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The Unity 3 Interview

Gamasutra sits down with Unity CEO David Helgason and product evangelist Tom Higgins to discuss the engine's recent major release and the driving forces behind its development -- plus a peek into future iterations.

The Unity platform has quickly become a very popular engine for game development for the web and iPhone. Next up: Android. And the 3D game engine middleware and tools may be becoming relevant on higher-end platforms like PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 as well, as the team at the company readies these platforms for inclusion in the latest version of the tech.

Two weeks ago, the company released Unity 3, which includes many new features -- notably among them, a new default project called Boot Camp. It also includes enhancements to its lighting, audio, and other systems aimed at making it more of a viable choice for high-quality 3D projects.

Now serving 200,000 users, according to the company, the five year-old Unity engine has benefited enormously in recent years from the explosive growth in browser, social, mobile and online game development.

As it unveils Unity 3, it's celebrating a new honor: the Wall Street Journal has awarded it its Technology Innovation Award in the software category.

In addition to many indies who use the low-cost engine, Unity lists Bigpoint, Cartoon Network, Coca-Cola, Disney, LEGO, Microsoft, NASA, Ubisoft and Warner Bros as major clients -- along with Electronic Arts, with which the company just signed a significant multi-year license deal.

Gamasutra sat down with CEO David Helgason and product evangelist Tom Higgins at the company's San Francisco offices to get a preview of the latest version of the engine and have a wide-ranging conversation about the company's, and the technology's, future direction.

Did you achieve what you set out to achieve when you sat down and said, "This is what is going to be in Unity 3"?

David Helgason: That's a good question; there's a couple different ways to answer that. One is: yes. (Laughs)

We wanted 3 to be such a massive release. We rewrote the entire rendering system, optimized it very heavily for forward rendering, and then added the whole deferred rendering on top of it so that if you're on modern hardware you can have innumerable light and all this cool stuff, putting Unity on par with basically other AAA engines.

We licensed this very expensive middleware in bulk. You get Beast, which is a super expensive package normally, as part of Unity pro, and the same with Umbra -- so two incredibly expensive packages just going into Unity and really drove the nail in.

Everyone recognizes Unity engine 2 as a really cool platform for smaller games; Unity 3 is a very cool platform for anything, really. So yeah, we did.

The other answer: Of course not. There were features --

Tom Higgins: There were features, there were more that we wanted to get in, and as jam-packed as this is there were a couple of other features that we really would have liked to get wrapped up and in 3.0; but we had to make the cut at some point.

DH: We failed! (Laughs)

TH: I think for us, internally, we're a bit of masochists and we're like, "Oh! Here's what we missed!" So there were a few things like that, but the bigger picture: Is 3.0 as cool and meaty and gravy as I envisioned it when I first saw that list? Yes. Did a couple of things have to get taken off the list and deferred to later in the 3.x lifecycle? Unfortunately, they did, and that's just the hard life of development. You can't always put in everything you want.

But on the whole, is there an ounce of disappointment in my body about this release? Absolutely not. It's just, like I said, in those masochist moments when we need that little extra whip to keep going -- there's more to be done. We could have crammed a few other things in, but not at the sacrifice of quality.

DH: The temptation now would be to start doing Unity 4 and have a really long release cycle again, but because we have some of those things almost ready we will be doing point releases, getting the good stuff out before we go into the long haul again. We want to get this stuff in the hands of people really fast; also, we want to maintain our generosity.

We've been really generous in the past, making many point releases. Where most companies would just put out a point release with some bug fixes, we would put out a point release with a shitload of bug fixes and a major feature.

TH: It's been three years since 2.0 came out -- it was October 2007 -- and there's been a lot of meat added in. Of course, that was stretched because of the Windows launch 2.5 in the middle.

DH: Which probably took more than a year out of our calendar just for that.

TH: Yeah. But we definitely like the idea of, again, bug fixes and features. We want to keep giving people that value so that they're committed to us as a platform, and we're committed to them as users. There's definitely going to be some more coming out, and at some point we'll start to turn our minds to 4.0. But we're not there yet.


Boot Camp

As more and more potential uses of Unity drive social games and different phone platforms and consoles, does that really complicate it for you guys in terms of what to include? How do you determine what audiences you serve with that?

DH: It does complicate it.

TH: It makes the wish list longer. If you're serving one narrow market, it's very easy to kind of focus on them. But I think one thing that we're doing that's a bit different from other companies is that we're really staffing up with unique teams for unique platforms. There's not one team that has to spend their time with desktop and web and then turn their mind over to iPhone and then turn their mind over to Android. We've got multiple teams working in parallel so that each one can focus on that platform's needs.

