Unity's David Helgason
The CEO of the engine firm discusses trends in the booming web games sector
The Unity platform is used by over 200,000 developers working on web, mobile and console platforms and has seen over 30 million installs in five years on the market, with the tech taken up by global brands such as LEGO, Microsoft, NASA, Disney and DC Comics.
With the company at the heart of the booming mobile and web development scenes, GamesIndustry.biz recently took the opportunity to sit down with CEO David Helgason to discuss trends in the market, why high-end brands are ignoring consoles in favour of easier routes to customers, whether large-scale acquisitions are good for independent developers, and why the company hasn't yet spent over $5 million in investment it raised last year.
We decided on the web in 2004 and I wouldn't even call that early. But people didn't really believe in the web as a platform. And the mobile industry was burnt out at the time. We didn't think about mobile until 2006 and then the Nintendo Wii came out, which we decided to go to for two reasons. We thought it would be a really open platform and it turned out to not be as open as we'd hoped. When they spoke of 'indies' they weren't lying, they just had a very different definition of indies than we had.
It's still business for us. People are still building retail and downloadable products on it. It's just that we're not privy to sales so the rumours we hear and the stats that are generated around the industry really tells us that not a lot of people are making a lot of money on that platform. It's slowing. Nintendo sold a ridiculous number of units but the attach rate is so low. The other reason we went to the Wii was we felt that it would be closer to a mobile platform in power, once mobile caught up with it. That turned out to be more true than we thought - the iPhone came along and it was kind of the same power as the Wii. And then the 3GS came along and it was just faster, and the iPhone 4 has overtaken that.
There are some different trends to see because mobile has not really gone social at all. OpenFeint and things like that are helping, but social doesn't drive mobile, it's an after effect and it's very tough to add social elements to a product, it's not what makes the platform. If you compare that to the web, social games made that happen as a platform. The Facebook madness has been crazy. Web games that are successful and part of the massive boom on Facebook are asynchronous. That should be the same for mobile but there are only a few hits like Words With Friends. I don't know why it is that mobile isn't as social. My analysis would be no better than the average blogger.
On the web people are spending so much time playing games now. The recent stats that people are spending more time on the web playing games than using email was kind of cheating because it doesn't take into account people communicating more on social networks. But one thing that I think is a true statement is that Facebook may have made games on the web happen in a new way, but games also made Facebook happen in a new way. They became profitable for the first time because of the amount of money they were generating that then went back into driving traffic. It's a different thing - being a non-profitable company to a profitable one, and Facebook experienced that a year and a half ago.
I lot of stuff we're doing on the web is really high-brand. Marvel Superheroes, Cartoon Network, Disney, Warner. They want to bring great game experiences to the web and there's some pretty amazing stuff that has been announced and some stuff I can't talk about - it's incredible what's coming up. They have the content, they have the brands, they have the ability to bring out really high-end games but they are not happy with the distribution channels they have now, with consoles. So they want to bring it to the web, and with the web you only need a really low-end target, something that works very broadly. Unity turns out to be really good for that. It's healthy that we went to the web early - in 2005 - because we were forced back then to put such a low bar for the hardware, we set ourselves a bar for hardware released in 2000. And we still support that which you might consider 'shit'. We still support that 'shit' and it turns out it's still out there in massive numbers.
I remember talking to people that wanted to bring Unreal to the web just a couple of years ago and they were asking how hard was it to build a plug in? It's not hard at all, the plug-in isn't the problem, it's the hardware, the testing, that's the problem. I think that has really benefited us and our customers because there's such a low target.