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Unity CEO : David Helgason

THE AREA | Posted 23 March 2009 9:42:01 pm

Software

  1. Autodesk 3ds Max
  2. Autodesk Maya
  3. Autodesk Softimage

Industry

  1. Games

Project Links

  1. Autodesk 3ds Max
  2. Autodesk Maya
  3. Autodesk Softimage

Homepage

http://unity3d.com/
David Helgason- Photo

David Helgason

David Helgason has served as CEO of the game technology company Unity Technologies since co-founding it in 2003. His background is in software, and he created and participated in several startups during and around the .com's, in areas such as early experiments with news & community integration, music business content distribution, as well as consulting for a variety of local and global clients. He currently serves on the boards of serious game studio Serious Games Interactive and fashion-technology startup World On A Hanger.

The area avatarThe Area:

We are here with the CEO of Unity, David Helgason. Hello David and a warm welcome to the AREA.
David, your game engine has been used for making game titles, web games, and architectural viz amongst its other applications. How did the three co-founders get together and start working on this unified idea; was it for commercial purpose or were you simply testing the boundaries of programming?

The area avatarHelgason:

The vision was to democratize game development. We wanted create a really powerful game engine and great tools to go with it, and to license it on friendly terms to a broad range of people. And then to hang out with those awesome and creative people in an awesome and creative community. And that's exactly what Unity is.

Empowering even small teams and individuals to rapidly create cool games and putting them into the browser for instant-on viewing by the whole world was the most exciting thing we could think of, so that's what we did.

We then added support for making Apple iPhone and Nintendo Wii games, that was kind of a no-brainer too: Unity has to work on all possible platforms, and we simply started with those that excited our users the most.

The area avatarThe Area:

You just released Unity 2.5. What is new in this release?

The area avatarHelgason:

The biggest thing is that it now runs on Windows!

(Most people don't know, but Unity's been available on the Mac for almost four years now, has gained a following in the thousands, and hundreds of games have been made with it.)

But there's lots more of course. We did the first major overhaul of the GUI since Unity 1.0. We took cues from the best designed applications out there, and made the interface fully tabbed. There's also previews of all types of media files now, and scene building tools have a completely new level of polish.

And on a more technical level we made the editor completely extensible. There's already several community projects to build AI and pathfinding tools, node-based texturing tools, and UI development tools. The ingenuity of our community is really being let loose.

The area avatarThe Area:

Can you tell us how you came up with the notably simply design of Unity?

The area avatarHelgason:

We realized during our first (and only) game production that the more power could be taken from the developers and given to the designers, the happier everyone would be. The programmers would have time to work on the hard stuff, and the artists and designers could integrate their work and tune the gameplay. We based the interface on the apps they knew already (Maya, 3ds Max), and they were incredibly empowered.

The second factor is probably that we started out on the Mac, and always had (and still have) this insane focus on simplicity: often one will find our developers discussing late at night, trying to figure out how to get rid of a button, or how to simplify an import process to require zero interaction.

The area avatarThe Area:

The web player is a great feature; was the idea to show previsualization on the web player or were you targeting web gaming?

The area avatarHelgason:

The main focus was on the ability to deploy games and high-end visualizations to the browser, but it quickly became clear that artists loved to be able to quickly put demos and walkthroughs into the browser. And with Unity, that process is actually faster to do than to render a video of one's work.

The area avatarThe Area:

How long did it take to develop the engine?

The area avatarHelgason:

Many hard years in the basement. Well, we started development during 2001, and launched Unity 1.0 in June 2005.

The area avatarThe Area:

JavaScript is currently implemented for scripting. Are there any plans to support other scripting languages like Python, for example?

The area avatarHelgason:

You can actually use JavaScript, C#, and a dialect of Python called Boo. They all use the same APIs and can actually co-exist (and even interoperate) within the same project. By the way, all this scripting is based on .NET and JIT compiles to native code, so our JavaScript and Python implementations are some 20x faster than normal scripting.

The area avatarThe Area:

Unity currently supports Windows, Mac, web, Apple iPhone, and Nintendo Wii; any plans to support XBOX360, PS3, and other mobile devices?

The area avatarHelgason:

We can't say anything about this right now, as we haven't committed to any of this internally. But I can say that our long term goal is to be on all relevant devices.

The area avatarThe Area:

What limitations are there to import scene files into Unity (ie. polycount)?

The area avatarHelgason:

When it comes to rendering (as with most other areas like physics, audio, etc.), Unity is highly optimized to hand off these tasks to the available hardware. This means that you're going to be bound by the hardware target before anything else. If you target high-end graphics cards, you can push many millions of triangles per second. But if you're targeting the iPhone, you'll want to keep it to a few hundreds of thousands.

The cool thing is that Unity has pretty neat tools to measure and optimize these things, and you can reuse all the game logic and physics setups and whatnot across such very diverse platforms.

The area avatarThe Area:

What options are available for importing custom shaders from 3D products like Maya, 3ds Max or Softimage?

The area avatarHelgason:

Unity's asset pipeline is one of the things we're most proud of: it's just brilliant.

