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Unity CEO : David Helgason
 
 
Posted: Mar 23, 2009
Published by: the area
Homepage: Visit the page
Software: Autodesk 3ds Max, Autodesk Maya, Autodesk Softimage
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The 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?
Helgason:
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.
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The Area:
You just released Unity 2.5. What is new in this release?
Helgason:
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.
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The Area:
Can you tell us how you came up with the notably simply design of Unity?
Helgason:
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:
The web player is a great feature; was the idea to show previsualization on the web player or were you targeting web gaming?
Helgason:
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:
How long did it take to develop the engine?
Helgason:
Many hard years in the basement. Well, we started development during 2001, and launched Unity 1.0 in June 2005.
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The Area:
JavaScript is currently implemented for scripting. Are there any plans to support other scripting languages like Python, for example?
Helgason:
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:
Unity currently supports Windows, Mac, web, Apple iPhone, and Nintendo Wii; any plans to support XBOX360, PS3, and other mobile devices?
Helgason:
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.
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The Area:
What limitations are there to import scene files into Unity (ie. polycount)?
Helgason:
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.
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The Area:
What options are available for importing custom shaders from 3D products like Maya, 3ds Max or Softimage?
Helgason:
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.
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The Area:
How experienced does a user have to be to make a game in Unity; does he/she need any programming skills?
Helgason:
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:
Are there any future plans to support Softimage or MotionBuilder for animation?
Helgason:
Both are supported via the FBX format. And so are all the apps that Unity doesn't have native support for.
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The Area:
What special rules are there for modeling assets in 3ds Max or Maya?
Helgason:
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).
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The Area:
How difficult is it to bring in an animated character from Maya or 3ds Max?
Helgason:
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:
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?
Helgason:
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.
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The 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?
Helgason:
There's lots of video material already, and all of it is currently being given away for free. It's really awesome actually.
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The Area:
What kind of hardware do you need to run the Unity editor?
Helgason:
Any PC or Mac that will run Max or Maya or Softimage is plenty powerful for Unity.
The Area:
Are there any future plans to bring tighter integration between Unity and Maya, Max, or Softimage?
Helgason:
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 :)
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The Area:
Where do you work from – a glance at your team shows that your team is spread across Europe and North America.
Helgason:
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:
Where do you see the future of Unity moving towards?
Helgason:
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.
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The Area:
In your description on your site, it says you’re an 'ex-programmer'. What does that mean?
Helgason:
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.

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Posted by Tom Higgins on Apr 03, 2009 at 09:03 PM
@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!
Posted by mcarr1973 on Apr 03, 2009 at 04:12 AM
A new website has launched:
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
Posted by claydough on Mar 30, 2009 at 09:21 PM
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:

boards.polycount.net/showthread.php?t=61855
Posted by Tom Higgins on Mar 24, 2009 at 09:31 PM
@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.
Posted by Magian on Mar 24, 2009 at 09:27 PM
@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?