Unity Technologies: Growing Without The Pains
David Helgason on Unity's relentless progress, and its first steps into the ambiguous world of publishing
The opening keynote of every Unite conference is punctuated by cheers: some loud, some half-hearted, from the entire room or just a handful of people scattered across its breadth.
In that hour, 1300 or so of Unity Technologies' most dedicated developers gather to be the first to hear about the changes and additions to the engine that enables their creativity. There are always blockbuster moments; the really fundamental revisions that seem to bring the entire room to applause. But there are also the unexpected cries of appreciation, a lone voice whooping in the dark. With a seemingly trivial tweak, Unity has made that one developers' day.
For David Helgason, Unity's co-founder and CEO, those moments are not merely the point of organising a conference like Unite, but the very reason the company exists at all. The Unity engine now has 400,000 monthly active developers, which makes it a phenomenon quite like any other the games industry has seen. The philosophy, from the very first day, was to make game development simple and democratic, and as the community and its ambitions have grown, so too has the difficulty of delivering on that prime objective. By Helgason's estimate, one-third of Unity's in-house dev team are working in QA, seeking out and fixing the "strange slowdowns" that stand between a creator and their work.
"If you divide the number of people into the projects that we have to do, there's less than one person in the company for every major task"
"This is what you find in a growing company," Helgason says when we meet shortly after his keynote address. "Whether it's headcount or customers or sales or whatever, when you grow in that linear manner you get these non-linear transformative moments, where things that were pretty good just recently completely break down.
"Like the 'Undo' system. I mean, it's a very low level system, and it worked perfectly well when people were building smaller games. But at some point people started building really massive games, and now 'Undo' can take half a minute."
But the last year has been about much more than just refinement. Unity continues to push forwards in every area, both within the engine and without, and that drive was exemplified by the keynote's two most popular highlights: first, the introduction of dedicated 2D tools, which took a handful of Unity's most talented engineers an entire year just to get into beta; second, a virtual speeder-bike chase created by Unity to demonstrate the various high-end visual and physical trickery of which the engine is now capable. From Mario to Mass Effect.
"We're just leaning in everywhere," Helgason says. "It's kind of scary, because we're only 310 people. If you divide the number of people into the projects that we have to do: all of the different platforms, all of the features, all of the relationships. It's terrifying. There's less than one person in the company for every major task we have to do. It's gargantuan."
And yet, in the run-up to Unite last year, the company's headcount was substantially less than half that amount. It now has offices in 17 cities across the world - from Tokyo to Singapore to Bogota, Colombia - and Helgason believes that every one is necessary to provide the right level of service to a community that continues to grow at a rate that leaves him and his fellow co-founders, "baffled."
"A lot of these cloud service companies, they're small start-ups, and it's hard to trust that they're going to be around"
The numbers are certainly impressive. At present, the Unity Web Player, which enables games made in the engine to be played through a browser, is installed around 6 times every second, all of which culminate in a game actually being played. In January, it had been installed a total of 165 million times, and Unity expects that to hit 340 million by the end of the year - and perhaps many more, thanks to an agreement that will see the Unity Web Player pre-installed in 360, the most popular browser in China.
Mobile development remains the lifeblood of Unity - as evidenced by the stellar list of nominees at this year's Unite awards - and here, too, the stats are enough to make the head spin. Around 10 million apps built in Unity are installed to mobile devices every single day, and that's just the figure corralled from the Unity developers that choose to share their data. A great many don't, and Helgason is confident that the true figure could be be anywhere up to twice that amount.
With the trend-lines on a wide variety of metrics still angled up and to the right, Unity has recognised the need to serve its community in new ways. It is one thing to provide the tools with which thousands of games and apps can be made, but if even the very best examples of that creativity are struggling to find commercial success it taints the whole endeavour.
As such, the company has taken its most confident steps outside of development with the formation of Unity Cloud and Unity Games. While each initiative is run by a different team out of a different city, they are both manifestations of the desire to make Unity developers more commercially viable. Unity Cloud, the most inclusive of the two, will provide the sort of back-end services that smaller developers see as out of their reach, from testing to analytics to a cross-promotional ad-network designed to help user acquisition and monetisation. According to Helgason, it is a response to the low level of service offered by many third-parties.
"If that's the difference between life and death for your studio, then you might feel you've been screwed by your publisher"
"It's a very competitive space out there, and we were sort of surprised by how badly served people were by some of the services," he says. "It's not that they're all bad, but maybe the integrations aren't right, or people are afraid of putting an SDK into their game in case something goes wrong.
"A lot of these cloud service companies - of various types - they're small start-ups, and it's hard to trust that they're going to be around. We saw it with OpenFeint. They didn't even go out of business; they were acquired, but when GREE shut the service down there were entire games that stopped working."
Unity Games will effectively be the company's publishing arm, offering a select group of developers access to the various Cloud services, as well as more direct technical assistance with improving and polishing their products, and getting them to market. Right now, Unity Games is actively working on six projects from its community, and, if they find success, Helgason is ready to scale the concept immediately.
"There's a lot of distrust of publishers, but a lot of them do genuinely hard work," Helgason says. "The problem is that whether you put games out by yourself or you have a publisher helping, sometimes they just don't fly. And when a publisher is then also taking revenue share because they've put resources behind it, the revenue stream that was already going to be low is even lower. If that's the difference between life and death for your studio, then you might feel you've been screwed by your publisher."
"We've killed many products. I've had to sit in a room with somebody who was literally brought to tears by decisions we had made"
There's the rub. So far, the evolution of Unity as both a company and as a platform for development has been guided by the needs of its developers, and, so far, that was worked extremely well. However, as Helgason unwittingly suggests, with Unity Games the company is entering murkier waters. Publishing is fraught with unforseeable dangers that, despite the best efforts of both parties, leave working relationships strained and broken. In trying to do right by its community, Unity may find itself doing wrong.
And yet, to continue growing, Unity will have to take more and more steps along these ambiguous highways and byways of business, where the needs of the company and the needs of the developer may no longer align with such easy symmetry. I put that idea to Helgason, and it gives him pause.
"So far, we haven't encountered anything where we felt a deep, fundamental conflict [with our founding ideals], but I have to say, we've done some things that were really tough," he replies. "We've killed many products, for whatever reason, that somebody was using, and that somebody was a real person with a real studio. I've had to sit in a room with somebody who was literally brought to tears by decisions we had made.
"We've had to make those decisions, and it's tough, but we've found a really good balance. I wish I could give all of this away, but I can't, because then there's no tomorrow. So even when we have to think in a greedy manner, or at least in self-preservation mode, I think it's ultimately for the best in the long-term because we're so driven by improving the industry.
"I've been here for more than 10 years now, and, looking back, there isn't one decision I've made that I feel bad about."