Gameloft: A Unity developer case study
How do you put cool game ideas into production fast, turning a creative spark into a foundry? With his team of five, Gameloft Montreal’s Director of Gameplay, Renaud Forestié, listens to game ideas and quickly assembles tangible, working versions that stakeholders can play and evaluate. The team uses Unity to bring multiple game ideas to life, letting the best rise to the top for final development, publishing, and marketing.
Founded in 1999 by a co-founder of Ubisoft, Gameloft has grown from developing games for Java- and Brew-enabled handsets to being a major mobile-game provider with over 2.5-million downloads daily. Their studios span six continents, and their hundreds of well-known titles range from Asphalt and Modern Combat to the tycoon hit Disney Magic Kingdoms.
A playable game on Day 1
Similar to a movie studio, game development starts with a pitch. The team and several producers listen to a number of game ideas from designers (called “vision holders” at Gameloft), decide on a number of projects, and assign resources. According to Forestié, “We’ll allocate somewhere between one and three weeks per project, and for each project, we create several iterations.” They often have something playable by the end of the first day and something testable by the end of the first week.
“We try to create substantial builds that will give us ‘Wow, that’s interesting!’ reactions, where we can get objective data like user retention and how many times people launch the game. We put them into the hands of players really fast.” In the past year, his team has completed over 30 projects with from one to five builds each. Of these, 12 were greenlighted for production. Forestié added, “To maintain this level of output, we need Unity, and that’s why we use it for all our projects.”
- Highly functional initial builds for player testing
- Fast understanding of a game’s technical viability
- A toolset and environment that ensures weak ideas fail fast
- A steady stream of tested, production-ready game concepts
Putting player experience first
Forestié’s career and personality are a good fit for his quick-moving role at Gameloft. After university, he worked as a web programmer and art director, developed Flash skills, and moved into UI/UX work at several startups. However, it wasn’t his passion: “Doing apps for startups was not really my thing. I get satisfaction from quickly creating something that reflects exactly what I have in mind.” He found a tutorial online, taught himself Unity, and brought his coding, art, and UI/UX skills to bear on games.
“Growing up, I loved playing with Lego, video games, and did a lot of drawing. Now I’m combining these interests – designing basic game elements, assembling ‘building blocks’ with Unity and making games. It’s the perfect job.” His UX experience is a strong influence at Gameloft, where he focuses on the player. That’s one of the reasons why his team puts so much effort into creating builds with an authentic game feel. “We want to build for the player first, and if a player has a good experience, then chances are we’ll get good retention and good numbers.”
He acknowledges that rapid game iteration isn’t for everyone. Most projects don’t move beyond initial evaluations, and that can be disappointing. However, good ones do make it through. He added, “With experimentation, sometimes there’s serendipity – finding out things that we just didn’t know or expect. That’s really fun.”
Guerilla testing on the subway
When Forestié first arrived at Gameloft, his goal was to get ideas into testable form quickly. “We needed a tool that would let us move fast, and I don’t know of a better tool than Unity to do that,” he said. “At the same time, we want to make the game concept really appealing, so it’s not like your standard prototype where it’s just programmer art and only used internally. We want a certain level of ‘juice.’”
In addition to internal reviews, Forestié literally takes it to the streets. “I do guerilla testing where I’ll give people in the subway a phone and hope they don’t run away with it,” he jokes. “I’ll watch how they play the game and study their faces.” It’s not formal playtesting, but it does give the developers a valuable first impression. This quick feedback, combined with their extensive experience and their own self-critical natures, guides them to either further development or, “We just say this isn’t good enough and we start again.”
Adding instant “game feel”
The team maintains its own feedback library, based on Unity’s native API, so that with the click of a few checkboxes they can trigger particles and screen shakes, chromatic aberrations, freeze frames, and timeline modifications, which lets them easily create a strong game feel. Forestié defines “game feel” as all the visual and audio feedback that the game uses to tell a player that something happened. “Let’s say I press the trigger button, my gun shoots and I see a muzzle flash, hear the boom, and the scene recoils. I see and feel all of that, which tells me I shot the gun.” Forestié believes that these extra effects make the player feel rewarded, and that’s what makes a game fun.
He also considers game jams a great place for testing, and at most game jams, Unity is a favorite tool. “What I love about game jams is when players do Let’s Play on YouTube. I get to see people I’ve never met, that I’ve never connected with, play the game and say, ‘Oh, I think I should go through this door, I should pick this power up.’ For me, that is really cool.”
A deep toolbox and highly supportive cast
The Unity Asset Store has been an important resource for Gameloft, offering everything from characters, environments, and music to billing add-ons and localization tools. “Whenever we need something off-the-shelf, it’s probably for sale or available for free in the Asset Store,” said Forestié. For example, Cinemachine, which is free, is a unified, procedural system for in-game cameras that can cinematically track and compose a defined target. “Cinemachine is an asset I use a lot and that I love. It really helps with all our camera stuff, having a zoom, having a screen shake, just the ‘noise’ that you get natively with Cinemachine is amazing.” ProBuilder – which was initially on the Asset Store but as of Unity 2018 is a built-in feature – is a key asset that the team uses for 3D modeling.
Another vital resource for them is the Unity developer community. “When we’re stuck with something difficult, I know someone else in the world has solved this problem, and I just have to Google it.” He also spends a lot of time on Twitter. “People share amazing Unity tips and tricks there, so I’d say it’s one of my first sources of information.” Forestié often points other developers to the Learn section of the Unity website, and with new releases, goes to the tutorials. “That’s where I learned most of what I know,” he said.
Finally, with its ability to quickly publish to virtually any platform, an innovative and diverse feature set, and the ease with which teams can collaborate, Unity has become the workhorse development tool for Forestié and his game-designer colleagues at Gameloft. His team’s rapid productivity with Unity has not gone unnoticed – rumor has it that Gameloft will create its first full-production Unity game next year.