With the leading 3D applications, you simply use the native files, whether they're .max, .mb/.ma, .c4d, .blend, .c3d. Unity picks up that there are new or changed files and (re-)imports them, while retaining any previous import settings.

This even while the game is being tested, which makes for the coolest workflow: you play a part of the level, go to this particular spot, and simply tweak the shape or look of something. And you're seeing it in context, with realtime lighting and effects, just like the player will in the final product.

And of course Unity does the same with multi-layer Photoshop files, audio and video files. Even scripts recompile on the fly.

The area avatarThe Area:

How experienced does a user have to be to make a game in Unity; does he/she need any programming skills?

The area avatarHelgason:

For doing walkthroughs or various types of visualization: not at all. For doing larger interactive experiences or full games, some scripting is required. But of course many people use the loads of simple scripts that are being shared by the community. Or they collaborate with programmers on their projects.

The area avatarThe Area:

Are there any future plans to support Softimage or MotionBuilder for animation?

The area avatarHelgason:

Both are supported via the FBX format. And so are all the apps that Unity doesn't have native support for.

The area avatarThe Area:

What special rules are there for modeling assets in 3ds Max or Maya?

The area avatarHelgason:

Generally things just work. IK and PK needs to be baked, and blendshapes aren't currently supported natively (but people have come up with perfectly good solutions in scripting).

The area avatarThe Area:

How difficult is it to bring in an animated character from Maya or 3ds Max?

The area avatarHelgason:

Easy. Bone and skin information just works, Unity can split animations into parts based on frame numbers, and animation playback and layered mixing and blending can be controlled using very straight-forward functions.

As an example of how flexible Unity is, we also provide a very cool locomotion framework which does IK for walking characters and blends/synthesizes animations in clever ways.

The area avatarThe Area:

I was checking your "Room of Shadows" demo and the dynamic lighting and shadows are pretty cool. These are fairly intense on the CPU/GPU. How did you manage to get such nice smooth performance?

The area avatarHelgason:

Mainly by handing it off to the GPU. But in addition, Unity contains years and years of optimizations done by our engine gurus, and we keep tuning and optimizing in every release.

The area avatarThe Area:

Unity looks to be a game engine geared towards artists who are not necessarily equipped with the knowledge of scripting/programming. Inspite of your well written documentation, not everyone wants to read instructions ;-) are there other options of enhancing their user experience via, for example -- learning dvds or sessions/classes?

The area avatarHelgason:

There's lots of video material already, and all of it is currently being given away for free. It's really awesome actually.

The area avatarThe Area:

What kind of hardware do you need to run the Unity editor?

The area avatarHelgason:

Any PC or Mac that will run Max or Maya or Softimage is plenty powerful for Unity.

The area avatarThe Area:

Are there any future plans to bring tighter integration between Unity and Maya, Max, or Softimage?

The area avatarHelgason:

It's already so smooth that it's hard to imagine it could be much better, but we do have some tricks up our sleeves still :)

The area avatarThe Area:

Where do you work from – a glance at your team shows that your team is spread across Europe and North America.

The area avatarHelgason:

We're headquartered in Copenhagen, Denmark, with lots of additional development being done by an incredible team in Lithuania. We have an evangelism and sales team in San Francisco, but don't do development here.

The area avatarThe Area:

Where do you see the future of Unity moving towards?

The area avatarHelgason:

It goes without saying that over time we will make Unity even easier to use, more powerful, more flexible, and run more platforms.

Technologically we are the leader in realtime 3D content production, and we aim to expand and consolidate our position. While still keeping it fun, and very very friendly. Half the value of Unity is in the lovely and highly talented community, and we want to focus on that going forwards.

The area avatarThe Area:

In your description on your site, it says you’re an 'ex-programmer'. What does that mean?

The area avatarHelgason:

I did development on Unity back when we were just three guys, and I'm probably still a pretty technical CEO. I know how to use Unity, I've taught courses in it, and can answer most questions about it still. I think it's important to keep that perspective, though the "ex-programmer" does mean that I don't do any programming these days.

David, thanks very much for taking time out to talk with us.

Making a 3D Platform Game in Unity

Making a 2D Platform Game in Unity

13 Comments

RedCobra

Posted on: 24 March 2009 12:56 am

Thats amazing!


gametech1

Posted on: 24 March 2009 1:30 am

Nice interview, I would like to the CEO to be a little more humble with regards to wether things could be improved , mainly because I think there is still massive room for improvements, still as it's now it's a nice product, while not totally artist friendly as it may appear to be. Just my experience as an artist.


jydog

Posted on: 24 March 2009 6:05 am

Looking forward to trying it out.


buraque

Posted on: 24 March 2009 6:07 am

I think it is a great product and its only weak point is documentation. I could find only 6 videos which are very very basic and there are 2 pdf tutorials. Other than that 3 reference manuals which are weak.


Magian

Posted on: 24 March 2009 8:50 pm

Native support for Softimage would be most welcome.