Then, as we talk with new and different types of users across all of those, that's where I think the extra complication comes in; but we're here to solve the complicated problems. It just takes a little extra time and a little more forethought. We're not used to thinking about architecture visualization and what they might need. We're going to have to spend some extra time doing the research and looking into it, and the nice thing is that there's so much overlap between these markets. It's not unsolvable. It's just going to take a little extra time.

DH: One thing that simplifies it, I think, is that we kind of try to focus primarily -- almost only -- on adding enabling features and extensibility to the platform. Then, because we have this big community and so many types of people using it, they then build the extensions and the functions they need and often share them with others. That sort of simplifies the problem.

For instance, should you have a really good Facebook integration? Well, there are several people in the community, including some open-source and sort of commercial extensions, that can do that and probably do it better than we would if we just tried to make it as a feature and then forget it because Facebook integration is something that's alive; you have to keep updating it. If we tried to stretch ourselves to every single thing like that, we would probably fail; but we're lucky that we have this amazing community that has that and does that.


Do you eye your competition in terms of other engine packages and worry about the features they're implementing? Again, you're moving to territory where you might be competing with Unreal and Flash and XNA. It's a complicated question.

DH: We watch everything and look at everything; we're curious, technical guys, so we are always curious about how people are approaching different problems. But really, we're in a luxury situation where we're profitable and growing really strongly. In that situation, the only thing that you can really do is look at your customers and your potential customers and just service them incredibly well. It's a bit different if you're maybe trying to bootstrap something from nothing and still losing money and so one, but we're in this amazing situation where we just think about adding value.

TH: I think that's where other companies may have failed in the past; they spent too much time looking at and worrying about the competition instead of acting on your own vision.

I think that's where we've had this nice thing from the start; I think that, when these guys created this company, they laid out this path and said "This is where we want to go, and this is how we want to get there."

We stayed on that path. We haven't been pulled away from it because, "Oh no! Company X did something different," so maybe we need to rush off to that. As he said, we're curious technically; we've got to keep eyes on the competition because you need to know who's doing what.

But we've got our own vision, our own path, and staying on course there has been successful for us. I don't see us deviating from that.

But, you know, yeah, we look around. We've got a good friendship going with the CEO over at StoneTrip just from seeing him at conferences and whatnot, just kind of comparing notes, but we're on our path, so we're going to stick by it.

Is one of the main priorities for Unity 3 to just make things convenient?

TH: Well, I think that's always a goal for us. For editing, we want the tool to kind of recede out of the way as much as possible so you're just focusing on content design and development. The more you have to think about the tool, the less you're thinking about the game you're making. So yeah, that's always a goal; that's been the design from the purpose -- easy to get into; productivity's always a focus; that sort of thing.

DH: One thing that we're really proud of about Unity 3 is that we added all that functionality without making it more complex. It looks exactly the same. I think that we added like two buttons or something. (Laughs)

TH: It's about more than just keeping it easy; a lot of people think, when you keep it easy and make this easy-to-use tool, "Oh, that's for kids, then," like somehow that doesn't mean power.

I think that people are coming around on that, though.

DH: I think that the EA announcement kind of drove that in if people were in doubt. Those guys can have any technology they want; they have many engines in-house, and yet they adopt Unity in a really broad move.


WolfQuest

Can you discuss your priorities in extending Unity's functionality?

DH: Yeah, our focus is really making -- we're just a tool-maker, right? So our focus is of course in just building the primitives that people can build on top of. As you may have heard, the whole Unity editor is written in Unity. Everything you see there -- the Inspector and everything -- is actually written in scripting. The cool thing is that you can basically extend with new panels and functionality, and there's a whole plethora now of neat extensions.

TH: There's things like GUIX, which is UI development tools. They become first-class citizens, so inside the editor here you can kind of drag-and-drop all these panels around to get the layout that you want. So you can have a split-screen like this. Anybody's third-party extensions get the same handling and treatment inside the editor as our own. So once you make these kinds of extensions, whether it's your own proprietary one...

Three Melons, who made the Star Wars Quest for R2-D2 game, made a little tile-map editor tool. They did that in like a day and a half to two days; they made this tool that ended up saving them countless days of having artists come in and snap things together whereas they can sit there and tap a few buttons and build it out. It's nice because they do become, again, the same as any of our own editor windows, so, to answer the question "How good of a UI can you do or how deep and involved?" you just point to the editor and go, well, that kind of UI is what's possible, so.

Do you curate these in any way on your site?

