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Unity's David Lau-Kee on middleware's new role in the changing games business

Earlier this week, industry veteran David Lau-Kee took a senior position at the rapidly growing middleware company Unity. Lau-Kee was co-founder and president of UK developer Criterion, the studio responsible for middleware tool RenderWare, and helped oversee its assimilation into Electronic Arts when it was acquired from Canon in 2004.

According to Lau-Kee, the middleware business needs to change along with the wider industry and its new consumers, and here he tells why Unity is in a strong position, the advantage of a passionate community, what games can take from other media and why the web is home to videogame creativity. You've just taken a the non-executive chairman role at Unity – can you detail your role and tell us your priorities for 2009?
David Lau-Kee

Essentially it's about helping, guiding the management in growing the company. The really interesting things is that as a tools and middleware company in the industry they're already hugely successful. What I'll be doing with them is guiding them through growth – it's doing really well in terms of the user base – but there's so much more in terms of increasing presence in the US and Asia. And also scaling development abilities to really meet opportunities. We're at the first stages with Unity and my challenge and focus is going to be reaching that next level. So the US and Asia are your main focus because Europe is already your biggest market?
David Lau-Kee

To an extent, yes. Unity is a hugely successful company that nobody knows about. It comes from the guys in Denmark who are doing a tremendous job and it has been picked up by word of mouth rather than any sort of heavy promotion of infrastructure to really push it out. And that's changing. It's been picked up in Europe quite a lot because it's grown out of the centre of where it's developed from. We do have a presence in the US, with three or four people working there, but that just simply isn't enough. We need to build up our US presence in terms of having support in place, developer relations, all those sorts of things. And we need to do the same in Japan and Korea and places like that. 2009, in terms of geographical reach, you'll see us ramping up in all three of the major areas. What are the strengths of the Unity tools compared to other middleware on the market?
David Lau-Kee

If you look at the quality of the product, the functionality of the tools, and more importantly the size of the community. There's thousands and thousands of people already out there using Unity and the really nice thing about it is they just love the tools. Having had a fairly long experience in the middleware business, one thing that really struck me when I came across the Unity guys is that the people using the tools absolutely love using it. I challenge you, go out and speak to developers and ask them about their use of middleware, and without fail you'll get at best ambivalence towards it. They'll say “yeah we appreciate it, we need to use it, it's a necessary evil”. Unity is entirely different. One of the most important things that drove me towards these guys is the opportunity to build that community and ensuring the users continue to love using it. There seemed a point during the PS2 era that every company was issuing a statement to say they were using RenderWare in their games. Do you hope Unity can become ubiquitous to games development in a similar way?
David Lau-Kee

I've been working on tools for the games business since '93 and with Criterion we had something with RenderWare that was a core part of what the games industry was all about in terms of development. I've spent about two to three year's thinking about what's next for the games industry in terms of game development, and so many different aspects of it are coming together at the same time.

It can be summed up by either what Phil Harrison was saying some time ago about Games 3.0, or with Reggie Fils-Aime talking about the need to enable users. And that's really the thing that's interesting to me. It's about the democratisation of game development and videogaming. It's not just about reaching a wider audience, it's also about the nature of that audience changing what they do. No longer do we put someone in front of a videogame and say “you are interacting with what somebody else has created.” We're blurring that line between the creator and the player, and the creator and the publisher, in all sorts of different ways. My main interest is what it the games industry about going forwards? I'm not interested in going backwards.

I've had 15, 20, 30 different opportunities come across my desk in the games middleware sector, some from existing players and some from new players. And what I've seen throughout all of those is that they are all focused on looking backwards, focusing on servicing and the historic market. That's fine, I don't think that's going to go away overnight, those USD 40 million blockbusters will continue to exist. But much more interesting to me is how the games industry is changing, the nature of content going forwards, and that comes down to the democratisation of games. Delivering to tens of millions of people on platforms they already use, be that iPhone or the web in particular. The web as a platform is hugely interesting. We have to deliver differently on the web, deliver as a service rather than a product, and that's certainly part of it.

