Unity: People powered platform

Seth Barton
Unity: People powered platform
Clive Downie, CMO at Unity

What do Firewatch, I am Setsuna, Overcooked, Pokémon Go, Superhot, Super Mario Run, Cuphead, Gwent, Sudden Strike 4 and Yooka-Laylee all have in common? Apart from all being great examples in their own genres, they were all created on Unity. 

That surely puts to rest the old erroneous notion that Unity is only for mobile or indie games. The highly-flexible platform has proven itself in both VR and AR too and is being used to create a short film series by none less than Neill Blomkamp. 

While Unity’s updates continue, there’s a huge amount of work being done behind the scenes to build around the core tool, creating a platform that provides every possible resource that its huge community of creators could require. 

We catch up with Clive Downie, now CMO at Unity, but who first made his mark at EA in the UK, to talk about how the platform is serving its biggest asset.

Is Unity now the biggest games engine in the world?

Unity powers over half of all the new games coming to market on the planet. Looking at the aggregate share across all platforms, it’s higher on some platforms than others, but that is a factually-correct statement and we’re pleased to be able to do that.

And all those games means you’ve built a huge community with Unity skills?

When people ask me ‘What’s the most valuable thing about Unity’, they expect me to firstly talk about the technology and features, but actually the most valuable thing about Unity is the fact that there is a million-strong community of developers and creators who know how to use this tool to make wonderful things in digital, and we’re humbled by that, but that’s actually our most valuable asset.

What are the other uses of Unity outside of games?

We’ll always have games at the foundation of what we do, games are a passion for us and we just love them – who doesn’t? But because of its ability to allow people to create in 3D and real time, we’re seeing Unity starting to be used for a whole host of other applications, by industries that understand the value real time visual computation gives them.

Ultimately, our overall goal is to power the digital creativity on the planet and if we can achieve that with a foundation of games and then moving onto other areas where digital creativity can benefit from real-time, then we’re excited about that. 

There are people using Unity in automotive, in architecture, in creative agencies for marketing and advertising, in the film and broadcast industry. And the only reason that they are is because of the great things that have been made with Unity in gaming. 

The work that the gaming creators have done with Unity over the last ten years have brought us to this place, because other creators outside of gaming have been able to look at the real-time creativity that’s coming from game makers and think ‘You know what, I think that tool would be really good to enhance the creativity and efficiency in our workflow’. 

And that’s a great thing for Unity developers and creators in gaming, because when you’re an industry or a vertical outside of gaming and you want to start using this new tool, where do you go for great talent to kick off the usage of Unity? It’s a great time for game makers if they want to take their talent to other verticals, a great time to start thinking about that. The opportunity is now.

Pictured above: Oscar-nominated director Neill Blomkamp has created the ADAM series of short movies using Unity

Back to games, how does Unity help users monetise their creations and what more can you do?

We have three key principles at Unity and one of those is ‘enabling success’. You can have the best creativity in the world, but if you can’t make money… then you’ll very quickly move onto something else. 

We have a number of very specific features in Unity at the runtime level. They’re not additional SDKs that you have to add-on, they are almost like native applications. We have our analytics system, which allows anyone making a game to understand how people are playing that game and where the challenges are that you need to fix to retain the largest set of customers. 

Aligned with that we have a system on mobile – though we’re broadening it to other tools – that allows you to update the product remotely without having to create a new binary. If you align that with analytics, that’s really powerful, because you can understand what needs to be changed in the game and then you can change it, over the air.

And you’re helping to deal with the nitty-gritty of payments, of course?

Yes, we have our in-app purchase functionality. If you want to maximise in-app purchases, across multiple formats often, you have to tether your game to a multitude of different IAP, SDK and APIs. But we do that for you. All you have to do is write to the IAP system in Unity and we handle all the other transactions out to any store you want to publish on.

We also have our own advertising network. Unity’s video network is the number one first party video network on mobile. It sits behind only Facebook and Google in terms of reach. Unity games on mobile alone are played on over 1bn distinct devices a month. And that allows us to make sure that we can optimise the right adverts for the right customer, to make sure that the yield on those adverts are the highest they can be. That’s another great way for us to drive a revenue stream down to our developers.

"Ultimately, our overall goal is to power the digital creativity on the planet, with a foundation of games and then moving to other areas where digital creativity can benefit from real-time."

Clive Downie, Unity

That sounds pretty comprehensive, but what’s next in this area?

There are more things on the horizon. We’re adding machine learning layers underneath our advertising network to bring more ways to optimise yield from very different sets of customers who are using your game everyday. To ensure you’re more successful. And ultimately that your customers are happier, that they can get more out of the game, based on how they want to play it. 

In a way you’re running your own live service – how do you retain your own users?

We moved our business from a perpetual license product to software-as-a-service last year. In fact, 2017.1 was the first software-as-a-service only product. Before that, we had been running [both models] in parallel.

We essentially moved Unity over to being somewhat of a live service, especially when you have the number of creators we do using Unity on a daily basis, it can’t be a one-size-fits-all offering for people. As the performance of the tool increases, so can the complexity. We do work to understand how different segments of creators are using Unity, and then we work to equip those people with the aspects of Unity that they need. We will send them communications, we will send them particular learning materials, we’ll send them particular tutorials, we’ll connect them with other developers similar to them, so they can learn together. 

So you’re actively working to build ties within the community?

We’re actively building a community, but we’re actively making sure that people get the most out of Unity based on who they are. We’ve recently partnered with Pluralsight, one of the largest structured courseware companies in the world. We worked with them to create a beginner course for Unity, because it was something we were hearing from many people coming to Unity. While we’re fortunate enough to be in the position where we have a certain amount of ubiquity as a creative tool, we’re getting a lot of beginners everyday and they were telling us they needed a more rigorous programme. That’s on our website now and it’s been well received.

" If you come to Unity, you’re going to be in a place where what you need to ideate and bring your ideas to life is within arms reach of you."

Clive Downie, Unity

And there’s an internal market for assets and work?

We have our assets store, with thousands of publishers offering tens of thousands of assets, services and scripts. We find that store is used a lot in prototyping, to take creators from zero to prototype very quickly. 

One of things we’re thinking of doing is adding a marketplace option to it, very similar to an eLance option, where people can actually request very specific assets from those thousands of publishers. We’re looking into that and talking to customers.

Then we have Unity Connect. That’s the place that people go to everyday to connect in real time to creators like themselves who are online. They can learn from each other, they can ask each other to perform micro tasks on each others’ projects, share projects, ask each other for assets. 

You can start to see how everything revolves around this idea, that we’re really nurturing our creatives so they get the most out of Unity. They stick around and ultimately make great things and realise their goals.

Sounds like you’ve thought of everything...

I don’t think we’ve thought of everything, we still have lots of work to do. We’re not done, but we’re starting to fill in the holes around this notion of supplying digital creators with their total creative platform. 

If you come to Unity, you’re going to be in a place where what you need to ideate and bring your ideas to life is within arms reach of you. Without you really leaving Unity.