Game Features

Democratizing an Industry — Unity Technologies and the Future of Game Development: An Interview with David Helgason

The Unity Engine is everywhere! Powering a surprising number of titles across a wide breadth of genres and platforms, chances are that if you play video games, you’ve experienced a title that is built with Unity. But you don’t have to take my word for it, because David Helgason, CEO and co-founder of Unity Technologies, will happily tell you so himself.

David Helgason is a man that is easily described as passionate about his company and its mission to empower the ordinary person by making game development accessible to as many people as possible. What began in 2004 as an independent game development studio has now become one of the world’s leading forces in interactive entertainment and multimedia.

Mr. Helgason is more than just the CEO and co-founder of a growing multinational LLC: he is a visionary that has acumen comparable to that of the late Steve Jobs. Whether it is the foresight to recognize that rapid changes in the affordability and simplicity of video editing software would herald a similar change for game development software, or years of preparation to take a commanding position in China, the world’s fastest growing economy, Helgason and company always seem to be just a few steps ahead of the rest of the crowd.

An enthusiastic raconteur, Mr. Helgason was kind enough to spend an hour of his time conversing over the phone about the history of his company, its roadmap for the future, taking on respected competitors, and his insights about the mobile gaming industry.

Editor’s note: This interview has been transcribed as it naturally occurred

Brandon Matsalia: “Thank you for taking time out of your traveling schedule to do this interview. I appreciate it.”

David Helgason: “No problem. I’m glad to do it. Sorry that we had to reschedule.”

BM: “No apology needed. I know that you are a busy man. So, shall I go over each question now, or will you simply be answering by memory from the list I e-mailed you?”

DH: “Whichever is easiest for you? Let’s start from the top with the question about how we got started.”

BM: “Okay. Before the Unity Engine became a cross-platform licensing endeavor, the Unity team initially tried its hand at game development with a rather obscure Mac OS game. Could you share with our readers what served as the impetus for the team to transition from a game development studio to a developer of licensed software technologies?”

DH: “We were three guys and we wanted to make games. We actually had a lot of different ideas. We started doing a whole bunch of different prototypes and experiments. We were creating our own tools to enable that experimentation. I guess we didn’t really think of ourselves as indie developers back then, but by any definition, we were [indie developers].

As we were developing our technology we sort of realized [first], we were pretty good at developing an engine and we were pretty excited about our technology. Secondly, this technology didn’t exist. There was nothing you could get off the shelf that was reasonable. There was some stuff that you could get, but, the stuff that was cheap was terrible and the stuff that was good was super expensive.”

BM: [Laughing]

DH: “It would run you into the hundreds of thousands of dollars to set up before you even thought about it. These engines that were on the market back then were also very complicated to operate. It wasn’t good enough to have just the engine; you also needed a big team. Since we were three guys, we actually had a couple of artists working with us, we were like, ‘okay, we need efficiency and need to be able to do things very quickly.’

So that is kind of how it got started, with building an engine that was supposed to be internal. Very quickly, within a couple of years — I know that’s quick actually, but we were in a basement, everything was kind of full [laughs] — we sort of realized that we were on to something with this technology and that we really should pursue that. We felt that there had to be a lot of other people like us that didn’t have access to good technology.

We thought some more about it and realized that there were some interesting things that happened in the past when technology was dramatically democratized. Think about films. You needed a camera, rolls of film, a cutting board and what have you. You could not get started without tens of thousands of dollars and you were probably in for hundreds of thousands before you really got anywhere.

With digital video and software like Final Cut Pro, it dropped down to a few thousand dollars back then, and it is much cheaper now. You had a ten hundred fold decrease in cost, and also a very significant, maybe even similar, drop in complexity and production cost, you know, the work you had to put into it. We saw that and the home studio and realized that this has happened before. As technology becomes more accessible, big things can happen. That sort of became the mission of the company. We wanted to democratize the development of games and make it more available and affordable for other people.

We spent another year or so in the basement and then we launched Unity 1.0 in the summer of 2005. That’s really how it got started. This was pre-iPhone, pre-Android, pre any of this stuff. There were smartphones back then, but all they had were e-mail and Snake [chuckles]. We were focused on PC, Mac and the browser, because those were the most open platforms of the day. The console was closed and very costly back then. You needed all kinds of special licensing and so many requirements back then, but that’s all changing now.

