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Unity: "The more places your games are, the more opportunity for discovery" | GDC 2024

With this year’s Game Developers Conference kicking off in San Francisco today, it’s a good time to take stock of some of the biggest challenges developers face, from rising costs to the ever-changing obstacles between your game and potential players – both of which are harder to reduce than ever.

“Gaming is a mature industry, and while it continues to disrupt, it’s also just harder to break in with a new game,” Marc Whitten, Unity’s chief technology and product officer, tells

“If everyone’s playing a live game, maybe they’re staying in that game longer which means it’s harder for your game to break out and be discovered. [The challenge becomes] what can I make that’s unique and pulls attention away from what people are currently playing? How do I get them to find my game and stick with it? It leads to bars going up for what it required [to be successful].

“The good thing is a cool new mechanic or an interesting, beautiful view of how play works still wins if you can build the rest of the pieces around it, but it’s about players finding it.”

We’re speaking to Whitten ahead of today’s release of the 2024 Unity Gaming Report, the engine firm’s annual dive into what’s happening in the development space. The report is compiled using data drawn from Unity’s engine, cloud, and portfolio of products and services, encompassing approximately five million developers. Additional insight is gained via a survey, with 300 developers taking part this year.

The main takeaways from this year’s report aren’t too surprising. Unity identified five key trends, which were:

Developers are adopting AI tools to save time
Studios are diversifying their revenue approaches
Studios of all sizes are shipping to more platforms
Developers prioritise multiplayer games, despite greater complexity and cost
The industry is building stronger brands by extending engagement

At the risk of oversimplifying, these all translate to developers seeking more money, more players, and more efficient processes. Whitten agrees that these are accelerating trends rather than new ones, but notes that they have accelerated to the point where, while each would have begun with larger studios, these have now broadened to affect indies and smaller studios too.

“As it accelerates, you can see a lot more of the smaller studios catching up to those,” he says. “And obviously that comes with a lot of complexity as people figure out the best way to do things like multiplayer and so on.

“It’s a challenging year, the economic environment continues to be challenging, and also you continue to see the evolution of the marketplace around games. As we’ve always seen, game creators are pretty agile. They’re very focused on how to learn, so you see a lot of resilience in how they shift business models or mix them, or how they think about their platforms in a different way. These are trends that have been building, but it feels like they’re at mass scale and all at once.”

Discoverability is an ongoing problem for the games industry – one that our contributing editor Rob Fahey warned last week may be impossible to solve. Much of the conversation around breaking out often dwells on mobile or crowded but market-leading PC store Steam, but Whitten observes that it can be just as tough on console, where the number of games available is “dramatically higher than it was ten or fifteen years ago.”

In the past, he argues, online services like Xbox Live and particularly their community features would aid discovery; for example, seeing what friends are playing in real time. However, even the impact of this has become limited, but Whitten believes newer business models may create new opportunities.

“I do think things like what Microsoft is doing around Game Pass and this idea that I can go in and there’s quests for games, or I might discover games that I might not otherwise have tried… that’s giving opportunity for players, but also for games to have other outlets to be discovered,” he says.

“It’s the same on mobile; people don’t really go to an app store, unless they want to search for something. They either find something through an ad, or you get a QR code or something, but it all comes back to that discoverability problem. And if you do find players, it’s all about how do you engage them and keep them – and that doesn’t matter what platform you’re on. If people leave after just a few days, you’re in trouble.”

When asked how he expects the issue of discoverability to evolve over the next few years, Whitten suggested it will become more and more important to form a community for your game before it has even launched.

“Finding players is often about whether there’s a discovery channel where you can build an early audience with your games,” he says. “On Steam, you do that by announcing your product early and building a wishlist, and you can use Early Access. You can be really active on social media, and start building a community through word of mouth.

“It’s why many game creators are excited about new platforms – and I use that term broadly, because Netflix would be a new platform. It’s a new place where people might discover games they want to play. Many of the big companies are experimenting with web games and instant games because they’re an interesting way to draw people into game experiences where they might discover more. Game Pass is like that. Game creators are trying to find other ways to get to more people, and all of us users like to see games on every device, so it’s about making sure it’s available there.”

