One for All

David Lau-Kee, the new chairman of Unity, is best-known for his long-running stint at Criterion Software, which he founded and led until its eventual sale to Electronic Arts in 2004. What does this games technology veteran make of the state-of-play today, and where does Unity fit in?
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David Lau-Kee, the new chairman of Unity, is best-known for his long-running stint at Criterion Software, which he founded and led until its eventual sale to Electronic Arts in 2004. What does this games technology veteran make of the state-of-play today, and where does Unity fit in?

What most excites you about Unity?

Unity the company or Unity the toolset? I make the distinction because there are aspects of both that I find exceptionally refreshing, although in a sense they derive from a common philosophy, and that’s the democratisation of video gaming. It’s what you talked about nearly two years ago, and what Phil Harrison was getting at in his ‘Game 3.0’ GDC 2007 keynote, and what Nintendo kind-of wants to embody, as Reggie articulated recently [BMO Capital Markets Conference].

In what sense democratisation?

The democratisation of games means two things to me.

First, it means that the graphics arms race is over. Who, truly, cares about the miniscule rises in the visual quality high watermark that we’ve seen over the past few years? Wii players don’t. Nor do the millions downloading iPhone games, or the vast majority of PC users, and nobody on the web does.

The fact is, we’ve crossed a threshold now where the value of improved visuals is swamped by the creative opportunities that arise from opening up access to content and delivering it in a less regimented fashion, co-existing and mixing with all the other content, media and social networking channels that people deal with in their lives. It means we have to be much less precious about games, and that’s a fantastic thing in my view.

Second, it means there are increasingly blurred distinctions in the industry’s traditional value chain including, most relevantly, the distinction between publisher, developer and player. I love the idea of a player-creator or creator-consumer. It makes the games industry interesting again by providing a fantastic foil to over-polished, inappropriately focus-tested blandness.

What are the practical consequences?

So, if you take the mashing-up of content and media (games, web, Skype, YouTube, txt, email, IM, and so on), and you allow the player to become developer and the developer the publisher, where does that lead?

That’s the question I’ve been asking myself for a while now, and what excites me about Unity is that both the tools and the company are a part of the answer: The Unity editor and engine is absurdly affordable – just $1,500 for a full pro licence, no royalties, no restrictions; it’s beautifully easy to use, not just for traditional game programmers, but also for designers, level-editors, artists and producers; and it allows you to deliver fantastically rich games in a browser.

And as important, David [Helgason, Unity MD] and the guys at Unity really get what it means to be a part of this new world – they absolutely understand that they are answerable to the community of Unity users. You just need to take a look at the Unity forums – what you see there is a true community, vibrant, thriving and creative. People love using Unity and being part of the Unity world, and the Unity guys value that above all else. Show me another game development tool and engine that the users love using!

What will be your main activity as chairman?

Offering guidance and providing assistance to help Unity’s management to grow their company. They’re already hugely successful in terms of the quality and functionality of the Unity tools, and the size of Unity community, and the company is functioning really, really well. But there’s so much more that can be done, particularly in terms of increasing our presence in the US and Asia, and scaling our development capabilities to better match our product demand and opportunities.

What’s coming in 2009 with Unity that people should look out for?

A Windows version. Although we already deploy to the PC natively, and of course our PC browser delivery is spectacular, to date the Unity editor has only been available on the Macintosh. As much as we love Macs, we’re very aware that 95 per cent of the games community uses PCs. We’ve had our Windows version in restricted release for a little while now, and we plan a full launch very soon. You’ll also see us enabling our community in some extremely powerful ways, but we’re not ready to discuss that just yet.

Do you see Unity as primarily a tool for smaller independent developers, or will it become a full-blown commercial middleware solution for larger studios?

I think this relates a bit to your first question. The game industry is changing, partially to take advantage of emerging trends and partially because it’s commercial suicide not to change.

Do we aim to be the turnkey technology provider to studios producing $20m titles? No, because that’s historic thinking. We have thousands of hobbyist developers using Unity and hundreds of independent developers, and that’s where we want to be because that’s where creativity thrives.

Can Unity be used in larger studios? Yes. Is it? Of course; but Unity is not, and will never be, a prescriptive, restrictive tool chain to control process. Unity is a creative productivity tool that can be used within a large studio’s existing production process, rather than dictating that process; there are several very large projects in development using Unity, and once we release the Windows version there’ll be many more, but Unity will always be a tool for independent creatives every bit as much as for large studios.

You're best-known as the face of Criterion Software, and Renderware. Whatever the thinking when EA bought out the technology, do you agree that the acquisition and the eventual disappearance of Renderware as a viable third-party middleware tool has turned some developers off middleware completely?

Yes. Although they are far fewer in number than those who recognised the benefits of middleware, made good use of it, and continue to do so today. I’m glad I was able to help establish middleware as a necessary and valuable part of game development’s tools-of-the-trade. It’s here to stay, as it should be, as long as there are developers who want to make games, not technology.

Do you think there's anything you can do with Unity to address such concerns?

I don’t think it is a concern for middleware. But even if it was, it simply doesn’t apply with Unity, not least because it is more a traditional tool than middleware. The professional Unity tool is available for just $1,500 for unlimited use, so in this sense Unity is more like using, say, Photoshop than a game engine.

What have you been up to since you left EA?

I did something I should have done when I was 18 and took a gap year. I spent it backpacking around India and South East Asia, learning to cook and teaching scuba diving. I got back to the UK about a year ago, and have spent the past months looking for people with big ideas and the passion and capability to realise them.

How closely has games technology match what you expected when you first co-created Renderware back in the mid-1990s?

Yes, it was 1993 that Adam Billyard and I first unleashed our middleware onto the games industry! Today’s game technology is precisely as I expected it would be (the obvious stuff) and entirely unexpected (the interesting stuff).

What bits did you get right?

Some parts of the future were very easy to see – coming from academic, scientific computer graphics backgrounds it was clear to us that Moore’s law and the hardware-software wheel of reincarnation would bring what at the time was very high-end scientific graphics to the mainstream. Some parts I completely missed the significance of, such as the importance of the Internet for both online games and downloadable content.

What's most exciting in games today?

The collision of the web, tech savvy creator-consumers, and industry ‘consolidation’. When we talk of consolidation, we generally think of big companies getting bigger and layoffs. But the corollary is hundreds of new, independent companies being formed by people with huge passion and great ideas unconstrained and unencumbered by old approaches.

To wrap up, what are the three most interesting projects in development using Unity that people should look out for?

Three things:

FusionFall by the Cartoon Network. It’s a tween MMO featuring Cartoon Network’s stars and playable in a browser. It’s fantastically compelling and will be huge.

Feist. It’s being developed by a couple of guys in Switzerland, and won the recent Unity Awards competition. Think LocoRoco with Ico atmospherics.

The other is still to be announced. But it’s a browser release of a huge, traditional franchise, and I can’t say any more. Some things never change, hey?



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