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

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