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Interview: Unity's Helgason Foresees 'Rapid Period Of Innovation' On iPad

Interview: Unity's Helgason Foresees 'Rapid Period Of Innovation' On iPad Exclusive

April 14, 2010 | By Leigh Alexander

The much-hyped launch of the iPad stirred up a tide of enthusiasm among game developers, particularly those who'd been creating games for iPhone. And tech companies very quickly ramped up to support clients interested in exploring the possibilities on Apple's new, large-screened touch tablet.

In particular, Unity Technologies, creator of the Unity 3D development platform, made a big and visible push with the announcement of version 1.7 of its cross-platform engine, which extended support to the iPad.

Announced just a day before iPad hit the States, it included a "Simulator" functionality that allowed developers to begin work on iPad apps even without access to the hardware, and Unity 1.7 also added support for universal App development -- enabling titles that the company says will automatically work on all three Apple platforms: iPhone and iPod Touch as well as iPad.

The company tells Gamasutra that the response from the development community was decisive and immediate, with most of its iPhone license base -- thousands of developers, it says -- "clamoring" to start porting iPhone content to iPad or to start developing new content specifically for the device.

At the iPad's launch, the App Store already offered some 15 Unity-authored games specific to the device, published by companies like Disney, Warner Bros. and Chillingo. Overall, the company says over 600 games on the App Store in general were developed with its tech.

"The goal is always to give developers the ability to create content in the most interesting places," Unity CEO David Helgason tells Gamasutra. "And when the iPad was announced, we had a sense that it would probably be pretty interesting, and probably pretty easy because we already support the iPhone."

There was one challenge, of course -- at the time the iPad was announced, despite all the excitement, "no one had access to the hardware," Helgason points out. "It was essentially that we were lucky we had a lot of developers that wanted to do launch titles. Our current customers, and also some new ones... developed some really complicated things that Apple was interested in, and luckily we were able to access the hardware remotely."

Among all the enthusiasm for iPad was also some skepticism; some wondered how game developers could benefit from what's effectively a giant iPhone, while other industry-watchers wondered if the actual userbase would turn out to measure up to the hype.

"In a sense, we don't need iPads to be a huge success for us to want to do it," says Unity's Helgason. "It's extremely compelling for a lot of our customers and we want to serve them. However, I think it's going to be quite big. My sense is that there will be a lot of interesting things going on on it."

So what are the specific opportunities Helgason sees for developers on iPad as opposed to Apple's smaller touch platforms? These are questions that remain to be answered by developers themselves, he reasons.

"The best way of figuring it out... is I was thinking back to the iPhone when it launched, and when the App Store launched. I remember there were a lot of assumptions about how people would use it; there was a lot of negativity," he recalls.

"People were certain it would be very hard to control games, because you would have fingers in the way all the time," Helgason continues. "Then, there was a rapid period of innovation which started happening a few months before it launched. Developers invented a lot of the mechanics, and ways to play those games... the games that give you direct control, that you physically move with a finger, were not really obvious to people."

He foresees the same period of experimentation and refinement taking place on the iPad, predicting developers will explore that platform's unique aspects and maximize them.

Just how complex was it to extend iPhone support to iPad? "There are some different customizations, but Apple has been extremely nice about keeping stable," Helgason offers. "A lot of the stuff is completely unchanged, so there weren't actually a lot of things that had to be done. I really think the onus will be on the developers to figure out what to do with the expanded screen."

For some people, being able to serve titles to both iPhone and iPad will just be "nice incremental revenue," Helgason suggests. "If you've got games working on the iPad already, everything is going to basically run -- and then, yet, it's going to be interesting to see what kinds of new things will end up there."

One application of the tech that Helgason is particularly enthusiastic about that often doesn't get as much attention is the educational space, he says. Unity clients are developing iPad apps for use in schools, in medical simulations and more outside of the games space. "We definitely have a lot of those [clients]," he says. "It's been a while since we did a proper tally, but a little while ago we estimated 30 percent of our users are outside the games space."

"It's really compelling, because the skills are often in part the same, but they use it for different things. But as for games on iPad, it remains to be seen which types of titles forge lasting success.

Helgason recalls hearing a client say that "if you're using Unity for the iPad, there's absolutely no excuse not to put the same game in the browser," he suggests. "I'm sure you'll see a fair amount of that, and other types of cross-platform things."

Adds Helgason: "We've only seen this happen fairly recently, people getting serious about having games that span different devices that actually work with real-time multiplayer or asynchronous multiplayer."

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