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Unite 10: Unity Unveils New Union Initiative, Talks Engine Upgrades
Unite 10: Unity Unveils New Union Initiative, Talks Engine Upgrades
November 10, 2010 | By Christian Nutt

November 10, 2010 | By Christian Nutt

At the Unite 10 conference in Montreal, CEO David Helgason announced upgrades for the company's Unity engine -- and a new initiative called Union, which will help developers reach devices that the tool couldn't access before.

At the outset, Helgason gave some interesting stats: this year's Unite conference, the 4th, has 650 participants including Unity staffers and attendees. In the last year, since the company made its development tool free for commercial game development, its audience has increased 20 times -- from 13,000 to 260,000 developers.

And while there was some concern from both Unity's side and existing users that this huge influx might degrade the community, it hasn't been the case, said Helgason. "They just augmented it and made it better... they went on to learn, teach, and be of value to the community."

Unity 3 launched recently, and is going strong. The browser plug-in to play Unity games on the web has seen 2.5 million installs per month -- that's 1 per second -- and has an "even higher" than 70 percent success rate from offer to install with users, reaching "30 percent of web gamers" per Unity. 40 million plug-ins have been installed so far.

The engine also powers more than 17 top 10 games on the iOS platform, and "20 good games" have launched so far on Android, per Helgason -- 13 of which are multiplatform with iOS . Android sales have already reached one-third the volume of iOS Unity sales.

Early next year, the first Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 Unity games will launch, and interested developers can gain access to these platforms now by contacting Unity's sales team. "We're letting people in at a somewhat slow rate just to make sure our support can keep up," said Helgason

The company is also " working with Google to the ability to have Unity games run natively in Chrome, and that should span to their tablets and other devices."

'Round The World

Unity has also opened regional offices in Brazil, Colombia, Germany, Japan, Russia, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, the UK, and the U.S. to handle sales."We were born global but as we grow we realized that we have to be local as well, so what we've been doing is setting up resellers and sales teams in these regions." Communities have sprung up in these territories, and more, as well.

The company has also implemented Google Analytics in the latest version of the software -- on an opt-out basis -- which has delivered interesting statistics. Now, says Helgason, "We can understand how the tool gets used, and this becomes a new avenue for us to learn. There are so many interesting facts to find out there." The top 10 Unity cities are:

1. Seoul
2. London
3. Paris
4. San Francisco
5. Vienna
6. Melbourne
7. Beijing
8. Moscow
9. Brisbane
10. San-ch'ung

The team now knows, for example, that 42,000 developers used Unity in the last week. 80,000 developers have used it in the last month -- this is out of the 260,000 people who have ever used Unity, so almost one-third of anyone who's ever used Unity used it in the last month. "This is only Unity 3, a lot of projects are still using Unity 2," Helgason said.

Democratizing Game Development

Said Helgason, "The whole goal of what we're trying to do is democratizing game development. We went about it how we knew how to, which is to take really advanced technology, package and simplify it and make it better, and a workable business model that lets us stay alive... We're profitable and everything is going great and we're growing and reaching new people."

However, that is not enough, he said. "There are problems that remain even once you've made game development really easy." While the company is still working on simplifying the game development process, "problems still remain. And one of those problems is that interactive 3D requires a team."

Development "requires artists, animators, different types of programmers... on top of the gameplay designers, scripters, etc. Having a stable team is a luxury of a big team with a big budget. Many of you are from those companies, many of you are not... We realized the community was already solving some of this... they were sharing [solutions], but also selling tools and extensions..."

This has all been handled outside of Unity before -- but no more. Launching today, the Unity Asset Store is "a platform for sharing and trading between Unity users. It's a pretty wild piece of software," said Helgason.

Closely resembling the iTunes store or App Store, the store allows you to download, from inside Unity 3.1, artwork and other data and import it directly into Unity and work on it almost immediately.

The developer demo included a car model imported directly into the engine from the store. The store itself shows both screenshots of the assets and a per-asset preview so you can sort through the package and check them out. Offerings can range from free tutorials to asset packs, scripts and workflows, and more, and can be searched by content, publisher or type and more.

Besides basic 3D assets, a shader editor was demoed on stage. "The asset store is part of Unity 3.1 which is launching today," said Helgason. The new version also contains "a bunch of bug fixes and optimizations."

Another way in which it resembles the App Store is the revenue share -- there's a "simple agreement", and a 70/30 share with Unity. "Expect some congestion early on... but we'll be working hard to get everything in there," said Helgason.

There's another major addition as of Unity 3.1, which "has been kept under wraps because it is complex and technical but also it's very new."

Introducing Union

While the iOS devices, browser, and consoles all offer large audiences for games developed using Unity, that's not the whole picture. "There will be a lot more smartphones out there, and there will be a lot of connected TVs and set top boxes that will be able to run your games," said Helgason.

"The makers of those devices know games are important ... but they don't know where to go so they call on EA Mobile, Gameloft, Glu Mobile... generally our community couldn't capitalize on this, which is very sad. What if we all banded together and what would happen then?

"And what we realized was that you as a community have developed more hit games on the App Store than any big publisher. That's why we're launching Union today, to capture those opportunities together."

