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CGC 2011: Unity's Helgason Tells Devs To Set 'Big Goals'

Unity CEO David Helgason founded his company with the lofty goal of democratizing game development -- at this year's Gamasutra-attended Canadian Games Conference, he explained how all devs can aim high.
In the opening keynote of the first Canadian Games Conference (previously GDC Canada) held in Vancouver, British Colombia, Unity CEO David Helgason talked of the importance of having goals as vague and lofty as "democratizing game development" and the need to predict the future in order to succeed. Helgason sees Unity as more than just a development platform, saying the community of developers that use it is "just as important" as the platform itself. The CEO confirmed that Unity has reached 450,000 developers using the platform (30 percent of which use Unity every month) and is now used in over 10,000 games across the web, iOS, Android and other platforms. Helgason argued that this kind of success couldn't have happened unless Unity had begun with "big goals." He recommended that every developer start that way, saying that developers should diligently examine when and how these goals could be reached successfully. "Be timely; you want to launch the right product at the right time, and to do what you need to predict the future," he said. "Over the years of building Unity, we've met approximately 10 other teams -- teams full of smart people -- that have built something like Unity at some point in the 10 years before we launched, and we've realized that there was nothing they were lacking, except the timing was wrong." Of course, Helgason admitted that predicting the future was "somewhat hard" but offered some tips, including doing things as simple as keeping up with the news, which will help startups "understand today" and therefore have a better understanding of future trends. As a cheat sheet for attendees, Helgason offered his opinion of some near-future trends such as free-to-play, which -- "if it has not already" -- will become the dominant business model. "This is kind of a painful trend for some of us, certainly weird and confusing. Free-to-play isn't going to be the only way to make money, but if it's not the dominant one, it will be." Indeed, Helgason revealed that Unity saw this model as being not only viable for the end consumer, but potentially for the tools themselves. "We're trying to understand if there is a free-to-play model possible for game engines, and we are softly launching this." Helgason characterized Unity's success at "predicting the future" as "betting on the inevitable." Something he sees as inevitable is the "displacement of specialized solutions for mass-market ones." "At one point the mainframe was the dominant form of computing. It was a good industry -- expensive but the machines were cheap enough for enterprise, and that was the only place where they really had a use. But then some nutcases came out of nowhere believing that computers should be in every home." Other examples that Helgason offered included Silicon Graphics, whose dedicated graphics workstations were displaced by mass-market graphics chipsets from companies like Nvidia. The larger market allowed more and faster growth for the chipset companies, until their research eclipsed that of what Silicon Graphics could manage with the smaller dedicated market. "We think it can repeat itself in this industry as well," said Helgason, showing a slide with CryEngine, the Unreal Engine and others clumped alongside mainframes and Silicon Graphics, with Unity the alternative, an image that Helgason stressed was "more a joke than anything else." However, Helgason moved on to draw small parallels with the Arab Spring. "The pattern is that when an elite builds a wall around something -- be it power, money or whatever else -- it's not completely inevitable that the wall will come down, but it's close to. What we believe is that when you are trying to build an interesting business -- unfortunately you have to build businesses around games -- you have to look at the weak points of the wall, leaks, small holes, and make the most of them." Helgason argued that developers not view these efforts as a way to shift the "value" from one walled space to another. "It's not that the value will move from their bucket to your bucket. Instead the value should spread out from the leak, and build an ecosystem." In closing, Helgason described Unity's attempts to help foster an ecosystem, with the Unity Asset Store and Union distribution system. "These two solutions are beyond the mere 'technology' of Unity and which we are still working on very hard. The Asset Store tries to democratize the luxury of having a big team. It's not relevant to everything, we don't think we'll see a lot of 3D character models being shared, but we've already seen a lot of tools, workflows and special effects being successful and making people money." Union is a service that Helgason describes as trying to "democratize having a big portfolio of games," using a system through which developers can get their games on more devices than the one they primarily developed for, something that Helgason believed was only going to become more important as the mobile market grew. "If you're not focusing on mobile right now, you're really missing out," he concluded with a final prediction. "You don't have to make your next game for mobile, but start thinking two, three years ahead."

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