I think more interestingly is delivering games as one component in a wide set of media that are coming to the user. Integrating the games with text messaging or with Skype for example. When we talk about middleware and tools, Unity understand that. They absolutely understood, historic games – fine – but it's much more interesting to look forward at Games 3.0, looking at how to deliver games on the web. And we're talking high quality content here, not low quality. How you can take those experiences you would typically get in the console world, in terms of production value and gloss, depth and richness of content. Couple that understanding with the tremendous community and user base that Unity has and it becomes huge. The Unity tools, unlike just about every other middleware, isn't an 'us and them' situation. The Unity tools also belong to the user community. And that's a phenomenally powerful situation to be in. So you subscribe to the theory that web content is pushing videogames forward? Look at PSN and Xbox Live and they're offering content, quick downloads, user-created content, and services that are based on web models.
David Lau-Kee

Exactly. Whenever we look at new forms there's always a tendency to say the king is dead, long live the king. I don't think the historic way of doing things is dead and gone. But I do think the most interesting forms are the future. The web, online, Xbox Live, XBLA, PSN, the web. The reason that's the most interesting is because that's where the creativity is.

I've seen hundreds of projects where companies have got a two year time scale with hundreds of people working on it, and you have to approach that type of development with a very rigid sense of what you're going to produce. The problem there is that two year's down the line, what was interesting then is not so interesting now. The other thing is that when you're producing a game that has 200 people working on it, how many of those are truly creative? What we're doing by looking at the web, for example, is really focusing on just the creativity. The whole aspect of how you produce that content is exactly where it should be – entirely secondary. We'll get tools into the hands of the people who can focus on the creativity and new types of content. We also want to see it so that non-traditional engineering people can produce the games themselves. It's always been an issue for me, that we advocate the responsibility for the creativity of games to people who's main skills are in engineering. I'd like those who's main skills are in creativity to be responsible for creating games. The web allows that to an extent, and tools like Unity also. You're also talking about content that isn't strictly a game – meta games and playful distractions, from updating status on Facebook to boosting Gamerscores by playing games whether you like the content or not.
David Lau-Kee

Yes, exactly. I wouldn't want to say that it's only that which is universally attractive, but the issue is that we have to accept that this is part of the games industry going forward. If we adopt a mindset that we're exclusive and we're only concerned with building blockbusters and that's it - asking consumers to drop their lives and commit to playing this game for the next three weeks - I think that's a very limited view of the industry.

Those games won't go away, but we have to bring games into the wider mainstream, not by taking over but co-existing with it. Borrow from the other creative media forms and integrate it into what we know about games and gameplay. In terms of the Unity tools we've got projects out there that historically you'd call triple A, and certainly big brands and franchises, so we don't exclude those. But at the same time the notion that you can get in there and very quickly and easily produce a piece of content that is a tremendously compelling and huge amount of fun. Is it something that's going to take 25 hours to complete over the next three months? No. But is it something that's quick, has depth to it? Yes. A lot of developers have jumped on the iPhone as a platform for short, stylish, cheap games. How has the uptake of Unity tools for the iPhone taken off?
David Lau-Kee

It's been fantastic, beyond expectations. The company itself, in terms of revenues, has been growing by more than 300 per cent a year for the last two years. We've just closed 2008's books and we blew through our estimates. Part of that is because we hugely underestimated the demand for iPhone. What's your perception of gaming on the iPhone? Is it the saviour of mobile gaming that some people are claiming?
David Lau-Kee

It's interesting and I'd question whether it's the saviour, as such. But having said that, Apple has done the mobile gaming industry huge favours in showing, not necessarily how precisely it should be done, but showing those things which you need to have in place. The big problem with mobile phone gaming is it's such a pain to find, download and pay for games. What Apple has done is make it straight forward and easy. That'd a crucial part of it. That the consumer can get hold of these games really easy. Mobile games should be pick up and play, but as soon as you have a barrier to that nobody is going to go there.

David Lau-Kee is non-executive chairman of Unity. Interview by Matt Martin.

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Matt Martin avatar
Matt Martin: Matt Martin joined GamesIndustry in 2006 and was made editor of the site in 2008. With over ten years experience in journalism, he has written for multiple trade, consumer, contract and business-to-business publications in the games, retail and technology sectors.
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