David Helgason cofounded Unity Technologies in 2003 to make a game engine that could help democratize game development. Over more than a decade, he guided the company on that mission and achieved great success.
Unity is now one of the world’s most popular game engines, with more than 5.5 million registered users. Games built with Unity account for 30 percent of the top 1000 grossing games and reach more than 1.5 billion devices. Things went so well that Helgason stepped down from Unity’s CEO job in October 2014, and he turned the job over to John Riccitiello, former CEO of Electronic Arts. (Riccitiello will speak at our GamesBeat Summit event on May 3-4 in Sausalito, Calif.). And Unity is reportedly seeking to raise a round of money at a valuation of $1.5 billion.
But Unity faces tough competition, and its mission isn’t done. We talked with Helgason in a fireside chat at the Quo Vadis game conference in Berlin last week. Helgason said that democratizing game development still has a ways to go, and game developers now need help in monetization and services that extend well beyond game design. It still takes, for instance, a lot of coding knowledge to be able to use Unity to make a game.
We talked about these challenges, as well as Helgason’s predictions for VR and the future of mobile games. Here’s a edited transcript of our talk. We’ll have part two of our conversation, on the openness of Windows, in a post that runs on Sunday morning. (Here’s part two).
Disclosure: The organizers of Quo Vadis paid my way to Germany. Our coverage remains objective.
GamesBeat: What more do you have to do in democratization of game development?
David Helgason: A few years ago we were thinking, “How does the world look if Unity is infinitely good?” Perfectly easy to use, totally bug free. What does Unity look like then? But we realized that people would still have a hard time making games, because they still have to populate their worlds with stuff. That led us to the asset store. Later we realized that people were making great games, but they still weren’t successful, so we started looking at things like ads and analytics to help guide their businesses.
How much further can we take the democratization of game development? Until games as a medium are similar to film, where you can just point the camera at something and it becomes a film, we’re not quite there. We don’t have plans and products for every one of these steps. But we’re thinking quite far ahead, trying to look for opportunities where we can make the industry that much better.
GamesBeat: It doesn’t seem like we’re at a point yet where a high-school kid could design their own game and successfully launch it without learning any code.
Helgason: No, no. It’s still really hard. Some of this is inherent because you have to come up with interesting ideas and concepts. I don’t think we can totally alleviate that. But even for creative, clever people, there are lots of technical hoops and things to learn. Every year we try to bring out new ways of helping people build their products, populate them, publish them, bring them out. It’s a neverending quest. We’re very far from that point.
GamesBeat: What are your numbers again? A couple of million users a month?
Helgason: 1.4, 1.5 million or so each month sit in front of it, using it for 10, 15, 20 million hours. I forget exactly. Together these people build games that then get installed 1.4, 1.5 billion times a month. Several apps per human per year.
GamesBeat: What else is a goal for you besides these large numbers of games?
Helgason: We recently stated that we have a couple of goals in the short term. One is to be really fucking stable, which we frankly haven’t been. It’s frustrating. We’re a very ambitious company. We want to do everything for everyone. We’re crazy enough to think that’s possible.
In the early days people always told us, “If you’re building a company, pick a small audience and make them really happy.” What we did was, if you squint really hard, a really big studio and a medium-sized studio and a 12-year-old boy all kind of look the same. That’s the audience we decided to serve.
Having had some business success and found the ability to grow, we’ve hired a crazy amount of engineers. We have 300-some engineers working on the product.
GamesBeat: You said 850 people in the company altogether?
Helgason: Right. Maybe more than 350 are engineers. But people working directly on the product—a lot of engineers are building other stuff. If you look at the product only, it’s still more than 300 people. We hired them all very quickly and threw them in a pile and they worked on top of each other. It’s been a bit messy. We were getting slow at making releases, so we got faster and wound up going too fast. We’re trying to slow down again and be more deliberate.
We’ve re-engineered our process going forward so we always have a stable line and a beta line. There are some alpha lines as well for more experimental things. We think that this year we’ll get to a point where developers can trust that there’s a line, and if they’re on it they’re fine.
