IMVU on Unity deal: 'We want to be the premier supplier of avatars'

IMVU on Unity deal: 'We want to be the premier supplier of avatars'
James Batchelor

By James Batchelor

September 16th 2015 at 2:18PM

SVP of Product Stewart Bonn explains how a new Unity API will help the social network accomplish this

Unity developers will soon be able to use IMVU avatars as game characters, providing a new hook that could entice the social network's millions of users.

A new partnership will be announced next week during Unite Boston between the two companies, along with a new API that will enable Unity developers to embed IMVU's customisable avatars into their titles, as well as web and mobile apps.

This will also extend to virtual reality projects, allowing devs to create a truly personal experience for their players, with IMVU hoping that studios will be able to use the tech to build casual titles for headsets such as Oculus Rift.

In addition to the 140m registered users, IMVU also reports 20m user-created virtual goods that can also be integrated into games. Full details of the API and its capabilities can be found at IMVU's developer site.

To demonstrate the new API, IMVU will be hosting a virtual hackathon – Hack With Me – from September 23rd to October 16th, giving devs the first chance to experiment with the new tool.

We caught up with Stewart Bonn, IMVU's SVP of product and previously founder of EA Sports (pictured), to find out more about this partnership.

How did the partnership with Unity come about? Who approached whom?
We have been working independent of Unity on several projects over the years so we were very familiar with its growing acceptance and capabilities. We approached [Unity CEO] John Riccitiello in December to discuss our idea that we wanted to add an Apps section to our service and would make our avatars available to any Unity app developer.

Why allow devs to use IMVU avatars? What’s the benefit for developers?
There are three key needs that developers have to compete in the increasingly crowded App market.

First, it will help them stand out from the crowd. IMVU avatars are the best and only avatar solution that offers the developer a simple way for developers to put high-quality avatars into a game. App submission is doubling this year so creating an app that is better than the competition is getting to be a greater challenge – especially if you are an independent developer with limited resources. 

It will also help developers get noticed. IMVU will be launching its App page later in the year with a very selective array of apps that have been submitted to us and accepted for distribution. Considering that we have more than 3m monthly active users and currently one-in-six visitors plays a game on the site, this will generate plenty of app views. It will be easier for a developer to get downloads on our site than any of the other distributors since IMVU will have much fewer apps and so they will get a higher “share of mind”.

Finally, we hope it will help devs make money. IMVU has over 3m fully engaged users every month who update their Avatar by shopping from the IMVU Store at an astounding rate of over 200,000 3D products sold daily. Our users monetize by spending money on virtual goods. The apps will allow in-app purchases. IMVU users value their avatar and are eager to find new ways to connect and to have fun with their friends. Apps will be a new way for them to interact with friends.

We want to significantly expand the experience of IMVU by giving our users many more things to do beyond chatting. Independent developers can build many more apps than we could build internally.

What’s the benefit for you and your community?
Hack With Me developers will be the first to create on this powerful new social connectivity platform by enabling users to customise their avatar and engage, play, and socialise with their friends in a way that enables more expressive communication and ultimately creates more meaningful relationships online.

We want to significantly expand the experience of IMVU by giving our users many more things to do beyond chatting. In the past we have built these experiences ourselves. With the advent of the API, independent developers can build many more apps than we could build internally. This will produce lots of new apps which means lots more fun for our users. Of course, happy users make us happy.

What is your interest in VR? What’s the role of virtual reality in IMVU’s future?
IMVU’s entire Unity offering is VR-compatible today. Developers will be on the leading edge of technology, building compelling content for tomorrow’s virtual reality craze. We want to be the premier supplier for avatars anywhere on the Internet.

Our focus on VR will be a way to keep people connected, not isolated, and developers will help us define what we call social VR. We are continuing to innovate and to explore what the future of VR could be beyond simply including our avatars in third-party apps. 

What does the API enable VR developers to do?
We believe developers and designers should be able to do what they do best; make great, engaging and compelling 3D experiences, games and apps. You shouldn't have to worry about modeling characters, monetisation, or discovery of your web app. Our API gives you access to a user’s avatar, their friends, and the ability to monetise. Apps can be single-player or multi-player. 

What else can we expect from this partnership going forward?
We will be announcing the Hack with Me Hackathon at Unite Boston on September 21st. Unity will be one of the judges for the month-long competition for the best app that delivers on “connecting with friends".

We have had very positive response to our offering so we are busy listening to what developers tell us and plan even more exciting features in the future. We have some very cool features planned going forward.