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United We Stand

Wed 23 Sep 2009 7:00am GMT / 3:00am EDT / 12:00am PDT
Developer ToolsMobileOnline

Unity's Nicholas Francis explains why the middleware platform is just so popular for iPhone developers

When we first crossed the path of Unity late last year, it was in a demonstration of its power by then-Atari president Phil Harrison on the eve of his keynote at the Unity conference.

A lot has changed since then, not the least of which has been another year of 200 per cent growth for the middleware company - here founder Nicholas Francis explains the journey of the past 12 months, and why the platform is just so popular for iPhone developers.

Q: We first reported on Unity at your event last year in Denmark, at which Phil Harrison delivered a keynote speech. More recently you've released your middleware for the iPhone platform, and you seem to be doing pretty well?

Nicholas Francis: Over the past few months things have been really good for us - I think we probably had about 17 or 18 people back then, while we're 44 people today, just from growth and sales.

The iPhone thing took off amazingly, we hadn't really expected that - I think the development costs were recouped in 36 hours, and in the first four days we made more than what we made in 2005... okay, we didn't make a lot in 2005, but still. And in the first month we made more than we did in 2006.

By now it's about 80 per cent of our revenues or so, so it's just been completely amazing. We recently announced that it's the most-used iPhone middleware - although because people don't have to let us know when they release a game, we don't actually know how many it is...

But by the thread on our own forums alone, where people have posted their releases, we counted 258 titles - but probably a lot more, but we can confirm 258 - which is really great.

I think the iPhone has been a huge success, and we've put more development resources there just to keep up with the new Apple models - but that's quite easy, as Unity's been used in the past to target both low- and high-end PCs, so now it can be used to target the lower- and higher-spec iPhones, it's the same sort of underlying mechanic, and thankfully it all works.

Q: Why do you think it's been so successful? Is it cost, accessibility, range of functions?

Nicholas Francis: I think it's several things. One thing is that the iPhone just has so much traction, there are a lot of developers flocking to it. I play more games on my iPhone than on any of my consoles, because I have time on the bus to do it. And I spend more money on iPhone games than for consoles, because that's what I'm actually playing... they might only be two dollars a pop, but boy, do I have a lot of them.

The other thing, and this is also why I think it's been so good for us, is that what Apple has done is kind of provide a business-model-in-a-box, and if you're a small developer you really want to focus on making the game. If you tried to come up with a business model you'd most likely get it wrong, but the iPhone just has one model, and I think that's really good for small developers.

There are about seven websites you have to get your game on, and there's your marketing. It gels well with Unity, which is also very transparent and affordable. It's a perfect match - so the iPhone has been a great success (and I can't claim any credit for that), but it just measures really well with what we're doing.

Q: You've also opened an office in San Francisco as well now - what are the specific reasons for that? Do you have a lot of developers in that area?

Nicholas Francis: Well, we firstly had one guy in San Francisco, who joined us a couple of years ago, and we slowly expanded that team. In the end, working on sofas was getting too silly, so we got a proper office.

There's so much web business going on in the Valley, so we're actually moving our business headquarters to San Francisco. Our CEO has moved over there, and our publicity, marketing and web development will all be based there.

We'll keep all the development in Europe, though, because we want everybody on that side in the same time zone - we have the Copenhagen office and two offices in Lithuania, when we hired most of the Lithuanian demo scene... And then we're building up in the Greater London area as well.

On a management level it's perfectly okay that you've got this nine hour time difference, because we can do our phone calls in our evening, but when you have developers who are working together it's easier for them to be in the same time zone.

Q: The Unity Conference this year will also be in San Francisco, which I guess ties in with the same line of reasoning?

Nicholas Francis: That's part of it. Basically we're switching between the US and Europe every year - so next year we'll be back in Europe. We talked about doing it on the East Coast, to make it easier for Europeans to get over there, but then we have people who are on the ground in San Francisco, and it's so much easier for them to secure the location, for example.

Q: You just announced version 1.1 - what did that include?

Nicholas Francis: Well the biggest thing was that we've optimised everything we can - we've always managed to beat the official benchmark by 30 per cent, just by reverse-engineering the drivers and seeing what they do wrong - so we've done that with various parts of the Unity engine and optimised it.

The other thing is that there's now much better support for integrating your own code to mix with that from Apple, for things like in-game purchases, location-based ideas -all those things you now have access to... and we're also saying it's up to four times as fast.

Q: So iPhone aside, how is the browser-based side of the business going?

Nicholas Francis: That's been going really well as well - Electronic Arts is bringing out Tiger Woods Online, I think it's scheduled for October but I'm not sure. But they've basically taken the Xbox 360 game and put it on the web, which is very nice for us because we've always known Unity's capable of doing it but we've never had the art team to prove it.

There are some more titles coming from big publishers as well, but I can't talk about that... So we're beginning to see more traction from the triple-A world, I think that's really nice.

Q: Bringing an Xbox 360 title to the iPhone platform... that's not an insubstantial task...

Nicholas Francis: No, it's not - and I'm not sure how long they've been working on that. I know they saved a bunch of time by just importing all the assets, and it's amazing that actually worked.

I think it's very clever by using Tiger Woods - you can start your game at the office, quit at any time, then play on at home. It's games as a service, and this idea that you subscribe to them as opposed to having them in a box.

Plus it's a game that, technologically, makes sense - to have it in a browser, so you can jump in and out. I can see that from a business side it also makes sense, because they can try some new business models.

Q: How aware were you that they were working on the game?

Nicholas Francis: Well, they had a huge technical evaluation where they looked at what you could do, and our CTO went over there to see them. He said he was speaking to them for an hour and a half and he was actually scared - because he realised how good they were.

Once they actually got started, we got a bug report from them occasionally, which asked how they'd do something... we wondered why they'd want to do it in such a way, and then we realised that it was stuff nobody had ever thought of before.

We didn't see a lot of it until it went into beta, we just had one guy going over there every so often...

Q: When you did first see it did it exceed your expectations for what was actually possible?

Nicholas Francis: I think it did, yes. Because it's one thing to know what's possible, but it's another seeing it done. It definitely gave me the shivers.

Q: And with a big title such as that, does it make you more money?

Nicholas Francis: From our perspective, pretty much all customers are created equally. We don't get any revenue share, people just buy the tools. EA certainly has more seats than others, but the main thing that EA does is that it makes it a lot easier for other people to recognise their work and say: "Yes, we'll go with Unity."

There are two sides to it - firstly people don't expect a company like EA to do something random, so they know they've done a huge evaluation and it's turned out okay... so it's probably quite good. The other thing is, if you're a small developer, choosing a development tool... you're risking so much - so they can try this.

Q: How do you see your business evolving over the next year?

Nicholas Francis: Well, we've got a pipeline of large deals, so that's good, but I'm not sure when they'll launch - but they're in production. So we're pretty confident - we've had 200 per cent yearly growth in the past couple of years and there's no sign of that stopping.

We also expect to grow our headcount, from 44 to 80 by the end of the year, based on what we actually need. Personally that feels a bit weird, because we used to be three guys in a basement, and now it's like: "We need an HR specialist...?!"

Nicholas Francis is the founder of Unity. Interview by Phil Elliott.

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