Unity returns to GDC show floor ‘with largest booth in our history’ for 2019 – we find out why

Last year’s GDC was somewhat unusual in that Unity, arguably the most-used game engine in the world and the hometown team with its HQ in San Francisco, was absent from the show floor.

Instead the company opened up venues across the centre of town, with thousands visiting its various events. This year it’s back at the show, though, with the biggest stand it’s ever had, some 12,000 square feet in total. 

We asked Katrina Strafford, VP of marketing at Unity, about the thinking behind the change for 2019’s GDC and what the Unity community can look forward to from GDC this year – whether they’re in town or not.

Last year Unity took its GDC presence and went city-wide, how did that work out, what did you learn for this year?

We welcomed more than 1,500 people into our office, thousands more into our other venues around the city, and millions of viewers across our social media channels. This year we are challenging ourselves to go even bigger so we are happy to announce that we are returning back to the show floor in a big way – we are bringing the largest booth in our history. 

It’s more than 12,000 square feet packed with a theatre that will house developer talks and panels, the Answer Bar where creators can meet with Unity experts and partners, and plenty of hands-on experiences so that attendees can be immersed in our tech.

We came away with a huge learning from last year; the community really liked having unique and comfortable spaces to connect with us, and each other. We’ll be building in plenty of spaces for people to meet, recharge, and connect. And this is just the start; there’s much more to come in the weeks leading into GDC. I encourage you to keep an eye on our GDC Hub for updates.

This year you’re also back on the show floor, what’s the thinking behind what some might term a U-turn?

GDC is one of my favourite times of year. The electricity in the building the week before is next-level, as engineers from all our offices descend upon our San Francisco office. The sheer impact of everything in the works comes into focus as we head into GDC, and then GDC itself is such an amazing opportunity to connect with Unity developers.

That’s why we are doubling down on GDC.

At Unity we believe that the world is a better place with more creators in it. And to foster those creators, you need to be everywhere they are, and everywhere they want to be. Once again we’re opening up the doors to Unity Central (30 3rd Street) to everyone, no badge needed, and we’re expecting to welcome thousands of creators into our doors.

Beyond that, attendees are invited to attend our Dev Day on March 19, and to see talks from our tech leaders such as Natasha Tatarchuk (VP of Graphics), Joachim Ante (CTO), Mike Acton (Principal Engineer) and Timoni West (Director of XR Research).

This is going to be our biggest GDC ever.

Will we see more games and more partners on the show floor as part of Unity’s stand?

Unity is the world’s most widely used real-time development platform. We reach 25+ platforms, 50% of all new games are made with Unity and 45% of the top 1,000 mobile games are powered by Unity.

That’s because we are at the centre of the gaming ecosystem; we collaborate with all of the major players in gaming, and all of the names and faces you’d expect will have a big role in our booth.

We also have a few surprises up our sleeve, you’ll have to wait and see 🙂

I see the keynote is moving, Why is Monday better for you?

The Keynote sets the tone for the week, so we made the decision to move ours up to Monday, March 18 at 5pm PT (from Tuesday last year) because we wanted to give the community more time to engage with Unity, with each other, and with the technology.

Developers travel from all over the world to come to GDC to see the latest innovations, learn from each other, and get their hands on the newest tech. We owe it to the community to maximise the amount of time they can have access to us, and the early feedback from the community and our partners validates this thinking.

We’re also thinking about our friends around the world who can’t attend GDC. Our Keynote is Live Streamed with our global audience in mind, so that they can feel like they’re here with us in San Francisco. We are really excited to get on stage and share what we’ve been working on.

How do you decide the keynote content and length, as it’s a very different experience for someone in the room, compared to someone skimming through the YouTube video a few hours, or days later?

This is a great question. I’ve had the privilege of producing our Keynotes over the past couple of years, with a lot of help from teams across Unity. Our Keynotes are driven by the technology we have for developers today, and the new technology coming tomorrow. And yes, we’ve learned a lot along the way.

We always ask attendees for their feedback from our Keynotes and we’ve learned that 89 minutes is perfect; anything less is too short, and 90 minutes or more is too long. While that seems like a lot of time, it isn’t when you have the amazing stable of talent, tech leaders and partners we have. We have to make some tough choices when it comes to programming.

Murphy’s Law also plays a big role when it comes to technology and Keynotes, but sometimes those give way to some of our most memorable moments. I think about the time that Joachim Ante was on stage at Unite Los Angeles and the controller stopped working right in the middle of the MegaCity ECS demo. When we rebooted the demo and everyone saw how fast it loaded all content in again, everyone could tell that it was real; there was no smoke and mirrors. It generated the largest applause line of the night.