DH: It's just the community, so people find them themselves. Sometimes we speak of them and point to them, but we don't actually aggregate them in any way.

TH: Yeah. We do things like, as they come up and available, we can post that on Facebook or Twitter to just give them a little lecture and some highlighting, but the community does a pretty good job of just promoting content itself.

Has it gotten to the point where it's become viable for people to develop extensions of Unity and license them?

DH: Mm-hm. There are businesses doing that.

TH: Unity iPhone Enhancement Pack; that's one that's been out. Rob Terrell's the guy who makes it, and he's always trying to stay a few steps ahead of us. It's like a hot $99 add-on for our iPhone product, and he's had a pretty steady business going for a year and a half now or something like that. GUIX is another one.

CMUNE is one of the companies; they did Paradise Paintball. They've got a Facebook integration platform you can use. There's dimeRocker up in Canada. There's a bunch of these that are coming up that are serving on either you buy it and license ir or kind of as a service, ongoing. Prefab sites are selling ready-made content for use in Unity. All across the board is a kind of ecosystem.

DH: Some of those are doing fairly well; it's still early days in that sense, but I think everyone who is doing really good extensions in Unity is starting to sell them successfully. Then, in a way, it's a waiting game for them for us to grow, and we are growing; so I think everyone will catch up. It's really healthy. The books are out; there's magazines as well -- and of course services businesses like Unity training, Unity development for others; so there's a bunch of companies kind of making a living on top of us.


Where are you on support for the different consoles?

DH: The Wii we've supported for a few years.

Right.

DH: Xbox 360 and PS3 are in the works. We have customers on both, so we expect launches on both platforms early next year.

TH: They're still in development, but we're authorized middleware at this point for all three of them. It's just the Xbox and PlayStation... We announced Xbox officially at Unite and PlayStation at GDC -- or is that vice versa?

I think that you're correct.

DH: Yeah, the 360 first and PS3 later.

TH: It's nice to have all three.

DH: We're working on both; we've been working on both for quite awhile.

First, of course, it requires those people that want to build for those platforms to trust us. When we say we're going to do it, they have to believe that; fortunately, people have started trusting us quite broadly. The second thing is that, since Unity is so grounded, you can actually start using Unity even before you can actually compile for those platforms. Now, we're at a stage where we can actually compile for those platforms -- with bugs and rough spots, of course.

That's not being shipped out to people.

DH: Right now, people that want it -- we can invite them into the early release program and make sure that we have a few customers on both platforms, but not more than that, because we can't handle that right now.

At GDC you told me that there was a little bit of debate internally at Unity about whether to support those platforms or not.

DH: Yeah, we were not sure, really. That's really... I may have whispered it loudly back then when we were not sure... But now that we have announced both, no, it's no secret that we were not sure if we should really do it.

I think there's two reasons for it. One is that our developers -- our customers -- really wanted it because they did not like being held away from platforms they might want to target. Having the flexibility, even if you end up choosing only one console or no console, is still nice -- to have the opportunity should your publisher or some other thing arise. The other reason is actually that, with Unity 3, we've upgraded the technology so significantly that we actually feel that we can be quite competitive there.

TH: From an external perspective, we want to say it like this: "author once, deploy anywhere." That's where it's nice to have all these options available, even though the sweet spot of our customer base does tend to be on the casual side and whatnot. But, again, we're tracking a larger-scale customer now, that is starting to trust us more.

Your new default project/demo [Boot Camp] speaks to that too, in a sense. The case has been made for using Unity with platforms like iOS. I don't think that all people are aware at this point that it's a very viable option beyond that; this demo seems to suggest a broadening of the horizon.

TH: For sure. I think that, as David put it, the advancements that we've made are so significant. I remember awhile back, kind of puzzling about Unity 3, the first time I saw that feature list that we were going to go after, it just felt like we're taking a huge step forward. It wasn't just a small iteration.

[Higgins loads up the build menu] And just real quick to show you, this is the build settings menu that we have inside here. All of these options are shown to everybody so that the first time you launch it, even if it's the free version, it kind of tells you how far you're going to be able to go with this product.

If you're going to go to the web or to desktop, of course those are supported in the free version as well as pro. Then, as you do the á la carte add-ons, well, you know, iOS and Android sure enough.

We included the consoles [PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360] inside the build menu first because, look, I'm not in a build [of Unity 3] right now that supports it, but we at least want to let people know that, "Hey, this is an option that's out there" and let them see from the beginning that we cover you from small-scale casual stuff, desktop, Web, mobile, all the way through to consoles.

You want the people to be making the choices; not you to be making the choices.