Tom Higgins

Posted on: 24 March 2009 10:57 pm

@Magian: Keep in mind that in any case, as long as you're using an application that offers the ability to export to FBX you can use it with Unity, no worries.

@buraque: I'll beg to differ on the documentation a bit. While there is definitely plenty of room left to improve I would not call it weak. Our docs are always being worked on and there are definitely more than six videos available. I believe you're referring to six brief tutorial videos that are old and being remade as we speak (should be done fairly) soon, but along with those we have 24 videos that are recordings of technical/presentation sessions at our last two Unite developer conferences. In addition to that we are of course fleshing out more tutorials and have a range of example projects available. It's a start and a very good one, so I think "weak" is a bit unfair. More info:

http://unity3d.com/support/resources/

@gametech1: Please don't mis-read David about whether the product needs improving or not. He, along with all of us, are well in tune with the fact that while it's a great tool and player today, there is much more that's needed. We just released Unity 2.5 and we're already in the planning stages for what's next. We're on it, we're working hard and will continue to improve and develop the product going forward.


FYI: I'm the Product Evangelist for Unity and am quite happy to answer any questions folks have about our product. Drop by our forums (http://forum.unity3d.com) or ping me via email and I'll help out (tom-at-unity3d.com). Do note that we're all quite busy at GDC this week so response times may be a bit slower than normal but we'll answer you regardless. Thanks y'all!


Magian

Posted on: 24 March 2009 11:07 pm

@Tom Higgins: Thanks for the response.

I have had trouble wtih .fbx before with Softimage. The last time I worked with it (about six months ago) there was no way to bring in the bones from an existing .fbx file. As a result, the ability to edit pre-made content in the .fbx format was severely diminished. There were also troubles with the animations that were exported from Softimage to .fbx for use in another game engine. Usually I could clean the animation up using third-party software. The thing is I shouldn't have to.

It seemed to me that the interviewer was making a push for Softimage and was hoping to get an answer regarding native support for Softimage. If it was no big deal to simply use the .fbx format then why would he/she even bring this up?

I am not knocking Unity, by the way. As a matter of fact, I will probably go ahead and purchase soon. However, I will reiterate that support for Softimage "that just works" would be welcome. Support for the .fbx format is definitely not the answer I am looking for.


Tom Higgins

Posted on: 25 March 2009 12:16 am

@Maglan: I'm simply pointing out that we don't support any particular tool format directly (no *.max, no *.ma/mb, no *.c4d), instead we use formats like FBX, OBJ, 3DS, etc. Our support for various tools (like Maya, 3DS Max, etc.) is by a command line automated export to FBX for you, so at the end of the day I suppose it's a bit of a misnomer to call it "native support for 3DS Max" (or Maya, or C4D, etc.) as we _do_not_ support those file formats, instead we support an automated and behind the scenes export to FBX for you.


Magian

Posted on: 25 March 2009 1:27 am

@Tom Higgins. Thanks again for the response.

So there are not separate exporters for Maya/Max that smooth the transition of content through the pipeline to the game engine?


Tom Higgins

Posted on: 25 March 2009 1:31 am

@Maglan: Correct. For those tools we simply make use of the fact that they (along with C4D, Cheetah 3D and Blender) support the ability for us to use the command-line to have them export your *.max, *.ma, *.mb, etc. files for you in FBX format, then we use that FBX file in the actual content. If you make any changes to the source asset Unity will notice that change and automatically re-export it and refresh the asset inside of Unity. Note that we do that refresh and reload on all assets, including models, textures, scripts, audio, video, etc.


claydough

Posted on: 31 March 2009 1:21 am

Was interested when the PC port was announced. Quickly lost interest when I found out that indie developers aren't supposed to be interested in dynamic shadows like the ones touted in this article ( They are not included in the affordable indie license )

In the future, dynamic shadows will define next-gen everthing else is just along for the ride.
The shadow exclusion leaves every artist looking for a realtime portfolio distribution vehicle without a realistic solution.
The market for character artists alone who would buy Unity3D PC if it only had a self shadowing soft shadows shouldn't be dismissed $$$

This was a huge mistake.

another parallel discussion bemoaning lack of dyn shadows in indie:

http://boards.polycount.net/showthread.php?t=61855


mcarr1973

Posted on: 3 April 2009 8:12 am

A new website has launched:
http://unitytutorials.com

If anyone would like to help:

I have created a website for all Unity Users to come and learn absolutely free. But I'm just one person and need help in creating more Tutorials. I built this site to help myself and Others learn at a somewhat faster pace.

You can upload and share Videos, Pictures, Documents and all Kinds of Content and its all geared toward Teaching Unitys Game Engine and Maya, Max, Cinema 4D what ever your third party package.

So if you can contribute a Tutorial of any kind I would greatly appreciate it!

Sincerely,
Michael


Tom Higgins

Posted on: 4 April 2009 1:03 am

@claydough: sorry but that's the choice that we've made and you can always upgrade if you feel the desire to use Pro features.

@mcarr1973: good on ya for sharing the link, there are a number of great community resources springing up!


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