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Last week at the Game Developers Conference, Unity Technologies scored a trifecta, with deals announced that will deliver the company’s cross-platform game development engine to and optimized for the Sony PlayStation 4, Qualcomm’s Snapdragon mobile platform, and Facebook. That shows how the company has become as a kind of ambassador, linking those major platform owners with the 1.5 million game developers who are using the company’s Unity 3D game engine.
Games that are coded with Unity’s engine can run pretty much anywhere, from the Nintendo Wii U to iOS and Android mobile devices. And as the number of platforms spreads, Unity is growing up and posing a threat to the high-end triple-A game engines such as Crytek’s CryEngine and Epic Games’ Unreal Engine.
In our interview at the GDC, Helgason showed a demo for beautiful sci-fi racer The Chase that demonstrated that Unity games are marching upward in quality. It has a large environment, atmospheric effects, and other cool 3D graphics features. A few years ago, Unity-based games on social and mobile platforms were unimpressive when it came to graphics. Now it is getting hard to tell them apart from triple-A console titles, Helgason said. With more than 250 employees, Unity is moving fast to close the gap with its high-end rivals.
Unity hasn’t announced a deal with Microsoft for its next-generation console yet, but the new console era is young. And if that happens, Unity’s encirclement plan will be complete. And Helgason says indie game developers will be the winners.
Here’s a transcript of our interview with Helgason.
GamesBeat: You had a very important Sony announcement.
David Helgason: Yeah, and the Qualcomm one this morning. We’re going from strength to strength. It’s come to the point where everyone wants to work with us. The Sony announcement was in the works for a while. Maybe it was obvious that we would be on that platform. But it’s still exciting that Sony wanted to embrace us in a big way.
The details are yet to be forthcoming, but everyone expects these platforms to be more open. They’ve made it clear that they want to embrace indie developers and smaller developers and more creative work. Unity is the paragon there.
GamesBeat: How do you address some of their concerns? Do you sell them on the goodness of openness?
Helgason: I don’t think we have to. If you look at the mobile ecosystems, most of the hits — including hits that are making a lot of money — are coming from small teams. Everyone assumes that Clash of Clans is probably the number one grossing mobile game in the West. They were probably 30 people when they launched it. Rovio is a big company now, but they were just 20 when they launched Angry Birds. So much value is coming from these small teams. The big companies recognize that these games are incredibly compelling. With Unity, small teams can build something quite formidable.
GamesBeat: But I also expect to see some fear among platform owners that allowing too many games on the platform could dilute it.
Helgason: In the end, it will be Sony curating the platforms. They’ve not announced how they will do that, so it’s not my place to tell the world how it’s going to happen. We just expect that there will be more openness than there has been before. They’ve made that clear.
GamesBeat: The quality of the games has also been going up.
Helgason: Yes. The stuff that’s built with Unity is taking leaps and bounds. You probably saw Dead Trigger. Have you seen Dead Trigger 2? It was shown at [the Consumer Electronics Show]. Madfinger is one of our bigger, more important customers. They’ve been partnering with Nvidia on that. It looks incredible.
We’ve been adding features to make that easier for everyone. We have a demo here called The Chase, a thing we’ve been building — it’s a work in progress — to show off mobile capabilities in Unity. It has skin shading. You can slow it down and see what’s going on. 250,000 polygons per frame. That’s around 6 million polygons per second, with great effects. That’s as much as you’d be doing on PC or console. This is just something we’ve cooked up in the lab, but our customers are doing work that’s equally impressive.
GamesBeat: How close do you think you are to console quality or PC quality there?
Helgason: It’s not so much Unity. It’s whether the devices are ready. The devices are getting there. This is an iPad 4, the newest one, about half a year old. We have no insight beyond the rumor mill, but there will obviously be a new device this year, and it’ll be ridiculously powerful. That’s the only thing holding us back. Of course, this year the consoles are taking another leap forward. They’ll have a few more years where they’re significantly ahead of mobile, but mobile is iterating so fast.
GamesBeat: Do you see yourself eating away at the high-end PC gaming and console markets? Do you think Unity has reached parity there?
Helgason: On mobile, absolutely. I haven’t seen any games that are more advanced than the stuff that’s built with Unity on mobile. It’s possible. People have been building engines for decades. But I don’t see anything on mobile where I’m like, “Oh, shit, I wish Unity could do that.” Our customers are getting super creative about using the tech. It’s a learning process. You bring up studios with your tech and they learn to use it with the grain. We’re coming to the point, like with Madfinger, where we have studios that are so good at using our tech that they’re going ahead of what anyone else can do with any platform. We knew we would get there.
