation.
The most recent version of the language is C++23 and newer versions are scheduled for release every three years.
Both Unity and UnrealEngine utilize C++ in their source code: Unity is partially written using C++ and C#, whereas Unreal Engine is written in C++ entirely.
C++ is widely used to develop high-tier game engines and critical service applications where optimal resource utilization and performance are a priority.
Do You Even Need to Learn a Language?
Whether you need to learn a programming language or not depends on your goals.
Learning code isn’t necessary if you’re getting into XR as a designer or game designer, although it would help you establish a solid rapport with developers. Understanding how code works leads to a better understanding of what’s possible and what’s expensive. When developers and non-developers communicate, misaligned expectations are a common reason for missed project deadlines or misinterpretation. Learning a bit of coding helps non-developers prevent many issues before they crawl their way into the final build.
However, it's worth noting that both Unreal Engine and Unity provide workflows where you can build and release an app without writing a single line of code.
Unreal Engine features a blueprint system that you can use to build your entire application logic by configuring and connecting a series of visual nodes.
Although functions designed using blueprints can be slightly slower (for example, when processing lots of data or tight loops) than raw C++ code, there are known examples of games and applications written exclusively with blueprints.
Unity game engine doesn’t feature a similar blueprint system out-of-box, but plugins such as Bolt Visual Scripting and Nottorus replicate the functionality.
At the same time, extensions such as Unity MARS let you simplify the development process for location-aware AR applications. For example, using Unity MARS, you can build AR prototypes in real-time with less code as the tool provides a visual workflow with the ability to drag content directly into your camera feed or a virtual scene for subsequent editing.
If you are serious about developing XR or gaming applications in Unity or Unreal Engine, learning a respective programming language is not only highly advised but mandatory skill to conquer. Coding in C++ or C# allows you to develop unique custom solutions that are not well-documented yet, optimize your applications for better performance, integrate external code to save time on development, and have maximum control over how your application works.
Unity Programming Language (C#) Vs Unreal Programming Language (C++) with Comparison Chart
For years Unity was considered a default choice for indie or DIY game development whereas Unreal Engine was more appropriate for large-scale projects given its extensive history of being used in AAA titles.
Although both game engines have matured over the years and proved that they can be used to develop projects of varying scales, there are still a couple of factors that make Unreal Engine’s C++ environment more suitable for massive or technically demanding projects:
- C++ code can be faster and more efficient. Given that C++ allows manual memory management and compiles directly into machine code, large-scale applications can be optimized for maximum performance whereas with Unity’s C# such program efficiency is out of reach.
- Unreal Engine C++ code is open-sourced. Unlike with Unity where only the managed C# portion of source code was made available to public under a reference-only license (no reuse or modification), Unreal Engine’s C++ source code is fully available for access and modification, something most AAA projects require.
Note: you can access C/C++ Unity source code on Pro and Enterprise plans starting at $1800 per year per seat.
Popularity and Community
According to the TIOBE Index that indicates the general popularity of programming languages, both C+ and C# are in the top 5 most popular with C++ (7.36% rating) being slightly more common than C# (5.14%).
At the same time, C++ is the most commonly used coding language for building game engines to the point that any AA engine is written at least partially using C++.
Here’s a list of some popular game engines written using C++:
- Source Engine
- Unreal Engine
- G3D Innovation Engine
- Toy Engine
- Banshee Engine
For comparison, here are some game engines are written using C#:
However, the sheer amount of projects developed with Unity make C# one of the most popular programming languages in game development. According to Unity’s website, more than 50% of games across PC, mobile, and console were made using the platform. If we are talking XR only, Unity constitutes to about 60% of all the AR/VR content.
It’s safe to say that comparing both C++ and C# in terms of popularity in the game development industry will be a close call for years to come. Or in other words: you can't go wrong with either choice.
C# language is easier to learn than C++ for several reasons:
- Easier syntax. Being a higher-level language, C# syntax is less error-prone than C++ and is relatively easy to learn.
- The bigger margin of error. C# handles garbage collection automatically which helps beginner developers to avoid memory leakage and not spend time debugging their code. C++ typically requires a manual approach to memory management with a higher chance of error.
- Many Unity-specific C# tutorials. Unity’s community is more welcoming towards beginner C# developers. Unity is more often used for DIY and indie projects that are of interest to someone just starting out in game dev.
Example of memory allocation in C++: pch is a pointer to an array of char size [Buffer size]. If you forget to free the memory used by this array, you will have a memory leakage.
char *pch = new char[BUFFER_SIZE];
In C# no such code is required as all memory allocation/deallocation is done by a virtual machine.
Garbage collection (GC) refers to the process of collecting or gaining memory back when it’s not currently being used by parts of an application.
One of the differences between C# and C++ is that C# code runs on a virtual machine with built-in automatic garbage collection while C++ needs manual memory management.
This language-level difference translates into difference when developing your app in Unity or Unreal Engine. For example, Unity uses modified Mono as its virtual compiler and there’s not much Unity developers can do in terms of memory management other than relying on Mono’s built-in garbage collection system which is not always optimal.