Then there’s graphics, just kicking the ass of anybody else doing fancy graphics. Not just Epic Games, but also internal engines. We want to make it so that no engine should be better than Unity. We don’t have to be ahead of everyone else, although we think that with some of our graphics research we’re doing now—out of Paris we hired some of the smartest graphics researchers in the world. We’ll be ahead on some things, and overall we’ll perform as well as anyone else. We’ll get there in the next year or two, while also having better tools. It’s hard. It’s a moving target. But we definitely intend to do this.
GamesBeat: One of the interesting things I’ve seen is new game engines coming into the market. You’d think that, when you guys have invested millions of lines of code already into this business, it would be hard for others to start up and catch up. But I guess they feel like they’re doing something more modern?
Helgason: Are you talking about MaxPlay?
GamesBeat: MaxPlay uses that line a lot, yeah.
Helgason: It’s such bullshit. I’m sorry. Sinjin is a good friend of mine, but he’ll say a lot of things to get press. Sorry, Sinjin. I love you, man, but you’re out of line sometimes.
GamesBeat: It seems like a logical thing. Would you use a 10-year-old game engine when something new like VR comes along?
Helgason: It turns out that the answer is yes. We have a very big market share in VR. In fact that’s where we have our biggest market share. It’s ridiculous, like 80 or 90 percent. Everything else doesn’t have the community or the asset store and so on. But no, I think people realize that game engines are an interesting business, which they never were before. We get a lot of people coming in and that’s fair.
GamesBeat: What about Amazon? Will they ruin the game engine business by giving everything away for free.
Helgason: Everyone’s giving everything away. That’s the name of the game. I’m glad I’m not trying to come in with a commercial engine, like some people have tried recently.
Unity is largely free. We make money on ads and things like that, services that are optional. We’re getting to that point now.
GamesBeat: I guess the question is, you have to be prepared to watch out for these things, right?
Helgason: We’ve been leaning into this. We went free. We launched ads. We’ve been doing things ahead of the curve and always preparing ourselves for the time when everything would be free. We do charge some people that have money, but in general, if you don’t have much money, you won’t pay much or anything at all for Unity. That’s the right thing. As a software developer I like giving my shit away for free. I like that we get to do that.
GamesBeat: Where do you think engines are going? Where is Unity’s future?
Helgason: It’s a few different things. We can’t limit ourselves to one or two things. It’s about extremely nice graphics. It’s about getting to 120 frames per second or beyond with VR. It’s about better tools, artist workflows, working on physics-based rendering and making rendering techniques easy to use pipeline-wise. It’s making multiplayer easy. It’s a bunch of things.
Overall, making it so that if you have a good idea you should be able to make a game. It’s simple. It’s the same thing we’ve been doing over the last decade.
GamesBeat: This idea has come along in the last few months of designing a game in VR, being inside the environment you’re creating. It seems like the act of designing a game then becomes a game, in a way.
Helgason: It’s a simplification. But it turns out that there are certain things that are just totally obnoxious to do. Building VR products outside VR becomes extremely obnoxious. You’re taking your headset off all the time. Every time you take the headset off or put it on, there’s a moment of nausea. Understanding what’s occluded by what, what you can see from where, how a scene feels, it’s all difficult to do without being in there.
I should say that while we’re investing in this, and we’ve been showing some cool stuff we’re working on in this direction lately – you can go on YouTube and see what we’re doing – a lot of programmers still use the command line. There’s a lot of stuff that points in the other direction. I think it’ll still be a very mixed mode. People won’t stay in there for the whole production.
GamesBeat: Do you think that’s the way you get toward that high-school student who doesn’t learn code, but still makes a game? Is that the way they’ll do it?
Helgason: I don’t know if that’s really so important. Of course, the more you can stay in there, the less coding you’re doing and the fewer finicky things you have to deal with. It’s actually inverted. If we got to a point where you can only stay in there, then we’ve made game development really easy. But otherwise, it’s not the goal to only stay in there.
GamesBeat: What do you think of when you see these metaphors, like Google’s Tilt Brush VR environment?
