Unity Technologies was first founded in 2004 after a trio, David Helgason, Nicholas Francis and Joachim Ante realised that there needed to be an easier way and more affordable way to roll out a game. Enter Unity, the cross-platform game engine, which supports both 2D and 3D game development. It is available at a both free and pro version, and boasts titles like Bad Piggies, Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft and Attack on Titan. e27 sat down with David Helgason, CEO of Unity Technologies to understand his motivations behind certain decisions. Excerpts from the interview:
e27: What was your motivation in building a cross-platform game engine?
Helgason: “I could tell you the real story or…”
e27: Preferably the real story.
Helgason: “We’re ambitious guys and even when we were back in the basement-slash-lab hacking away and building stuff — that was between 2001 and 2004 — we realised that with something that is simpler and something that is dramatically cheaper, industries change. So we thought that we could change the games industry too… allowing developers to make more games than ever before, so that not just expensive productions would get made, but also creative, artistic, and experimental things.
Once you realise the first part, there’s a sort of long calculation of what might fall out from it. But, we put on the wall back then – we were going to democratise game development. That vision really guided us and told us about what we should do.
Besides making game development simpler and affordable, equally important for us was to have a good documentation. Another thing on our priority was to build an open community where people could be friends and share knowledge. But whatever we built had to be relevant to these people (game developers).
Back in 2005, when we first launched Unity’s first version, the game consoles were dominated by relatively few big companies. They were great but not interesting to smaller teams; but what was interesting to them (game developers) was the web browser. We had a browser plug-in for PC and Mac, which became very successful.
That was a time when smartphones didn’t exist and definitely not what we thought was a smartphone. So that was not on our radar. But we were wondering about platforms that would open to us a good audience. As technology got better, we were able to sell to bigger teams. As ambitious guys, we wanted to sell out to Disney, Electronic Arts, Activision, and guys like that… as well as students and the hobbyists. And we wanted to support every platform, as all platforms are relevant to some of these guys.
e27: What was it like selling to Disney and Activision?
Helgason: That was a time, when small companies had tough time selling to big companies. They like stable vendors, and small companies are notoriously unstable. For a big company like Disney, it actually adopted the technology really early. They had web games back in 2007 with us, even before some mid-sized companies. Disney is a bit of a visionary in that sense, and it is still our customer.
But otherwise, it took sometime to get other big companies on board. So, we walked in the desert for a long time.
e27: How was it walking in the desert?
Helgason: Hot! It was cold in Coperhagen, Denmark. It was cold and rainy. In a way, we were lucky we didn’t raise a lot of money earlier on. I mean, I love my venture capitalists; they’re great people and supported us really well. We took some loans from family, tens of thousands of dollars initially and a bit later, more later, some from the bank and worked really hard. We didn’t pay ourselves salary for many years, which I’m sort of proud of. It’s like a badge of honour. To be one of those entrepreneurs, but you could also call it stupidity and dog-headedness.
When we launched – before the smartphone, before the iPhone – there was a market but it was a tiny market, which left us alone for all these years, but we could hone our skills and make the product better. We were not primarily there to make money or become a big company. We were going to give tools to people who didn’t have tools before. And what’s great about a mission like this is that it keeps you going. Later, when the market hit us, we were able to grow profitably and fast.
e27: How would you define ‘a great game’? Is it a ‘beautiful interface’, or ‘straightforward game experience’?
Helgason: Some of the most fun games look terrible. Some of the most beautiful games are inspiring just for the beauty. People get excited about entering a world that looks lush and realistic, and where the puddles reflect the raindrops… that can be exciting. Now compare it to Solitaire – so what can I say?
For me, a lot of the games I play, I love the immersive experience. But actually, I spend most of my time on stuff that keeps my blood pumping to my brain. RTS, quiz games, when you play it for a while, you feel your heart beating and it’s exciting.
e27: What are some of your favourite games?
Helgason: Recently, I’ve been playing some tower defence and real-time strategy games; like Total War Battles on the smartphone. It’s a small version of the Total War series, which is this big immersive game. They have made it really elegant… almost like word games on the smartphone.
I’m also playing a bit of Candy Crush – which is not made on Unity. It’s a challenging game, although sometimes I feel that you’re not playing the game, the game is playing you.
e27: If you could choose one big game to be made on Unity, what would it be?
Helgason: That’s a lovely question. There are games that could have been written on Unity but they weren’t; like Clash of Clans is not Unity, but it absolutely could have been. Now, there’s a very elegantly executed competitor called Samurai Siege, which too could have been made on Unity.
