Interview

Devs need to 'go nuts': Unity's David Helgason on how to be the next big thing, and why the publisher never really went away

Devs need to 'go nuts': Unity's David Helgason on how to be the next big thing, and why the publisher never really went away
It seems a long time ago that articles proclaiming the death of the publisher were sprawled across industry sites like PocketGamer.biz.

The last couple of weeks have seen two major players both launching publishing ventures: first Facebook, and now – as announced at the firm's Unite conference in Vancouver – Unity.

But did the publisher every really go away in the first place?

Unity CEO David Helgason thinks not, and – speaking to us shortly after his keynote speech at Unite – he revealed why the company's new publishing business makes perfect sense for Unity itself, and the ever-growing number of indies operating in a mobile scene he believes is showing no signs of losing momentum.

Pocket Gamer: So, the obvious first thing to ask you is about this publishing move. How long has that been on the radar for Unity?

David Helgason: It was sort of a process, I guess.

I remember sometimes calling Union 'bizarro-publishing', or like our take on what publishing could be, so I never thought of it not as publishing – it was better described as distribution and helping people out.

But even before Union, people would ask us 'could you handle this' or 'could you fund us', so it's not like a new thing or even a newish thing.

By the way, just because someone asks you to fund them, don't just fund them – you got to know that you can actually do the rest.

And what was great about Union – which I've also described as 'publishing with training wheels' – is that it led us down the path, and it gave us very manageable tasks to do while also allowing us to bring a team together. It let people learn to work together.

I mean, the people we brought in are great, but just bringing great people together doesn't immediately necessarily get results. You need to bring great people together and then give them a great way of working and then a great process to work in, and I think that's something we've built over the last three years really.

The manager of the team has really stepped up and turned into a pretty great leader I have to say.

You also suggested in your keynote that the 'Union' branding wasn't quite there...

So, there are two parts to the branding. There's the name, which is okay...yeah, I think it's fine actually. But the logo! [Laughs]. We killed the logo.

Actually a lot of it is just that the Unity brand has become really strong. I mean, even most consumers – they may not really know what it is, but they definitely recognise the logo if they've played more than a few mobile games.

I'm not educated in business or marketing, but I've learned a lot, and one of the things I've learned along the way is a company can't afford to have too many brand names. You need to boil it down to a few recognisable points. So, it's just like getting rid of the one brand name that you want to go. [Laughs]

We've been working as a publisher for more than a few months, but it started slowly. In fact, you could say we've done some of these functions on some games before.

So Unity Games is about tying these strands together...

Yeah, tying it together. The team is stepping up to a point where we're not just doing the work, but we're also saying we're going to do it, and also inviting new games to come in.

We have six games in production at various stages of completion – we couldn't triple that with the team we have, so we're going to have to start slowly and be very selective, unfortunately.

Well, that's something I was going to ask about actually. We have publishers these days who take the Chillingo approach and push a lot of games out there, and then we have Rovio at the other end, very selectively picking out games that match the brand. Where do you think Unity's publishing will sit?

[Laughs]. Well, from what I know about these two teams, we're probably somewhere not too close to either of them, I'd say. In terms of manpower and so on. If anything, we're probably slightly closer to Rovio, frankly, but who knows.

Rovio is so young at this, whereas of course Chillingo has been shoveling games for a long time – by the way, successfully I should say. But, you know, if a game didn't jump right away, they would – as far as I'm told – not often give it a lot more time.

But, that's also something you probably have to do. We have to learn that there's probably something to the 'kill your darlings' approach.

That's probably why the relationship between developers and publishers is often quite harsh – the developer has just that one game or a few games, and the publisher by definition has to have more than a couple of games, otherwise they're not a publisher. [Laughs].

And a couple of years ago, we were all writing about whether people even needed publishers anymore. Now, there's you and there's Facebook both going that way. What do you think has changed?

I don't think the publisher ever went away – it was something of a fantasy, or a dream.

Before we decided to start this, I was sort of in the 'who needs a publisher' camp, but I learned through a lot of watching, a lot of talking, a lot of reading and a lot of debates that the publisher doesn't go away as something that adds value.

I think actually I probably blogged about this – I did this 'future of the industry' something something blog in like 2010 or something, which is mainly famous because I was pretty much the first person to talk about gamification, which I've completely lost interest in since. [Laughs]

Well, I didn't lose interest, but like half a year later there were books about it, and conferences and even companies. But in that blog post, even less important was the bit where I said I believed that the publisher would stay, but with a different role.

Of course, at some point the publisher was about – and you probably know this – literally shipping around boxes. That was part of the discipline.

The unique thing the publisher had was the control of the shelves, and they could agree on spots in the retail stores – that's not there anymore, so they have to do something else.

