During the keynote at this year's Unite Conference, Unity CEO David Helgason unveiled a new addition to the toolset's offering - the Asset Store, which allows users to sell content and tools designed for the middleware to other users... and take a 70 per cent share of the revenue.
But business model aside, it's primarily been designed to give smaller teams with fewer resources the opportunity to fill gaps they may have in their own creations, for relatively low costs. Here, Helgason explains more of the thinking behind the idea.
Q: Explain the thinking behind the launch of the Asset Store.
David Helgason: Actually it was a real innovation, internally about two years ago. But like a lot of stuff, you only realise the value of something the more you think about it. It was a simple idea, but then we realised how important it was - it just took us a long time to put the pieces together and get the effort behind it.
Q: Is that on an infrastructure level?
David Helgason: No, the idea is very simple. The decision-making process and figuring out that this was what we really wanted to do... it just took me a while. Development has been going on for about a year.
Q: Arguably, the platform itself has grown so much in that time that while it might not have been in demand then, it probably is now?
David Helgason: Exactly. A year ago exactly we'd sold 13,000 licenses, and a percentage of those were active - and a percentage of those active would look at the store... it's probably not a huge number.
But then, with a free version, we had those gargantuan numbers. 260,000 lifetime users in total, while in the last 30 days alone it's been 80,000 people... almost a third of anyone that's ever used the tools. It's quite nice momentum, and engagement - it's not just try-and-move-on, which we feared when we saw the big number.
Q: It's interesting that you've identified that while the tools for making games are now accessible for the smaller teams and start-ups, there's still an issue of resources for those guys in actually making a complete game. So the ability for them to pay a relatively small sum to use other people's assets could be a big deal?
David Helgason: You're describing it better than I do! There's this idea that if we just continued to make the tool better, we'd run out of democratisation power - we can only make the tool so easy, and we're not done, but even when we run the thought experiment (let's just imagine that Unity is all just one click and any idiot can use it) we realised that a single person would still not be able to make games... so it made the whole idea moot...
Q: ...because there's a barrier of a person's resource, or art skill, or whatever.
David Helgason: And when I think about how many more people, as a multiple, could use Unity now or in the future than previously, it's a bigger number.
Something we realised was that in the core industry, companies have teams, money, mad passion and skills - and those people could do things without engines, to be honest. They'd walk through walls to make games.
But then you look at the smaller teams, where making your own engine become prohibitive, but you still have some teams. Then you go down a bit further, and just having the team or the budget, or all the skills available at the same time... that becomes impossible.
Q: A person's entry point could almost be creating assets for the Store alone - whether that's art, textures, tools or whatever. The price range for content in the keynote presentation ranged from around $20-$150 - are those the price points you're expecting to see? Can users set their own price points?
David Helgason: It's actually a bit fluid right now. The launch is a bit curated, you might say - what we did was pretty simple. We went to the community that was already selling stuff, took what we thought was a good fit for a nice portfolio and put it in the Asset Store.
Generally we kept their prices, or sometimes they wanted to the change the prices a bit, so in that sense we didn't quite set the prices, but we definitely have an interest in rational pricing. Once thing you can see in the App Store on iPhone - and probably elsewhere with digital in particular - is the economics.
If there's not a drive down in prices as such, when you have ten people who are not sure how to price their goods, they'll just pick random prices in a range from x to y - and after a short time the lower number in that range becomes the default price.
Markets without natural production costs will tend to drive down, especially when they're irrational - and this is irrational, especially in the early days when nobody knows what volumes will be, and so on.
Q: So you'll work with users on price points?
David Helgason: We just don't want to see the prices go into the ground. I think it would be sad for everyone - however, we do allow free content; we don't try to force people not to be free. The exact process is still being decided - at the moment it's a web form, so get in touch with us and tell us what you have, though that's not the ultimate solution.
David Helgason is CEO of Unity. Interview by Phil Elliott.