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An interview with Unity's David Helgason


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As I've mentioned before, Unity is a Mac-only game development platform. You can read the full feature list here, but I have to point out this is a powerful tool. Seriously, there is nothing but time and energy (and a few bills, granted) from stopping someone using Unity to create the next big game out there. Or the next little game, since you can create those nifty widget games...

Anyway, Unity fanboy that I am, the CEO of OverTheEdge, David Helgason, was nice enough to answer some of my questions. Yes, I read the FAQ first. Read the full interview after the jump.

Q: Give me a little background on the genesis of Unity. What were the motivations, aspirations, etc.

A: Well, first of all there were no development tools available for the Mac, the platform of choice for so many creative people. And on the PC you have a lot of geek-type engines which given enough patience, can be made to work. And then tools which are so outrageously expensive as to be out of reach of all but the big companies.

Then we looked at the best creative software out there: Final Cut Pro, Logic Pro, that kind of apps. They don't make you beg and bow to get something to work. For a few hundred dollars you get a cohesive experience, a well thought out interface and documented workflows.

"We can do that," we said. And did.

Q: How would you characterize developing ON the Mac platform? Do you
use XCode? And related, but different, how would you characterize developing FOR the Mac platform? Are Mac users good software citizens?

The Mac is a great development environment. In fact it's so good that for a company like ours that does cross-platform solutions it's important to not be tempted by the many cool technologies. At the end of the day, cross-platform is a lowest-common-denominator thing. And without cross-platform capabilities, it doesn't matter how cool your technology is.

As for Mac users? What a creative bunch! And helpful. And funny. Well, at least the people I know are.

Q: I see the Parsons School is using Unity. Do you plan to encourage more educational institutions to use Unity?

A: Game design education is the fastest growing curricular area at the moment. All these schools are looking for tools for their students to work with. Some are using Flash, which makes it possible to whip up stuff in a few hours. Some are modding published games. Others work with industrial engines like Renderware in an attempt to recreate the "real-life" game development situation.

Unity bridges that gap wonderfully. The "prototype in an afternoon" that you get with Flash, combined with the high-end technology. All in one system, and without the technical hassles of other high-end engines.

Students can start playing around with small projects and ideas, and then develop them into exam projects. They can work in teams using our collaboration tools, and underway share their progress by "publishing" the game to a course website (or wherever).

These schools are excited becauses Unity is so easy to get started with and allows them to go wild trying out ideas. We like them because we love to see what these dedicated kids with time on their hands come up with. It's inspiring.

Q: I see on Nich's blog that you're using Cg instead of GLSL. I also see the PS3 will be using Cg. There are also rumors the PS3 can run OS X (which I don't really believe). What I'm getting to is this: would you ever consider making Unity capable of creating console games? (Like, say, for the Pippin? Haha)

A: Very much. The PS3 is an incredible piece of hardware, and early research shows that porting the Unity runtime (the engine itself) to PS3 would be surprisingly easy.

We have our eyes trained on developments in this area. If it's viable, we'll do it.

Q: What is your perception of the Mac gamer market, and how do you think it will change in the next couple of years?

A: Just like other areas of gaming, casual is going big. We hope that Mac users will keep being receptive to games that aren't just rehashes of last years crop.

Q: How is the switch to Intel impacting your plans?

We don't think it's much of an issue. People rave and argue and whine, but at the end of a the day it's just a processor. And it's going to have better energy/performance ratio. Well, great.


Q: How has the response to GooBall been?

A: GooBall got good reviews and a huge number of downloads. And it forever and ever stays on the "Most Popular" list at It's been a huge success for us, one that we had never foreseen.

It's a warm fuzzy feeling when kids can't be pried the computer because they're so excited about GooBall.

And that fact that it acts as a perfect showcase for Unity isn't all bad either.

Q: Any plans for Linux?

A: No. Not that we don't want to, but there's so many other cool things that come first that I honestly don't know when we should find the time for it.

Q: What's the minimum a person should know before using Unity? I see support for JavaScript. Seems like that and some 3D ability would get someone off the ground pretty quickly...

A: People who're used to working with 3D modelling apps pick up Unity very quickly. Flash and Director people pick it up quickly. Programmers with some bearing of 3D pick it up quickly.

Those people come to Unity from different angles. People who've never done 3D modelling start off with our demo models, then go on to either learn how to model or find models on the net.

People who have no grounding in scripting, read and learn from the excellent scripting tutorial that David Janick-Jones of donated to the community. It can be found here:

I think the unmissable "skill" is the drive to create. If you have that drive, Unity will give you back thousandfold.
Q: People seem to immediately try and compare Unity to Torque. Set them straight. What are the three biggest differences?

A: Fair enough. Both are game engines. Both are cross platform. That's also pretty pretty much where the comparison ends.

Since you only ask for three differences, let's go for the meat of the matter:

1. Unity uses the next-generation Novodex physics engine to ensure fast and powerful interaction. In Torque you need to animate all movements, with Unity you get a lot of lifelike interaction for free. And it looks cool as well...

2. Unity has a very powerful graphics engine, where all object rendering is controlled by shader scripts, correctly interacting with dynamic lighting. Out of the box we support the full Unreal3 displacement bump mapping - and you can script you way further. Basically, our users' games don't look 3 years old.

3. Maybe comparison is a bit silly in the first place. Torque is big because it was the only solution available for a long time. Unity is the Final Cut Pro of game development. Easy to learn, efficient in use, powerful.

Unity has a learning curve of a few hours. Even Torque's evangelist admitted that the learning curve for Torque is "months". In the just three months Unity has been on the market there's already been created a bunch of small Unity-made games out (needless to say, no one had time to do a big game yet). Plus of course GooBall.

Torque has been out for years and years and has a huge userbase. Yet only a handful of games have been made with it???

David Helgason,
Co-founder and CEO,
OverTheEdge I/S (

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