Unity's future in a Flash

Unity's future in a Flash

By Rob Crossley

November 30th 2011 at 12:30PM

CEO David Helgason discusses Unity's next steps and the business he's avoiding

That defining mission statement, to “author once, deploy anywhere”, is Unity’s biggest draw in the game engine sector. Developers who build with Unity3D can, providing they have the dev licence, port their game to a range of platforms, from PlayStation to Android to PC to WiiWare, iOS and more.

But it’s also a practice that, internally, is carefully deliberated on and – at times – not honoured. In an exclusive interview with Develop, Helgason explains why Unity users can ship their code to any modern games platform, but not Windows Phone 7, nor HTLM5.

Flash, however, is no longer being ignored and will soon be supported in a major way. We speak to Helgason about how such decisions are made, and get his views on where mobile gaming is heading, along with his own business.

Were you as surprised as everyone else to hear Adobe was dropping support for Flash on mobile browsers?
We didn’t know about it until the news came out. I don’t think, however, it was a big surprise to most since the mobile browser version of Flash hadn’t gotten much traction with either developers or the mobile browsers. Dropping it allows Adobe to put more resources on desktop Flash, which is going to benefit us a lot.

Does it put a fly in the ointment for your business though? Obviously Unity is supporting Flash Player 11’s 3D capabilities – but had mobile browsers been seen as a key destination too?
We never expected to be running inside Flash on the mobile browser because of the performance it requires, and of course because of how successful mobile app stores are. Flash 3D will work really well on the desktop, which is what we care about.

Yes, and the 3D demonstrations doing the rounds are very impressive.
Yes the Adobe guys have got a lot right with the platform, and we are happy that our demo of Shadowgun is about the most impressive that’s been shown on Flash 3D so far.

What does it mean for your own Flash competitor – the Unity Web Player?
We think it has a big future. I know some of our guys got ahead of themselves and said some negative things about the Unity Web Player at an Adobe Air conference [laughs], and I do understand some of their frustrations, but Web Player has been installed on about 80 million machines now.

It’s being installed at a rate of 4-5 million machines per month now. The performance is awesome, and for developers it gives really deep access to the hardware, and you can make really high-end stuff. It’s built for games, and has less friction than any other plugin out there in terms of access to shaders, access to physics, access to audio. We believe it has a bright future ahead of it.

Has Adobe left a gap in the market by not supporting mobile browsers? Are you thinking about attacking that space?
Who knows! [Laughs] It’s probably too far ahead to speculate.

Why not now?
I think there are performance reasons. There are political reasons too – people want to focus on HTML5 for the browsers.

Philosophically, we want to do whatever we can to give Unity Engine developers access to whatever platforms are right for them.

What about Windows Phone 7?
Yeah we’re skipping that, but because Windows Phone 7 is a relatively closed system so you can’t run native content, which means we can’t really support it. But we’re looking at Windows Phone 8 and hopefully it will be easier to work on that system.

We could, in theory, do what we’ve done with Flash, which is to rewrite the engine so it works inside a non-native environment. So it could be done in theory, but it’s very much in theory because that would require a huge amount of work and uncertain results. We made that effort to support Flash because we see the platform as very important and the results are great.

We talk to Microsoft a lot, and we were involved in looking at Windows Phone 7 early on, but they weren’t ready to open up the platform, and that led to us deciding to not support it.

What’s your view on HTML5?
For video and rich internet applications, I think HTML5 is awesome already. It’ll get better too, and there’s no hindrance for using it. Except, thinking about it, there aren’t many good tools to build complex applications, and I think there are opportunities there.

So essentially it’s HTML plus WebGL plus JavaScript. Where HTML5 really falls short is in gaming: there are some cool demos, but actually building a generic framework for high-performance Web GL games is being held back by JavaScript, which isn’t where it should be in terms of performance.

That will probably change over time, and we’re working to ensure it’s game-engine ready. It will be eventually, but not just yet.

We want Unity to be there, the moment HTML5 is right for games.

Looking in the other direction; smartphone hardware is advancing at an alarming speed. When do you expect console-quality Unity games to ship?
Yes what’s interesting is that mobile phone hardware cycles are as short as 18 months. It’s very quick, and there’s enormous investment in it because it’s so competitive, so the hardware sophistication is advancing at a crazy rate.

But I think by the time mobiles reach current generation console quality, a new set of consoles will be released, which will raise the bar again by a lot more.

The tech lead consoles have is shrinking, but you can always build a more powerful desktop system because there’s so much more freedom with regards to power supply. With mobiles you have to balance everything with the progress of battery life.

So, by definition a console can always be more powerful. Thing is, graphics quality matters less and less as the industry edges closer to ultimate realism targets.

Mobile will obviously go past the current generation, but it will take a long time to surpass next generation systems.

Did you ever expect the mobile sector to grow this fast?
No absolutely not. When we launched Unity for iPhone back in October 2008, we actually thought we were really late! It was horrible, we were so embarrassed that it had taken us that long because we had had to rework some things.

We had no idea that, in fact, we were at the start of something very special. It’s been a three-year elongated ‘holy shit moment’.

I am still surprised Unity hasn’t got its own branded publishing operation. So many iOS developers rely on Unity, and your brand is very strong while discoverability is still a big issue on the App Store. I know Union is a partial solution, but why not invest in a full publishing arm?
I think we generally feel we should do things where we are genuinely helpful, and not just to make good business. We have discussed this and didn’t feel we could be better than other publishers out there. Never say never, but we’re not considering this right now. There are other companies out there that can meet the requirements you were discussing. 

Do you feel that Unity is still short of a blockbuster game developed by the engine? The like of Angry Birds and Infinity Blade have in some ways validated the iPhone and UE3 for iPhone – do you think it’s necessary for a Unity game to achieve a similar feat?
Our customers are doing incredible things with Unity. Millions of gamers have played MMOs FusionFall, Battlestar Galactica Online, as well as Tiger Woods Online and Uberstrike, both on and off Facebook.

Several Unity games have been number one selling iOS apps and more have been number one selling iOS games. Around 300 Unity games have been in the top-100 lists, and there are new ones every week.

Having something as iconic as Angry Birds built on Unity is just a question of time, but we aren’t really in a hurry since the game developer community is already aware of how many hits already are built with Unity.

Unity remains independent despite buyout interest from other companies. Is the long-term vision to remain independent?
Yes. Unity isn’t a company that’s built to be flipped, and we have turned down offers for the simple reason that they would have been bad for the product and our customers. We have been extremely careful with building a management and investor team that is aligned with that vision, everyone is in this for the long term.