I think it was a years ago now that we started talking about the triple-A initiative. Before that, we had it internally for half a year or so. We want to make sure that Unity is never going to hold you back. Anything you want to do — quality-wise, performance-wise, feature-wise — you can do. In a way, that’s not possible. There are always new techniques and strategies and so on, but we’re really pushing ahead. We’ve hired so many engineers now. We’re 250 in the company, of which a bit less than half are engineers. We’re still growing. The business is booming. Our customers love it.
We’ve got some crazy wins. Some of the biggest Kickstarters in games are Unity. I don’t know if you noticed that Richard Garriott, Lord British, is doing a Unity game with his Kickstarter. The inXile guys are using it for Wasteland and Torment. The Norwegian guys, Red Thread, with the new Dreamfall game. Project Eternity, from the Obsidian guys, is using Unity. These guys are veterans of the industry. They’ve built their own engines. They can buy anything they want. They choose Unity because they feel it’s most efficient and they can build the best games with it. It’s exactly what we wanted to happen. We’ve been creating this for 10 years, and now we’re there. We’re going to keep hammering at it. Partnering with Sony means that we’ll also have high-end games on those platforms, which is fantastic.
GamesBeat: There’s also Facebook. When it comes to quality on Facebook, something like FarmVille 2 is considered to be pretty high-end.
Helgason: Have you seen Offensive Combat yet, or Robot Rising from Tencent? It may not be console-quality yet, but it’s getting there. The games are much better. They’re core games.
The only reason these guys even hold back from cutting-edge graphics is because they want to work on a broad range of PCs. They don’t want 90 percent of the people who go to the game to be told, “Your PC isn’t up to spec.” The quality is rising very quickly, though. Correct me if I’m wrong — I should be careful not to put words in Facebook’s mouth — but they decided they want core games on Facebook. They’re investing in that. I think they looked around and Flash wasn’t doing it. Even Flash 3D is not there. The only real alternative was Unity. I think that’s why they partnered with us, and we’re happy to partner back.
We did some awesome engineering work with them to make it so, when you’re playing a Unity game, it goes either full canvas or even full screen. You can use the social mechanics, like share with friends, popping up inside of Unity without having to go out of full screen or put the web page in front of it. The gamer stays in the flow. It’s not rocket science, but it’s solid engineering work. Facebook put in their engineers, we put in our engineers, and they hacked away at it. Facebook is like that. They have this incredible hacker mentality. The business guys didn’t get together first. We just put the engineers in a room, and they came up with a solution.
GamesBeat: Is there any kind of quality difference you would still see in Facebook games versus other kinds of Unity games?
Helgason: There’s no technical difference. It’s the same plug-in with the same capabilities. The reason you will see many of the games go with simpler graphics is just to make sure that everyone in the world can play. You’ll have a lot of people playing on laptops or integrated graphics chips. They’ll still have explosions and particles and stuff, but they won’t go to the very cutting edge. But there’s nothing in the technology holding them back.
EA built Tiger Woods Online with Unity a few years ago, and it looks a bit dated now, but even then, they made an effort to keep it looking advanced on new hardware. It’s a bit of extra effort, but Unity helps with some of it. You’ll see that as well.
The number that Facebook will announce tomorrow is that 70 million of the people on their platform have the plug-in already. I think they’ve also announced that they have 200 million gamers on Facebook, so a third of the gamers have the plug-in. This conversion problem that remains — some people don’t have the plug-in — is shrinking rapidly. The plan is that later this year, a year from now, everyone who needs the plug-in on Facebook will have it. That gives developers a frictionless publishing experience.
GamesBeat: The collaboration with Facebook, is it producing advantages that weren’t already there?
Helgason: Yeah. One thing is a better install experience. Facebook is wrapping the installer and telling you that this is condoned by Facebook. It shows you which friends have it. It’s similar to how they promote Spotify. When you install Spotify through Facebook, you’re told who on your friends list have it. It’s a social experience just to download Spotify, which is also a client. It’s still a work in progress, but Facebook rolls things out slowly and selectively. The second thing is the social integration, to make it easy for developers to keep their gamers inside the Unity canvas.
Facebook has already been promoting Unity to developers. They’ll definitely step up that message tomorrow. The good thing is, Facebook is focusing heavily on mobile. Not all, but many of these games will find it easy to go from the browser to mobile because it’s Unity. Again, putting words into Facebook’s mouth might not be appreciated there, but I’m pretty sure that’s part of the thinking. They want games to be on the web and on mobile. Facebook Connect works on both.
The third big partnership is Qualcomm, where the announcement is that we’ll be working with their engineers to optimize Unity for their chips. At least on Android, they’re completely dominant. We’re working with them to make sure that Unity is much better for Android. We’re adding features to make it easier for developers to use their chips. Also, we’re helping produce games with Qualcomm’s partners. There will be Snapdragon-branded Unity games coming out in collaboration with them.
