Develop catches up with the Unity engine's co-founders after a busy year for the middleware firm

Unity’s big year

A big focus at Unite has been on what Unity developers can do with Flash. How important is export-to-flash for the engine’s future?

Nicholas Francis (CCO):
It really is just another platform for us.

David Helgason (CEO): Absolutely. It’s simply a great way to put games on the web. Adobe announced the Flash 3D features around a year ago, and people knew it was coming.

We were looking at it, and knew that if they got it right we might be able to work with it.

We weren’t sure, by the way. It’s kind of weird to run one thing inside another like that, and we thought it could really suck.

We were really doubting it, and it took a lot of discussions. The best thing that can happen in a technology company is that two of the best engineers there are just say ‘this is important, so let’s just do it’.

So during December last year we gave it a try. These were two very freaking brilliant guys, and they worked on it for a couple of months, and we realised it was going to work. So we green lit the project, and by the spring we were sure enough that it would work to announce it.

And you really just see this as just like any part of the evolution of what Unity offers?

Helgason: Yes. Unity is fundamentally a tool that allows people to create awesome games and game-like things, and run them where they need them to run.

I think we can now say very certainly it is important to be able to run your 3D games inside Flash, and thus our customers need to be able to. Now that is very, very close. It really does work.

You also used your Unite keynote to affirm your commitment to increasing Unity’s ability and status as a triple-A engine. You said something similar at Unite 2010, so what’s changed?

Helgason: Well, last time that was just entirely a claim, right? [much laughter] This time it’s real.

But isn’t it going to be hard to satisfy both the hobbyists and small teams Unity is famous for courting, along with studios making triple-A games?

Helgason: Well, I must say that yes, historically those are opposites.

But we’ve always done things so Unity is open enough for triple-A developers to knock themselves out.

And yes, we’ve had some areas where work needs doing and there are holes and bugs that have only manifested themselves in large-scale projects, and we’ve always had to work to iron those out.

If you’re a small guy making a game, you’ll focus. A triple-A game will push all of Unity’s buttons, because they use big teams and have big budgets. That smaller guy will focus on just some of the buttons, but it doesn’t mean he won’t go just as deep in how he uses them.

Perhaps the little guy will be doing some work with particles that is every bit as complex as it would be on a triple-A game, but leaving complex audio stuff out.

Tripe-A stuff sounds so expensive and inaccessible, but I actually don’t think that’s how it should be.

Everyone, whether in triple-A or not, wants Unity to be as awesome as possible. And really it’s often the indies and the hobbyists who are more blocked by a lack of features than the triple-A guys.

The guys at places like EA can roll out features themselves much more easily.

So in that way we can service everyone. But then there has been an internal shift at Unity. In a way, we’ve moved from a focus on making it simple to make games, to saying that we want Unity to help your game be really, really awesome, whoever you are.

So in a way you’re taking Unity’s mantra of ‘democratising game development’ very literally, and catering for everyone, small or large?

Helgason: Well, remember that we never called ourselves anything like ‘Garage Games’, or said we were a hobbyist’s engine. We only said we wanted to make it simple and easy for everyone. Speaking frankly, at the start it was only hobbyists. None of the big studios dared use Unity.

Now that we offer broader features, and now that we have proven ourselves and earned people’s trust, today we’re seeing the whole range.

And it turns out that things that save those smaller teams time also save the big teams a lot of time.

And you’re also expanding globally, with new offices in Japan and now Canada?

Francis: They are very different things really. Our focus in the Asian market is about getting Unity out there.

Looking at our statistics we were seeing a tremendous pick-up in Asia. But because there is less speaking of English, we didn’t really know what was happening.

We could see there was a bunch of people there downloading it, so we knew we had to start to do what ever it takes to get things there building up. That really is an on-going effort.

On the other side, Unity Canada, to be honest, could be anywhere in the world. It was about where Mécanim, who we acquired, were based. It could have ended up being called Unity Tibet if that’s where they were set up.

Helgason: I’d be totally behind setting up in Tibet. But seriously, we set up where there is talent. We’ve also recently set up an office in Stockholm for the same reason.

We didn’t make an acquisition there, but we did find some incredibly talented guys there who were from DICE, the Electronic Arts studio, and they wanted to join us, so we made them an office.

Mécanim was your first acquisition. Is that something we’re going to see more of?

Helgason: We are open minded to it, but really it’s not so important that it’s an acquisition. Mécanim were guys that we wanted to work with, and they had technology that we thought was a good starting point for something.

It really was incredible, but these guys had only been working on it for a couple of years, and they weren’t even considering it finished.

But still, we knew they understand character animation in a way that we don’t. They’re basically world champions at it. Nobody is better than them. The fit was perfect, and they fit in with the Unity company culture, so we acquired them.

Francis: But it wasn’t about the acquisition, it was about the talent and technology and the fact that we wanted to work with those guys.

At last year’s Unite you announced Union and the Asset Store. How are those going?

Helgason: The simpler one there is Union. We had this understanding that we could take games and put them on new platforms, and that’s actually happened; most recently with the Roku 2 set-top box and the Nokia N9. Union has progressed as expected.

It’s maybe worked slightly slower than we expected, because the bigger companies can be so slow.

I never knew how many meetings they would need. That was surprising.

And we have a lot more Union deals we’re nearly ready to announce. But it is a slow process.

And what about the Asset Store?

That’s something that’s got a bit more marketing focus, and it’s really important to us and we’ve given it a lot of effort. It’s really going wonderfully actually.

When we first talked about the Asset Store we thought that, worst case, it just becomes a nice feature, even if it doesn’t make people money. And it turns out that it does make people money. It’s making some people a lot of money.

And it’s not just the one exception that’s making money. It’s quite a lot of people. And it’s expanding the abilities of the engine. Things like the spline editor have offered a perfect solution for lots of games.

Francis: And there’s 1,866 assets and packs on there. It’s definitely going well.

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