My vision is, and absolutely a life goal – in the not very distant future – everything can be made with Unity and most games can be made on Unity. It’s a big goal but absolutely within grasp.
e27: Native 2D support was implemented recently. What was the motivation behind that?
Helgason: At least tens of thousands of games are 2D. We knew people were doing it, the games were not as good as they should be. The biggest motivation for us was that we were embarrassed of them and we wanted to make it really awesome for them. We wanted to make sure that people deciding not to use Unity were not thinking that there would be more trouble than it should be. We wanted to bring them in.
In fact, we’ve been launched for what? Two weeks now? So we’ve seen engagement on our platform rising because of that. There’s a lot more developers than there were before, even just after two weeks.
e27: If some large corporation, like Microsoft and Autodesk, made you a silly offer, would you sell Unity?
Helgason: Well, we don’t think too much about that. We think that Unity as a company, as a team of people, has a big mission in the world. We are helping so many people be more productive and successful than before. So, you know, over my dead body, would I let it (Unity) fail. And we’ve had that. Companies came around, were interested, but whose goals were not aligned with us.
Maybe they were a game publisher or had a platform they wanted to damage by shutting support down. And these are not people we are interested in. We want to sell technology and help them, but we don’t want to sell the company to them so they could do their thing.
They’re not evil, but they have their goals. And we have ours. We are very passionate about keeping the integrity. We have raised quite a fair bit of capital so we have stability to go long term.
e27: Where do you see Unity 10 years from now?
Helgason: I can see two years; that’s the maximum I can see. In two years, Unity should be much better. We want to be a company that helps developers even more. And one of the things we’re launching is a cross-promotion tool to help developers promote their games to their partners and publishers, which can help them make more money.
At work, we’ve always had a free culture, where we tell our people, “If you have a good idea on how to help them (customers),” we want to enable you to create that. I don’t have a roadmap per se, but I just know our wonderful people will come up with new ways of helping.
e27: You have 17 offices around the world. How do you make sure that the culture stays the same in every office?
Helgason: One is of course we hire people that have passion and care. They’re also really smart. The people that are best in their field are often very generous, humble people. I think it’s because they don’t need to be arrogant or nasty. I don’t know – I just found them to be like that. The gaming industry is a lovely industry; people are really helpful and passionate.
A company like that (with offices around the world) cannot have a unified monolithic culture. Some companies do that and it’s great. If you put everyone in the same room or building, you can have one culture. That culture can have a lot of details like ‘On Friday, we drink beer’ or something. In a global kind of company, you cannot have a monolithic culture. I think we have a skeletal culture, which is about being humble, working hard, wanting to make lives of game developers better, to build advanced technologies for the world, wanting to be entrepreneurial.
Each office might have their own styles and culture. Some offices might like to drink beer on Fridays and that’s fine. We love that. But the culture of the whole company is skeletal.
e27: What’s the weakest point of Unity? What do you want to change?
Helgason: I just fixed a major one – which is 2D. And some of it is technical; there are some stupid stuff. We don’t let problems lingering on for too long unless there’s something more important.
But there are some issues with collaboration and big teams… That’s something of a pain point. We came from a world where most of our customers come from small teams, but as the technology gets better, people with 30, 50, 100 people start trusting us. Old technology used for something new gets problems. I could rattle 50 things I’m embarrassed about, but I’m also proud we have people working on every single one of these.
e27: What stops you from allowing everyone from working with the pro version of Unity for free until publication?
Helgason: Every software business needs to have revenue. We have a few additional revenue streams… but they’re relatively minor. So we cannot not sell the software and also pay the salaries of the brilliant technologists. So, we have a free version of almost everything – most of the things you want to do with Unity, you can get it free for students, hobbyists and small companies. First year, any company can use it even if you are funded.
But we have to monetise…. The alternative is to take money from those who are successful. It is hard to manage, but I think it’s risky to only align yourself with a few of your customers. You risk only supporting them and focusing on their needs. And true that there are people who can’t afford additional features… as a former programmer, I wish it was all free. But then, I wouldn’t be able to pay my bills.
If you look at our history, Unity has been getting cheaper and more free. We brought down prices of some older products; we have created a subscription system with a low entry point; we have actually moved features in the pro version to the free version, so we have been going in this direction.
e27: Any tips on what the big change in Unity is going to be?
Helgason: We’re very careful about what we say for two reasons. One is managing expectations and our own freedom. We change our plans so much and our developers try to create new features that are really hard to do. And some of these features fail or get delayed. So we generally don’t say things unless we’re just about there. A few times we were optimistic, and announced things, and then it changed, and it was embarrassing for us. And annoying for our customers because they built their products on us.
If we tell them something that is not true, it’s going to be very damaging for them.
Featured Image Credit: Edge Online