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When I'm not working as Deputy Editor at Gamesbrief, I'm a freelance historian of video games. I'm interested in how game development has changed since 1998, and who/what have been the most important agents of change.
I think that third-party game engines are one of the most important agents of design change in video games. Slowly but surely, they are democratising game production, making possible the enormous growth of indie development
as well as opening the way to the contested ground of zinester game development. And if I had to name one game engine that has had more impact than any other, it would be Unity. Unity's spin on the free-to-play pricing model
has had an enormous impact on the industry.
I met CEO David Helgason at GDC and spoke to him about Unity -- beyond Unity as a game engine, to Unity as an agent in the games development network. Many of the industry experts who we consult at Gamesbrief are building games in Unity
. I learned that the company has a great deal of responsibility on its shoulders that comes from being a nexus point in the industry's indie shift.
"We're like a third-party CTO" he explained. Unity deals not just in platforms, but also in optimising workflow to facilitate more agile development. And he considers their own in-house adaptive workflow to be part of their secret sauce. They "open the fire hose, hear the complaints and then respond" by combining quantitative data with community management on Unity's forums.
Helgason's mission to enable high-end game development outside of bloated corporate institutions gives him a unique perspective on the nature of technology itself.
"Some people think of engines as a linear thing, from less to more advanced. There's truth to that, and Unity is sort of on the mid-right and moving up. What is more important, as a CTO, is where are the gamers going to be, on which devices? And then which rendering techniques and production methods are relevant for those devices?"
He is clearly very excited about Unity's continued expansion to other platforms. "It feels like we're almost unfettered," he said. "The shift between platforms is increasing in pace, while old ones take a while to go away. Friends come and go. Enemies accumulate."
"It's not about having the best skin shading, but about if that skin shading changes the way you work that's a bad thing. It's about going up ahead and then looking back to determine what is relevant. What is relevant for our platform is different to what is relevant for Square Enix."
Unity as a CTO has to balance its priorities. Staying multiplatform and enabling agile workflow can conflict with its need to compete with the most powerful engines in the industry. But Helgason recognises that Unity still needs to compete on power if it is to have a long life ahead in the industry.
"Our AAA initiative is to make sure that over the long term, Unity will never be behind anybody else. We need to raise the profile of our engine to be right at the cutting edge to prevent being supplanted." That means constantly working on bringing Unity's subsystems and features up to speed.
This is where Unity's responsibility to game developers comes in. To provide a good service to developers they need to ensure consistency and compatibility, but maintaining legacy features would prevent the engine from moving forward.
"A luxury of recently written engines is that you can forget about everything that happened before PS4," Helgason explained. "Big studios tend to do that. We have a different approach. We have to make sure that any new stuff we bring up is compatible with old stuff. That makes it harder to write Unity than other engines."
To a historian, this is a particularly interesting issue. Running old games software presents a lot of challenges; console hardware stops working, discs degrade eventually, and emulators are not always reliable -- particularly while they exist in a shadowy corner of copyright law. I asked Helgason if the need to maintain compatibility with old engines means that Unity games will have a longer shelf life. Will I be able to play Unity games twenty years after they were first published?
Sadly, the answer is no -- at least for the consumer. "In theory, if you have the source code you can bring it up to date with the latest version of Unity. We do break stuff, but we document it. We make it clear how to bring your project forward. Hopefully that should mean that we give games a longer life."