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Interview: Unity CEO David Helgason Explains Xperia, Union, More

Interview: Unity CEO David Helgason Explains Xperia, Union, More

February 17, 2011 | By Christian Nutt

February 17, 2011 | By Christian Nutt
More: Console/PC, Programming

Engine provider Unity recently announced that its toolset will support the Xperia Play mobile phone alongside the device's launch -- and Gamasutra spoke to CEO David Helgason in San Francisco to find out more about this, its Union program, and more.

The Unity Xperia Play API will come in an update to Unity 3D developers this spring -- alongside the launch of the phone in North America. Developers will be able to use it to publish games to the platform which take advantage of the phone's processing power and PlayStation-style pad and button controls.

Said Helgason of the device, "I think it's a brilliant strategy. Any Android game will work [on the phone] and work fast and well. But if you expend some extra effort as a developer, then you get that significantly better handheld gaming experience."

And Sony Ericsson, which hopes to sell lots of the devices, "saw us as the best, or most leveraged, way to get a lot great content in there... They've worked with us to make sure they can get a great stream of games going forward," said Helgason.

And he also thinks the device is more appealing than a dedicated games-only device like Sony's upcoming NGP in the current market.

"I think it's a really nice mix that's much less risky for them and easier to swallow for a consumer than a totally custom device. Xperia's awesome; it was an easy sell for them to convince us to work closely with them on that, and we think developers will be very happy with it."

Clarifying Xperia and Union

Helgason was quick to point out that while Xperia Play will derive titles early on from its Union initiative, announced at last year's Unite 10 conference in Montreal, many developers have been under the impression that this means that Unity will be taking a cut of games developed for Xperia Play moving forward. This is not the case.

Union has been designed to deliver Unity games to devices such as set-top boxes that developers as yet do not primarily develop for. Unity itself will take care of making sure the games work on the devices -- hence the 20 percent cut it takes from game sales via Union. "Every platform we adopt into Union is work," said Helgason.

But when it comes to Xperia Play, many developers expressed concerns. "We have to go through Union and therefore give Unity a cut? And the answer is, no, you don't have to. What Union is doing is helping Sony Ericsson ensure that they have a really high quality of games to pick from -- fast and early," said Helgason.

That clarified, he said that interest in Union has been much, much bigger than Unity ever anticipated.

"It was just mindblowing, the interest. I remember talking about, if we could get 100 titles, that would be awesome; we'd have a big library... As it turns out it's not 100, it's 1000," he said, referring to the number of developers who have signed up for the program.

So far Unity has announced four partners for Union, including NDS, which develops software for TV set top boxes, and HP Palm. However, said Helgason, "As soon as we announced it, the number of platforms that were interested exploded as well. [Now], we're discussing with 20 to 30, and many of them may end up making a deal with us.

"We think it's a business and can make everyone happy. I think you will see a number of deals struck during this year. I really expect and hope that many [game] developers will be making real and significant money off of this," he said.

And the way Union functions may change in the future as developers get a handle on it, said Helgason. "In the early days of Union it's mostly about taking [existing] games across, but I think it will evolve into different things, and I think one it will evolve into is working with developers about targeting" these devices.

"I think right now is building the expertise [at Unity] and being out there, otherwise we will never know what's needed. The other is being ready in the market, being out there, listening to whatever comes up next," said Helgason.

To help bolster this initiative, Unity recently added three staffers to its Union unit -- VP of business development Oren Tversky, director of developer relations Brian Bruning, and director of marketing Tricia Gray.

The World of Unity Expands

The implementation of Google Analytics in Unity 3 has allowed the company to gather stats about the tool and Helgason shared some of these with Gamasutra.

115,000 game creators used Unity's tool in the last month, clocking up 1 million hours of development time in the tool. "We don't imagine that every single hour of those 1 million hours was spent doing something worthwhile or fancy," admits Helgason. Some developers were undoubtedly "screwing around, experimentation" -- but the figures are impressive.

And the Unity Asset Store, which launched with Unity 3.1 in November, will soon change dramatically, thanks to the volume of developers making purchases on it, Helgason predicts.

"We have sellers who are making several thousand dollars per month and that will only keep growing. We don't have anyone for whom it's changed their life yet [but] we're close to having people -- I'm expecting in the next quarter or two -- who make a living from the store. I'm excited because you'll see all kinds of crazy innovation around it," when things reach that point.

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