Any age, any platform, and any subject – when it comes to creating world-class games for learning and social impact, versatility is key. A vital component underlying this flexibility is our studio-wide adoption of Unity, a cross-platform game engine that we use to develop all of our learning games. In order to better understand the many justifications behind Filament’s adoption of Unity, we sat down for a brief interview with our Chief Technology Officer Alex Stone. Check out his insights:
Hey Alex! We don’t get to have you on the blog too often because you’re so busy, so often, so let’s start with a quick intro. Who are you and what do you do here?
As Filament’s Chief Technical Officer, my primary responsibility is to ensure that we’re building things the right way. I’ve been with Filament for about 12 years now, prior to which I spent four years working in academic technology on learning management systems and more traditional eLearning projects. This early experience ended up proving to be tremendously useful in helping me prepare for my role at Filament- I was able to see what tech organizations are using, which helps me better speak the language of our many customers today.
As CTO, you steer the ship in terms of the technology platforms we leverage for our learning game development services. What made you choose Unity as our studio’s primary development engine?
Picking technology isn’t just about what features the tech has in the moment. It’s about the producer of that technology’s vision. What’s their direction? Their goals? When we adopt a core platform, we try to use it as exclusively and as long as possible. Our objective is to make sure we’re on a parallel course with the tech – that way we’re not stuck if the platform goes in a different direction. There are two primary reasons why we selected Unity as our core development engine:
First, Unity has a strong education focus that extends beyond their support for educational software development (though that is one of their core focuses). Over the years, Unity has invested much time and resources into helping folks of all skill levels learn how to use Unity. This characteristic is really important for a lot of our clients- we’re creating using tools that they can identify with, and maybe even use themselves. Shared goals, shared trajectory- you get the picture.
Next, Unity offers an enormous creative playground – in addition to games, they’ve remained adamant that their platform is designed for everything from automotive and transportation uses, to filmmaking, and even brand ads and experiences. Similar to our educational game development services, Unity’s strengths lie in its versatility, allowing us to create all sorts of projects with ease. Our teams have a shared understanding of how to use the platform, allowing us to fill in the gaps using additional tools. Sure, Unity is sometimes less efficient than using a specific tool designed to do a specific type of thing- however, having a general purpose tool is overall advantageous as it offers us the flexibility to create lots of different types of experiences in many mediums.
How does Unity compare to previous technologies that have been prevalent in the games and learning space?
Today, there exist far more established rules about how to make user interfaces, what elements games should have in them, and the many platforms you are expected to target. Years ago when our studio focused exclusively on creating PC learning games, there were far less constraints. Now, with the growing popularity of mobile and AR/VR learning games and experiences, there are far more considerations to keep in mind throughout development like battery life, varying screen sizes, and unique control setups.
While Unity brands itself as a general purpose creation platform, it’s not as general purpose as older technologies like Flash (or even other platforms that predate that). Thankfully for us, the Unity Editor counteracts this by allowing for heavy customization to fit the needs of your specific project. Unity lets users use the same language to write tools and program gameplay, allowing engineers to flip between the two with ease.
What advantages does Unity have over other leading game engines?
Unity starts with most “shiny” features turned off by default, eliminating much of the optimization work required to create games and experiences that run on lower-end hardware like mobile phones and older PCs. Unity also boasts impressive WebGL compatibility compared to its competitors, making it easy to build games which run natively within a web browser like Google Chrome or Safari.
Does Unity provide particular advantages for certain use cases? For instance, are there advantages for K-12 implementations specifically? Or perhaps corporate training?
A key advantage of Unity is support for building multi-platform games- that is, support for platforms like mobile, tablets, game consoles, AR/VR devices, and even web browsers. For education and training, web and mobile support is key. Today, folks expect to be able to access learning experiences anytime and anywhere. Some teachers are even beginning to assign our games and experiences as homework for students- Unity ensures us the ability to create games accessible on any hardware, no matter the specs.
Additionally, our client work frequently requires us to rapidly prototype in order to showcase our work-in-progress. Unity offers a lot of placeholder assets and other useful features which allow for our teams to create prototypes and iterate at a fast pace.
So many folks use or are at least familiar with Unity- the platform has truly reached worldwide critical adoption. Over the years, we’ve discovered that advertising our Unity expertise actually helps drive a lot of business to our studio. Unity has also invested a ton in education over the years, meaning that lots of aspiring developers are exposed to it as their first engine, oftentimes going on to get jobs using Unity (like most of our staff!) For us, Unity’s universality makes onboarding new staff members a breeze. Programmers are using Unity. Artists are integrating Unity into their workflows. UI/UX artists are using Unity. Everybody’s using Unity!
Don’t get me wrong, the engine is definitely not quick to learn- but to Unity’s credit, they’ve invested a lot of time into developing a robust assortment of learning materials like online tutorials and courses as well as in-person workshops and events.
Where does Unity stand in terms of the state of the art? Is it a fairly future proof platform?
Today, Unity is one of the most popular and widely used game engines in the world. Millions of games have been created using their tools – everything from mobile hits like Ludia’s Jurassic World Alive, to memorable AR/VR experiences like SUPERHOT Team’s SUPERHOT VR, and even contemporary console classics like StudioMDHR’s Cuphead and Blizzard Entertainment’s Hearthstone. At the moment, Unity is dominating the world of game development – and their momentum shows no signs of stopping anytime soon.
Anything else to add?
On a personal level, I really value how developer-friendly and easy to reach the folks at Unity are. The cost of maintaining a Unity enterprise subscription is considerable, sure – but their dedication to continually investing in cutting-edge research and development ensures that this is a worthwhile investment for our studio. Our teams are always looking forward to new developments, and rarely does an update go by without the addition or enhancement of a feature that directly applies to our work.
More insights from Filament Games’ founding partners:
What Makes Great Learning Games?
How VR Changes Learning