Top 5 things we learned at Unite 2013 in Vancouver

Publishing begins with a powerful P

Top 5 things we learned at Unite 2013 in Vancouver
It's very easy to get lost in the city when you're in Vancouver.

I don't mean physically lost – landmark buildings aplenty make it quite easy to make your away around unaided – but, rather, lost in the wonder of what is truly a city of contrasts.

Though highly urbanised (and, thanks to some striking architecture, stunningly so too) Vancouver is also a city of nature. Stanley Park – the city's 220 year old urban park – feels more like a nature reserve than it does a splash of green for executives to each their lunchtime sandwiches on.

Just as well, then, that Unity chose to base its annual Unite conference in Vancouver's Convention Centre.

Almost built into the city's sea wall itself, this stunning new development appears to have quickly become a Mecca for the ton of tourists that swamp into the city each day – many, in fact, departing the numerous cruise ships that slip in to dock next to the Convention Centre itself.

Chances are, even if you were walking around Vancouver aimlessly, you'd stumble upon the Convention Centre at some point.

The view below Vancouver's Convention Centre

Yet, despite the draw of the urban environment that surrounded Unite 2013 last week, PocketGamer.biz was still in prompt attendance each day, sitting in on a bevy of talks and mingling with the great and the good banqueting in the Centre's sumptuous dining hall, overlooking the northern reaches of the city on the other side of the harbour.

It's hard to imagine many games conferences around the world can rival Unite 2013 in Vancouver in terms of visual splendor.

And, perhaps that sense of spectacle was intended. Unity's continued 3D push (and support for next-gen consoles) means sharp visuals are increasingly becoming part and parcel of the engine's arsenal. What better place is there to host a conference in a city so striking, it scarcely seems real.

But, aside from making this writer feel particularly at home (Canadians spell 'colour' and 'centre' correctly, and their $20 bill has a picture of the Queen on it) what else did PocketGamer.biz take away from this year's Unite conference? Well...

Developers don't love the platform, they love the player

You can probably count on one hand the number of mobile developers you know who don't work on iOS.

Apple's OS has become (and remains) the premier platform for mobile gaming and, as a result, is the first port of call for both Unity's new features and the third party APIs that plug into it.

But there's an important distinction to be made here. If the questions asked by those in attendance of many of the talks are anything to go by, developers love the fact that iOS gamers download games in their millions and – even more importantly – are seemingly happy to spend money in them, but plenty of developers seem to have fallen out of love with iOS itself.

As we'll discuss later, both BlackBerry and Microsoft had a big presence at Unite 2013 – both were event sponsors and featured prominent stands and, in Microsoft's case, game porting booths in an effort to endear more and more Unity developers to their respective platforms – and that undoubtedly ensured that the conference wasn't as iOS and Android focused as it has been in the past.

But, nonetheless, an increasing number of questions from the crowd focused on whether said new feature or plugin was "just for iOS" or whether it would also work on other, smaller platforms.

In Unity's marketing talk, one developer even stood up to ask whether he "had to" lead with iOS any more – whether rival platforms had enough of audience now that he could work on them first and, with Unity's help, target Apple's OS later.

In short, developers are as committed to iOS now as they have been any time since the launch of the App Store, but the gloss and allure the platform previously had has long gone in the eyes of many.

Developers have realised that the streets of iOS aren't actually paved with gold.

Unity's move into publishing isn't a punt in the dark

Unity's move into iOS and Android publishing – announced at Unite 2013 – didn't come out of the blue. The firm's Union venture, in CEO David Helgason's own words, was in itself publishing blank.

Nonetheless, the key question that sprung to mind when the move was revealed was 'why now?'

Unity's developer base continues to grow and there are still many more studios currently not using the engine that the company is no doubt hoping to tap up in the years ahead, but could the decision to make a move on publishing be a somewhat artificial way of making the company appear to be one that's still growing, rather than one that's peaked?

A 20 minute chat with CEO David Helgason was enough to suggest not. In his view – given in a convincing manner – Unity Games is a logical extension of what the company has always tried to do: help developers.

Just like Unity Cloud – launched in response to calls from studios for such a service to be provided – Helgason believes Unity can add value to the games it picked up in a way that many existing publishers can't.