But the entire modern world is based on the division of labour, and in every field we go, we see more division of labour, not less division of labour, so it would be surprising if this one area would have less, I'd say.

But, by moving into this area, do you think you risk going into competition with the publishers who have Unity games on their books?

Only in a very theoretical manner, because there are so many games and so many consumers.

The only publishers I've ever seen truly in competition with each other are the big console publishers who bring out two shooters before Christmas. They'll compete, but never in any other case have I seen games truly competing with each other, and it's even less the case on mobile, so no, I'm not worried about that at all.

Some people have asked us 'oh are you going to compete with us now?' And, of course, the answer is 'we have six games in production'. [Laughs]. If we go nuts, we'll have 20.

How did the deals with those six come about? Did developers come to you, or did you seek the games out?

It's a mix. We have had these relationships through what was formally called Union and that distribution thing keeps going.

That's a relatively mechanical process where people tell us about their game, sign it up, we put it into a portfolio – at least the games we think might sell – and we go and talk to the platform owners and suggest what they could pick.

So, through these relationships with the developers, we know a lot of the stuff that's going on. But picking six is hard – it's actually impossible. How do you pick six games? You do it through guesses, some hunches about the market and hunches about quality developers...so, we'll see.

We're willing to make some mistakes, but we think at least some of the games will be good.

What was behind the decision to lead with 'mobile first' games? Is that because that's where Unity is strongest?

Yeah, and this is where there is most liquidity in the market – I mean, there is just a rapid opportunity to do something successful here. We see so many awesome things being made.

Switching the topic slightly, one thing that struck me when looking at Unite's schedule was the prominence of both BlackBerry and Microsoft here, both of which are in this 'race for third place' in the smartphone race. Some of the feedback we've had from developers on Pocket Gamer, however, suggests that not everyone wants a third platform – they're happy with just having two. From Unity's point of view, what do you think BlackBerry and Microsoft bring to the table that others don't?

That's a good question. I mean, I would argue that you already have more than two platforms, in the sense that even if you only say there is two, you still have different marketplaces.

It's not that well known here, but 360 operates this massive Android marketplace in China, and there are a number of others.

But, as for what these guys have to offer, I mean they come with different operating systems that are actually really good and have some really interesting usability things to them.

I mean, the only thing that a device can really bring to bear is volume. The focus on games acts as a sort of multiplier of volume. Like, there are not that many consoles out there, but there's an extremely heavy focus on games, so that makes them more valuable.

And so, BlackBerry has been focusing on games recently which they didn't used to do when they were this kind of business and enterprise phone, and Microsoft has been pushing games too.

So, we'll see. It's early days. We're waiting for the analysts' numbers to come in. We try to read them, but we never really understand because the analysts never agree anyway. [Laughs].

At least what we try to do is make it so that each platform only actually counts as half of a platform in terms of actual effort for the developer. So, you that means developers can add two more platforms [to work on] and that still means they're only working on on two platform in terms of their workload.

That leads on to what I was going to ask next, actually. Because Unity greases the wheels if you like for developers working on multiple platforms, isn't there a risk that all the platforms will end up with exactly the same games? Won't they lose their individuality, or is there value to their uniformity?

Well, the hardware is already very similar. These are mostly dual-core or sometimes quad-core phones with, of course, varying levels of 3D chip quality and varying memory. So, they're not all the same, but they are similar, and similar games will work well on them.

Of course, you can tune the games a bit. You can add some extra effects for the high end handsets and so on, and that's as far as I can tell mostly good for the developer.

Is it good or bad for the consumer? I don't think it's a problem – if there are more good games on the phone, that makes your phone more valuable regardless of the differentiation I guess. I fail to see any problem there. [Laughs].

At Unity, just because we make cross-platforms games easy, we try not to block developers from doing specific things on platforms that allow it. So, at some point some phones had gyroscopes and some didn't, and developers could support it on phones that had it and leave it out on those that didn't.

On the subject of other platforms, I looked through the interview I did with you at last year's Unite in Amsterdam and we spoke a lot about smart TVs, but things don't seem to have moved on much on that front in the last 12 months. Why do you think that is?

Well, there hasn't been any 'out of the park' successes, but the numbers are up from what we've seen. We have a deal with LG on their TVs and there are kind of good games on there now – and some games from other providers, too.

Do you think it's just a bit too early for consumers then? Is success inevitable?

I think one of the problems is just that there's brutal competition from mobiles and tablets, which are just fantastic gaming devices, they're in your hands, they get updated...well, I don't know the rate of consumer replacements, but it's pretty high.

At least phones is like, I don't know, is it 18 months the estimate average? Tablets are probably slower, but not way more than a couple of years anyway.

That's just fantastic for developers, to know that there are all these new devices out there. But I don't know. All I can say is, we've put games on smart TVs, they've sold, and we like them.