Consoles would have been an interesting choice, but if you are going to democratize something and enable a lot of people to participate, it’s no good if they can’t join in because of some kind of regulation or red tape. So we went for the open platforms.

We built Unity 1.0-1.5 and so many releases in between. We just kept cranking it. Eventually, we were selling our software for a modest, reasonable price. We didn’t have a free license back then. We had a cheaper license of $200. Those licenses allowed us to sell, I wouldn’t say to a lot of people, but at least enough to pay the bills and hire another guy or two. We sort of grew the business like that. We supported the customers and the indie industry was emerging and we realized that we picked an awesome goal for ourselves.

Since we are talking about mobile, what had happened in 2008 was of course that the iPhone had launched already the year before, but the App Store opened up. It’s one of those things where the concept of an app store sort of existed before, but this was somehow so well executed, so clean. Enough devices were sold to make it worthwhile for people initially. We are talking about a couple million devices, which isn’t really a big market in today’s world, but it was enough to kind of make it exciting for developers.

Before the App Store opened up, we were pretty excited about it and we had the feeling that this was going to be big.  Finally, there was an open platform, or close to an open platform since it is curated, that was going to provide a push for small developers, small studios and indie developers.

We got there as fast as we could and were ready with our software for the iPhone just a few months after the App Store opened. The industry hadn’t taken complete notice yet because the numbers were still so small compared to the console business but a lot of small developers were rushing in and we were able to build on the community we already had. We had a community before that, but that community and this new one rushed in and started building games. Things got crazy and fun for a while.

Then Android followed suit not too long after. It took a couple of years for it to catch up. It was called the Android Marketplace back then. It was there reasonably early, but the native development kit to develop native apps was necessary, so we had to wait for that. In that case, we were there very early and worked with Google on very early releases of that stuff, so early actually that it barely worked, but they were excited and we were excited.”

BM: [Laughing]

DH: “We went into open beta with our Android support in summer of 2010. I might be off on that actually. It’s been a while since I checked that date. Then what happened, stop me if I am getting long winded, but then what happened is that mobile became the fastest growing segment, if not technically the biggest, but the fastest growing by far. We had been there and we were working with developers to build a map of the community.

We basically built what is now the biggest game developer community in the world. It is very close to three million people. On an active basis in the last month, there were six hundred thirty-thousand developers working with Unity over 9 million man-hours. It’s just a ton of activity. We don’t know exactly how many games, but it is in the tens of thousands between iOS, Android, Web, PC and consoles, which we support now.

With this massive development community, we realized that we should really think broadly about how to help this developer community that has been very loyal to us and helped us build the company. We considered some things. One, a lot of them really wanted to move to console. Console is not bad; it’s actually exciting for a lot of them.

There are a lot of beautiful things about consoles; they are powerful and have standardized hardware. It has an audience that is by definition almost all hardcore gamers. Though the audience is much smaller than mobile, it is still a big thing. We partnered with all of the console companies, Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo, to make sure that Unity was available for their consoles with good support, engineering wise, marketing wise and so on. Most of them are even building games on their own with Unity. So now we are sort of the super-multiplatform engine [laughs]”

BM: [Laughing]

DH: “We are on PC and web. We support all of the consoles and the Playstation Vita even. Basically, every platform you can imagine, we support; Linux, the Steam Box, things like that.”

BM: “The Unity team has done a remarkable job of supporting a bevy of platforms, including platforms where the gaming user base is considerably marginal. What led the team to create an inclusive development tool rather than an exclusive development tool?”

DH: “It really comes down to being at the center of this massive development community and really being beholden to them, and owing them the world and feeling that we really have to do what is best for them. The thing is, while many of them, or maybe most, go for the biggest platforms, it is such a big community that there’s enough people that want to go for the smaller platforms. And some of these platforms are small, but up and coming.

Windows Mobile is growing fast. The consoles have a small install base now because they just came out but they are growing fast. Vita has big enough install base and an active marketplace — there are people still asking for it. So really, it is about how we can help these guys because as it turns out, a lot of these guys want the flexibility and the freedom to move between platforms.