We dive a little deeper into the trend of studios shipping to more platforms. According to the report, the number of multiplatform games made with Unity has grown 40% between 2021 and 2023, with a 34% increase in the number of titles launching on three or more platforms between 2022 and 2023.

In the 2022 report, studios with limited resources primarily focused on single-platform releases, but this year’s shows that they have built 71% more mutliplatform games over the past two years. This includes mobile studios bringing titles to PC and console – a trend Unity expects to continue, as highlighted in its predictions at the end of the report.

Mobile is by far the largest segment of the market but it’s also the hardest to break into, with the top grossing and most downloaded games often holding onto the upper echelons of app store charts for years at a time. Does the fact more mobile studios are bringing games to PC and console speak to the limited opportunities on smart devices?

“I don’t know about limited opportunities because there’s a huge opportunity on mobile – it’s just harder to get discovered,” says Whitten. “I really think it comes down to two things; the first is, the more places your games are available, the more opportunity for discovery there is. Many of the mechanics in games on mobile are really great – the evolution of interesting game ideas and game loops have come so far on mobile to the point where they play very well on other devices.

“The second thing is, as a user, I just want to be able to play my game… Marvel Snap, for example, I expect to be able to play on my mobile or whatever but when I’m on my laptop and in between meetings, I want to be able to play a quick three-minute match. For me, it’s a continuation of the experience. It goes back to that question of how you find players, and how you keep them engaged for as long as you can – and that really comes down to meeting them where they are.”

The latter point is also something highlighted in the report, with 91% of Unity-made multiplatform games able to be played across different devices. It’s fair to argue consumer expectations around this have been accelerated over the years by changes to other forms of entertainment; the likes of Disney+ and Netflix, for example, allow you to continue watching from where you left off when switching between devices.

Whitten acknowledges this, although he is also quick to point out that the industry is rarely playing catch-up to other forms of entertainment, describing games as the “the tip of the spear in any new technology.”

“They help to plumb out what the limits of the tech are, what you can do with it, and what creativity can look like,” he explains. “So they often lead on new platforms. Video on demand, social media and so on, they borrow a lot from what people learned building and making successful games.

“That said, the idea of accessing your [entertainment] experience everywhere really comes from that, and it kind of goes both ways. Netflix lets you watch on one device then continue on another – that’s kind of old media going to every device, but I could also argue look at how much vertical video exists on anything you access via PC, and that’s mobile-native video moving in the other direction.

“It’s kind of what you’re seeing on the games side; there are games that we’ve all gotten used to playing on mobile, and people want the same sort of experience as they move to other devices. It’s that same mobile trend, but pushing the other way.”

All of this – the need to reach bigger audiences across multiple platforms and generate more revenue – stems partly from rising costs and lengthening development times. According to the Unity Gaming report, the average time to launch for games increased from 218 days in 2022 to 304 days in 2023. The rapid evolution of technology exacerbates this; the survey showed that 40% of studios face long research and development times while trying out new technologies, and 37% struggle to integrate these into their pipelines.

There’s a real need for developers to reduce the amount of time, resources and investment in bringing their games to market – something we’ll be exploring with GI Sprint this June – and Whitten believes speeding up the prototyping stage will be instrumental in this. In fact, the survey suggests that 96% of studios now spend three months or less on prototypes – up from 85% in 2022.

For all the resistance to the use of AI, especially in its generative forms, the Unity report suggests more developers are embracing the technology to help with this. 62% of studios surveyed said they use AI in their workflows, primarily for quicker prototyping and worldbuilding, as well as asset creation. 71% of these studios said it has improved their delivery and operations. Another 37% say they are using AI to write code faster, while 36% are using it to generate artwork and game levels, test gameplay loops, and automate narrative elements.

There is still some resistance, of course. 38% of studios surveyed said they remain reluctant to use AI, and 43% of these are interested in doing so but say they don’t have the time. Nearly a quarter say they are unsure whether they have the technical skills to use AI tools correctly.

“Creating great games is about really creative people being able to iterate around something to make it great,” says Whitten. “I think everyone is looking at ways to build something faster, learn quicker, and iterate on core ideas as fast as possible, as well as managing the costs that go along with that. Anything that helps productivity – whether that’s services and dev ops tools, things like AI that might help with productivity in coding or content – everyone is taking that and working out how they can put it into effect.”

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