Something About Japan: developers Unite in Tokyo

On 15th and 16th of April, Unity Technologies Japan will hold Unite Japan, one of many global strands of the Unity Developers Conference. The Tokyo edition will aim to rally support among that country’s often insular development community for its middleware tools and support services, with technical sessions providing the meat of the event.

Unity has become renowned for its fun and educational socials in Japan, while the conference itself has grown steadily from 70 people in a room in San Francisco in 2007 to a couple of thousand delegates last year in Amsterdam. This year, it will be held in seven cities around the world. 4Gamer spoke this week with local VP Hiroki Omae and “community evangelist” Nobuyuki Kobayashi about their plans for the event and Unity’s success in Japan.

“Although it has grown in scale, it’s really an event centered on community,” said Omae, explaining why this year’s conference will be held in multiple countries, including Japan, China, Korea, Brazil and Canada. “Last year we held Unity Asia Boot Camp Tour in Japan, China and South Korea, but this year we wanted to increase the scale further and decided to hold Unite events in seven countries around the world. It’s a bit like how GDC holds GDC Europe and GDC China.”

Omae said he believes one of the key attractions of Unite will be the chance for developers to speak face-to-face with the brains behind Unity’s tools.

“Top-level staff from each department will attend. Unity started in Copenhagen but we have people in Lithuania, Germany, Italy – all over the world,” he said. “For information about features or things that are new to Unity, they will be able to answer questions from attendees directly.”

Omae went on to explain that these gatherings also provide Unity’s staff with an opportunity to hear feedback straight from the horse’s mouth. ”Hearing from users just how it is they use our products and the problems they are encountering is much more useful than simply looking at a bug report,” he said. “We get a concrete image from that sort of feedback, which makes it easier to absorb. So I really hope to hear how people are using Unity on a day-to-day basis.”

Japanese developers have been notoriously slow to embrace middleware engines, favouring handmade tools tailored to a specific game and maybe some of its sequels. Japan is, after all, a nation of studied perfectionism and artisanal craft, from game tools to morsels of kaiseki food to carefully wrapped gifts. But of course this approach has often become a burden in recent years, while licensing a ready-made engine brings lower costs and improved efficiency – and Japanese developers are increasingly taking to engines such as Unity or Unreal, or creating their own multipurpose toolsets such as Capcom’s MT Framework and Konami’s new Fox Engine.

“We were told that a game engine like ours would never take off in Japan, but once we actually tried to do it the reality is not so bad,” said Omae. “The efficiency of the tools has improved over time. It has been accepted in Japan now.”

It was recently announced that Unity will support development for Wii U, and Omae said that Unite Japan will feature a session on the ins and outs of this partnership. ”Nintendo is interested in making Wii U more accessible for independent developers,” he said. “To that end, anyone will be able to use Unity to develop for Wii U. Nintendo seems to be considering lowering the hurdles for those who want to develop for Wii U, so that even a one-man company can do it. And even though Wii U has two screens, it appears developers will be able to make games that only use one screen; they’ll have a great deal of freedom.”

“I think many game developers have become frustrated by the considerable resources required to make console games,” said Kobayashi. “I certainly have. But Unity can take you a long way through the process, and since many people use it, it’s easy to consult with others.”

Omae stressed that this year’s Unite event will be targeted less at developers of top-line titles and more at a wider audience, pointing out that Unity can help non-programmers to knock up playable sketches of the ideas in their heads.

“There will also be some conversations aimed at indies,” he said. “For example, Kobayashi has been a game director for a long time, and many game directors are unable to make a whole game by themselves. But they can speed up the process by creating something to show to someone else and say, ‘This is the kind of thing I want to make’.”

“I used to have to rely on written proposals to get my point across,” said Kobayashi, “but that’s not the same as having something playable to show. This is a big deal.”

Asked about future applications for Unity, Omae said that he was impressed by Canon IT Solutions’ MREAL “Mixed Reality” glasses tech, which utilises Unity’s tools. ”I got a demo of this the other day and this thing is so weird,” he said. “You can see things as if they are really in front of you, like a car, and you can even touch and manipulate things such as the battery. I thought, ‘Why doesn’t PS4 have this?!’”

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