Nintendo licenses Unity engine for Wii U, both in-house and out

Updated with interview excerpts from Unity CEO David Helgason.

Nintendo has licensed the Unity engine for Wii U, both for internal use and to hand out externally.

I spoke to Unity CEO David Helgason about this today, and he reckons this deal with a platform holder may be unprecedented. "It's definitely a Unity first," he said, "but as far as we can tell it's also an industry first."

The deal will be "long-term", and Helgason mentioned "several years" a few times.

Could a Mario game theoretically be powered by Unity? "Should that happen one day I'll be very excited and proud!" Helgason beamed. But his tone suggested this was wishful thinking for now.

The deal allows Nintendo to dish Unity to its "entire ecosystem" of affiliated developers, but Helgason wouldn't get any more specific.

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David Helgason.

Perhaps more importantly, licensing Unity speaks to Nintendo's willingness to embrace the fruit-laden independent or small developer scene.

In the social and mobile gaming corners of the world, Unity is massive - more than a million developers have registered to use it. That means there are loads of games powered by Unity that could be, through some tweaking here and there, converted for Wii U.

How these games will be sold on Wii U was a topic Helgason steered away from. But he did say converting Unity games on Wii U "should take anywhere between a day and a month".

Getting a Unity game to work on Wii U will be no more complicated than clicking recompile, more or less. The work will be rethinking how the game is controlled. "Something that's perfectly designed for iPad and it's requiring 10-finger multi-touch or something, it might not work very well on Wii U," Helgason explained. "It might not make sense."

"Nintendo's smart like that, they don't force you to start anew."

David Helgason on Wii U architecture being similar to Wii

But with Unity doing the faffy conversion legwork, Wii U developers "are only going to spend time on what is special and unique". And that, Helgason hopes, will attract to Wii U developers otherwise "daunted" by console projects.

Unity's an interesting engine because it's collaborative. There's a core engine tailored for hardware by a core Unity team. But there's also an Asset Store, a kind of App Store, where developers can sell engine modifications or packs of assets they created for their games. The more people that use it, the more useful Unity gets.

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Jussssssssst saying.

It also means Unity makes more money and the engine team grows. Right now Unity employs 203 people, and a third of those are engineers. Helgason said the company has been roughly doubling every year, and has been recently hiring a "s***-tonne" of engineers to work towards high-end, flashy pants engine goals.

Nintendo's licensing deal has meant a technical collaboration between the two parties. Nintendo will want Wii U to shine, so Unity optimisation has happened on a "deep level". Actually getting Unity working on Wii U was a cinch, Helgason said, because the system's architecture is "similar" to Wii, as Wii was to GameCube. "Nintendo's smart like that, they don't force you to start anew," he praised.

Unity's Wii U "deployment option" will become widely available in 2013.

As should be evident, Unity take-up has exploded in the last few years. Helgason wouldn't be bated into discussing the merits of Unreal Engine, but it's clear that Unity is veering closer and closer to Epic's turf.

Unity 4 demonstrated an animation system Helgason said is "more advanced than anything anybody has" The video of it is below. "We're really catching up and even superseeding anyone else on some areas," he boasted. Helgason has also discovered that what helps big development teams will also benefit smaller studios, so there's even more of a vested interest for Unity to explore those areas.

Will Unity pursue similar licensing deals with Microsoft and Sony for their next-generation machines, then? Helgason laughed as he deflected the answer with a swift "no comment". "We're talking to everybody about all kinds of stuff," he squeaked.

Look out for a detailed report on what Helgason said tomorrow.

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