What's an ex-indie filmmaker doing at Unity?
It may sound a little unusual that an engine company that doesn't develop any of its own games has a chief creative officer, but Nicholas Francis, who fills that role at Unity, does not think so.
"It seems to me to be perfectly logical," he says, "because one of the things we've done at Unity is that we don't try to be just take some tech and throw it at the wall, and hope that people figure out how to use it."
Francis, judging from his reputation in conversations with other Unity employees, is focused on making sure the engine stays easy-to-use even as it significantly grows in functionality
, and he drives the creative vision for the tool itself.
"We're always trying to round it up and make sure it works all the way round and that it's easy to use and it's easy to learn, and that is very hard," he says.
As In Indie Film...
The company was originally founded to make a game -- but he and the other co-founders couldn't agree on a vision, says Francis, and instead shifted toward making an engine when they discovered they enjoyed developing tools so much.
Francis has a background as an indie filmmaker, and from this, he hit on an interesting idea. "I developed this theory that when creative people grow up, they want to produce the media they consumed as children," says Francis.
It's easy to make basic films, he says, but it's still tough to easily make any
sort of game. "And that's what we're trying to do with games: allow creative people to become these professionals," Francis says.
It all comes down to the founders' goals for the Unity engine product, he says. "Our original vision was to create the Final Cut Pro for games." Keeping in mind Apple's powerful-but-usable video editing software, which empowered so many indie filmmakers to create professional-quality films, the company launched its engine efforts.
He's clear on one thing: "We always wanted to make a tool for professionals," says Francis. Being a professional however, "doesn't mean you work in a big company." What it does mean, he says, is that "you're doing it for real."
"We've always wanted dedicated people to be able to make exactly what they want," says Francis. "By expanding the market, that redefines what a professional is, as far as I can see," he says.
Making the Tool Simple
Others at Unity have described him as the guru who keeps the engine's interface simple and clear -- so much so that he makes things difficult for the company's engineers, who primarily want to add features, not worry about precisely how users will approach them. This is, he says, where he puts "the core" of his effort. He explains:
"Quite often we have somebody making an awesome high-end feature, and they just kind of wish that all of the [interface] design thing would just go away, so they could concentrate on making their feature," he says. "So for a long time the process of design and the high-end stuff were sort of at odds with each other."
"And that's sort of my job -- to sit down with everybody and figure out, 'How do we make this simple? How do we make it so that anyone can figure out how to use it?' And that's a really hard problem to solve, in many cases."
He has an example: "We have this super complicated particle system we have to make simple so people can make their way into it. It's not much fun if there's only 20 people on earth using the particle system. We want thousands of people to be using it."
But there's a complication here: "You can't just have something and slap on an interface, because that's never going to fly," says Francis.
"If there's some weird stuff happening under the hood, you can paper some of that over with an interface," he says. But that "just won't work" in the long run, he says. "It just doesn't scale. It's unwieldy and heavy, so you really have to get in early and figure out, in order for this to work from a user's perspective, you need to change the data structures underneath this."
This is complicated by the fact has to make sure that the changes he's making to the engine not just add functionality that he or the team at Unity thinks is interesting, but also addresses developers' needs. "We take what our community wants, but then we try to internalize it, and take a step back and figure out what we should work on," says Francis.
"Our harshest critics are ourselves," he says.