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Interview: Unity Aims For AAA Space With Upcoming Releases

Interview: Unity Aims For AAA Space With Upcoming Releases

June 17, 2011 | By Leigh Alexander

Unity version 3.4 is nearing release, and although it primarily focuses on bug fixes and feature optimization, the company's CEO, David Helgason, is excited: "We've been doing some pretty awesome stuff," he says.

The Unity engine's userbase now surpasses 500,000 licensees -- among them, 150,000 are actively using Unity on a current basis. "We're really proud of that," Helgason tells Gamasutra. "If you put a free piece of software up on the web, a lot of people download it, but what is more important is how many of them are still using it, and how many of them come back every month."

"We're just short of six years on the market, and just short of a third of our users are coming back every month to work," he adds. "Not all of it are using it commercially, of course -- they're students at schools, or they're otherwise learning game development with Unity. It touches our hearts."

The company's also excited about Czech studio Madfinger, comprised of expats from 2K and "other high-end backgrounds," as Helgason enthuses, developing the title Shadowgun. "That's a stake in the ground," he says. "It's a testament to what we're doing not just making Unity democratic and easy to use, but really closing the gap on quality with the highest-end users."

The company's goal? Make it so that there's no reason not to use Unity, he says. In his view, one of the barriers for Unity was that many potential licensees would pass on the engine, reputed for its service to the indie, casual and browser-based community, in search of a higher-end solution. So given that the company is now, according to the CEO, "quite profitable," Unity put some of its resources to work to go after the AAA game developer.

The studio found a number of staff in Stockholm with "high-end, AAA backgrounds" and founded a development studio there, "and we'll be announcing other, similar stuff in the near future," says Helgason. And the launch of 3.4 will bring features like the integration of Allegorithmic's Substance tech, allowing Substance procedural textures to be edited in Unity. Also part of the update are improved shadows, pre-computing volumes for skinned animation meshes, and even support for downloadable content that includes iOS and Android.

"We're going in the right direction in that sense," says Helgason. "I'm looking even more forward to version 3.5, where we'll really see support for much bigger projects and larger teams, like with optimization and the ability to share files. ...Releases are increasing in speed, we've achieved escape velocity and we're pushing to make Unity even better than it has been."

But the company wants it known that a new focus on larger teams and higher-end developers doesn't mean a departure from its economical indie roots. "We want to make sure we don't break our model," Helgason reflects. "We want to remain free for small studios. If you build with the free version of Unity, whatever you build is still your own. We just remember when we were a small company, we couldn't afford expensive software either. Also, the thought of getting software where you'd have to pay a significant part of your revenue to someone else was too risky, because you don't know what your margin will be down the line."

Unity aims to support not only larger mobile games, but also bigger, more connected browser games in the vein of Bigpoint's Ruined and Battlestar Galactica, and Gazillion's Marvel Super Hero Squad. The acceleration of updates to Unity has picked up so much that much of the response to some of these titles' beta is that they almost don't look like what you'd expect from Unity games -- "we said the same thing," laughs Helgason.

"Experienced teams are able to do a lot with unity. People who would have a hard time doing anything on this level are able to do amazing things, while experienced teams just get further," Helgason describes. "The Marvel team in Seattle... is like 80 people, so it's a really big production. And these people have been teaching us as we go, and a lot of that is coming out in versions 3.4 and 3.5."

As core market developers turn their eye to new online, web and mobile platforms, Helgason sees serious opportunity for Unity: "We serve as a nice bridge for the hardcore developers going to these new platforms," he believes.

Unity launched an Asset Store in November of last year, and Helgason says they've seen explosive growth in that arena of their business, too. "The fundamental idea behind it is that game development... requires a lot of skillsets in the same room at the same time, which is sort of a luxury of a well-funded, typically big company. We not only want to be a successful game engine, we have to enable a lot of people to od stuff they wouldn't be able to do otherwise. And then, even if you have great tools, you still lack content."

That's where the Asset Store comes in, which the company hopes will create a virtuous cycle of developers creating and profiting from content they share with one another. "There are all these skillsets working in the Unity community -- one studio creates cars, trees and stuff, and another studio creates a kind of pathfinding, and these are really single-use assets," says Helgason. "It broke our hearts to see on one hand a lot of small studios having trouble getting all the art together, and then on the other hand a lot of larger studios wasting their time because they'd create something and never use it again. We wanted people to have access to monetizing their work, and that's been really successful."

The store launched with 70 packages, and it's now up to nearly 800. "There are large script libraries, tool chains for doing 2D games, for doing UIs, really interesting extensions to unity, and shader packs you can buy," he says for example. "We have a handful of people actually making a living from the asset store, which is cool, and it adds so much value to the community. I think you'll see some interesting ways we can offer services beyond fixed assets that you buy."

One example is its integration with animation store Mixamo, that lets users apply ready-made animation data within Unity and then purchase it through the asset store. It's useful, Helgason says, because it lets users preview and try out animations within context before purchasing it.

In November, Unity also unveiled its Union business unit, a multiplatform distributor of Unity games. Since then, it's partnered with Sony Ericsson to develop and port Unity-based games to Sony Ericsson's new Xperia Play smartphone, among other partnerships. It's through Union that Shadowgun will be made available to the company's platform partners. Unity GM Brett Seyler said in a statement: "With Union, we're aiming to deliver not just an impressive volume of proven hit titles, but we're out to raise quality expectations of mobile games with groundbreaking projects like Shadowgun as well."

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