Interview

'Not everyone needs to be King or Supercell': Unity's David Helgason talks Unity 5, Everyplay, and Unreal Engine

'Not everyone needs to be King or Supercell': Unity's David Helgason talks Unity 5, Everyplay, and Unreal Engine

David Helgason took his interviews at this year's GDC on top of Unity's impressive stand.

While the man himself would no doubt be wary of making any comparisons to a King sitting atop his castle, it's hard not to entertain such thoughts. Sweeping the floor at this year's expo, it was harder to find games that aren't built in Unity than those that are.

And it's not just mobile, either. Unity is now a one-stop shop for developers working across PC and console too, mirroring the wider industry's shift towards multi-platform – the very game-development-without-boundaries vision of the future Unity was built to entertain.

We sat down with Helgason upon high to talk all things Unity – from the launch of Unity 5 and the acquisition of Applifier through to Epic's recent Unreal Engine announcement.

Pocket Gamer: You've made a lot of announcements recently, but we'd like to go back and talk about one you made back at Unite 2013 in Vancouver – Unity Games. How is your publishing arm progressing?

David Helgason: Yeah, it's a lot of fun! It's not a scaled programme – we're not publishing hundreds of titles. We're partnering with people we think are interesting, have interesting ideas, are really good with Unity and where we think we can add some value to help them get monetisation experts, user acquisition experts. So, we're sort of helping build their skills.

We've got a portfolio of, I don't know, seven games maybe? Some of them released, some announced, some unannounced. It's kind of sad because we have to say no to more people than we say yes to. Like a lot more. I mean, but that's fine because people have a lot of opportunities and so on.

Has it worked out that people come to you or are you just scouting out good games?

It's kind of a mix really. Well, we have people who are our friends – a lot of developers are our friends, we socialise a lot. We're a very porous, open company. Every time I walk around the office there's some studio visiting or somebody hanging out and getting advice for whatever. So, I don't even know where we find them, but it's sort of a mix.

It's a small team – there are eight-ish people, maybe? We're still learning.

Do you find that something like GDC is a benefit for finding those new games?

It's kind of sad because, with Unity Games, we have to say no to more people than we say yes to.
David Helgason

Yeah, well we have a lot of people here and we're taking a lot of meetings. A lot of meetings. Most of them will be 'nos', or 'lets stay in touch'. I mean, we do connect people to other publishers – we have such a big network. It's still early days.

Although I mean we've been publishing games for many years because we first had the Union programme that was about porting games to other platforms and publishing them. Not it's just publishing them [laughs]. That's mainly because we support all the platforms so there's no real porting to do. People can just use our tools – they don't really need our porting support any more.

I don't know how much of an opportunity you get to wander around an event like this – I mean, what do you think the big issues are at the moment?

So, maybe the biggest thing this year is a real broadening of platforms. You don't have to go too many years back and, you may not remember this, it was all about Facebook games. Do you remember that period? [Laughs]. It was like a couple of years back, you know? Then for a couple of years it was just mobile – like, if you weren't mobile you were like stupid or something. And now we see people going everywhere.

A lot of Unity games are going to Steam, a lot of Unity games are going to console actually. What's interesting is, all the consoles now are more open than any of the consoles were a few years ago. [Laughs]. It's unbelievable just how much that has all opened up.

If you go a few years back – at least for us, and I think a general thing for the industry – cross platform was sort of a neat idea, but people were really only doing it if the platforms were really similar. So like PC and Mac – fair enough. Or you do iOS and Android. But now we see games jumping from like tablet to Steam to console... it's a whole round robin, and we see a lot of games start on one platform and then shift and go over, which is really cool and really plays to out strengths, because we support more platforms than...well, I was going to say God. [Laughs]. That's bizarre.

We support all the platforms. I think that's a big thing. And, you know, Oculus and Sony's announcement – I mean now there's a whole new device ecosystem coming out that I'm a big believer in by the way. We've worked with both Oculus and Sony on that stuff, and we're partners to both of them and already Oculus has done its open thing for quite a while with its developer ecosystem. A very large portion of the games being developed by small teams are Unity based.

What happens when a new ecosystem comes along – it happened with the iPhone as well – is that you get this incredible iteration of discovery of the platform. So, like "okay, you can do direct control on a touchscreen, oh you can do thumbsticks, oh you don't have to have them localised – you can have them anywhere on the screen." Literally, month by month people were figuring this out.

You look at an iPhone game from 2009 and it's a totally different thing. Not just graphics wise but everything. It's the same with Oculus. If you look at the demos we were shown almost two years ago when Brandon came to our office with something that was basically held together by gaffer tape and after a minute it was like veering because it didn't have proper gyros - from that to now is unbelievable, right? The kind of discoveries that are being made is fun, and exposing our developer ecosystem to that just creates so much innovation and many good ideas come along.