Union is a new service run by Unity which will allow developers to reach a number of new platforms -- at an 80/20 revenue share. Brett Seyler, Unity's GM of Union, came to the stage to explain more.

"Today we're launching Union, and that means that your games can reach further than they ever have before. We really think we're on the cusp of something huge here. Massive growth and massive disruption are happening simultaneously in almost every category of consumer electronics. Acting together we think we can be among the first on any device," he said.

To join, you need to contact Union, upload a complete project, and go.

He announced four interesting relationships for Union at the outset. One is Nokia, who "last quarter, shipped 110 million phones and have 32 percent market share," he said. Next is NDS, a "provider of key software for set top boxes and other similar living room devices. Not a household name but their software is on over 138m active devices."

Splashtop, the third, is "a really interesting company... provides an instant-on operating system that's already on over 40 million PCs" from companies such as Lenovo and Dell. Finally, HP Palm, which has "about 5 percent market share in the smartphone space and on the PC side, they're huge, almost 30 percent of the market."

"These are just a few of the companies... that we're working with... and when they reach these devices and find some buyers, 80 percent of the net revenues will come back to you," Seyler promised.

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John Currie
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I felt a little sad for Unity after Adobe's revealing the new 3d Molehill APIs, as it now seems they'll never catch on as a mainstream platform for web games. Given the widestream availability of the Flash plugin, it's tough to go with Unity instead, although I really love their interface and toolsets. With their broad platform support, I'm sure they'll succeed as a company though.

It would be sweet if Adobe bought Unity and combined the Flash and Unity toolsets, but I doubt anything like that would happen...

Germain Cout
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I dissagree that Flash and Unity compete in the same areas. Flash can only develop small to medium sized games whereas Unity is a lot more comfortable with medium sized games.

IMO I would never think of flash as an option for the game i'm developing at the moment in Unity.

Alistair Doulin
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As a developer using Unity, 3D support is low on my list of reasons for using it. The editor tools and cross-platform support are two big draw cards that make it a perfect choice for indie developers. Finally we have a write once, run anywhere product that does what it says.

The only reason to go with Flash over Unity is penetration and as time goes on, that will become less of a problem.

Tom Higgins
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I'm sorry but IMO it would not be sweet if Adobe bought us, not at all. I've been there and done that and don't want to be under that umbrella again for a number of reasons. :)

For now I think it's best for us to operate on our own as we are and as the two comments below note I think you're underselling our value and competitive potential against Flash in various areas. We're certainly not looking to be a Flash-killer or anything like that, rather we're focused on areas where we're far enough ahead or unique enough in what we offer than we're able to "win", and we think that's a solid path for us.

Tom Baird
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I'm kinda confused by the Flash worry. It's not like there are not already a number of 2D Unity games, and it's not like working with an API is remotely close to using a fully featured development engine.

Molehill feels like it's years late to the party, and still doesn't look to compare to Unity or Shiva as far as performance and visuals. Yeah I saw the racing demo, but it's not like performance showcases don't try to utilize every trick in the book to fake extra features and show off optimal conditions. Compare it to Unity's soldier demo.

I think it could make some healthy competition, but I know I'm not switching, and can't think of anyone I know who would. Unless you just like the word Flash, or only ever learned or understand actionscript, Molehill has a lot of catching up to do.

More on topic though, The Asset Store and Union seem like a huge boost to smaller developers, allowing them simplified access to resources, an internal store they can market their creations on, and access to talk to a publisher once they've made something.

Diego Leao
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If publishers support this idea, we could very well be looking at a major shift in how games are developed.

I'm not exagerating, there are a lot of high quality games made by small companies and individuals for the iPhone, and if those guys had the same freedom to access major downloadable channels (on consoles), they would again be profitable. 99% of what Indies make is crap, we all know it, but the last 1% can't be ignored, they are possibly going to be bigger hits than a lot of AAA titles. I understand that from those 1%, another 50% maybe won't make enough profit to be "relevant" to publisher's interest, but the other 50% would most likely make it or at least hint into the direction the gamers are going, what they are willing to pay for what kind of content.

I imagine a world where publishers would look at a game and think "This seems like a good game, we had fun, it has good graphics, we tested with some users that told us it is very fun, but our market analist says it is not going to make much money. Ok, we are going to publish it anyway. It is an obviously good game that we are going to publish with ridiculously little investment, so it is worth the risk!" - It seems obvious to me that paying 100 grand to make a game available on Xbox Live is a better idea than investing 10 million dollars in the next "Bionic Commando" or "Dark Void".

Also, most importantly, we need to make the whole process inexpensive. The games that game developers consider a big success on the iPhone may be considered a failure on Xbox Live channel, because the standards and fees MS (or any other console manufacturer) imposes are too high for the small dev (company or individual). The guys from SMB had the money to pay more than 100 grand in development fees, most of us don't. The reason we don't see more games like Super Meat Boy is not because devs can't make them, it is because there is no one at MS to manage a portfolio of those kind of games, for their kind of budget.

EDIT: this whole post talks about Microsoft as the target, because Indie devs we can pretty much give up on Sony and Nintendo, they just don't get it.