What's more, the Unity name is now a big draw in its own right. Developers genuinely love Unity – they don't just use it out of necessity, but they actively act as cheerleaders, helping spread take up amongst the wider community. It's not hard to imagine that Unity Games will – at launch at least – be blessed with a similar halo.

As an aside, it'll also give Unity a consumer presence. I'm personally not convinced that this is something the company actively needs, but it's hard for firms of any kind, trade or otherwise, to resist seeking recognition from consumers.

There will already be some gamers acutely aware of the Unity – there could be a whole lot more who are similar educated in the years ahead.

BlackBerry and Microsoft are brothers in arms

You know that 'race for third place' thing? Yeah, large portions of the industry aren't buying it. What's more, neither are BlackBerry or Microsoft.

You'll find plenty of commentators and analysts eager to declare a winner – or, at least, project which of the two is likely to come out on top in the months and years ahead, and they're not wrong to do so.

But both BlackBerry and Microsoft, who were both at Unite 2013 in force, are more interesting in legitimising their platforms in the eyes of the developer than they are doing each other down.

When I questioned BlackBerry's Sean Paul Taylor about where he saw the platform sitting in comparison to the other operating systems and whether the Canadian giant had Microsoft's Windows Phone in its sights, he avoiding going for the jugular.

Instead, he presented the two companies as something of brothers in arms.

"Where is Apple? Where is Google? Neither of them are here at Unite, but we are," he pointed out, presenting both his firm and even Microsoft as the ones actually listening to the developer base rather than dictating to them.

"And there's only going to be more competition. We heard in David's keynote, we've got other new platforms to come as well as us and Windows Phone. There's Tizen, there are others too."

In short, while the market is obsessed with narrowing the field, in reality the number of players is actually widening. Even if BlackBerry or Windows Phone manages to bleed the other one out of existence, the race wouldn't be over.

Such is the allure of the mobile market that there's always a new challenger set to appear.

Developers are starting to understand the rules of the game

Coupled with the news of Unity's move into publishing was a talk designed to educate developers as to the importance of getting their marketing and PR strategies right.

It was almost something of a do-it-yourself talk for developers determined to go it alone, but – combined with the aforementioned 'logical' launch of Unity's publishing venture – there was a genuine sense at Unity that developers previously just content with making a good game now understand that being independent means more than just developing and distributing content.

It also means effectively promoting them, too. And that's a whole new minefield for developers to get their collective heads around.

It's not a case of merely pushing your game out on Twitter and securing the odd review – as Unity PR manager Dan Adams and developer relations specialist Tracy Erickson pointed out, it's about knowing what you want to say about your game and working from there.

"You get people who will email a journalist and say 'my game has 15 different types of weapon," said Adams.

"Who cares about that? A lot of public relations is about building a message at the core and tying it in with everything you talk about – social media and the press."

Turns out this publishing lark isnt so easy after all. In fact, for those who do it well, publishing is almost like a business in its own right. Who knew?

Build it in Vancouver and they will come

Unity never chooses a bad venue for a conference and, as a result, it's never short of attendees.

Even more so than 2012's equally successful bash in Amsterdam, Vancouver's Convention Centre was flooded with developers from the surrounding area.

"I don't even use Unity yet, but I saw the conference was coming into town and signed up for it," remarked one developer at lunch on the first day. "It seems really active. Is it like this every year?"

Vancouver from Stanley Park

The truth is, every conference needs a location that itself is already something of a hub.

One of the sad things about this year's GDC Europe in Cologne – which run just days before Unite – was the fact that it seems to have very little connection to what is, at best, an emerging development scene in the area.

GDC Europe rolls into Cologne because it's attached to Gamescom, and there's a ridiculously big venue able to hold both of them quite comfortably. It has little connection to the city that hosts it, however.

Unite 2013 – as with Amsterdam the previous year – drew in what is an especially active development scene, attracting studios that (as a couple of conversations I had at lunch suggested) goes beyond the reach of Unity itself.

The upside for Unity is, of course, those developers who weren't fully on board with the engine when they first stepped into the convention centre on the Wednesday morning will likely have been willing converts when they left early Friday evening.

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