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Going "end to end" with Unity: Helgason on helping developers ride the smartphone wave

Growth 'won't last forever'

"It's just such a relief," opens Unity CEO David Helgason at the start of our interview at Unite 2014 in Seattle.

"I'm basically in a panic for about two weeks before the keynote. Right up until like one minute before I get on stage, I'm in a panic. [Laughs]. As in, like, barely sleeping, even when I have time to sleep I'll just sort of line down and shake during the night."

There's every reason for Helgason to feel a portion of trepidation before taking to the stage at Unity's annual shebang. With around 1,500 people in the hall hanging on his every word, both Unity and the conferences that are now a crucial part of its set up get bigger and bigger every year.

This year, for instance, saw Unite announcements range from new open source components through to the launch of a new UI element.

We sat down with Helgason a few hours after his keynote to talk acquisitions - including the buyout of cloud specialist Tsugi, now Unity Austin - support for Apple's Metal graphics layer and just where future growth in the smartphone scene will come from.

Pocket Gamer: That was a big crowd out there today.

Well, my biggest crowd that won't be topped in the west was China with 3,500 people – Unite China. And, actually, the keynote at Chinajoy a couple of years ago, that was a similar number of people but the rooms were too small, so they had four rooms of a thousand people each and I was broadcast between them, so I only ever saw a thousand people. [Laughs].

So, talking about this particular keynote, the phrase you used "end to end development platform" is what interested me the most. Is it possible for you to define that or does that essentially open the door to moving into all kinds of other areas in the future?

I guess not all kinds of other areas, but I think we always start with this old bloody idea of ours, this old mission statement of ours, which was "we're going to democratise game development", right? So, at some point, we're we like "okay, we've got to get people great tools", and then at some point we realised that great tools, great features, great engine – that's not enough.

So, what else do developers need? So turns out they need assets. Four years ago we opened the Asset Store, which funnily enough people totally didn't believe back then. I remember this disappointment on the stage. We announced it at Unite in Montreal in 2010, and I was on stage and we announced it and people were just sort of like "what's that?" [Laughs].

It really took a year before people got it and, then, now we go out there and everyone loves it – it's one of the most important features of Unity.

“That was when we finally decided that this is insane, Why would such an important part of a developer's life be so under served?”
David Helgason

But that all goes into this helping people create great games thing, right? And we've got pretty good at it, and our customers loved it and we're able to spend more resources on it, hire good people, acquire the Mecanim animation team and really double down on it.

But then we looked out and we were like "damn, they have other problems that we're barely thinking about." Can they find an audience? Can they monetise their players? And all these things.

There are a whole bunch of companies out there doing it, and actually for a long time we thought "we shouldn't bothered with that." They're well served. There are all these companies doing it, there are like a billion venture capitalists with all similar names and SDKs with four letter became a bit extreme at one point, right?

There are so many different services that you need, and we followed that space and we partnered with some of these companies and they promoted their stuff in the Asset Store – it was all good. But at some point we realised that, we did a survey like a year and a half ago of thousands of our developers and we asked things like "which services are you using, what do you like, what do you plan to use in the future", and we had questions for different categories for analytics and data and so on.

One of the questions always was, "now if Unity offered a service like that, would you use it?" If you ask people something like that, of course, they might just be polite and you can't necessarily trust that on its own, but combined with the fact that people were really dissatisfied with their services, and the fact that if they used something today they planned to change in the future...well, there weren't any clear winners.

It wasn't obvious that, for each category, there wasn't like one service that was like "this is it, this is awesome."

That was when we finally decided that this is insane, Why would such an important part of a developer's life be so under served? So we started looking around and made a few a decisions, and then we acquired Applifier earlier this year. That got us GameAds which is now Unity Ads and Everyplay. We also acquired Playnomics for their analytics and player relations management. Like, can you actually communicate with them and re-engage them, stuff like that? And then we acquired Tsugi, which actually falls into the first bracket – how do you build games.

So, these are the services we acquired, but why did we do that? Well, we loved the teams, they were really kind of heavy tech teams with real ambition behind them, but also these were services where we felt that by bringing them into Unity they will be better than if they were stand alone.

Helgason on stage at Unite in Seattle
Helgason on stage at Unite in Seattle

Like, for Everyplay, a social platform like that needs to be big, because the more players that are engaging with these videos, the more players you can connect with. It's the same with analytics – the more data that is collected, the wiser the system gets.