Those chips are also in Blackberries. They’re all over the place. We partnered with Blackberry this spring, so Unity games are coming out there at scale. Last year, we partnered with Microsoft on Windows Phone, so that’s another thing coming up.
GamesBeat: So your competition is mainly on the high end, like Crytek and Epic.
Helgason: Honestly, I don’t see Crytek anywhere. I’m not sure what they’re doing, but they’re definitely not selling engines these days. Epic is there even after selling half the company to Tencent. They’re still doing games and engine. Their engine is very nice, but it has no edge on mobile.
GamesBeat: Is Epic making headway on mobile?
Helgason: No. They have fantastic games, but they have to build them themselves. I haven’t been able to count more than a couple of dozen games using their tech. We stopped counting at 700. We know it’s in the thousands now. It’s a different scale.
GamesBeat: Is there any other competition?
Helgason: The real competition is not any particular company or tool. It’s the fact that a lot of people still build their own tools. There used to be good reasons for that, but there are fewer and fewer now. We intend to displace that. There was a survey in Game Developer magazine last May where they asked mobile game developers what they were using. Unity came up way in front with 53 percent. The number two category was actually not using any engine. That was 38 percent. Then there was some open-source stuff and some 2D tools, but they were in the single digits. Epic wasn’t even there. So the only sort of formidable competition, you might say, is people’s in-house tools.
GamesBeat: What about these things like Ludei or Corona or Gamesalad?
Helgason: They have their uses. That’s fine. But it’s not at any scale that seems to matter. They haven’t been pushing the technology forward very much. They seem happy with a simple tool that remains simple. We have a tool that’s quite simple, that gets more advanced without getting more complex. We have a very ambitious mindset. We want to be the tool for everyone — for Electronic Arts, for Disney, for Richard Garriott, for Obsidian, for 10-year-olds, for creative indie teams, for artists, for people who are just experimenting.
GamesBeat: Everyone refers to HTML5 as the lingua franca of the web, but is it really working for games?
Helgason: No, it’s not.
GamesBeat: Could Unity effectively become something like that?
Helgason: It’s close. HTML5 has two really strong uses. One is for web apps that are data-driven and not using graphics. It’s relevant there. Most web apps are built like that now. Another is for video. When it comes to games, it has one particular relevant use: if for whatever reason you are absolutely constrained to a browser on a device where you cannot install something like Unity. That could be, say, if you’re making gambling apps for the iPhone. Apple doesn’t allow that, so you have to use the browser.
This idea that you have to be in the browser to survive was very dominant around five years ago. We were told that we were idiots to have a plug-in. “Why not just make it in HTML5?” But people have clearly woken up. That’s not enough. HTML5 is great for many things, but it’s not great for making complex, rich games. It’s made a lot of headway, but it’s still too far behind the cutting edge in games.
GamesBeat: Where are you guys as far as getting the plug-in embedded in browsers?
Helgason: In China, we have it in 360, the big Chinese browser. Everyone who has the 360 browser, which I think is around 250 million people, automatically gets Unity when they need to. Instead of having to install something, it’s just there. In the West, I believe we’ve installed 200 million plug-ins ourselves. We have nothing to announce right now on any other things, but the Facebook announcement, even though it doesn’t automatically get installed, should help drive that very hard for the Facebook world.
We’re pushing hard. Our Asian business is formidable. We’re growing fast in China, Korea, and Japan. Even our Europe business is doing pretty well. The Asset Store has become this incredible platform. Something like 100 people now have meaningful income for themselves from there. Even big companies like inXile use it a lot. We’re helping them crowdsource stuff. They’ll post concept art and then people submit 3D models into the asset store. The developer can buy that from the Asset Store, and it’ll get featured in Wasteland. Whether it’s small companies or big ones, everyone is using the Asset Store. It’s a multimillion-dollar business at this point. It’s incredible how much creativity that unleashes in our community.
GamesBeat: Tell us more.
Helgason: Here’s the most amazing thing. There’s art in there. There’s animation. There are sounds and all these things. But there’s also a lot of code and script and plug-ins for Unity. We saw the other day that one of the plug-ins that’s really popular in the Asset Store now has a plug-in for itself. Somebody extended one of the extensions. [Laughs] That’s also selling well. That’s a truly rich ecosystem, where people are building on top of each other in a big pile.
We just want to be the best company for game developers to work with — for tools, for assets, for support, for platform compatibility. We help them publish their games to new platforms. We try to be more and more creative about how we support them. We’ve established ourselves as the most important technology company in mobile games. The category is growing in the high double digits every year. There’s so much opportunity for us and for our customers. We’re only 250 people now, but we think we’ll be one of the important companies for the long term.