When you start a game or a studio, you don’t necessarily know where the market is going to be in one or two years. The App Store is now six years old. Our support for Android is now four years old. Who could have predicted that those would now be two gigantic marketplaces [laughs] of human population scale [chuckles], just four or six years ago?”

BM: [Laughing]

DH: “Since it does take time to get into platforms and to become really good with them, we feel it is important to be there early and working with the platform holders to make sure that our support is fantastic. You can’t predict where the industry is going. You can’t predict what the needs of individual developers are going to be. By the way, so many developers now adopt Unity as their main toolset that it would be wrong of us to limit what they can do.

So platform is one question and another is 2D. We built 2D tools because we wanted to make sure that people could stay with Unity whether they were building 3D games or 2D games. Before, they were begrudgingly leaving Unity when they needed to build 2D games. They would come back and complain that the 2D toolsets out there weren’t very good and they preferred Unity, but we needed 2D features.

And then on the very high end, we also realized that people want to make games that look fantastic. So we are all in on adding high end features, but we want to make sure that they work both on the newest consoles and with mobile. We have the all new global illumination, an all new shader system, and all sorts of other new features coming up in Unity 5 that we announced at GDC a few months ago.

There are a lot of things we have to do and want to do. We are a very ambitious company and we get a little crazy with the back and forth and all of those things. We are thankful for it and all of the amazing games built with our help.

I know you are interested in mobile, but with Xbox Live and the showcase of so many indie games, it is exciting because so many of them are built using Unity. So we are fantastic on mobile, but we are also doing very well on console and even on PC. Go to Steam and you’ll see that many of the Steam Greenlight games are built with Unity.”

BM: “Really?”

DH: “Yeah. Around 50% of the games are Unity. It is sort of everywhere. What is beautiful is that it is really all the same developers with the same skills across all of the platforms. When you know Unity, it gives you a lot of flexibility and freedom to take your studio and career to where you want, including mobile, not to play that down. As we talked about in the beginning, it is the fastest growing segment.”

BM: “I believe there is a strong case to be made for claiming that the Unity Engine is the dominant engine for mobile gaming. In fact, a number of top grossing Android games run on the Unity Engine, including Temple Run, Dead Trigger and Bad Piggies.  Are there any particular factors that have led to the Unity Engine becoming the face of mobile game development? “

DH: “Nobody can really foretell the future. When we saw the iPhone and Android, we knew it was going to be big, but we had no idea it was going to be as big as it is. In fact, I know that you know these numbers, but it just sort of gives us pause and makes us humble when we look at the mobile marketplace. If you build a game or an app of any sort, and you take it to a handful of marketplaces, you can reach over 2 billion people on earth with practically no friction.

If you go like fifteen years back, if you needed to reach a big audience, the biggest audience you could reach was primetime television in the U.S. You’d need to buy insanely expensive advertising and you’d be able to reach 100 million people. With a lot of money you could reach 100 million people, but only appeal to a narrow segment based on the particular hour of the day.

Now with indie developers, you have small teams — single man studios such as with Flappy Bird, or duos with titles such as Temple Run which was built by a husband and wife team originally — reaching hundreds of millions of people and the full reach is 2 billion. It is going to be a few years, but some analysts have estimated that in five years from, at most, we’ll have 5 billion smartphones in the world. Of course, the biggest portion of them will very likely be Android, and some other things will be pretty big too.

This means that over a twenty to twenty-five year period, we’ll have gone from being able to reach 100 million people to 5 billion people. That is fifty times larger. And games are making more money than anything else. Roughly 60-70%, — higher in some markets — of all revenue generated by the App Store and Google Play store is derived from games. And the Unity community is powering a lot of that. So we are really part of this gigantic thing that is happening around us.

The crazy thing is, this is never going to happen again. When the mobile marketplace reaches 5 billion people, and things start slowing down because there are only seven billion people in the world and fewer people are having babies, this will never be able to happen again. There just won’t be enough people. We are basically playing through something that is unique in human history, which is kind of awesome actually [chuckles].”

BM: [chuckles]

DH: “Because of the open marketplace and because so many people are becoming gamers, basically a half billion people,  we have this group of people that are geographically separated with so many tastes and preferences. What we are seeing now is that some indie games that a few years ago would have been very niche, are still a niche now, but that niche can be millions of people.

