What Developers Want

Unity CEO David Helgason is building a tool for everyone, from the smallest projects to AAA blockbusters

What began as an academic project is now the most flexible and inclusive tool on the market. Unity supports hundreds of thousands of users logging millions of development hours on a dizzying array of projects. But, according to CEO David Helgason, Unity's growth is far from over.

In the last few months the company has opened a Stockholm office dedicated to AAA development, a Seoul office focusing on localisation and support for the Korean market, and is busy implementing 3D Flash support. In this interview, talks to Helgason about the balance between luck and judgement, and the value of ignoring the future to concentrate on the present.

Q:Unity is going through a very interesting period of growth at the moment, pushing into Asian markets, AAA development, 3D Flash. Is that consistent with the vision you had for the company at the start?

David Helgason: That's a good question, actually, and I could almost answer it in many different ways, but let me try and be really honest. We've always been overly ambitious, and we always believed that we could build something very important, something that had a big impact. And if you read our first business plan - which I advise you not to do as it's very badly written [laughs].

Actually, we should probably release it to the web some day just because it's so hilarious.

Q:You could upload it to Google Docs and let us all have a look.

David Helgason: Actually, now that I think of it, maybe I'll blog it some day, but with redacted sections. Not because there's any secrecy, just because it's kind of embarrassing.

So it was really passionately written: we were going to change the world and blah, blah, blah. But we had no idea what it meant. We were three guys in a basement, we had no business background, we had actually never really worked at a company, or at least never been close to the reality of operating a software business. So I don't think we had any metrics for what being important or having a big impact really meant.

Ignorance lets you start on things that are considered impossible, because if you were wise about it you wouldn't try

In a way we had no idea, but we knew that we wanted to do something really big and the meaning of that just kind of evolved.

Q:Did that lack of understanding actually help you in any way?

David Helgason: There's probably something to that, and if nothing else it's definitely true that we didn't have a background in AAA game development, or really game development at all... And I guess that gave us a perspective that maybe nobody else in the industry had. We came with a different way of looking at things, which I think is healthy in business.

[Looking at things in the same way] just generally puts you in a tough/nasty competition with a whole bunch of other people that are probably smarter than you, have longer track records, have more money. A lot of people say that ignorance lets you start on things that are considered impossible, because if you were wise about it you wouldn't try, and I think that's definitely true.

In fact, as we were getting started, going from total ignorance to knowing a few things, some of what we learned was kind of scary. Like one of the companies that we regarded as competition in the early days, Virtools, got sold to a French engineering company called Dassault Systems for very little money - I think $15 million or something.

It told us that maybe companies doing this kind of stuff didn't get big. It's not that $15 million isn't much money, but we'd raised more than that. Fortunatley, by then we were so set on our goals and we just kept doing it, and of course we proved ourselves wrong. We achieved things that nobody really expected.

Q:There was a measure of good fortune in there as well, I suppose. Your rise roughly coincided with the emergence of new markets in the games industry that grew faster than most people expected, too.

David Helgason: Absolutely. We're the first to call out our ignorance and luck, and the fact that we bet on something that nobody else was really betting on: small and medium-sized teams, and web, mobile and online games. But if I can give myself some credit [laughs]

Q:Oh, by all means.

David Helgason: It can be luck, but often interesting companies or great companies, or whatever you might call them, get started on hunches that turn out to be correct. And not hunches that are based on a lot of scientific evidence gathering, because we certainly weren't doing that, but hunches that turn out to be right. Is it luck that you had that hunch or not? It's hard to know, but at least we were right.

Q:In the end, if you're right that's probably all that matters. History is written by the victors, or so people say.

David Helgason: Exactly. Smarter people have created companies based on better ideas and failed. It's scary to look back at the roads that we've chosen so far... to see how many, what do you call it, necessary but not sufficienct things had to happen along the way.

There is a lot, down to all kinds of small decisions made in the early days. Even hiring our first and second employees, that really changed the company. I sometimes say that our first employee, he helped take us from... not being a minimum viable product - i.e. not really being useful for anything - to something that was actually useful. Of course, he didn't do it alone, but without him I'm not sure we could have made it.

That's just 1 out of 50 others, and that's kind of scary because you ask yourself, "Did we have to be lucky 50 times in a row?" It's like a never-ending coin toss. So it's kind of scary, but maybe that appreciation of our luck is why we're playing it extremely safe now. That isn't necessarily going to mesh with how we look from the outside with all the expansion and stuff.