Well, talking of Unity's efforts to 'democratise game development', how do you view Epic's move? Is that a kind of reaction to what you've been doing?

I can't speak of their thought process, but within three or four years we've had a free option and we don't take any revenue share. What we've started really caring about is, well what we've been finalising with Unity 5 is that we're really getting there with graphic and performance – all of these things. So we're now really as good as anything. That's really exciting to us.

With the Everyplay announcement, people went wild.
David Helgason

The other question that has started to be our most present question in the last year is, we help developers build the games and we make it very cost effective, the asset store has helped and being multiplatform has helped because developers get incremental revenue for the same amount of work basically. So that's really important and we're really good at that I think I can say now. But the big question people live and die by is discovery and connecting with an audience, right?

We started working on it a year ago with Unity Cloud, which is kind of going out of beta right now. The network is really hitting its stride now – we've seen some rapid growth just in the last few days. So that'll be very exciting to watch for the next, well....forever. [Laughs]

And then, of course, with the Applifier acquisition we've got another wonderful answer to that question. With Everyplay, with the announcement, well people went wild. So many people had already been adopting it, and they were like "yes!".

Well, I was going to ask – how has the reaction been to that?

It's been wonderful. I mean, Jussi knows a lot of people, and people just know he's a genuine and wonderful person. They fit right in with Unity – I've known him for like five years.

He's been the most consistent, careful, thoughtful person in the industry that I know. He's like, developers are my customers first. He really helps them, he focused on their needs – he's wonderful like that. People recognise that.

And people have been telling us, "woah, Everyplay's awesome, it's our number 1 source of viral traffic."

I remember seeing Everyplay demoed at Unite 2012 in Amsterdam...

Yeah, that was the first time I saw it too! It was probably the same day. [Laughs].

Well I was wondering if you get people coming to you now in the hope that you'll pick them up later down the line?

Oh, I've had a lot of stuff pitched at me – not just now. [Laughs]. People want to integrate with us and work with us. What's cool is a lot of the people that create services for developers, they call Unity "the third platform". They'll build an SDK for iOS, Android and Unity, and some people even go Unity first – simply because it's really easy to do and with that you get access to a mass of ecosystems.

Everyplay is just so wonderful – there's a video shared every five seconds. It was growing even before the acquisition and we think we can make it even bigger. It's one of these things that, the more people are engaging with it, the more people are sharing videos and the bigger the thing becomes. It's not creating a micro audience, but only micro in the big picture which is the 2 billion people who are part of the 'app world' – whether they're downloading apps for iOS and Android or PCs.

There are 2 billion people, and inside that massive audience you can find a micro audience of a few million people here and there and if you get your game to them and the people like your genre, art style, cultural slant or whatever it is, you can have a really nice business. Only a few people be King and Supercell, but there's a lot of business that can be perfectly fine if they manage to connect with real audiences.

Do you think there's too much focus on the big boys and everyone thinks that's the kind of level they have to reach?

Yeah, I guess everyone likes aiming big and people should...well, I don't know if they should emulate them, but I like ambitious people. I like people who build something awesome and really have the belief that they can connect to a massive audience.

I don't know if everyone should emulate King and Supercell, but I like ambitious people.
David Helgason

But if you look at the other direction – at Kickstarter, for instance. The more genre, the more niche, the better the Kickstarters work, right? It's how you connect with a micro audience of people who want that one game and they'll pay years in advance just to have it created. Everyplay is a counter-point to that after you've launched the game. If you have something that's really compelling, interesting to watch, it can grow like a weed.

I did all that as part of my degree – I should remember all that really.

[Laughs]I never did – I just read a book or something.

So later in the year you've got Unite 2014 in Seattle. What made you focus on Seattle this year? It's a pretty short leap geographically from last year's host city Vancouver...

It's a good city, it's a good location, we've never been there before but we have a big audience there - a lot of developers. We like moving around. The fact it's only a small leap from Vancouver is perhaps the only negative. [Laughs].

But it sort of covers the west coast of, well, all of North America. People don't mind travelling. What's cool is, for Unite, people come from all over the world.

Well it's kind of become it's own thing. I was wondering if you've started feeling the pressure to make the next one better than the last? It's almost a business in it's own right...

Well, it's not a business, because we lose money on it, but it's wonderful. Events like this are great, but at Unite it's pure-play-Unity. Everyone is Unity.

It's such a good environment to connect with our customers and I learn a lot just talking to them and listening to complaints and worries, but also the dev team hat bring a lot of developers they also...well, when someone whips out their laptop and shows you an awesome game, but it has one really annoying bug, you take it a different way than if you read a bug report in an email.

I like that openness and we just connect with people and try and take it in.

Thanks to David for his time.


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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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