A Conversation with Clive Downie


Unity Technologies chief marketing officer Clive Downie is responsible for global strategies and tactics in customer marketing, product marketing, and ecommerce. In the conversation below, he discusses the three principles that guide Unity, the challenges Unity partners have faced with the advent of AR and VR, and how those new forms of development have evolved the company’s approach. He also gives an invaluable pro-tip to aspiring Pokemon Go players.

Downie will be at D.I.C.E. Europe in Barcelona speaking on “VR and the Next Generation of Immersive Experiences” where he will be presenting his views on the quickly evolving VR space and the drive to create more immersive gaming experiences.

You recently said you’d rather have Unity Technologies stick to its principles rather than react to what the competition is doing. For developers that haven’t worked with Unity, what are those principles?

Our foundation consists of three principles. Number one is democratized development. That means we try to put the most powerful tools we can offer into the hands of the largest amount of creators, as easily as possible. Nothing speaks more towards the democratization principle than the fact that you can download and use Unity for free, and I think that’s something we’ll do forever. The rationale behind that is that we believe that there is a huge amount of creators in the world and we want to empower their creativity with our tools.

The second principle is to solve hard problems. We understand that our tools are used by a complex set of developers -- about 1.5-million developers on an active basis out of 6.5-million registered, across 25 different platforms. That complexity matrix -- 1.5 million modified by 25 -- means that there are a lot of problems that developers encounter in their creativity on a daily basis. “How do I do this?” “I want to realize this vision. How do I remove the obstacles so that I can do that?” VR and AR introduce a set of problems that have yet to be discovered by creators. We want to look over the horizon and start solving those problems -- both technically and from a creative standpoint -- before they even happen.

The third principle is to enable success. This is our newest principle. You can make the best creative tool in the world and people can make great things with it, but if those people can’t be successful -- as measured by commercial success -- then very soon they’re going to move away from being creators and find something else to do with their time. What we’ve recognized is that, yes, we can build a creativity tool and a production tool, but what about the rest of the lifecycle after that production process? What about how your piece of creativity is fairing in the marketplace? We offer an analytics solution to help enable success. What about creating new revenue streams, so that you can get off and running with revenue quickly? We created Unity Ads to do that. What about ways to work better with partners and developers who you want integrated into the live portion of the lifecycle? We offer Unity Collaborate to allow you to do that. We offer vast services that go beyond the creative tool.

These three principles drive the decisions we make on a short-term operational basis and a long-term strategic basis.

2016 has been tremendous for VR. It had a big impact at GDC, E3, and even Comic-Con. Has VR changed the way that Unity does business?

VR is another avenue for creators to express their creativity. It’s a new medium. That’s an exciting thing. It’s also a very different medium for a variety of reasons. In terms of it changing what we do, it has introduced a number of new problems for us to solve. There are problems to solve in authoring -- how do you actually make things in VR versus how you make things in a traditional 2D Windows environment on your desktop? We’ve invested in discovering and experimenting new ways to author -- actually putting the creator in the VR space that they’re making, so that they can develop from within rather from without, which would lead to missing things.

VR has created new categories of creators for us to talk with. By that, I mean simply not just game makers. The thing to remember about VR and AR is that regardless of what you’re doing -- whether you’re creating an educational application or creating a social application or using it for industrial design or using it for other forms of visualization -- you’re doing it in a 3D environment. So you need a 3D engine. The good news is that we spent the last 10 years creating one of the most preeminent gaming engines on the planet. Since it’s a 3D engine, it’s applicable to what many of these new AR and VR creators are trying to do with their products.

So those are some of the ways that VR and AR have evolved -- I wouldn’t necessarily say changed -- the way that we’re thinking. They’ve evolved what we’re doing in terms of opening up to new markets and they’ve provided new areas for us to solve hard problems for new creators.

Has the growth of VR been more, less, or just about what Unity expected?

I’d say it’s about what we expected. Both our CEO John Riccitiello and I are on-record as saying that over the next decade, there will come a point where one-billion people a day consume VR, AR, and some form of MR -- mixed reality -- content. That will be due to the fact that this type of content will spill into the many verticals that exist out there, in terms of consumer products. We’ve also said that the journey is going to take us through a gap of disappointment, where the adoption of AR and VR devices -- their impact on different customers -- isn’t what people were expecting. It’ll go lower than the hype.

We are currently in that gap of disappointment, but what we’re seeing are huge signs of life. We’re seeing signs of life where certain categories are starting to get it right or certain product types are starting to get it right. We’re seeing signs of life towards that end goal of mass adoption and really being a paradigm shift in how it changes people’s lives. We’re on track in the adoption of AR and VR by creators, as it’s a new medium for them to explore and create in. They can try out new ideas and set new principles for a new medium. We’re seeing signs of life that creators are being successful in their exploration.

As you mentioned before, with any new form of development, there are new challenges. What are some of the most common challenges you’ve heard from your customers and partners?

One of the challenges in creating in a new space with all the dimensions is something called “The Bubblegum Phenomenon.” If you create a VR environment with a table in it, you can bet that someone will look under the table to see if there’s bubblegum there. Developers have to think about what happens when someone does something like that. This isn’t a problem they had when they created 3D environments experienced on a 2D screen.

Another challenge is story. How do you tell a story in a VR or AR space? How do you tell a story when people can look everywhere and people will want to interact with everything? What are the new rules for storytelling?

Then there’s the challenge of, “How much is enough?” You’re immersing people in a space they haven’t been in before. You have to teach them a whole new set of control conventions. You’re bombarding their synapses with new kinds of stimuli. What’s the optimum time session? How do you design with that time session in mind? You want to provide people with a wonderful and delightful new experience, but you want them to keep coming back without making them sick or completely overloading them.

We’re seeing all these challenges associated with a pioneer moment and exploration. It’s really exciting for us to see developers go through that and it’s really exciting for us to help them work through these challenges with our regular updates to Unity.

Millions of people have been enamored with Pokemon Go for the last month or so. Have you been seeing more interest in AR because of the phenomenon of the game?

We are seeing more interest in it. It’s part of, as I said before, a pioneer moment. Some people want to be the pioneers They want to take the risks and make the mistakes now -- learn fast, fail fast -- to hopefully reap the benefits years down the line. They’ll be the people that set the conventions and the ones that have been there all along. We’re seeing steady growth in the ranks of people interested in AR and VR.

There’s no doubt that we’ll see some Pokemon Go copycat products. People will take what they’ve learned from the game and wrap that into their products. It’s a pioneer moment for Pokemon Go and people are excited to be a part of it.

You’re absolutely right. Pokemon Go is a phenomenon...and I’m playing it a lot.

Ah, you’re playing Pokemon Go too. Who are some of your favorite Pokemon?

One of my favorites is Pidgeotto. I just love his name. He’s got kind of this Italian Renaissance name about him. I can imagine him strutting through St. Mark’s Square, kicking pigeons out of the way. [Uses Italian accent] Pidgeotto! I just love him. He’s a funky looking bird, with some hawk-like characteristics.

Another one I like is Rhyhorn. He’s just a bad-ass rhino with some triceratops-style armor blades.

I’m playing the game now, as I talk to you actually. I’m trying to catch Pinsir. Oh, he just escaped.

Do you have any pro-tips for Pokemon Go players?

I love taking an Uber somewhere while I have Pokemon Go open. On the way, I just go nuts with Pokemon hunting. Once you start an encounter with a Pokemon, the game doesn’t penalize you for moving, the way it does with Pokestops. I find that my time-to-capture ratio greatly increases when I’m in an Uber playing the game. I love it.

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