Unreal Engine 4 also utilizes a garbage collector engineered directly by Epic. However, Unreal Engine developers can avoid using a built-in garbage collector altogether and instead rely on best practices for resource management.
Comparing memory management in C++ and C#, it all comes down to the developers’ experience. Experienced C++ developers have a higher degree of control over how their apps use system resources and hardware and thus can achieve exceptional efficiency. At the same time, C++ devs need to be careful in avoiding memory leaks that are notoriously hard to track. Less experienced developers have to rely on built-in solutions albeit having less control over the application’s performance.
Both languages will have compiler warnings, but it’s harder to track runtime errors in C++ because of the developer’s ability to manage memory directly.
Both C++ and C# programming languages are free to use.
However, if you plan to develop apps using Unity you can opt for an $1800 per year per seat license that gives access to Unity’s C/C++ portion of source code.
If you want to release a commercial product using Unreal Engine 4 and C++, there’s a 5% royalty for products that exceed $1,000,000 USD lifetime gross revenue.
Both Unity and Unreal Engine 4 have built-in support for Visual Studio code editor.
In Unreal Engine 4, code files can be created through Visual Studio and added to the game project through the Solution Explorer in the usual manner. Code files can also be added to appropriate folders outside of Visual Studio and the solution and project files will be rebuilt automatically.
Additionally, there’s a built-in Code Editor tool that allows developers to edit C++ code directly in UE4 [currently in experimentation mode]
By default, Unity integrates with Visual Studio, letting you open a code editor every time you want to edit Unity C# scripts:
You can also select any editor you like from the External Tools panel in Unity’s preferences (go to Unity > Preferences > External Tools > External Script Editor).
On Indeed.com the number of “Unreal Engine” jobs is almost 10 times bigger than Unity jobs (1800 vs 170), whereas the number of required UE developers is almost twice the number of Unity developers (1084 vs 664).
This could be because Unreal Engine is typically used in large-scale AAA game projects that require more employees.
At the same time, there’s a larger marketplace for XR Unity applications where Unity’s quick prototyping workflow, cross-platform compatibility, and focus on mobile platforms are huge drivers of growth.
As both C++ and C# are built as extensions of the C language and are both class-based languages, you might see some similarities when comparing their code.
Here’s an example of a class in C#:
Here’s an example of a class in C++:
As already mentioned, the difference in code will be most noticeable at higher-level tasks such as memory management and pointers usage (unlike C++, C# doesn’t use pointers altogether).
Summary of C# and C++ Pros and Cons
- Easy to learn
- More suitable for DIY and indie projects
- Commonly used in Microsoft applications
- Cheaper development
- Most commonly used in AAA projects and high-tier game engines
- More control over application resource management and engine’s source code
- Less control over application performance
- Not many applications outside of Unity and Microsoft infrastructure
- Higher chance of error
- Takes lots of experience to make the most of its capabilities
- Development requires more experienced employees, hence is more expensive
Which Language Should I Learn First?
Choosing your first language will depend on your goals.
If you want to develop your own game, a mobile app, or you’re just making your first steps in game programming, then Unity and C# is a more welcoming environment as you can start making simple code-based projects from day 1.
If, however, you are an experienced programmer who has already dipped their toes into coding projects or if you have a goal of becoming a part of a large game development studio and work on AAA projects, then C++ offers a bigger payoff for the time invested.
Whatever language you pick is fine as learning either language will help you gain real development experience and speed up the learning curve when you decide to switch.
Where Can You Learn Scripting for C# and C++?
There are lots of online resources available to speed up your learning process.
For learning C# and Unity:
- C# Scripting Fundamentals - 4-week live course delivered by Circuit Stream instructors. It is available for free as a part of the VR Starter Plus package)
- Intro to C# for Unity Workshop — free on-demand webinar where you'll learn about C# scripting under 90 minutes with Jerry Medeiros
- Unity3D official forum
- Unity3D official documentation
- Unity3D YouTube channel
- Jason Weimann YouTube Channel
- Brackeys YouTube Channel
For learning C++ and Unreal Engine:
- Unreal Engine official forum
- Unreal Engine official documentation
- Unreal Engine official YouTube Channel
- Ryan Laley YouTube Channel
- DevSquad YouTube Channel
What About Switching from C++ to C# or C# to C++?
Learning a language syntax takes a week. However, when you switch from C++ to C# and vice versa you switch entire ecosystems.
Put simply, when writing in C++ you spend most of your time writing things yourself from scratch. In the case of C#, you learn more about using .NET framework, its libraries, and tools.
At the same time, switching from C++ to C# is easier than switching from C# to C++ because C++ developers are typically used to advanced manual memory management whereas C# developers usually rely on automated solutions.
Whether you choose C# or C++ for your next project, learning a programming language is a rewarding process, especially if you are serious about your XR or game development career.
We hope that this guide helped you make a weighted decision on where to start your development journey.
At this point Circuit Stream doesn't provide Unreal Engine specific development courses. But we might in the future.