TH: Exactly. The minute we decide that you're not interested in that platform, there's going to be some big customer with an interesting title that maybe wants to go there. At least now, we've got that full picture. Of course, more is on the way; we're not done with platforms. We've got efforts ongoing under the hood. We're going to continue looking at everything that's interesting.

It'll be really interesting to see if Windows Phone 7 takes off, I think.

DH: Phone 7 is exciting. Currently, they're in a state where they're only going to support XNA and Silverlight -- so, basically, only managed .NET. Unity can't run there because Unity is written in C++; it's a highly optimized modern engine.

So in the first iteration of Windows Phone 7 -- we won't be able to run. We're hoping they'll open it up later. They've shown interest in that, but there's no commitment from either side.


You've had a pretty good relationship with Apple, it seems. Well, I don't know if you do actually have a relationship with Apple.

DH: We have a relationship with Apple. It's been stressful since... There were those five months when they were not openly saying whether Unity would be okay or not.

That's what I was curious about because Adobe -- obviously, there was a lot of kerfluffle there. Unity was kind of quietly sailing along with no obvious issues. You could infer that there might be a problem, but nothing happened.

DH: Sure. And we explicitly stated during that time that we could not promise people they would be okay. We couldn't! If we could have, we would have, of course. We always had a feeling that we would be fine, and Apple did not give us exact details on that, either. If they had, we would have told people.

Apple doesn't seem big on exact details.

DH: No. When we did the final announcement that we were fine -- Apple had, of course, made the public statement, but also they called us -- what we said was, "We feel that Apple was actually never quite certain but was really thinking about it in a very deep, thoughtful way, and they came to this conclusion that we feel is the right conclusion, obviously -- and that I think for the game industry for sure is the right decision." So we were frustrated but never angry, because we understood their soul-searching.

TH: And I think underlying it they had a few concerns that were related to quality of content, stability, and whatnot. I think, for ourselves, we recognized pretty quickly that, with the number of Unity author titles that sat at the top of the list, we were kind of comfortable and okay there.

DH: Top-selling games just time and time again.

TH: Yeah. And they had one valid point that I think we've been able to address:as they put out new hardware features, they don't want to be slave to some middleware that's going to take some number of months to adopt the new hardware.

So we immediately took the one feature that was pro-only, the ability to add custom native code that you add in -- formerly, it was a pro-only feature, so only those that had paid for the full ticket -- we pretty quickly made the move and said, "Hey, as of our 3.0 release, we're going to put that in both of our licenses." So that, okay, fair enough; that seems like a valid concern, and that's the one area...

DH: When Apple put up the Game Center, people with the cheap version can also access that.

TH: So every developer doing iPhone work with Unity can tap into the new hardware features. I think that was the only part where it seemed to me that, fair enough, I could see why that might be a concern with middleware; we pretty quickly put out an announcement that said, "Hey, we're going to put that into both of our releases." I think that's what gave us that inner confidence, but until you get that extra note that says, "Yeah, we're gonna be okay..." We had to wait it out for some number of months.

DH: And it's too bad because a lot of people just kept making games with Unity, and they were fine -- Apple never declined one single application -- but there were companies, especially larger, bigger-funded projects, that were holding off just because they didn't want to risk their investment. It sort of created this kind of FUD layer. That was annoying.


Skee-Ball HD

At this point, would you say that iOS development is your primary audience for Unity?

DH: No; it's a minority part of our business. If you count in dollars, it's a minority part; if you count in number of users, it's a small minority part because the free version doesn't do iOS, and the free version has so many users. So on both counts, it's a minority -- it's a very important minority, of course.

And now, we're sort of soft-launching Android in that you can buy our Android product and can use it, but it's still under development and being optimized and so on. We're still testing more and more devices, but we're not testing on all Android devices yet. Android has kind of immediately jumped up to be significant part of our business, as well, because even in prerelease people were hungry for it. They want to try this new platform, and I think it's also that people want to be early in on the Android.

TH: Yep, because it's still waiting for quality game development to really hit the streets hard and heavy, and I think a lot of people are looking to us as the middleware tool that can hopefully change the perspective about gaming on Android. I've got my Android phone, and I've been a little bit disappointed at the range of games I've seen compared to what has been out on iPhone or iOS in general. So I think people are really looking at this as the in-early opportunity.

DH: So definitely we think those two mobile platforms we support are very important for us, especially going forward; I think they are not going to get smaller. Our background, where we started, is really the web, and that's still very, very strong for us.

TH: Quietly, the background of our web, the monthly download numbers, games popping up, non-game content showing up like Visible Body, which is like a medical visualization app -- things like this just quietly keep churning in the background and driving lots of business in downloads.