Helgason: Oh, I love it. We’ve seen a few things that are awesome to do in VR, and one of them is this instant creation, sculpting and things like that. There’s a number of demos, but Tilt Brush is probably the prettiest. Done in Unity, by the way. Not that it matters. It’s just a wonderful product regardless. But that’s one of the immediate attractions of VR. Video consumption, visiting spaces you couldn’t otherwise visit—besides games these are some of the big use cases.
We’re experimenting with things like this, but in the end, something like Tilt Brush turns out not to be, at least in its current incarnation, that useful for making games. It’s not a criticism of Tilt Brush. It’s just a specific purpose.
GamesBeat: I’d have to go learn some code still to start making games, or my kids would?
Helgason: You don’t have to learn to code. There are node-based systems in Unity, like Playmaker and so on. That’s not a necessary thing. It’s more that you have to be thinking in code, thinking in a logical, structured way. It’s a skill set you have to learn.
We wish that the objects, like characters, in games were a little bit smarter, so they could find their own way. Then you could — there’s a French word that gets used sometimes, “bricolage,” where you just tinker and put together games like that. That’s the path, I think, whether you’re writing codes or connecting nodes.
GamesBeat: Media Molecule has Dreams, which might be a VR title. You’re doing something similar, creating worlds inside a game.
Helgason: And Microsoft has Project Spark. That’s pretty cool. There have been a few attempts at this. Minecraft, of course. They don’t quite end up as actual game-making tools. There’s always been some kind of — I sometimes call it the Bermuda Triangle, between tinkering and actual game development. I’m not sure why it’s like that, but nobody’s found a way to cross it. We’ve explored ways to get over the gap, but I don’t know anyone who’s found an ideal way to do that. I wish we could, because it seems like the logical end point for Unity.
GamesBeat: You’ve played around with monetization and discovery services within Unity. I suppose that speaks to the reality that enabling people to make a game isn’t enough anymore.
Helgason: It turns out that you need quite a team to build a game, just like in the old days. Back then you needed to build all the components of an engine. Now you need to build the monetization and live ops team. Piece by piece we’re getting to a point where we alleviate that pressure and make it easier to monetize, to get some viral traffic and so on.
We’re far from finished, though. It’s a lot of work. Every time we solve a problem or remove the need for something, another need pops up. It’s the nature of a competitive market. But we’ll never give up on that.
GamesBeat: I wonder what you think about the health of the industry in general. Enabling millions of people to make games was this tremendous step forward, but then it led to all these fears of an indie bubble. Now there are too many people making games. They’re not all getting attention or making money and they’ll go out of business in droves. That’s one extreme. What do you think is coming?
Helgason: We’re between things. A couple of years back it felt like a golden age. Everything seemed to be working. There was no end of opportunity. Now it’s more competitive. But if you go four or five more years back it’s the same. There’s a seesaw pattern to this. New opportunities come in. You have the rise of thousands of studios. Then there’s consolidation and they compete each other out of business for a few years.
The good thing about this industry is that every two or three years, there’s a new cycle of something. We’re maybe a bit behind or between right now. Mobile is getting tough, although there continues to be interesting opportunities for really creative people. PC is fine, but competitive. VR is still a bit further out than we’d like, at least for real monetization. There’s a lot of money-chasing, project financing, investors and so on, but the market isn’t there.
It’s funny. If you plot the perceived health of the industry year by year, I’m not sure where we’d be. Maybe we’re at six out of 10? Whereas a couple of years ago it felt more like an eight or a nine. I don’t know how many people might agree. Are we at six? Four? Six point five? It depends where you’re standing. What do you think?
GamesBeat: I’m amazed by how flat the world is when it comes to game development.
Helgason: It’s astonishing. At least in development. Distribution is a bit more uneven.
GamesBeat: I wrote a story last year about these Siberians who made a game that got 30 million downloads. Now they’ve built a company of 100, still in Siberia. It could be that cold places are good for game development, I guess. But you’d never have predicted that during the PC and console era.
That’s the good part. Then you have this other force in the industry that’s consolidated everything around Supercell, Machine Zone, and King. How much money is left over for everyone else?
