Interview

Flashback Friday: David Helgason on Unity's ability to 'give indies nuclear weapons'

All roads lead to Amsterdam

Flashback Friday: David Helgason on Unity's ability to 'give indies nuclear weapons'

Originally published in 2012, in this article Keith Andrew interviews the then CEO of Unity Technologies David Helgason during the company's Unite Europe conference.

Three years on, Unite Europe 2015 has just finished, with the company now supporting over 20 hardware platforms, as well as providing full-stage operational tools such as analytics and in-game advertising.

It's also well positioned for the new wave of virtual reality headsets. Whether they have more impact in the market than Windows Phone or 3D TVs - two of the hot future platforms in 2012 - remains to be seen.

Given the heat on the first day of Unite in Amsterdam, Unity's choice to fit out staff in black t-shirts perhaps wasn't the best idea.

But the sheer number of them around – guiding the masses of attendees from one room to the next – is a far better move.

Indeed, it's a testament to Unity's overall success that the Unite conference feels like a behemoth taking over a portion of the Dutch capital for a week. It's a friendly behemoth, however, where people essentially touch base for a few days and share their experiences with an engine they genuinely seem to love.

What we have to worry about is that Unity actually fulfils all the needs of developers, that we keep the price low enough for them.
David Helgason

We sat down with Unity CEO David Helgason shortly after his keynote speech for his take on this year's conference, and what it means for Unity as a whole moving forward.

Pocket Gamer: This is my first Unite, so how would you say Amsterdam is performing compared to previous venues?

David Helgason: [Laughs] I was kind of whisked away after the keynote, so I haven't managed to talk to many people, but the few people I've talked to really think it's good.

It's a beautiful location, and we like to move Unite around. We go to a different location every time, and this is one of the better ones for sure.

The venue for the keynote –the Gashouder –looked stunning.

Yeah, yeah it's really beautiful in there.

And it was really exciting to have a lot of new stuff to show. Like, new features – the Butterfly Effect demo (see end of article) - that we've only shown in private to date. But now it's going to be broadcast on the web later.

Is it fair to say Unity 4 has more of a visual bent than before?

We definitely pushed stuff that we haven't done before, but actually some of the new stuff is focused on workflow, or how developers think about their game development model.

It's not just about graphics at all, but it's easier to show the visual stuff.

How do you think indies are reacting to this drive towards greater visuals? Are they worried?

I think they are naturally worried, and it's very flattering that they're worried – I hope they're not worried because they distrust us and think we're idiots. [Laughs].

I like to think they are worried because they rely on our stuff, and if we were idiots and did the wrong thing by them, then they might be hurt by that. Hopefully not worse than having to build their own engine or buy somebody else's, but I think it's right of them be worried. I would be worried about the company behind my primary tools.

Looking wider, do you think they worry that the thirst for more powerful devices means mobile might start replicating the console market, pushing smaller studios out of the picture?

First of all, we want to keep it a level playing field. We sometimes say we want to give nuclear arms to smaller developers. [Laughs].

I mean we do sell to bigger developers, but we're selling the same stuff. So hopefully we level some of that out.

Also, I think the range of games you can build is very broad, and people are still very successful with simple games, while some of the big games are also successful, so there's a lot of breadth.

Plus, the growth in the number of gamers is so fast, so even if the proportion switches, that doesn't matter because the overall proportion is still growing. Not forever, of course! [Laughs].

There are only so many people out there, but we are so far from saturation at this point that everybody is going to benefit for several years. Maybe even 10 years at least.

Just because you're making a simple game, doesn't mean you can't benefit from our optimisation tools, and just because you're not doing an 'all singing and all dancing' games with explosions and zombies and stuff, doesn't mean you can't use particles for something, or animated characters that do something.

These high end features – when you use them altogether it's 'triple-A', but some people just use one or two. I don't know what that's called – maybe 'triple-B' or something. [Laughs].

You may have just invented that.