I mean, these are really data scientists types, and they are really sharp at not just at counting how many players are playing your game and drawing a line – anyone can do that frankly. No, they're really good at segmented players, figuring out how many different types of players do you have and how should you engage with them.

Of course, the ads system – Unity Ads – there's no such thing as a niche ad network. Ad networks need scale, so they were doing really well on their own, but we were like "lets bring this into Unity, the whole network will be bigger" which means more efficiency, more ads to show if you're a developer who wants to show ads and more inventory to buy if you need traffic for your game. Obvious stuff, in a way.

So, we summed it up as these are services to connect your game with players, and this is all wrapped up with us wanting to help developers create a great game and connect them with an audience.

So have you ever had an area where you've looked at the companies and services already operating in a field and thought "no, we don't need to go into that area, everybody is already well served"?

Yes. Absolutely. I mean, you only have to look the other way – to the technologists' side – like SpeedTree. You know, great company. A small company, but a great company.

It makes tools to make trees, a fantasy library of trees that they intend to sell in the Asset Store. You know, there's absolutely no need for us to mess with that. It's a company that doesn't particularly benefit from scale. In fact, it's probably better that they can serve all of the engines, but it allows them to invest back in their product, you know? So, no need there.

So, you know, I could rattle through them. I mean, it's all the companies we didn't acquire, right? [Laughs].

But, yeah, there are companies that just should not be bought. I mean there's a kind of logic to it – we obviously have to pick our battles. We've acquired three companies in a year – that's quite a mouthful. Fortunately all three have really good people but also really lovely people that are our kind of people. They go into Unity and they feel like they're part of the company. You can easily imagine that they've always been there.

The other focus I picked up from your keynote is, you mentioned on all the companies you've been working closely with – Intel, Google and Apple. Specifically, I was wondering about Metal – there were critics when it was announced that said it was a way of Apple ensuring developers stayed tied to iOS given it's iOS exclusive. How does that fit in with Unity's ethos of encouraging developers to go multiplatform?

I think that you can always be paranoid, but I don't think that's fair [on Apple] honestly. I don't think these companies necessarily bother thinking on that level.

What I think they're doing, just like others, is thinking how is the future going to be? We've got Metal, DirectX 12, and low-latency OpenGL – it has a different name but it's like a modern re-take on OpenGL. What everyone is doing is going to a place where draw calls are much cheaper, you can throw many more objects at the graphics card without spending the CPU cycles. So, everyone is going in that direction.

Metal is a fantastic rendering layer. We've really enjoyed working with it. I don't think we can talk too much about what's in there, except that we're very satisfied with it. It doesn't just have great promise – it will be great when it's out. Paranoid thinking doesn't get you very far.

How easy is it for you guys to maintain relationships with the different platform holders? Do they want different things from you?

In a way I think all the platform holders want the same thing – they want great games, because developers are important in their ecosystems, but what they really care about is the people using the devices.

“You get two person teams who are targeting seven different platforms now. 20 person teams aren't meant to be able to do that!”
David Helgason

Every device, whether it's a mobile device or a console, has a significant gamer audience – some more so than others, but all of them have huge gamer audiences that need to be well served. So, first priority – at least for platform holders – is lets get great games on the platform, and to do that we need to make it easy for developers to make games for us.

Of course, we need to make great devices, high performance, the OS has to be good to not get in the way...all these things are important, but fundamentally it's about removing barriers between the consumer and the content.

And we really help with that. We make it so much easier to get great games on the platforms, and sometimes it goes kind of insane – like, you were at the keynote when we talked about the two person teams who are targeting seven different platforms? I mean, it's just ridiculous. [Laughs]. 20 person teams aren't meant to be able to do that, but it's just fantastic. I think what platforms may lose a little bit in exclusivity, they gain in more content.

You also talked a little bit about mobile in particular being "mindblowing" and growing faster than the rest of the industry. How sustainable that level of growth is now?

It can't keep growing as it has recently for long. If you think about the S-curve of adoption of mobile – or rather smartphones, as everyone in the world has a mobile phone but not everyone has a smartphone, so now we're replacing feature phones with smartphones and that's the growth we're looking at. So in that S-curve, I think we're at the steepest part. There's a few more years left of very high growth and then it will slow off.

Actually, smart analysts have predicted these things and, though you see different shapes in the curve, they're all sort of the same fundamentally. They all say we're somewhere close to the high growth part.

If you look at the big picture, right now the affluent people have smartphones and the less affluent people are about to get them next. That means the ARPU for the next billion people will be lower than the last billion, so yeah, it's going to slow. It's going to slow in terms of adoption. But that's just one growth curve.