Where I think the iPhone stands out as just a little bit larger than it maybe actually is is that it's generated a lot of noise and brought us a lot of attention because we were in fairly quickly and at a high level. It brought us a lot of eyeballs and attention once we released it, and that's been a fabulous thing; but desktop content, web content...

DH: We've been on the iPhone pretty much exactly two years now.

TH: Yeah. It was October of '08 that we released that at our Unite conference. So everything he said is spot-on, but the Web stuff in the background has kept churning, and there's just so much: Quick Hit, NFL does not license their brands for online content very often, and there's a 2D version in Flash and now a 3D one in Unity that's branded, licensed NFL content. Things like that keep coming up. Tiger Woods Online.


When we're talking about commercial products, you'd say the bulk of your licensees are doing web content?

DH: Well, it's actually really tricky to talk about because the highest number of finished games is on iPhone, but that's of course because a "finished game" on the iPhone is defined; you've done it and put it in the App Store -- it's done. It's out there. On the web, it's much more soft launches and experimentation.

Also, things are getting more and more elaborate as it becomes more possible to be more elaborate.

DH: Yeah. When you have some huge products on the web -- I don't know if you've seen (it's not launched yet) the Big Point game, Battlestar Galactica. It's amazing, and it's Unity, of course. And then there's Marvel Super Hero Squad. They've only shown trailers; I don't know if you've seen those. It's absolutely amazing.

TH: While there are more titles released, the web is a little harder to track because all the time we get a quick email about "Oh, did you see this?" and it's related to some reality show in Brazil where there was a web game.

Things are just kind of bubbling up, and it's a bit harder to put your finger on how much web stuff is out there versus the App Store -- you can look in the one place, and all of our developers are very good about coming to this one thread on our forums.

DH: And then there's stuff that just never comes online. In Toyota stores around the world, they're putting up big displays with super high-res renderings of the cars, and you can change the colors and test drive them and stuff; that's Unity-based.

TH: Yeah. There was a big demo at Siggraph this year; Works Zebra is the company that did that, and they just announced all of these Scion dealers in Canada -- when you go to buy a new car and you want to customize it with these spoilers or these rims; it's an in-browser Unity app, but it's only at dealerships as part of the purchasing experience. It's on the web, but kind of more of an intranet, not internet.

It seems like things are rapidly evolving in terms of the potential uses of the platform. As much as you're evolving the platform, the potential uses are also evolving rapidly as well.

DH: Yeah. Definitely. I think one thing we've said a few times -- it's a bit hard to wrap your brain around, but that's why we have to say it many times, I think. If you look at the game industry as several different things -- of course, there's console development, there's web/social games, there's mobile games, and some other bits and pieces -- outside the game industry you have all kinds of sectors and areas that need to visualize stuff, and a few things turn up.

One is that game technology can kind of address all of this. It's powerful enough and simple enough to reach both ends. People are learning all of the time to do those things. One really interesting thing is that, at the core of this, it's kind of the same people because the same type of developers with the same skill sets are kind of working across all of those things. I think we're kind of getting close to maybe being able to say that we are getting established as a standard. We're a common language for those people. We're not the only thing, of course, but --

People who want to work in interactive 3D, essentially, as a broad way of saying it?

DH: Exactly. There's a real strength to having a sort of established standard or at least a common language for all of those people because then you get the sharing and you get the wikis; for awhile there was one book, but now there's three books about Unity.

TH: Now there's three books with another one that's going to be coming out in about a month. The expansion of Unity use outside the games area -- we're seeing tons and tons of it. It started off with Zerofractal, a company based down in Colombia that were just doing architectural walkthroughs of condominiums and stuff like that. Now we're seeing apps like Visible Body as a medical visualization tool. This is doing something a little bit more.

DH: It's licensed as a professional tool for doctors and medical students.

How have things been going with installations of the web plug-in?

DH: Really well. We're pushing over two million a month now with 35-ish million out there. It's a big and a small number; obviously, it's a small number if you spread it out across the entire range of the whole world.

But there are a couple of things: One is that the success rate is really high, so 70 percent of the people who are getting the plug-in offered completely install it. That means that you're losing 30 percent of your potential users; but the 70 percent are getting an incredibly high-res experience, and the production cost is actually lower than trying to kind of shoehorn things into Flash. That's an important stat.

Another important stat is that really big media companies like Disney, Warner Bros., Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network, and then EA on the games side are buying into it. That shows that it's a really trusted experience now.


Also, I think if Disney tells someone to install a plug-in, they're going to trust it;

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