Game changers: Unity

Game changers: Unity
Will Freeman

By Will Freeman

September 16th 2010 at 8:00AM

Nicholas Francis on Unity's future plans in an evolving industry

There is no doubt that Unity deserves its place on the Game Changers list.  Headquartered in San Francisco, the engine firm has been in a driving force in the democratisation of game development since its conception in 2001.

Almost a decade later, and five years after its official founding, the outfit can boast an impressive 200,000 registered users covering a huge range of games making experience. From first time coders using the free version to the likes EA, Bigpoint, Ubisoft and NASA harnessing the power of the engine’s fully fledged edition, Unity has caught the attention of studios large and small.

This year alone Unity’s web-player saw its 30 millionth instillation, and the company left the Develop Awards with the coveted Grand Prix Award and the Technical Innovation gong. The firm is also headed up by an approachable, enthusiastic team who have developed a deserved reputation as some of the most amicable members of the industry. They care about games, and their delight at their success is consistently endearing.

“We’ve got Unity 3 coming up real soon now,” confirms Nicholas Francis, company co-founder and chief creative officer. “This is our largest release ever with a bunch of saucy high-end features; our users get the full Beast lightmapping solution, Umbra PVS and lots of updates to audio, physics, and more. I can’t wait to get it out; Unity 3 will be our biggest feature set ever, best performance – and we’ve spent a ridiculous amount of time on hunting down bugs and spit-polishing a lot of tools. I think people will just go ‘wow’ when they see it – at least that’s what we’re hearing from our 3,500 beta testers.”

Unity is a company with boundless ambition; a fact that has played a significant part in its establishment as a prolific tool in a changing industry. The firm is poised to add Android and PS3 to its rostrum of supported platforms, which already includes the Apple portables, web, Mac PC, Wii and 360.

IN THE BEGINNING

“Back in the day, we wanted to make the game engine’s equivalent of Photoshop,” says Francis. “Basically we wanted to provide an easy-to-use tool to author high-quality games. That focus meant that we always had a razor-sharp focus on making the tools be accessible.

“Most other engines are authored for in-house use and then someone turned around and said ‘Maybe we can sell this’. We’ve never had that mindset – because of that we’ve just spent so much more effort on making things quick and easy to get into, and having a tool that works. We don’t just do a monthly release of whatever our internal team is working on – we actually make sure that things work.”

In pursuit of staying acutely relevant, Unity has developed a two-pronged approach.

Firstly, the team makes sure it speaks with it users and find out what they need most.

“There’s a fine line between figuring out what they’d like to have and what would really make a difference, and it’s one where we’re looking very closely at what we can do,” admits Francis.

Secondly, the Unity heads insist on implementing a ‘Fridays Are For Fun’ rule. As the weekend nears, developers can just work on something they want to work on; a fact that has allowed Unity to introduce features that make it one of the most topical pieces of tech on the market. The Friday rule has instigated a wealth of new features, from small fixes to significant new introductions.

The Unity team also has an eye on opportunities outside of the sphere of the established industry; a quality that has meant it has developed a reputation for pushing the envelope, making a bit more room inside for its technology, clients, and increasingly, the industry as a whole.

TIME WILL TELL

Spend time with the Unity staff, and you’ll hear about ‘gamification’. It may be a slightly ungainly term, but the process it refers to – gameplay as a mechanism outside of gaming to make mundane interactions more engaging – is one Unity is keenly monitoring.

Unity doesn’t draw the line at gamification either, as Francis reveals in highlighting another fashion that has piqued the firm’s interest: “The other trend is a more pervasive gaming; where you can take your game with you. Tiger Woods Online was a nice example. You can play a round at work. When your boss comes in you just close the browser. When you get home, you can fire up your home machine and pick up where you left off.”

Unity isn’t just ready for the future; it is part the process shaping it. The technology company continues to develop features that cater for what player will want tomorrow, and what developers can do about that today, and it is that fact more than any other that makes it stand out as a worthy representative of the Game Changers.

www.unity3d.com