Helgason: There are some powerful forces there. But if you look at it, yes, these guys are very dominant. They’re pouring so much of their revenue back into ads, though, and a lot of that finds its way to the smaller studios. Where else does it go? These are the people who generate traffic without necessarily being really good at monetization.
GamesBeat: I never thought of that as a benefit for the game industry.
Helgason: Of course, it might be better if it wasn’t like that, but there’s a certain auto-correcting effect there. We see very small studios, two to four people, building incredible returns on their investment in that way. There are some strange mechanisms at work. But the gravity at the top of the list is a bit scary.
GamesBeat: It’s amazing that Supercell has $2.3 billion in revenue last year on the back of 180 employees and only four games. You compare the efficiency of that to making Call of Duty every year, and I think they have Call of Duty beat, right?
Helgason: I haven’t checked the numbers, but I’m sure you’re right. Then you have two or three people in Australia making Crossy Road. It’s pretty insane. They might actually have a higher ROI, even if it’s a much smaller overall number.
GamesBeat: Don Daglow was on stage here this morning. He was talking about the art of video games and storytelling and emotion. I asked him, “How much of that have you seen in mobile gaming or VR?” He’s pretty much saying, “Not yet.” I wonder if that’s important or not.
Helgason: I guess whether art is important is a bit of a personal question. For me it is. I’ve seen some pretty beautiful things on mobile. I’m proud of having been the engine for some of these things. There are also some things that are not exactly art, but they’re so wonderful they become these weird cultural artifacts, like Kerbal Space Program or Surgeon Simulator. I don’t know if they’re art, but I like the world better with those things in it.
GamesBeat: In your new position, you can think about your interests beyond Unity.
Helgason: I spend a lot of time with Unity, but that’s true. It’s not as much as when I was CEO.
GamesBeat: What are some of those interests now?
Helgason: My kids do take some time. [laughs] I spend a lot of time at conferences talking to customers and partners and friends in the industry. Besides that, I’m passionate about technology in general. I like developer technology. Even outside the game industry, there are some clever people building products and they’re cool to hang out with.
For my own education, so I don’t stagnate totally — it’s always a risk when you’ve been in business too long — I’ve been looking at biotech companies. The companies that attract me the most there are kind of platform companies, people who generate tools for other biotech companies. I think it somehow reminds me of Unity. Companies that make DNA printing easier, or make protein production faster and more efficient.
People go blind and deaf or lose limbs, and the idea is that maybe you can connect directly to their brains. That’s fairly established now. It’s working better and better every year. The problem is these things aren’t really stable. The nerve tissue breaks down. It’s a mess. It’s better than being blind and deaf or missing a limb, but it’s not something that healthy people would try. It’s too unstable and crazy.
But there’s work into non-invasive or partially non-invasive things where we might be able to connect your brains to computers. It’s a place where software and games and VR and biotech will meet. There are some crazy things going on in that space. I don’t know too much about it, but I’m exploring. Maybe to prepare against the Infocalypse or whatever they call it.
GamesBeat: The talk on VR just before ours was getting into this idea of modifying our brains to better perceive virtual reality. It was interesting.
Helgason: There will be some amazing things happening every year from now until we die. It’s just a question of — is it five, 10, or 15 years before we’re pretty well connected to computers?
Question: What can VR do in the future?
Helgason: What’s more important to me is what VR can do, where instead of having to go places we can stay where we are. It doesn’t matter so much how fast the fan runs or how hot the chip is. If it takes the place going into the stratosphere and flying for 10 hours, the amount of energy we save is so vast.
My friend Hilmar Veigar, the CEO of CCP, is probably one of the biggest visionaries in VR. He makes very forceful arguments that the only way to save the world is through VR. When I listen to him, at least, I believe what he says. I’m not so sure afterwards. I can’t repeat the argument completely. But his point, for instance, is that if we all go to Mount Everest we’ll destroy Mount Everest. If people build that into an experience, though, we can all go there. If you extrapolate a bit, that’s the important part.
Register for GamesBeat's upcoming event: Driving Game Growth & Into the Metaverse