Q:I would agree with that.

David Helgason: But actually I have to say that we are. We're extremely fiscally conservative at this point in order to make sure that we can survive.

Let's say there's a bad coin toss next week, when we've gone and raised two rounds of financing, which is sometimes seen as a very aggressive move. But it's almost the most defensive move you can make if you are sure not to spend it. The way we've structured this is we raised this money and basically put most of it in the bank account for storage. Not to collect the interest, but to make sure that if something bad happens we can survive.

We're extremely fiscally conservative at this point in order to make sure that we can survive

Q:But the numbers associated with Unity are so huge: tens of thousand of developers logging millions of hours. From the outside looking in, that gives a certain impression of success, and of revenue.

David Helgason: Of course, a lot of it is free users, and people just experimenting, or doing interesting work but not necessarily profitable work and not necessarily buying licenses. And that's fine. We love all of our users, and any kind of engagement with Unity is healthy. We're doing really well, and I think we're turning 135 or 140 now...probably 140 people by the time you get this written.

Q:You implemented Google Analytics in Unity 3. What has that told you about the way people are using it?

David Helgason: In a way it hasn't been that useful yet, because all of the data is hard to learn to use, so we're still learning to ask the right questions from the data. For instance, getting a feel for which types of files people are importing, and how long different operations take, that tells us a lot about where the different pain points are... We probably haven't used more than a few per cent of the value in that data.

I think that's true industry wide right now. A lot of companies are focussing on gathering customer data, and then wringing their hands about the way to use it productively.

We've always been good at deciding, on a designer level, what's good for people. Not reactively, but in a visionary way, through thinking about what we saw as best, and we're not going to give that up and become this purely data driven company. We're still learning how to integrate this and we're absolutely not done.

Q:You recently opened a Stockholm office with a focus on AAA development. It's safe to say that AAA isn't a market many people would associate with Unity.

David Helgason: With Stockholm we were lucky to know some very talented guys, so we recruited them... Well, actually, at that level they want to come and join Unity, because they feel it's a place they can apply their skills in an impactful way. And I feel there are a number of people who have been doing AAA game development for a while, and they don't necessarily get tired of it, but feel that it's sort of a treadmill.

We're lucky that some feel that they can take their skill and give it back to the community through Unity. So we've been lucky to - again, recruit really isn't the right word - be joined by incredibly talented people. Not just talented, but actually experienced and thoroughly battle-scarred.

We've always been really, really good at focusing on low-end platforms and small and medium teams, but the thing is our customers are becoming more and more ambitious with Unity, and trust Unity more and more. It has become proven for larger and larger projects. At this point, either in the works or launched, there are several projects with team sizes between 40 and 80 people, which is becoming pretty damn big. These people are hitting the limitations of Unity that we started fixing... early this year or late last year.

So that's one angle to it. Another is that the Andorid devices and iOS devices are iterating so rapidly that we're seeing multi-core, and loads of RAM, and lots of ability to push complex content. So some of these engine techniques that have traditionally only been useful on gaming PCs and consoles are becoming relevant now on these devices. Plus we're also targeting consoles now, so we have to implement those engine features and also optimisations.

But lastly, and maybe most importantly, the workflows. Again, Unity has I think I can say incredible workflows for small and medium sized teams, but it turned out that we replicated some of the problems other engines had when it came to larger teams... So we set our minds to fixing that down to what we call a "theoretical maximum" - asking ourselves what's the fastest build time you can have, in theory. And that's not hours; that's seconds or minutes, even with enormous projects.

These are the frontiers, and the thing is that in the design process of figuring out how we should implement these features, it turned out that, practically, all of these changes will benefit everyone in Unity, not just high-end, AAA, large teams.

Q:That must have been a relief. Did you anticipate it being more complicated?

David Helgason: It has made us very happy. We had these complex emotions because we feel that we should be supporting the entire range [of our customers]. And now we feel that we have this energy as a company. We've learned to grow, we've learned to run a much bigger engineering team, we've learned to be multi-platform in a very efficient manner. Through that, we feel that we can broaden the reach of the types of products we support.

Q:Epic also seems very focused on making its engine as scalable as possible, so that it can be used on as many platforms as possible. Is it easier for you to scale up to AAA than for them to scale down?

David Helgason: I don't know. We know how to do it, and we're doing it very rapidly. I just wish them luck with their efforts. They're good people, too.

Q:You also opened an office in South Korea recently, for support and localisation. How much demand for Unity is there in that market?