There’s always room to experiment, to try to surprise and delight your audience. At Unite Berlin we announce that Improved Prefab Workflows were available in preview; this was a long requested feature from the community so we knew that we had to make the moment special. We didn’t tell our CEO John Riccitiello that we had invited co-founder David Helgason to come on stage to deliver the news. John’s surprise was real, and his excitement was genuine. It was a beautiful shared moment with the audience, and we celebrated by dropping confetti from the rafters.

And we know that 90 minutes isn’t for everyone, so we do a cutdown after the fact, a TLDR version, if you will, that distills all of the major announcements and showcases down to three minutes. Then there’s the balance between the in-person audience, the livestream audience, and the “on-demand” audience who are seeing various segments. As you can see from our Unite LA Keynote, we have an overarching theme that is woven into each of our segments, but we also craft each section so that it has the ability to stand on its own.

What are your high-level goals for GDC, how do you measure your success?

At Unity we are deeply committed to enabling success for the community – everything we build is in service of the them. So it’s important to us that they get access to not only our technology, but to the people creating this technology. It allows us to have a deeper dialog, and learn about how our roadmap is affecting what the community is building and/or needs.

One of our high level goals this year is to help people build, operate, and monetise their games, regardless of the size of their team, and their build target. As you aware from last year’s cover story, we are rewriting the foundation of Unity through the Entity Component System, and the end result is leading to major increases in performance from the high-end all the way to the low-end. If the community walks away with a strong understanding of how together, Unity and the development community, are evolving the platform to meet their needs, then we will see that as a great success.

Unity has an incredibly wider user-base, but in my mind GDC tends towards console and PC, do you find that as well?

I think this opens up a deeper discussion about the game industry as a whole – and with Unity being at the centre of this ecosystem, we are well positioned to engage in this conversation.

Mobile games are the most widely downloaded, played, and monetised games around the world, and Unity powers more than 50% of all new mobile games, and 45% of the top 1000 mobile games. Millions of people are playing games like Arena of Valor, Pokemon Go, Monument Valley and developers who choose Unity have generated more than $12.4 billion USD of revenue for themselves in the past 2 years.

The recently released State of the Industry survey corroborates what we know about game developers, that more of them are targeting Mobile (38%) than Consoles or VR. As you know, Unity’s renowned extensibility actually makes it easier for developers to build once and target multiple platforms, so in essence a lot of our developers are building for all of those targets when they build on Unity. A great example of this is Final Fantasy XV Pocket Edition, which was released on Mobile, Tablets, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Switch. Some engines have tried to do this with a lot of custom code done in-house, only Unity can do this with the off the shelf platform available to all developers.

Are the high hotel prices in San Francisco a concern for you? Do they prevent more attendees from coming to the show and your events?

You bring up a good point, not everyone can afford to come to San Francisco, so we consider this when we are planning our Unite Conferences and our Developer Days. We go to the epicentres of game development when we plan these events, and we work with the local businesses in those cities to provide the most value possible for our attendees. We’ve recently announced our schedule, including Unite Copenhagen, (where Unity was founded and hometown to our biggest R&D office) which will take place September 24 – 26.

For those who are coming to San Francisco, we see ourselves as one of the hosts of this great city, as this is our backyard.

We are once again opening the doors to Unity HQ, where attendees can get access to our technology, all without the need of a badge. This helps alleviate the burden quite a bit – we’re providing quiet places to have conversations, comfortable seating, places to charge and other amenities such as food and beverage. Last year we welcomed 1,500 people into our offices, and we are looking forward to welcoming several thousand more this year.

I also want to call out that our Tech Leaders have several sessions as part of the GDC Programming. These include sessions from Vice President of Graphics Natasha Tatarchuk, Principal Engineer Mike Acton, Director of XR Research Timoni West and Principal Machine Learning Engineer Cesar Romero, which cover the spectrum from graphics, performance, XR and Machine Learning.

For those who can’t come to GDC, we are Live Streaming several of our sessions and share several of our resources, all of which you will be able to find on our GDC Hub.

About Seth Barton

Seth Barton is the editor of MCV – which covers every aspect of the industry: development, publishing, marketing and much more. Before that Seth toiled in games retail at Electronics Boutique, studied film at university, published console and PC games for the BBC, and spent many years working in tech journalism. Living in South East London, he divides his little free time between board games, video games, beer and family. You can find him tweeting @sethbarton1.

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