We are seeing indie games becoming very successful. While Candy Crush and Clash of Clans are really decently successful, we also see much smaller teams becoming successful and doing really well because of the opportunity and the flexibility and the ability to find an audience in this massive group of people that will enjoy your particular game, such as Monument Valley, which released not too long ago.”

BM: “That is an absolutely fantastic game. I recently finished it.”

DH: “It’s Unity by the way [chuckles], but I’m proud of it regardless. We talked about how we want to create a really broad feature set from 2D to the very high end ‘Triple A’ technology. We were mentioned in the Apple keynote about the Mac Pro, and we are looking at these lower level rendering APIs. We talked about multi-platform and how we think it is very important to the development community. The last thing really, is that these two things, multi-platform and performance, they sort speak to the question that game developers live and die by, which is, ‘can I make a great game’?

For every game developer, that is their first big question, and we’ve been working on that for the last decade. We worked really hard and have done so much wonderful stuff and we have more that we are pushing out down the pipeline. We’ve been blogging about our future roadmap, and it is looking fantastic.

The other big questions that developers live and die by is, ‘once I’ve made my game, can I then connect my game to an audience?’ There is a lot of research behind that question; ‘Can I find a lot of users?’ ‘Can I find the right users?’ ‘Once I find my users, do they want to buy my game?’ ‘Do they want to buy in-app-purchases?’ ‘If users don’t want to spend any money on my game, can I show them some advertising or do something else to make a bit of money and pay my bills?’ ‘Once I have these players playing my game, can I analyze how they’re playing my game to understand where I made mistakes and find bugs and errors and so on?’

That is something we have been thinking about for a while and started working on over the last couple of years, trying to help developers with that part of the process too. We’ve announced a few products and acquisitions in the last year. One is a cross promotion platform to help developers track information between their games, partners, friends or publishing partners. There is video ad network that lets you detect whether or not players are spending money on your game. Once you recognize that a player is not spending money on your game, you can show them ads and make money that way.

One developer had a really high traffic game but didn’t make really any money from the game itself. It was free and he wasn’t really good at monetizing it. He showed advertising to his players, and because he had so many players, he used our advertising system and made $1 million in forty-five days.”

BM: “Wow!”

DH: “Right? That’s fantastic. Again, it requires a game with a lot of traffic, but with our Unity apps, it is a fantastic way to monetize your audience. Then we have Everplay. Are you aware of this service?”

BM: “No. Actually, I am not familiar with it.”

DH: “Okay. It’s pretty awesome! If you download Dead Trigger 2, it should have it. Basically it is a replay sharing system. So when you play your games, a lot of the time it is fairly basic, and you are doing something and it is fun for you but it’s not very fun for the rest of the world. But once in a while when we’re play games, something really awesome happens; you get a fantastic score or an epic fail. You know, something crazy happens. The thing is, on PC, people are recording their games with Twitch and things like that, or screen recording software. On mobile, you can’t really do that.

Basically, what this service does is allow the player to record the game all of the time. When something cool happens, we’ll always record it for you so you can share it with your friends. It’s called Everplay and it is in a few hundred games. It is getting rapid adoption now by the Unity community because it is a really cool way of sharing things with their friends. It’s better than you bothering your friends [on Facebook] for an extra life. This is the opposite: you want to show off to your friends. We think this is a more interesting experience, more compelling.

It’s cool also for the game community. When a game’s community is building, the community then centers on these videos. People are learning about the game and the tricks and strategies and so on. Also, as a developer, being able to see thousands or tens of thousands of videos of your game being played by players is just really inspiring. It is a free service, and the good thing is, we foot the bill for the whole thing.

On top of that, the games that use this feature get additional traffic from the viral distribution of these videos. It is kind of a win-win for everyone. It’s fantastic for games.

The last service we announced is our acquisition of Playnomics, a company that has really smart software that can do analytics on gamers and games. It understands the patterns of gamers. As a developer, you can realize that one guy is playing the whole weekend and that some other guy is at risk because he seems bored. Should we engage him or give him a tutorial? It is really smart software that these guys have developed over the past five years.

We are all about helping people make, manage and monetize their games.”

