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An ode to Unity: Selling is inevitable, but can you just hold out a little longer?

Rummaging through the rumours

An ode to Unity: Selling is inevitable, but can you just hold out a little longer?

Speak to anyone who has been working at Unity for any length of time, and they'll start to reminisce about the company's early days.

How the firm's first conference – what's now become the global tour known as Unite – amounted to little more than 50 attendees and a few Unity folk in branded t-shirts.

The growth of Unite, which rode into Seattle in August, is indicative of the growth of the company as a whole. What's surprising about for first time attendees however is that, despite Unite's increasing prominence, this is not an event dominated by sponsors in suits – though, of course, they are in attendance.

As I detailed a few weeks ago, Unite has more in common with a pop concert or a football match than it does your average games conference: in short, it's full of fans.

Fans who want a Unity t-shirt, who wants to learn, and who frankly just want to be in the same room as CEO and co-founder David Helgason.

There is no doubting Unity's size, however, and it would be easy to assume that, whatever the quality of the engine itself, bedroom coders wouldn't be all too keen to throw their weight behind what is fast becoming a monolith. Those developers are willing to tolerate – perhaps even celebrate – Unity's growth, however, because the company has grown with them. A few years ago, it was one of them.

Unite 2014 - all about the developers

The major threat to this harmony, of course, is a buyout.

Not because the engine would be damaged or people let go, but because of the kind of companies that would be interested in buying Unity.

Talk on corners

Such talk has hit the headlines because of an article posted by VentureBeat's Dean Takahashi, in which he states a source has informed him Unity is sniffing out a deal, and it wants somewhere in the region of $2 billion to sell up.

On the back of this, Chinese gaming outfit Ourpalm has just announced it's buying a stake in the company. Now, rumours of selling up are nothing new to Unity – both Amazon and Microsoft reported to be interested and, perhaps, even tabled offers in recent years – but the ground does definitely appear to be shifting.

The feelgood factor that surrounds the company and its tools is unique.

The real problem here is that, firstly, it's highly likely the only companies capable of spending the kind of cash required to buy Unity will be of Amazon and Microsoft's size and, even more importantly, those most likely to be interested in picking up the firm are going to be platform holders.

Did I mention Amazon and Microsoft already?

Of course, there's no question that, even under the stewardship of the aforementioned twosome, Unity's future will be anything other than multiplatform.

Unity's major selling point is that it makes jumping from platform to platform or targeting them all at the same time arguably as simple as it has ever been. Any company hoping to take advantage of Unity's current dominance to push their own angle would need to preserve one of the major reasons that dominance exists in the first place – Unity is for everyone.

The bigger problem, however, is one that many may overlook. A buyer of Amazon or Microsoft's size would fundamentally change Unity's appeal. To put it in simple language, indies would no longer see Unity as “one of them” anymore.

Art of the indie

From a pure business perspective, there many be many of you that shrug your shoulders and say “So what?” After all, just how much money does Unity make from small indie outfits anyway? As Takahashi points out, large chunks of its revenue come from deals it has done to support PlayStation or partnerships with the likes of Intel.

What does it matter if one-man-band Joe Bloggs and his friend turn their nose up at Unity after it sells out?

Well, it's the wealth of games built through Unity – from teams of all sizes – that makes it appealing to companies like Sony and Intel in the first place. By default, Unity support means thousands and thousands of games are opened up to their respective platforms and technologies: keeping indies on board is an essential cog in Unity's wheel.

If Unity is to be acquired, then its new owner would have a massive PR task on its hands.

How do you flaunt and take advantage of a major asset like Unity without alienating the support it has amassed to this day? How can you grow Unity within your business without losing touch with the smaller companies hanging on to its coattails?

What is at stake here is the future of Unity as the indie developer's friend and, in turn, its role as the go to engine for start ups and veterans alike. Unity's success is the sum of its support to date – it's the 8 year olds that turn up to its training days, or the major publishers that specific seek out Unity games they know they can port to every platform on earth.

If those at the top of Unity's tree are looking for a way out, then an IPO might be better.

Nothing Unity has done in recent months suggests selling up is on the cards: every acquisition the company makes is pitched almost as a sign of defiance – the company is growing under its own steam and has no intention of becoming the prey of bigger fish.

Future focus

But one of these days, talk of a Unity buyout is going to be true. We may be reaching that day now, or it may still be years away.

Unity is too successful not to be on the shopping list of almost every major player in game development that you can think of, but there's no guarantee that said success won't wane under new management – indeed, there's every reason to believe some kind of dip would be inevitable.

If those at the top of Unity's tree are looking for a way out, then an IPO might be a better way to cash a few quick checks – the company certainly has the stats to suggest its current growth is nowhere near plateauing.

I personally hope, however, that Unity sticks it out on its own a little longer.

The feelgood factor that surrounds the company and its tools is unique in mobile history – yes, developers complain about problems and bugs, but few if any give up the ghost entirely and most, if pushed, will admit that Unity is a company that listens to the concerns of the development community even if it can't react immediately.

That's a rare quality. A rare relationship. It's hard to see it lasting all too much longer if Unity slaps a big 'For Sale' tag around its neck.

With a fine eye for detail, Keith Andrew is fuelled by strong coffee, Kylie Minogue and the shapely curve of a san serif font.