Unity: "If our only goal was to make an engine, I'd make myself redundant"
David Helgason on why modern developers need much more than an engine
Unity Technologies is now the most widely used game engine in existence, with a community of more than a million users all over the world. However, while the company's technology has become the automatic choice for independent developers working across a diverse, and growing, range of platforms, co-founder and CEO David Helgason won't even entertain the thought of resting on its laurels.
During the opening keynote of Unite 12 in Amsterdam, the company not only displayed the diverse ways that Unity is now being used - from military simulations to impressive animated short-films - but also the various intiatives that address the reality of making games in the 21st Century. Through Union, the Asset Store and Online Services, the little engine that could is reaching into distribution, publishing, and online retail for everything from 2D animation tools to third-party networking services.
Q: An upshot of having an annual conference is that people expect new developments and observable progress on a yearly basis. What has defined the last 12 months for Unity?
"We should not be a company that just delivers an engine, we should be a company that really asks, 'How can we make people more successful?'"
David Helgason: I think the work on the Passion Pictures ["Butterfly Effect"] demo. It's really cool to see that we're pushing Unity into the region where you can make quality CG animations with it. We haven't got to the point of chunking it up and really releasing it into the wild, but all the special effects you saw should be in people's hands - on the Asset Store, or whatever. It's not only that, but it's a good example of the really high-end work we're doing.
And also our globalisation strategy: going local and diving deep. I was just talking to someone who works with a studio in Thailand, and they get visits from Unity people. We're just everywhere.
Q: I talked to John Goodale last year about this, and the Unity roadshow was already covering a lot of ground even back then.
David Helgason: We have more people now, and they're all super busy. The philosophy is that we want to be local, and that means speaking the local languages. We don't have that for Thailand yet, but we have local teams in China, Japan and Korea, and we have non-native local teams in Singapore and Malaysia now.
Q: Have you noticed a difference because of that effort?
David Helgason: It's had a big difference. Sometimes it's hard to notice it in the day-to-day work, but if you look at our numbers a third of the business is in Asia now, and we're hiring a lot of extremely talented people out there.
The third thing is scaling the company. You don't see this from the outside, but really learning to work together in a much more complicated environment: making our marketing and sales more professional, organising globally, and that sort of stuff. It's probably taken more time than it should have, in the sense that it has taken up resources internally, but we're really getting streamlined now and I'm really excited to take some new leaps.
Q: So that work is really just providing a more solid base for future growth.
David Helgason: Exactly. We have always had this philosophy - and it has become crisper in a way, because we understand it better now - that we should not be a company that just delivers an engine, we should be a company that really asks, 'How can we make people more successful?'
Q: One thing that really shone through in the keynote is the variety of ways Unity is being used: animated shorts, educational games, workplace simulations, even the military. Are you actively encouraging any of that?
David Helgason: It just kind of happened. Savvy people on the internet will always find the tools they need. But we're now getting teams together to focus on them, so, for instance, in the military simulation space we actually released a product, which is basically Unity with extra features that those guys need but are basically useless to normal game developers. It's a small team, but they understand all the three and four-word abbreviations that the military industrial complex likes to use.
We've also being addressing the embedded space. There's nothing we can announce yet, but Unity is being put into slot machines, car dashboards, and anywhere that elegant, stylish content that's easy to author is needed; it turns out that's quite a lot of places.
Q: The most interesting aspect, for me, was the Online Services marketplace. It struck me as a valuable acknowledgement that, for an indie in this day and age, success is about a lot more than just a robust set of development tools - the craft and the commerce have become indistinguishable.
David Helgason: And for small teams people are actually overlapping.
Q: Did you anticipate, when you first started the company, that Unity would ever need to facilitate all of these third-party services to adeqquately serve the needs of its customers?
"Publishers used to fundamentally add value. You were better off, most of the time, with a publisher than without one. That's not the case any more"
David Helgason: No, no. The world has changed. At that time, the most efficient way to get something out was still to finish it and give it to a publisher. People had a lot of grief about that process, and there were bad publishers and bad things that happened, but they fundamentally added value. You were better off, most of the time, with a publisher than without one. That's not the case any more, so developers have to worry about these other things.
