Unity has become a cornerstone of the indie and smartphone game space, but does the tool set have what it takes to stand up to "triple-A" developers' needs?
This is an initiative that was first spelled out by CEO David Helgason when he took the stage in San Francisco this past September at the company's Unite conference.
"As we grew as a company and our stature in the market grew, it turned out people wanted more," he said at the time. "It turned out that Unity has fallen short in some things," but "we realized around a year ago we actually had the energy to fix this." To that end, he said, "We recruited people behind the leading triple-A engines today."
Since last July, in fact, a small splinter team, based in Stockholm, Sweden, has been working on the initiative. Their job is to figure out what developers need, and if the engine isn't where it needs to be, they will make the effort to make sure that it gets there.
Erland Körner, a technical artist, and Renaldas Zioma, who was mobile tech lead on Unity before moving into the triple-A initiative, both worked at EA's DICE studio, which is also in Stockholm, prior to their tenures at Unity, and the two are interfacing with teams both big and small to determine what features the engine needs, and what implementations of these features will serve the broadest user base.
In this interview, the pair speak extensively about how they interface with developers to determine these needs, why they set up in Stockholm, and just what they hope to achieve with the tool now and in the future.
At Unite, David Helgason talked about the triple-A initiative, but it's been a little bit quiet from the company.
Renaldas Zioma: I don't think we like the name "triple-A," per se, but it's more "high-end features." One part of the initiative, you might say, was directed on the iPhone side, so something like Shadowgun is an example.
We considered the list of high-end features for the iPhone platform, and there are many things developed for that that are not in the public release currently. They are coming in the next release [Ed. note: Unity 3.5, which has been released since this interview was conducted], or some of them may come later, afterwards, when they are polished. So, it was a quite significant internal effort for us.
Erland Körner: We are working with external developers on other projects as well. We started with this just recently, so I think it's not gonna happen overnight that we will get these releases to the public. But I think within shorter than we believe, there will be something for the public to see of this.
RZ: For us, it was more internal directions that we take for things which are not immediately seen in our public releases. But it's something we're doing internally -- whether it's refactoring our code base or working with external teams to find the weak spots and fix them first, instead of going full-out with the public features. First we are looking for the external teams to try it out. To work with them closely, to fix that stuff, or to implement certain functionality.
If "triple-A initiative" is kind of a misnomer from your perspective, what is the goal of your work, then, with the engine? What are you trying to achieve?
RZ: It depends what you call triple-A, of course. What do you mean by saying "triple-A"? That's why we don't really like it. For us, what does triple-A mean? It's very undefined.
It's a term that gets thrown around in the industry without a lot of thought behind it.
RZ: It's hard to answer this question, specifically.
Renaldas Zioma and Erland Körner at Unity's Stockholm office.
What is the goal of your work, with the engine? What are you trying to bring to it that it doesn't have?
EK: I guess we're trying to stretch more towards high-definition projects, in any sense. We're trying to open developers' eyes by doing much more challenging projects, I think, using Unity.
RZ: That [term] was something towards external developers -- yeah, we want to push some limits and show how that can be done in Unity. On the other hand, I would say we are looking more towards how artists are working in the bigger teams. Analyzing that and making sure we not only cater for indie developers, but for bigger teams, the way artists work in a bigger team, we analyze that. Even just the features -- to make it more intuitive for them to work.
EK: Streamlined for handling bigger projects and substantially larger amounts of content and such things.
RZ: The particle system, for instance, the new one, it's an interesting example because it was born while working on Shadowgun. The reason for it to be born was because people weren't happy, there wasn't enough artistic control of the particle system previously, in Unity. So, we tried to attack that problem specifically, to be more art-friendly.
We tested it on Shadowgun for a little while, but then we had a small group, we we selected individual developers with quite a lot of experience -- not from inside Unity, but outside. Customers. We've gotten quite a bit of feedback on how to make it more friendly. Intuitive.
Something I've been having a lot of conversations with about these new features in Unity is how adding them helps everybody. Just because things aren't necessarily targeted towards "triple-A" -- and maybe that's why you don't like that exact term. Improving the engine helps everyone, right?
RZ: Yes, we think so. That's the reason why we don't release some things immediately, even if we have implemented them internally. Anyone can use it, so it's not only for the 20 people who already spent a year with Unity, so only they could use it. We don't want that. We want indie developers to be able to benefit from that as well, as much as possible.
I do get the sense that the technology is starting to be taken up much more rapidly, and by studios as well. I don't know if there's a "triple-A" $20 million game in Unity. It seems like a matter of time, if you guys keep along this path.
RZ: There are certain MMO games you could say they are very expensive, so I don't know if you can count them or not.