The first annual Unite Developer Conference in 2007 had 70 attendees. The company was eight-people strong, and it couldn't afford to pay the catering bill.
"It was something like $10,000. It was horrible," says co-founder and CEO David Helgason, laughing nervously. "And these caterers weren't rich people."
For Helgason and fellow co-founder Nicholas Francis, Unity's CCO, the recollection causes obvious discomfort, but that is evenly balanced by their obvious pride in how far the company has come. Today, Unity has more than 150 employees, and one can only assume that the caterers are paid in advance.
We are sitting in San Francisco's Masonic Centre, one of a grand city's grander buildings. In the rooms below us some 1200 developers are revelling in the robust features of Unity 3.5, perhaps the most significant update to the engine since 2.0. They are a diverse collection of bedroom coders and mid-size studios, educators and business people, covering every type of game on almost every available platform.
When Helgason, Francis and the absent CTO Joachim Ante founded Unity with a goal of democratising game development, this is probably what they had in mind.
"[Other engine companies] are now a lot more open," says Helgason. "We would like to say that they copied us, but we did it first. We always had the community approach, but with everyone else back then you had to sign an NDA."
"You couldn't even get a price quote, right? It was crazy," adds Francis. "There was always this market. It's just that somehow most of the games industry didn't see this as being part of the games industry. And we were just saying, 'Well, why not?'"
If you work at Unity you should get a forum account, get a Twitter account, go out and talk to these peopleLucas Meijer, Unity Technologies
With version 3.5, Unity is pushing towards AAA. The opening keynote is a breathless rundown of the update's long list of new additions, most of which stir some small corner of the auditorium into a minor frenzy. If Unity was run by a more ruthless group of people, Helgason says, they could have spooled these features out into version 4.0 or 5.0, but in most cases the changes are direct responses to the community's requests. When any given feature is mentioned, Helgason knows specific people in the crowd to watch for the most excitement, or the biggest smiles.
This close relationship with its customers is the driving force behind Unity's success, but as the company grows maintaining that bond is becoming more complicated. The goal of 3.5 is to make the engine as useful to 100 people as it is to 1 person, and the top end is only likely to increase in the future.
However, Helgason insists that the features designed for larger studios are purely optional, and can still prove beneficial to the sort of customers who helped establish the engine. Besides, the sheer breadth of 3.5 is evidence of how Unity can leverage its size to offer more to its customers, and faster than ever before. Not only does the company have a greater number of engineers working on updates, but it now has capital to invest in major improvements.
Unity recently bought Mecanim, an animation studio whose technology will be integrated in the engine. It is the company's first acquisition, a step that Helgason and Francis didn't take lightly.
"We've often joked about big companies and how stupid they are: they're never timely, and out of panic they buy something to fix a problem. Maybe this is a small example of that," says Helgason. "We thought about animation for a long time. We knew it was important. Unity has a pretty decent animation system; it's just not awesome, and it doesn't really think forward in time."
"And then we did what big and medium sized companies do. You put down money, and in a few days it's like time travel. We could go back 20 years and work in animation for that long to get to this point. These guys have thought about this and really understand it in a way that we don't, but they have now become part of the team, and so now Unity knows how to do these things. It's kind of magic."
Helgason and Francis won't be drawn on their plans for future acquisitions, but they insist that Mecanim was a special case. Yes, it solved what they saw to be a problem with their product, but if that was all they would simply have licensed the technology. The more important factor was that the team at Mecanim fit in with Unity's open, communal culture.
"You'll find our engineers talking to people and also responding to the feedback we get," says Lucas Meijer, who joined Unity in 2009 to help spearhead its Flash initiative. "When we hire new engineers one of the harder things we have to teach them is that, because in other jobs you maybe just have to do what your manager says."
"If you work at Unity you should get a forum account, get a Twitter account, go out and talk to these people. If you're making a feature you should go on the forum and ask for advice. We really encourage engineers to be part of the community instead of code-monkeys."
Unite 11 is the first time Meijer and his colleague Ralph Hauwert, a Flash veteran who joined Unity in August, have shown their work on the engine's Flash export function to the public. Unity developers will soon be able to make, say, an iOS or Xbox Live game available on perhaps the most ubiquitous and accessible format without the necessity of changing their code. This, we are told, is a big deal.