That's been clear to us for a few years, but we've been slow to understand. It isn't in the DNA of the company. We considered building some of it ourselves, and we may yet build some things, but the conclusion has been that it's better served by entirely focused teams that do each thing really well.
Q: And you just endorse certain partners and help make the connections.
David Helgason: Exactly, by being the eyes and ears of our developers, and doing some of the leg-work, some of the research. Of course, there are services that are good that aren't in our category, but over time we hope to make sure that all of the good ones are listed there.
Q: This all ties into that idea of making developers successful, and that was also behind your distribution platform, Union, which targets emerging platforms like Smart TVs. Union has been around for a couple of years...
David Helgason: Well, it was announced two years ago.
Q: But it only really seems to be gathering momentum now.
David Helgason: A lot of it is that these new platforms are really slow moving. The companies behind them are really savvy - it's not like they're particularly stupid - but some of them really don't understand games, they don't know the space. We've had deals lined up where the hardware platform was basically cancelled.
There were a lot of those logistical challenges, and building the team and the processes. It was sort of like building an entirely new company. The Asset Store is also a bit like that... They're kind of own their own in many ways, and have the freedom to make their own decisions.
Q: You mentioned in the keynote that, through Union, Unity is actually one of the bigger publishers on mobile and some of these new platforms. Are you comfortable with that? I mean, that's not how Unity started, but where the market has guided it.
David Helgason: I love it. There's nothing wrong with making a great engine and just keeping at it - and we will keep at it - but if that was the only goal we ever had I'd probably make myself redundant, actually.
Q: Over time, Unity has become more of a people company than a tech company.
"People are searching for growth and interesting markets, and interesting markets happen to be where we are really strong. It's natural that we'd meet other engine companies there"
David Helgason: In some very abstract way we're a service provider, but a service provider that always wants to leverage technology. I don't see us as a normal publisher: funding games, doing all the leg-work. Union is technologically leveraged because we can do all the ports in a semi-automated way.
Q: Are you using the Asset Store to help guide where the engine is going? There's some pretty sophisticated tools on there now, and a few developers have said that some of it could be useful in future iterations of Unity.
David Helgason: To some degree. It hasn't happened yet, but it might at some point. Often, the approach taken in the Asset Store is, for very good reasons, different from how we would do things. Nothing wrong with that.
And, actually, when we're working on a project that might compete with something on the Asset Store, we show it to the sellers who we would be competing with, basically telling them, 'Either get out of the way if you think you're going to lose to this' - a feature in Unity is usually free - 'or feel free to compete by making your product even better, and even ride on top of our stuff'. The good thing about competing with your community is that you don't really have to win.
We have the same problem that any established product company has, and that's the bar for what you can release becomes unreasonably high at some point: we can't add a feature that only really matters to a few people, because it just weights the whole thing dow; we can't add features that solve problems in a niche way instead of a general way. But sometimes the niche way is exactly what you need.
Q: A lot of the recent additions to the engine - like Mecanim's animation software - are aimed at the higher end of development. In the meantime, other engine companies - specifically Epic's Unreal - seem to be looking towards scaling their product so it will be better suited to browsers, mobile phones, and areas that Unity is very popular. Is there any danger of you all meeting in the middle at some point?
David Helgason: I think in some ways we already are. People are searching for growth and interesting markets, and interesting markets happen to be where we are really strong. It's natural that we'd meet other engine companies there, of which there are really only two or three, depending how you stretch it.
And it's not just them. The May issue of Game Developer published a survey to find out what engine mobile developers were using: Unity was number one with 53 per cent; the second engine, so to speak, with 39 per cent, was home-brew, so not really using an engine at all. That's actually our biggest competitor, people building their own stuff.
Q: So the big marquee names in engines don't really have the penetration in these areas.
David Helgason: They didn't even make the list.