On top of that, people are changing their behaviour to spend more time with these devices, so you have another curve on top of that curve. And on top of that curve, you have developers learning to build what people want, making really compelling games, and learning just how people want to pay.

You go a few years back and people tried a $10 price point and that got crushed to a $1 price point, but that's all being rebuilt now with all kinds of different pricing models. Premium is actually doing really well now, for instance, and you have episodic have all these things.

I mean, I'm guessing here but I think it's all true, but these growth curves lay on top of each other, which is why the analysts who are still able to predict incredible overall growth for mobile for now until 2017 – mobile is going to be something like $30 billion, which is a lot more than it is now, but I think it's realistic because of these overlaying curves. If you only indexed the number of smartphones in people's pockets multiplied by the affluence of the person, that curve wouldn't go up like that.

I think the next several years are going to be really exciting, and it's not like it's going to just drop – mobile won't really come down until something connects to our brain or something radically different comes along, which may not be too far out you know. [Laughs]. But we can't quite see it on the horizon yet. It's like five years out or something.

That's essentially what I was going to ask about next, actually. We've got smart watches around, smart TVs are still hanging about, all the talk last year was about microconsoles and we have VR and Oculus Rift rising up right now. How easy is it from your position to split the wheat from the chaff?

I don't think we're way better at that than the next guy. At some level we try to partner with the companies that want to partner with us, so we ensure that we support the new things well.

We of course follow our passion so if we really love something we'll support it or dial in on it. But, you know, "is this the next big thing, or is it the other thing?" As long as we support everything and give developers unfettered access so they can be fast at capturing opportunities as they arise.

I mean, we've seen this in the past – things can just kind of explode in a way that no-one predicted, and really the developers who are fast at reacting at get that early growth. It's often not even the big companies – it's a few guys who capture it and do something awesome for that platform.

It's easy to forget that Angry Birds was created by a team of four I think originally. I mean it grew, but it was around four originally. I don't know how many people built Clash of Clans but it wasn't a whole lot.

But we're not in the business of picking winners beyond what we have to. I mean, there have been things that will remain unmentioned where we've been "yeah, that's not going anywhere. [Laughs].

You can mention them if you like...

[Laughs] We've probably forgotten them already.

Going back to the keynote, one of the popular announcements you made was the talk of the new open source components you're rolling out. Is this an area you're looking to expand on?

Open source is exciting. It's a particular way of engaging with a community of developers, right? We're already participating in open source a lot – actually, we haven't talked too much about it, but there are a number of components in Unity that are already open source. There's a shader compiler and some other things – they're just so specialised that most of our customers don't have to worry about them.

“Open source is exciting. It's a particular way of engaging with a community of developers, right?”
David Helgason

Taking a component like the UI system and saying "okay, this could benefit from being open source" and that there's still a lot of innovation ahead, it's interesting how we with the community can evolve it. We're also open sourcing some test tools - it's an interesting way to give back [to the community], and it's exciting.

I mean, we expect some things will be sold in the Asset Store that are based on our open source, and that's cool.

The new UI tools also went down really well in the hall – almost as something of an 'in joke'. You must see that as an example of you guys listening to your community.

Well, the particular point with the UI is, lets just admit it has been a painful process. We really really tried, but it's a particular design problem. We had to start over several times and finally we got to the point where we're really proud of it, and if you look at people's comments they're really happy with it because it's a truly well designed system.

Unity's new UI editor
Unity's new UI editor

There's some real innovation in that system, like ways of creating layouting that has just never been done before, and that's pretty exciting.

I came to the training day yesterday – where I didn't have a go myself I must admit, but did observe everyone else – and there was a lad there who I think was 11 years old, sat in amongst an audience of people of all ages in fact. Did you ever imagine Unity's appeal would be so broad when you started out?

I think there was a nine year old, or maybe he was eight, at the very first Unite in 2007 actually. He came with his rocket scientist mother. [Laughs].

We've always had kids around the community, which is not surprising with kids being gamers also want to create these things, and I remember I was trying to code games when I was 10 – not with much success but I was definitely trying, and that's how I learned programming by the way. So, yeah, it's not surprising on the whole.

I mean, the kids who are really successful with Unity are pretty smart kids. It would be wonderful if more normal kids that had less time to go crazy with it would be able to productive, but that's a lot of design work that we haven't gone down just yet.

Thanks to David for his time.