BM: “Does the Unity team perceive itself as being in direct competition with Epic Games and the Unreal Engine? Epic has made an effort to expand its reach with a 2D toolset similar to what you guys have done. Do you guys care at all, or is the focus purely on providing the best tools possible without consideration for zero-sum thinking?”

DH: “In general, it is about building great tools and a great community and being attentive to what the community wants, but I’d be bullshitting you if I claimed that we aren’t in any competition”

BM: [Laughing]

DH: “They used to sell their engine to a few big developers, and now they realize that they have to sell it to a lot of developers, because otherwise, well, their business won’t continue. So they are sort of coming into that space with good software. We have a lot of respect for these guys. But, we are already incredibly popular and we are making Unity better, very fast. So essentially, we are competing of course, especially, for certain, on the higher end.

We have a lot of high end studios adopting Unity. We will be announcing some pretty cool stuff over this year. And a lot of the very high end games on mobile are built with Unity. There is Deus Ex and of course Dead Trigger. There are really high end games being built with Unity on mobile.

With Unity 5 coming up, we’ll be able to offer even greater high end performance. We feel really good about what we are doing. Even on console now, with so many games on the Xbox coming out with Unity, we are in a strong place.”

BM: “Epic not only licenses developer tools, but uses their tools to develop their own games. Unity Technologies used to develop games, most noted, GooBall for Mac OS, but nothing since then. Is there a chance that the Unity Technologies will return to developing games?”

DH: [Laughing]

DH: “It’s been a while. I wouldn’t say we’re not proud of it. It was actually a good game, but it has been so long. We never had any inclination to go back to that. We live vicariously through tens of thousands of studios and people building games with Unity. Because we want to learn from the best, we work with external studios very closely. A lot of our features are back-end tested with external studios initially and sometimes sort of co-developed with them. We work with a number of very, very skilled studios.

It is working very well. We get a lot of fantastic feedback and we are still growing the company, so we hope to get better and better at that.”

BM: “Unity still has an active publishing arm. Most recently, Unity Publishing released Archangel for Android and iOS. If the decision is to not return to game development, what led to the choice to continue to publish games?”

DH: “It is sort of an experimental program. We know a lot of people with great games and we know we can help them. So we help them with the technology, the business side of things in order to advise them on how to build games in order to make money with them. It is also something we do a lot of, much more than the few games you have seen come out in the west.

We help developers bring their games into Asia broadly, but China in particular. In China we’ve published more than 100 titles and help developers get into the app stores there and into a good promotional space. That has been something that has been very good for us.”

BM: “Could we talk a bit more about China? That is a region that has come up repeatedly in reports. China is the fastest growing market for mobile revenue, not only among developing nations but even amongst first world areas. Current predictions have China on track to generate twice the mobile revenue of the west within the next five years.

Oddly enough, and I do not mean this in an inflammatory manner, but piracy is a rather serious issue in China, whether that is on the development end with businesses pirating software tools to produce their goods and services, or the consumer end, with users pirating the end product. What is the strategy for that region?”

DH: “So we are very excited about Asia in general. In fact, we started building out in Asia several years ago. We have made a huge effort to build the Unity community in Asia. We have big offices in Tokyo, Seoul, Shanghai and Singapore, covering Southeast Asia. We have people in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Australia and a couple of other places.

We’ve really doubled down on Asia. When you add together the number of developers using Unity in Asia, it is much higher than the number in the United States, which is not surprising because there are a lot more people in general.

We are doing really well in Asia and excited to be a part of that community too. It is very different. Japan is very different from Korea, which again is different from China. We are really everywhere and trying to enjoy ourselves.”

BM: “Your answers have all been utterly fantastic. Any closing comments for our readers here at DroidGamers?”

DH: “You know this is really the golden age of mobile gaming and gaming in general. There are so many opportunities with the free version of Unity. Even a low powered PC or Mac can let you start building games tomorrow. It’s fun making games, but Unity makes it comparatively easier and it’s a great learning process. I’ve got an eleven year old niece who is building games with Unity and they actually look pretty good. You don’t need any real permission to be part of the industry, which is fantastic. That is something that I am very proud of and that we are all glad to have been able to help make possible. It really is just a wonderful time to be part of the industry.”

We here at DroidGamers would like to thank David Helgason for taking the time out of his busy schedule to answer our questions and wish him and Unity3D continued success!

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