[Laughs]. It's really meaningful that Unity is not forced on people – it's very flexible, and when you look at the games that are made with it you see a whole range. Everything from Dead Trigger to Battleheart.

You certainly covered all bases genre-wise in the opening trailer.

Yeah. I mean, that was definitely intentional. But we could pick and choose from those games because all these different genres are covered.

Do you think the comparisons with Unreal that the press jumped on when Unity 4 was unveiled was unfair then? Is there any crossover at all, do you think?

Yeah. Not on purpose, but I think our customers asked for certain features – bigger games and more complex stuff. I don't know what Unreal's customers ask for, but it seems that we now cover some of the features they do.

But I think if you look at the magazine survey that showed that 53 percent of mobile developers use Unity, I think the number two slot went to 'no engine', for instance. Number three was an open source 2D framework, number four was a commercial 2D framework, and then it sort of slid into single digits and I didn't actually see the rest of the list. [Laughs].

So, what you might normally think of as our competitors weren't even there. Unreal isn't what we really have to worry about – and I don't really care what they have to worry about, either.

What we have to worry about is that Unity actually fulfils all the needs of developers, that we keep the price low enough for them, and that people aren't having to build their own stuff instead of using Unity.

It should be entirely economical to use anything but Unity for everything ever. [Laughs]. You can't do that for all cases, but that's the essential goal.

Unity seems to be being used in more and more indie hacks. That must be good promotion for you.

Yeah, that's wonderful. And people learn and they get experienced with it. We know for a fact that some of these people pick it up commercially later.

Would you say Mecanim is Unity 4's lead feature?

I'd say Mecanim, DirectX 11...

They both got big reactions from the crowd.

Yeah, that's some pretty cool stuff.

And then the Windows Phone announcement got a big, big response too.

Yeah, well people have been asking us about Windows Phone for a while, but we waited until we felt entirely certain that it was the right thing to do.

And of course, once we're behind it we're really behind it.

There's another style of running a company which is just more trial and error – saying different things at different stages and seeing what sticks.

But we decided that's not how we want to do it. We want to be a really methodical company that does what it says it's going to do, and sometimes that means not grabbing every opportunity that comes along.

We want to be a robust partner. We want to still be here and successful in one way or another, and to be able to service our current customers.

Obviously Microsoft will have been very keen to get you on board.

Oh, they've been very happy to support us, and obviously they've given us good support, and we're working with them on engineering on everything and other stuff.

The press release went out about it but I haven't had a chance to read it yet, so I'm not sure what we've said about it. [Laughs]. But obviously we're working with them.

What kind of spilt do you see between existing platforms like iOS and Android?

In our community iOS is bigger, but not massively bigger. I don't have the exact data to hand, but Android isn't behind by more than a ratio of say two to one.

Do you think it's inevitable the most Unity developers support both iOS and Android?

Absolutely. Yeah, because it's so uneconomical not to port. Even if the other platform – and I'm not necessarily talking about Android here – only contributes 20 percent of revenue, that's still worth it unless your title's success is really small.

If you play Android right it can be more than that too, for sure.

Do you think the idea of porting to multiple platforms includes smart TVs too? I think a lot of developers are excited about it, but aren't necessarily sure how best to implement it...

We're excited about it, and that's actually what the Union program is designed to solve. Developers are naturally very conservative when it comes to exerting their enegry, because they only have so many calories in their bodies. [Laughs.]

Even if they have plenty of money, they still have limited manpower and focus. What Union tries to do is say, 'we'll go out and figure out the deals you can make, and make sure the ground is under your feet.'

Developers can do this too, of course. You get developers who sign deals to port their games. So you can do it, but it's a lot of work, and once you've spent all your energy on the negotiations, and the porting, and the QA, and the polish, even if you get a significant amount of money to port, that money is often gone.

Union negotiates on the behalf of all of the developers to make sure the money actually goes back to them to take some of the risk away, so we can help them go to platforms they wouldn't necessarily go to on their own.

