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Unity's CEO on staying relevant in a tumultuous era
Unity's CEO on staying relevant in a tumultuous era
March 28, 2013 | By Christian Nutt

Unity has grown substantially in the last year -- adding "probably" 100 people, CEO David Helgason tells Gamasutra. While many of them have been posted to its Asian offices -- 14 or 15 in China -- a large swath of them have been added to QA, making QA one-third of its entire development team. Why QA? Because that's what it takes to make sure that Unity remains a push-button solution for delivering a game to so many platforms.

"We're getting to a point where we're supporting more platforms than any other software, actually," says Helgason. "Not in just a theoretical way, and you have to compile it yourself -- but no, no, it actually works out of the box."

This is crucial, says Helgason, because of the shifting sands of the game industry right now. Not only has the company added support for the Wii U, it has also brought in PlayStation Mobile and PlayStation 4.

The company also recently announced a partnership with Facebook, which its director of game partnerships Sean Ryan talked up at GDC. "They created a category for Unity games on App Center," Helgason said, as part of the platform's push to capture more mid-core users. According to Ryan, 75 million Facebook users have the Unity plugin installed.

"Not only does technology move fast, but the game industry has been accelerating," says Helgason. There are lots of opportunities for developers -- "Some are raw consumer opportunities, but they're mixed with people willing to fund things in certain ways for certain reasons." Unity, he says, has a mission to let developers "quickly grasp opportunities."

The company has also began to "peer ahead," in his words, at what's coming next, as part of that package, and is showcasing a new demo based around features developed by its high-spec research team in Stockholm.

"They break new ground, but they also break their toes, I like to say... stuff that wasn't prepared for you, they learn that, they fix it, and they bring it back to the product," Helgason says.

"Nintendo and Sony got behind us," says Helgason. "That's the result of many things... but definitely because we did that groundbreaking."

Working with platform holders is as "win-win-win," in Helgason's words, but he says that "our primary allegiance... we primarily serve the developers, we're here to make the developers successful.

One big change Unity has undergone recently is that it has lost its longtime CCO, Nicholas Francis. Francis recently left the company to move into game development. Helgason says that the parting was amicable.

"We talk more often now than before he left -- we talk every week because he's so excited about his game," Helgason says. "He's still a shareholder, and a friend, and we've been friends 10 years before Unity."

"It was a very elegant transition, where he put people in place to replace all of his responsibility," Helgason says. "A guy like that had to be replaced by a number of people: Four very capable guys."

"When the timing was right, he was ready to jump, and he jumped."

Helgason says that Francis' obsession with keeping Unity simple and usable did not depart the company with him. "Honestly, he was not doing all this work -- he was an inspiration and a mentor, and he's mentored the team for many years, some of them almost a decade," says Helgason. "He's instilled a deep faith in design and elegance in the organization."

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Cordero W
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Unity is going places.

Phil Maxey
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It's already gone places, now it's going more places.

Michael Joseph
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"our primary allegiance... we primarily serve the developers, we're here to make the developers successful."

Unity is a great of example of success by simply daring to try and give game developers everything they want. Affordable, multi-platform, moderate learning curve, flexible, scriptable, decent performance, plenty of built in tools, well documented + huge knowledgebase, etc, etc, etc.

An honest product at a fair price... so far.

They have a lot of investors (eg. Sequoia Capital, WestSummit Capital in China and iGlobe Partners in Singapore) who one day will probably want to turn a tidy profit. Not saying that means they'll turn evil or anything... just saying that the meat hooks are in place.

Phil Maxey
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I think it could be cheaper. I think they are caught between it being a tool for indies and a tool for studio's. Right now it's cheap for studio's but a bit pricey for indies, especially as most indies would probably use it for 2D games (ironically).

Cordero W
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I'm using it, and I definitely like it for its 3d features. Otherwise, I would just program my own 2d games in C++. Unity makes 3d easier for people like me.

Phil Maxey
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@Cordero W

I like having everything under one roof, having 2D and 3D options, or maybe mixing them both us in the same game. And also the option to publish to pretty much every platform, mobile or otherwise, Unity does that and that's appealing to everyone including indies who just want to make 2D games with it.

Matthew Smith
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I used to be in the minority of people who actually *didn't* like Unity. I won't go into the details of why but after moving back to 3D and back to Unity (Unity 4) I have to say I'm really impressed. It *does* keep improving and it *does* keep getting more powerful while remaining very easy to use.

David if you happen to read these comments: I was wrong; you were right. You've got a great product.

Ruthaniel van-den-Naar
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Unity now grows more in width (multi-platform, integration) rather than the height (quality). They wanted to be, also AAA, they even aclaiming that, but there are still.. lots of hurdles and inquality. Some old Unity architecture mistakes, lack of important features, bad performance etc.

Some of these are 2 few old problems.. For example framework for 2D games or good GUI editor is promised for 2 years and still them dont deliver it. Multi-threading Physx inst avalaible, iOS performance is bad, serialisation is problem.. i could continue. There arent any granted quality (asset store code is usauly very problematic (messy, unstable, slow) and for very specific use cases istn too universal) prefabs for usual enties - like doors, evevators, teleport, default enemies,vehicles etc.. which was 17 year ago in even in Quake (except vehicles).

When I lookfrom time to time at their short changelog and i know, that company have 200 people, I'm really sad, progress is slow.. some people in their team must be weak or unqualified.

If Unity is such a great tool, where is announcement of big AAA game? Im still waiting..

Wendelin Reich
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"If Unity is such a great tool, where is announcement of big AAA game?"

Dude, do you realize that your definition of a "great tool" is at odds with about 95% of the Unity community? Unity has always been about the long tail of small and (more often than not) 'independent' developers. You cant make sense of the design of the editor, the class hierarchy and all that unless you take that into account.

High-profile games from larger studios are important for Unity in terms of marketing etc., but they still only earn $1.500 per licence. That's not where they make their money. That's why they don't prioritize multi-threaded PhysX.

That's also how you have to understand the AAA initiative: making small-studio games look even better than they already do. IMO they have already done a lot in that department - just look at visually gorgeous iOS games like Slingshot Racer or Year Walk. Many Unity games that look bad (e.g., Ravensword) simply underutilize its abilities.

And for the record: thank you, Unity, for *not* policing the Asset Store too much. I'd rather loose a few bucks once a while on a bad asset (and write a negative review) than live in a gated community (analogous to the Apple(c) Appstore(c)).

Wendy Jones
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I've purchased Unity 3.x and 4.x Pro and for the past year I've really tried to like it. I come from a game development background where games were written completely in C++. It's taking me a long time to get used to the editor with scripts system that Unity forces you in to. I still want to like Unity and want to see them go places but I feel like they are lacking in documentation especially on their console versions of the product. API references are nice when you already know what you're looking for.

Aaron San Filippo
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Interesting. I've had roughly the opposite experience: I come from a AAA games background having worked with Unreal and other C/C++ engines, and I learned Unity in a weekend. I find the C# workflow to be natural, and the component-based system to offer more flexibility in gamecode and scripting than most engines.

As for documentation - I've never actually seen an engine with more of it. Every function is documented for C# and Javascript, and virtually every problem domain has been explored on the Unity answers forum. Admittedly, I've not done work with console APIs yet, only PC/Mobile.