David Helgason: A lot. One of the advantages of gathering [data] about the usage of Unity is that we can see, regionally, where it is being used. The US is by far our biggest market, but it turns out our number two market is actually China, and our number three market is actually South Korea - in fact, you could probably say that South Korea is our highest density market.

Last year Unity really started to take off as a business in Korea. We had been going through resellers and partners, like in most countries where... language is a barrier, but as the business grew it became clear that we needed to have direct relationships with those customers, because, in the end, nobody can support our customers better than we can.

If Unity isn't able to sell itself, then no amount of money will be able to, either

So we made the decision early this year, and then we did what we always do: we don't rush it, we go and look for people that really fit into our culture, and really understand and want to be part of how we do things... In a sense you could say that Korea is our strongest market; not in dollars, not in users, but in when you talk to users how much of a no-brainer they think using Unity is, and how much they respect it. Korea is really hot for us.

Q:With that kind of grassroots enthusiasm you can probably rely on Unity to grow of its own accord.

David Helgason: Exactly. And we've never been able to do anything else. If Unity isn't able to sell itself, then no amount of money will be able to, either. We've always relied on that.

Q:Do you think the US will remain your key region? Will China overtake it at some point?

David Helgason: Well, we're pretty entrenched in the US... And maybe its pointless in the end. For something to be bigger than something else doesn't really matter, but it's clear that Asia generally, and especially the three key markets China, Japan and Korea, have gone from practically no business two years ago, to a little bit of business last year, to something that's very significant this year. And we think that Asia may end up being 40 per cent of our business, so we're definitely moving as fast as we can to set up over there.

Q:Unity is now being implemented on so many different platforms, in so many different regions, are you really able to forecast what your business will look like in, say, five years time?

David Helgason: Of course, it's impossible to know the future, and to be honest we don't even try that much. We kind of let the future happen, and then follow it. We're a player in the ecosystem, not the creator of the ecosystem. It's actually kind of easy for us... We are a servants to the developer, first and foremost.

Actually, to give you a little peak inside the company, we live in a very complex world: all the different ecosystems, all the devices, all of the hardware form-factors, all of the different game developers, games and gamers. We work with all of the chip companies and OS companies to make Unity optimal and blah, blah, blah.

So in this very, very complex and rapidly changing ecosystem there is no one person in Unity, me included, that has the sort of brainpower to make all of these decisions. So we try as much as possible to set our people free to make these decisions, if not individually then in small groups and very organically. But the question that we tell them to always ask is, "What's good for the developer?"

Different teams have different focuses, so the developer might mean different things on different days of the week, but the answers are coming. Like, let's go into Flash, and now it's a staple thing, and it still seems like a good idea since we made the decision to put effort into it in January.

The only way to know what we'll be doing in five years is to know the situation in four years from now, and then ask what would make our developers happy, productive and successful in the near future.

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Latest comments (5)

Jeffrey Kesselman CTO, Nphos6 years ago
Whats with the Unity press release storm in GIB??

I would guess that Unity is trying to attract investors and thus trying to sell a broader story. But why GIB is so obligingly facillitating it is beyond me.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Jeffrey Kesselman on 17th August 2011 4:19pm

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Jeffrey Kesselman CTO, Nphos6 years ago
Btw... what developers want is unsealed classes and reasonable source access. Until then unity is just a toy. a very nice toy, but only that.
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Charlie Cleveland Game Director/Founder, Unknown Worlds6 years ago
Great interview, David!
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Show all comments (5)
David Helgason CEO & Co-founder, Unity Technologies6 years ago
@Jeffrey #1: hey, this isn't based on a press release! And after raising our Series B earlier this summer we've raised all the money we need for a good while. I think that covers our updates when they find them interesting to the development community, but I can't comment on their processes too much :)

@Jeffrey #2: I know of 500,000 developers who beg to differ (of which ~50,000 have commercial licenses) including some very significant ones. I don't think we ever heard anyone complain about sealed classes, since our component based structure suits itself to extending in other ways than by inheriting from our classes. And regarding source code access: we do license our source code to a lot of different studios at terms that I think are quite reasonable for most game developers. But more importantly, few people actually need it.

@Charlie: thanks for the kind words!

Edited 1 times. Last edit by David Helgason on 18th August 2011 7:02am

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Peter Stirling Software Engineer, Firelight Technologies6 years ago
Unity is a great engine but what is most impressive is how they came from nowhere, and now they are a major player. Great to get some insight into how it all started.
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