We help the games take risks and jumps they would have understandably stayed away from.

How is your partnership with LG on its smart TV platform going?

It's exciting. The TVs are gorgeous – we're showing them at one of the Union tables down here.

The thing about smart TVs is that the volumes are big. They're not quite 'mobile phone' big, but they're close in some ways, and it's an industry that has a number of players, but is actually dominated by Samsung and LG in that order.

Between them – and I may be making up the number here – they account for something like 50 percent of the entire industry of smart TVs. Working with LG makes sure that a lot of people get access to Unity games.

I haven't seen a lot of data how many games people are buying, of course, but the TV manufacturers are learning how to make sure people actually sign up. They lead people down that path of conversion to paid users. Any kind of success will cause the numbers to be quite meaningful.

Do you think mobile games translate well to the TV screen?

We've seen mobile and web games translate quite well for the TV, but it really depends on the game.

At Union, we don't get like the game's binary – we get its source. That means we can actually go in and change the controls, and we do that.

We can actually expel the energy required to polish the controls to fit the TV. Of course a ten finger multitouch game is not going to work – well, I won't say 'forever' – but it's not going to work for TV now.

Is there anything specifically unique to TVs, though? How do you describe the opportunity to developers that haven't made the leap yet?

There isn't just one control mechanism for TVs.

Like, LG TVs have a wand pointer a bit like the Wii-mote, and some others have motion controllers. Many of them have D-pads and keys, so it's not like there is only one aspect to give.

I think you just have to say, think about the form factor. Once you've seen a number of games playing on different devices and tried them out, you can mentally simulate whether your game is going to work.

And the Unity team already knows really well because we've spent like the last two years working on that problem, so we can very quickly guess what's going to work and what isn't.

What kind of impact do you think games on smart TVs will have on consoles if they really take off?

I don't know yet. I think it's a separate market – it seems like it. Consoles have relatively smaller distributions. Well, by definition you need a TV to play them, so mathematically there must always be more TVs than consoles. [Laughs.]

But the price points are higher. People tend to buy them because they want to prove that they play games, and they often go and buy games to justify their purchase to themselves.

But yeah, it's a separate market for now – now meaning the next few years.

What about developers that haven't come to Unity full stop? How would you reach out to them?

There are really only two things I suggest.

One is just to try it out. I mean, the worst thing that can happen that it teaches you something about other tools you're using or how to build your own engine. Not everybody, but a lot of people after spending a few days with Unity fall in love with it.

It's about working with the grain and understanding how the work flows. Once you have them, it's ridiculously nice. [Laughs].

Plus, the sense of community here with developers that have used it does seem to be strong...

Well, that's the other thing. Engaging with the community. Both at a people level, looking at the forums and chatting with people, and the other part is actually seeing the games that are built.

There are insane number of different types of games that are built, so you will find something that doesn't look like what you want to build, but applies the same techniques or has the same technical requirements. Hopefully that proves to developers that Unity has them covered.

So you almost see your role as one of bringing developers together to learn from each other.

Yep. When you have people that are like craftsmen or specialists like game developers are, it's the same as with a carpenter or something. If you show them objects made by other craftsmen, I think even without too much detail or cutting them into pieces, they intuitively understand how these things were built.

You learn a lot just from watching others talk about their work. That's what the Unite conference is all about more than anything. The community is just an open community with tens of thousands of awesome people sharing, showing, arguing and fighting. [Laughs.]

There's also complaining about the bugs we have, but we fix them.

Well that's what I've heard – that people at roadmap sessions at previous Unite conferences have asked for certain features not on your register and they've made it into later versions as a result.

Yeah. We have the roadmap session, but actually the whole conference is like that, even with the hands on sessions where people bring their laptops and ask for advice from our developers.

They learn so much from the community, and the community learns from us.

We can't do everything for everybody always, but we definitely work hard and try.

Thanks to David for his time.


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

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