No longer the underdog, Unity is going through some growing pains

In a conversation this week with Gamasutra, Unity exec Clive Downie describes the engine's recent technical troubles as "growing pains" -- and outlines how the company will tackle them.

At GDC this week Unity Technologies announced a slew of changes to the way it does business.

Most notably it plans to launch a certification program for Unity developers, debut an online-capable collaborative development toolset and split Unity into two regularly-updated versions: a public beta and an older version that was described by company chief John Riccitiello during a press conference as a "fully stable release."

That last bit earned cheers from the (developer-heavy) crowd, presumably because Unity has come under fire in recent months for releasing updates many perceive to be riddled with technical issues.

In a conversation this week with Gamsutra, Unity exec Clive Downie (pictured) acknowledged the problems and pitched them as a cost of the company's rapid expansion.

"I think it's just growing pains," said Downie. "I mean, we've grown the company in the nine months I've been here, from about a 450 person company to an 850 person company."

Nearly doubling in size over nine months leads to some 'growing pains'

Most of those new hires are going to beef up Unity's engineering teams, according to Downie, and a large portion of them are working on Unity's (relatively) new VR/AR dev tools. The Unity exec is also quick to point out that Unity's recent stumbling is due in part to its decision (last summer) to publish a public roadmap of planned Unity updates  and stick to it, rather than releasing new Unity updates whenever they're actually done.

"I would just say look, this is kind of what happens," Downie said. "You bring 400 or so new engineers into a company at the same time as you're committing to a new production pipeline that's designed to drive new features on a regular cadence, and I think you just get the growing pains of that." 

So now Unity will be maintaining an older, stable version of its engine for devs who know what they need to do (and need their tools to work without throwing errors) alongside a public beta version that devs who are feeling experimental and/or lucky can use -- and provide data back to Unity about what works and what doesn't.

"That way, what we can do is always make sure that before a version is deemed stable, it's been hammered on appropriately by the right number of people," said Downie, who pitches it as a big shift for Unity. "I think it's just a learning point for this company, in its ten-year history. We aspired to do something different, we did it successfully, we're committed to it, but it did come at a bit of a cost in terms of the stability that we were seeing."

Signs of maturity

The company is also learning how to interject itself deeper into the hiring process for Unity developers by working on the aforementioned certification program alongside game developers, large tech firms and academics. These are ultimately the clients Unity is building the certification program for, says Downie, with the goal of "fast-tracking" graduates into game development careers. 

"We don't set [certification requirements] on our own, because that would be the wrong thing to do; it's not for us to say," said Downie. "We set it with a panel of people from enterprise, from other parts of the development community, and from academia, who can work with us on the curriculum and work with us on the certification."

He's quick to add that Unity doesn't believe its certification proves someone can make games better than if they actually, you know, make a game -- the company just wants "Unity-certified" to serve as an additional criteria employers can use to filter potential hires.

"I don't think it's in lieu of making a game, at all; I think it's in addition to making game. There are very few things better for potential employers to consider than someone's projects," said Downie. "But you're going to have 3-4 candidates with projects; what if there was another opportunity for you to look across the candidate board and go 'Oh yeah, you're certified, as well as being able to make a great game. So that means you have a foundation, a standard of techniques, that means you're going to seamlessly fit into this development team without massive amounts of onboarding.'"

Here, again, Unity seems to be trying to figure out what it means to grow from being an underdog in the game engine business to being so prolific that employers might appreciate having an advanced filter for hiring people with Unity skills. 

The company also plans to charge for Unity certification it provides, at least at first, which is interesting in light of the fact that it would seem to be in Unity's best interests to make the program as accessible as possible.

"Certification right now, there is a cost associated with it," said Downie. "It's a new program, we've got vendors who are doing it for us around the world, we're going to transpose that across our own system, we're going to offer bundle deals. So the net cost of it can come down to effectively zero or close to zero. I think it's just a moment in time, based on some of the factors that persist right now, at the beginning of the program. But it's going to be more accessible."

But of course, accessibilty is sort of the reason this program exists in the first place -- if Unity and its partners believe there are so many Unity developers in the marketplace that they have to launch a new program to help filter out trained talent, it's because Unity's userbase has grown at a rapid clip that sped up significantly when the engine went free (with some significant caveats) last year.

Now competitor Crytek has declared its CryEngine will be completely free for developers to use, seemingly without any significant caveats. This suggests all the major game engines are now operating as platforms, and are focused on getting their tools into the hands of as many developers as possible and looking beyond upfront pricing to find other ways of generating revenue (like, say asset stores and royalties.) 

So, I ask Downie, does Unity see itself as a platform that has to gobble up as much of the developer market as it can in order to thrive? Is that why it's been expanding so fast, and suffering through growing pains in the process?

"I think what game engines are becoming is, so maye in this respect they are becoming like platforms, is they're becoming a place that developers can go to to get everything they need," said Downie. "So if providing a developer with everything that they need to make their lives easier and become more successful is the definition of a 'platform' then yeah,, I think we're a platform. "

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