We must unite
Where does ultra-popular game engine Unity go from here?
“Since I’ve been here, which is close to three years, Unity has gone from around 400 people to 1,500”
Clive Downie is CMO of Unity, which retains a commanding position over the 3D game-engine market. It’s a go-to for hobbyist developers, indie studios and beyond, and its featureset continues to grow: additions last year included a shader editor, native photogrammetry support, built-in cinematic tools and multiplayer netcode and server tools. But Unreal Engine 4 has also risen, sporting a similar low-cost business model but backed by Epic’s technical reputation. Having previously worked at EA, Ngmoco, and Zynga, today Downie’s job is to bring Unity’s reputation up to match its capabilities and reach, while expanding its horizons beyond games.
What’s it like working for a game-engine maker, having spent so long in mobile games?
Actually, it doesn’t differ too much. At the centre of all of them is a passion for gaming, but also my own desire is, frankly, to only be involved in consequential things. I left EA to work with a good friend of mine, Neil Young, who founded Ngmoco. He realised early on that mobile was the next great domain for entertainment and I wanted to be part of that. We led the free-to-play mobile charge, and when DeNA made us their western division, it became about taking really smart Japanese mobile-gaming values and applying them to the west.
Did you feel Zynga reached the same level of consequence?
Four hundred million people played Farmville on Facebook, and I wanted to help Don Mattrick and Mark Pincus transition Zynga’s greatness to mobile. In some degree we did that, but ultimately it’s also a work in progress. These things take time. But then I got talking to John Riccitiello, who I knew from EA, and he outlined how consequential Unity was at empowering game creators, and that resonated with me. I hadn’t thought about that side of the equation before.
With the range of architectural differences between PC, console and mobile, is it a rising challenge to ensure Unity runs well everywhere?
We don’t see it as a challenge, it’s a commitment. One of the core tenets of Unity has always been, ’Create once, deploy anywhere’. We support over 30 platforms by investing in resources; we have large specific teams for platforms so we always understand new technologies and we’re there with their launches. It’s a simplistic answer, but it’s real. Since I’ve been here, which is close to three years, Unity has gone from around 400 people to just over 1,500, and the reason is that we are dedicated to solving the hard problems.
Unity still has a reputation, especially among consumers, that it’s the cut-price and technically less proficient option. How do you deal with that?
Perception is reality, right? So it might not be true, but the fact that that perception is out there makes it a reality. Historically, the challenges with Unity around our rendering performance were pretty legitimate, but with Unity 5 we caught up immensely with our physically based rendering technology, and in Unity 2017 we introduced our VFX stack and continued to iterate on our graphical power. When you have such a large number of creators as Unity has, you have a spectrum from absolute beginners through to professionals. The volume of people who are beginners is such that it can create that perception in the world that Unity is only capable of amateurish work, when in fact people are just seeing the sheer volume of people using it and learning creativity. That’s a great thing, and we’ll always continue to foster it.
Neill Blomkamp’s Adam films are created in Unity. How big an opportunity do you sense there?
Game makers are at the cutting edge of realtime creativity, but in the last two years or so other industries have wondered if they could use realtime tools in their workflows. We’ve seen the organic use of Unity in film, the automotive industry, manufacturing, architecture and engineering, just because of the spectacular precedent set by game makers, so we’re now working with different industries to determine how we can have a product for them that goes beyond their organic use of Unity. Adam is a proof-point to the film business that a fully CG realtime movie can exist at a quality level that rivals more traditional techniques that take longer. That movie took around five months of production time, and Neil told us that without realtime it would’ve taken at least double that. Virtual visualisation is something we’re working with, too. For scenes in The Lion King, Blade Runner and Ready Player One, a screen was placed alongside the camera rig so the director could see a rendered, realtime version of the CG scene with the actor in the shot. We’re excited about that.
Clive Downie, chief marketing officer at Unity