Inside Unity's evolution
What drives Unity? What matters to the company? Gamasutra sits down with CEO David Helgason at its Unite conference in Amsterdam to get a picture of what's essential to the engine provider.
As of yesterday, Unity 4 is currently in beta for existing customers, with a full release planned for the future. Unity 3 came out in 2010. But that doesn't mean the popular game engine has stagnated over the past two years.
For instance, version 3.5 was released earlier this year -- but even that wasn't the only change to the tech, just the most recent, large one. Instead of waiting to do big feature drops, the company continuously evolves its engine to try and address the demands of a shifting landscape of how games are made, says Helgason.
"[Improvements are] not moments in time. It's more just continuous," he says. "It may be different from other people. We don't do it in chunks. We do it incrementally, and all the time."
"The stuff that Nicholas [Francis, Unity chief creative officer] showed today
, it's all kind of incremental improvements to Unity that fit really well in existing features and functionalities."
To figure out how to make changes, says Helgason, the company, as often as possible, tries to closely examine the way that developers use the tool. "The only way to do that is to be really close to them, to be exposed to them," he says. "Their pain, problems, frustration, and joys, of course."
The way the team looks at the engine, he says, is about not getting in the way of what developers want to do. "If you need a particular type of feature, it should be there, or you should be able to implement it easily on top of Unity."
That's driven the development of its new Shuriken particle engine, one facet of its "triple-A initiative
," which is more of a focus on making sure the engine fits every constituency that means to use it, says Helgason -- including new ones. After all, yesterday he revealed that 53 percent of mobile developers currently use it. But what of platforms beyond mobile?
"[The team wants Unity] to be robust in the face of different styles of working and approaches," he says. "[But] making an engine like that is actually really, really hard. A lot of energy goes into these underlying things that you don't see, but you experience when Unity doesn't get in your way later."
Making sure Unity stays functional in every sense of the word is a challenge, says Helgason. "It's not done, by the way -- it's a process, an asymptotic goal," he says. "We do it mainly by just giving a lot of freedom to our people."
The team, for some time, has run quarterly "ninja camps" where developers get time to work on their own projects, but has also implemented 20 percent time, where on Fridays people can work on passion projects relating to the tool.
This leads directly to improvements in the engine tech, says Helgason. "That means that since we employ 200 of the smartest people I've ever met, who are also passionate and care about the developers, they will go and find the solutions that are required."
"The most important is giving them some space," he says. "We give ourselves some freedom to reinvent Unity."
It's not just about adding to the engine, too. "We actually deprecate things," says Helgason. "There's no code there that's more than a few years old."
Another way in which the engine evolves is thanks to the philosophy of the company's chief creative officer, Nicholas Francis
. He believes in simple, clean UI, and accessibility on top of power. This "forces us to seriously consider any change," says Helgason. "Which means we kind of do them in little bite-sized chunks along the way."
This approach, however, has lead to some misconceptions of Unity, Helgason believes.
Simple, Cheap: These Can be Good Things
"There are some assumptions that people have, around the world, that are really hard to budge. One of them is, for instance, is if it's simple, it can't be advanced, or if it's cheap it can't be good. These kinds of dichotomies, that are really deep-seated in people -- I think any really good product company or software company will be challenging assumptions like this all the time," he says.
"It's just naturally hard, and that's okay. We have patience," says Helgason. "If it's going to take five years for people to really believe that you can make enormous, complex, rich, awesome games in Unity, it's okay. We'll still be here in five years."
What doesn't drive Unity is its competition, says Helgason, though the company does keep an eye on what top engine tech is capable of.
"There's a lot of best practices that have evolved with engines, but the thing is that it really doesn't have to do with one or two competitors, it's what a lot of people are doing in the big studios," says Helgason.
"I think you can learn more from DICE and the Frostbite Engine and the [IO Interactive] Glacier Engine... There are papers published, and people do GDC presentations. In that sense, we're constantly watching what's going on in the engine space."
However, he says, "We didn't get to where we are by trying to beat somebody else, we got here by serving our customers."
In essence, Helgason believes the company must remain sensitive to its users' needs, even as the user base shifts due to market changes and the functionality of the engine evolving. The company is currently walking something of a tightrope here, as some developers worry that things may change too much.
"Unity really matters to people, because they make their living on top of it," says Helgason. "So they're naturally worried, as they should be. Because if we went and screwed up, or acted like idiots, that would hurt a lot of people, hurt a lot of companies."
"That's a natural response to reliance on us," he says.
Being aware of the needs of the community, evolving the tech in useful and even surprising ways, however, is the goal the company has set for itself.