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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, GamesIndustry.biz talks to Helgason about the balance between luck and judgement, and the value of ignoring the future to concentrate on the present.

GamesIndustry.bizUnity 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.

GamesIndustry.bizYou 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.

GamesIndustry.bizDid 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.

GamesIndustry.bizThere 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]

GamesIndustry.bizOh, 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.

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Matthew Handrahan


Matthew Handrahan joined GamesIndustry in 2011, bringing long-form feature-writing experience to the team as well as a deep understanding of the video game development business. He previously spent more than five years at award-winning magazine gamesTM.