Where do you think platforms like Ouya and GameStick fit into this? Do you think maybe they're part of the reason smart TVs haven't flown?

I don't think so, because they're so fledgling. The numbers of TVs in general is so massive compared to any of these devices, so...well, I cannot imagine they've affected it. But they will at least try to give them competition, and competition is good.

It's too early to really know what's really going to happen with the microconsoles. There are continuous rumours about all kinds of things - and we're not privy to any details – but I can only assume that there will be more companies coming out with things.

That'll also be tough competition [for smart TVs], and I guess consumers haven't really spoken yet about what they want, or if they really want to adopt microconsoles.

The good thing, from our perspective anyway, is that every new device is an opportunity. Every device that is sponsored by a company provides an opportunity, even if it's just a little opportunity. And they all run operating systems we can manage, whether it's Android and so on – Unity games will pretty much always run. So, we're not reliant on one winning over the other.

If we could talk about Unite a bit. Of course, this year you've had conferences outside of this main Unity conference – one in Malmö in Sweden for instance. Is this move just about geography – about making sure developers who, say, can't travel to Vancouver can make it to an event near them, or is each event designed to have an individual feel?

Actually, the biggest issue is not travel, it's language. The Malmö one – okay, that's outside of that, because we only speak English at our events in Europe and that's working pretty well. [Laughs].

But we went to Tokyo, we went to Seoul, we went to China, and while at least some of the talks were in English, they were simultaneously translated, and many of the talks were of course in the local language. Almost all of the social stuff was in local languages too, and that's just how it has to be.

Given we want to be this global company, we've had to do a lot of real work to make that happen. This was the only way to do it.

In Europe it was about travel, and then we're here in Vancouver for North America – although there are some people who have come over. And then we'll have a smaller event in Brazil. So, yeah, it's about being closer to people – it's pretty awesome. This is still the most ambitious one, the biggest one, the one where we announce the most stuff.

We're mostly mobile at Nordic in Europe in May, but apart from that, this one is getting more love. It's also good to have a point in the year that acts as a focal point for the company.

Why did you specifically pick Vancouver? Apart from the fact that you're in an amazing venue here, of course...

The truth is, there is a whole bunch of small reasons – there isn't one big dramatic one. We hadn't been here before, but there's a big development community here with a big strong indie base that we want to get in touch with.

We wanted to pick a location in North America, and we'd already been in San Francisco a couple of times and Montreal once, and if you rule these out, there are only like three to five other really interesting places from a games industry perspective, like Toronto, or Austin or LA or maybe Boston, for instance.

And then we had this fantastic reception here. Did you fly in to Vancouver? Did you see the 'welcome Unite' banner at the airport here?

Yeah, yeah.

It's like 'woah'. [Laughs]. They treat us really well here, so it's fantastic.

It's an amazing setting for a conference. I remember saying the same thing last year in Amsterdam, actually, but this is...

...yeah, amazing in a different way. And you know, these cities rely on people coming to these conferences wanting to come back as tourists. They know that things like this will give them a tiny boost every time, and cities invest in that. Anyway, that's kind of off the point. [Laughs].

You were talking about the Unity Awards in your keynote and how you think this is the strongest year so far. It must be amazing to see the range of different types of games plugged into Unity...

It's so freaking crazy. And like I said at the Awards Ceremony last year – and I'm afraid I'll repeat myself here – but every single one of these games last year would have won every single award just the previous year. Well, very close anyway. [Laughs].

The games are so much better, the polish, everything.

So, as a final soundbite if you will, if you had to give a new Unity developer one piece of advice as to how they could be the next Unity Award winner – the next The Room or the next Year Walk – what would you say?

I'd quote the keynote, almost. I'd say 'go nuts'.

I've tried to explain it before and I don't know if it's ever come across, but there's no institutional reason why you can't be successful. It's often the case that the incumbents are so powerful, and in many cases in world history being the incumbent gives you all the power, or at least most of it. So for somebody to break through has been impossible in some periods of time.

Now we have the exact opposite. The incumbents are all in trouble because of the innovation cycle – typically what an incumbent does is, they do something one year, then the next year they do the same thing but they improve it. There are periods in the industry when that is the best thing to do, and you beat everyone by doing it. But that's not the case now.

If you do something one year, it's the wrong thing the next year. [Laughs]. It also means that people with brilliant ideas who can move fast and catch the wind can do well. And all the big successes in mobile...well, I think without fail, I might miss something, but they're not copies. Everything is fresh.

Of course, everything is inspired by something, but there's usually some innovation, fundamental difference or clever thing they've done that is new.

So, I'd just go nuts. Dive in. If you're just starting out, you may need luck to be, say, be as good as The Room the first time you make something, but it's happened before, right?
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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jon jordan
Super interview, Keith.

Only question is Who is the manager of that team who turned out "really great"?