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Atari Boss Harrison At Unite 08: 'Fail Early'

Atari Boss Harrison At Unite 08: 'Fail Early' Exclusive

October 22, 2008 | By Thomas Grove, Chris Remo

October 22, 2008 | By Thomas Grove, Chris Remo
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More: Console/PC, Exclusive



Unite 2008, the user conference for the Unity game engine, is in full swing at the Tycho Brahe Planetarium near Unity Technologies's headquarters in Copenhagen, Denmark.

The conference, which runs until Friday, began with a keynote headlined by former Sony Worldwide Studios head and current Atari president Phil Harrison. Gamasutra was on hand to cover the event.

When Unite 2007 was held, Unity was an outlier engine, with an editor only available for Mac OS X and no major shipped games.

Now, with the sold-out conference at maximum capacity, a PC editor and major point release on the horizon, major titles in development by companies such as Disney, Cartoon Network, FunCom, and Atari, and the addition of Wii and iPhone deployment, Unity seems on the cusp of breaking through the obscure and into the limelight.

Harrison's keynote, in which he noted that he 'wanted to be here' due to his enthusiasm for the tool, rather than any commercial/strategy interest, evangelized Unity as a tool that could potentially change the game industry, referring to the first time that he saw Unity running in his web browser as "a transformational moment."

To the industry vet, there are some key business and production challenges facing the traditional game industry. The long, expensive development cycles and short peak cash flow are unsustainable, he believes, as are the limiting factors of shelf space and a short retail lifespan.

What are the answers? Harrison says part of the solution lies in thinking of a 21st century game as "a service, not a product" -- a view espoused by Valve's Robin Walker earlier this year. Developers can "tighten the feedback loop between designer and player by colocating them in the same community," Harrison went on.

As he has indicated in the past, Harrison is a strong proponent of integrating the internet and social elements into games.

If web analytics were the essential element of Web 2.0, he explained, game analytics must be the essential element of Game 3.0; "web-based meta-services around the core game" will be crucial for building competitive experiences. He hinted that Atari's home page might become a player in that arena.

Shorter development cycles are crucial as well to "expose the creative" side of the medium, he says. With today's more accessible tools, we're seeing a "democratization of development," the exec believes.

"All of my mistakes in software development have been due to one problem and one problem alone, which is accelerating through the pipeline without successfully and properly satisfying the requirements of each of the stages," Harrison told the assembled crowd.

"Typically it involves going from concept to production in one jump. That's pretty much the definition of why projects fail: It's because you don't know what you're building, you don't know how you're going to build it, you don't know who you're building it for, but you have 60 people working on it and they're all running in different directions, and that's how most games fail."

Harrison tied that warning into the Unity tech. "It helps de-risk that pipeline," he said. "It allows you to experiment earlier, fail more often, and fail more cheaply."

"This is really the mantra, you want to fail early, to kill those poor ideas -- but you also want to do it repeatedly and quickly so that you will eventually find those great ideas, and you want to do it as cheaply as you can so that you can save money."

Despite his glowing words for the engine, Harrison stressed that neither he nor his employer Atari have a vested financial interest, and he was not paid for his appearance.

"With something like Unity," the exec summed up, "you can empower so many more people in your organization, big or small, to be in that creative innovation process."


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