Hall of Fame

Hall of Fame: The hinterland of thoughtful entrepreneur and Unity founder David Helgason

The co-founder of the game engine firm on his entrepreneurial beginnings

Hall of Fame: The hinterland of thoughtful entrepreneur and Unity founder David Helgason

One of the co-founders of Unity Technologies - and its longtime CEO until he stepped down in 2014 - David Helgason's constant mantra over the past decade has been the 'democractisation of game development'.

With Unity's many and complex tools now free to many of its 5 million developers, that's a task in which he's entirely succeeded.

Indeed, the once PC and console-focused company saw its biggest growth of users as it became the de facto standard for iOS and Android game development.

The rise of rewarded video ads also added a strong revenue stream, enabling it to staff and smart up to face its latest challenge; driving the development platform for the future of VR and AR games.

As for Helgason, as well as his role as a Unity board member, he more generally describes himself as a "Advisor, Angel, Board Member, Troublemaker, Friend".

PocketGamer.biz: What were your favourite games as a kid?

David Helgason: I played a bunch of the classic games on my friend’s Commodore 64s and Amigas, but my first computer was my mother’s weirdo Epson DOS PC, which had impossible to game with Hercules Graphics (720×348 pixels).

So instead of trying to play games on it I had to learn to program.

I was restless and didn’t want to have a boss.

Later, Civilization probably became my all time favorite game.

When did you realise you wanted to make games as a career?

It took a long series of false starts.

I thought I’d be a scholar or a scientist, and studied physics, psychology, and Arabic and Middle Eastern studies. But alongside that, I kept programming and started a fledgling carrier as a programmer.

However, I was restless and didn’t want to have a boss, so I started a few companies of no significance until my old high-school friend asked me to make games with him.

And the rest is – sort of – history.

What was your first role in the industry? How did that turn out?

That was pretty much Unity, though initially we thought we’d make games, and since we were three programmers, we worked on our engine a lot.

So I wrote some bits and pieces, but was quickly drawn towards doing the “other stuff”, that is, the business side of things.

My co-founders were way better programmers than I was, and I was more social than they were, so it was a natural evolution.

I didn’t call myself a CEO until a few years later, but that’s sort of the role I was taking on.

What do you consider your first significant success?

Unity, no doubt. Nothing I did before that really worked.

As a career programmer I had worked on some neat projects before Unity, but none of them really became anything.

When did the potential for mobile games become apparent to you?

I was actually a contractor at Nokia before founding Unity, so I’d seen enough of mobile games to totally lack faith in them.

To be honest, it wasn’t until I saw what people were home brewing on the iPhone 1, before it got an App Store, that I saw something that I believed in.

I’m extremely proud of being part of democratising the games industry.

We all did, at Unity, and hired a couple of brilliant programmers to work on an iPhone deployment option as soon as the App Store was announced in early 2008.

But even then, it perhaps didn’t really dawn on us until a couple of years later that this thing was just going to keep growing into a monster.

What do you think is the most significant event in mobile gaming to-date?

The opening of the iPhone App Store, no doubt. Nothing else even comes close.

Here, for the first time in human history, a marketplace was created which, with the later addition of Android, lets a team as small as a single person (!) reach over 2,000,000,000 people for just the cost of a computer, a phone, and a couple of hundred bucks… and that addressable audience just keeps growing.

It’s easy to focus on the negatives – the competitiveness, the difficulty of being noticed, and all that – but until then a single person would have had a hard time even addressing an audience of one percent that size.

That’s just insane, and short of us finding an alien civilisation to sell games to, we can never see that kind of growth again.

What are you most proud of? Any regrets?

I’m extremely proud of being part of democratising the games industry.

Some of the most interesting games of the last years wouldn’t have been made without Unity being available, and literally tens of thousands of people are building their careers on Unity.

Life’s too short for regrets, and even the worst of mistakes is eclipsed by the very fact of being alive. I mean, we don’t even understand how anything might exist at all, and what fun is non-existence compared to this crazy life.

Which mobile games have you most enjoyed recently and why?

I’ve been addicted to David Whatley’s GeoDefence and You Must Build a Boat for a long time, with detours into Sybo Games’ Brim.

Oh, and right now I’m downloading Creative Assembly’s Total War Battles: Kingdom. I saw pre-release versions of the game and am really excited to play it.

In which area of the industry do you hope to make a difference in future?

We are working extremely hard to make Unity even better for high-end graphics, and to make moving from mobile to PC to console and to VR and AR truly seamless for developers.

That, and just helping Unity remain a wonderful company full of amazing people, who really give a shit about the games industry and about helping developers succeed in their projects.

Starting out in simple monochrome in the days of Snake and WAP, the past decade has seen the mobile games industry kaleidoscope into a glorious, multi-billion dollar sector that's driving global innovation.

So it's high time we celebrate some of the people who helped make that journey possible - something PocketGamer.biz is doing in its regular Mobile Gaming Hall of Fame feature.

You can read our previous Hall of Fame articles here.

Head of Content

Craig Chapple is a freelance analyst, consultant and writer with specialist knowledge of the games industry. He has previously served as Senior Editor at PocketGamer.biz, as well as holding roles at Sensor Tower, Nintendo and Develop.