Unity 2013 Unite Conference Day 1: Keynote, Occulus & Postmortems

My Vancouver Film School programming teacher, Peter Walsh, was kind enough to pass on a bunch of free tickets to the Unity 2013 Unite Conference to staff and randomly selected students.

Boy, what luck I had. The 3 days of the conference were easily the best time I’ve had in Vancouver yet – hundreds of game developers, programmers and the like from all over the world gathered in one location to hurrah Unity, play with new technology, listen to talks curated by Unity… and indulge in the free food and drinks at the nightly parties.

My blog posts about the event will be focussed on the people I met and the highlights of the conference from the perspective of a student who’s a beginner programmer and is only just starting to learn how to use Unity.

Here’s a few of my classmates standing in the main hallway (from left to right): Nick, Chris and Andrew.

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I was sitting next to this fellow during the keynote. His name is Douglas Hill and he creates 3D data visualisations at Dartmouth Medical School. He loves table tennis and one of his projects used tropical fish to represent the genetic code of various diseases. Why fish? He’d sort properties by getting the fish to swim into families – providing a different perspective for the scientists who sourced the data in the first place. He also works on interactive displays for publications. He’s worked at his current job for 5 years, but he’s been a programmer since 1975. I asked him how many programming languages he knows and he said,

When you’re starting out, you think – oh, that’s a cool new language that I could learn! But when you’re like me, you start wondering how many languages you can get away with not learning before you retire.

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The full video of the keynote is below, but I’ll also be posting a photo summary of the talk.

Unity CEO David Helgason took on the role of MC and expressed thanks to the 10,000+ people who use Unity to make games each year – astounding as when they first started ,they were lucky to have 3 users per year.

He then went on to explain Unity’s energy with a quote by Nolan Bushnell,

…all entertainment is driven by an innovation cycle.

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Because games become dated so quickly, publishers need game devs to keep creating content. To put it in comparison, Helgason said,

If you’re a musician today, you’re competing with the Beatles, which kind of sucks.

So since the industry must constantly keep re-inventing itself, success is now an anti-predicator of future success. This creates a race to quality. Helgason’s advice?

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Helgason then presented some other things that Unity’s been up to – expanding to other platforms, partnerships with emerging technologies (Occulus Rift, Ouya, Brain Scanner etc.), working with schools.

He then announced that they were retiring the Union group of Unity to give way to Unity Games.

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Unity CTO Joachim Ante also came on stage to show off the advantages of the new GUI system. Easier to use and less bugs. He also showed off technology that allows users to record animation from camera straight into unity.

And this was how they introduced the new 2D functions of Unity. What hilarious folk. Pictured below is Unity engineer Lucas Meijer.

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The new 2D physics system is intended to be as friendly as Unity 3D.

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Users wil be able to select different optimisations when shipping their games.

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Sprites can be used instead of normal texture for animating, and they can be sliced into sub sprites.

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The animation does not have physics based pivot points and the performance of big projects has improved.

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You can also change the colour of sprites. As long as they come from the same base image, sprites in the same scene can all be rendered with a single draw call.

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The 2D features will be released with Unity 4.3 and will be available for both free and pro versions. Meijer said,

You’ll want to hug it a lot more and curse it a lot less.

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And then it was to time to introduce the guest keynote speaker: Richard Garriot.

Better known as the teenage creator of the Ultima series in the early 1980s (a.k.a. Lord British), Garriot coined the term MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game) and has founded publishing and game development companies to support his flourishing career. And as Helgason said,

…and he’s been to space!

Garriot’s latest game is Shroud of the Avatar, a Kickstarter-funded game he’s working on with his newly created company, Portalarium.

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Garriot began by singing the praises of Unity and its essential role in streamlining the production of games.

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He then went on to explain how this translated into a quicker work timeline for his games.

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Garriot then gave more general game dev advice.

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Make it relevant to the world around you. This helps captivate players and give meaning to your game beyond your generation.

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If the names of places and characters in your game aren’t pronounceable, people will forget them and it makes your game unnecessarily harder to play.

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Make the mythology and philosophy of your game easy to understand as well – elegance over complicated jargon.

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If you’re going to make an entirely fictional world, tie it down to something in the real world.

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Make it easier for people to recognise elements of your game long after they’ve stopped playing.

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Garriot then explained the concept behind Shroud of the Avatar. The game finds ways to push friends (people you have history with) together, taking social media and multiplayer games to the next level. According to Garriot, it’s a spin on MMO’s where players usually stick to one shard, avoiding outsider players, that will be more successful because of the social ties.

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The game raised $2.3m on Kickstarter, part of which was used to purchase AAA level art from the Unity asset store.

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Garriot’s team modified the assets to fit the game, then sent them back to the original developer to share the benefits.

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Garriot also mentioned a new conversation system that aims to better simulate real conversation. He didn’t elaborate on the mechanics of how this would occur, however it seemed reminiscent of old school text-adventures where you type in any sentence you desire for dialogue and actions, hoping to type in the exact right word or phrase to progress.

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Garriot concluded by thanking Unity,

Unity is going to allow many more of us in this room to be successful, than those who aren’t in this room and not using Unity.

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Huddling into a large group of VFS students and staff.

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A smaller group of VFS students and staff.

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Nick and myself.

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Willy and Rafe are both in my class. They were getting excited whilst we waited in line to play with the HD version of the Occulus Rift.

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I also met these fellows in line. They worked on developing the Facebook-integrated Unity SDK. Brian Jew (left) used to work at Bioware and Ben Padget (right) used to work at Rockstar.

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Ben then did his job and gave me an invitation to the Facebook party that evening. More on that later…

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After 30 minutes in line, I got my shot! I went into this knowing next to nothing about the Occulus, other than it’s a “virtual reality head mounted display” and allows users to have a 360 degree view of the game world.

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I have a small head and had a ponytail, so there were some difficulties.

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The demo I was looking at here was a simulated flight to the moon, so here’s me looking around my spaceship.

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…and around…

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…and around…

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…and around.

For me, it was difficult to find the ‘sweet spot’ of wearing the Occulus, so that my vision of the screen was sharp. I found that I had to really press it against my face in order to manage it. I was so distracted by the activity of looking around that I barely focussed on the quality of the graphics or the flight itself. My mind boggles at the gaming possibilities.

Later on in the day, I went back to try out the other demo on offer – a platforming game. This was way better than the moon demo, as it showcased the gaming potential of the Occulus. The camera view was set in the middle of three rings (small to large, with the former inside the latter) that spiralled upwards, with the player able to see their journey ahead, as well as traverse back and forth between the rings.

I died many-a-times. But it was fun and exciting to take part in such innovative gameplay. So much so that I came back on day 3 and tested a FPS space game – although I couldn’t really figure out the objective of the game and my spaceship eventually got stuck on the mesh of a docking station.

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Lunchtime! Day 1 was sponsored by Microsoft. Buffet style, so I chose: veggie pasta, asparagus with hollandaise sauce, bread rolls, and bacon-and-egg-less Casear salad.

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Nick had more antipasto and meat.

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I sat next to Jonathan (US) and Jakob (Sweden) who both work for Unity. We discussed healthcare in the US, amongst other non-game-related topics.

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For dessert I chose tiramisu and chocolate biscotti.

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The biscotti was oddly soft.

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After lunch, Nick and I headed to the Nintendo talk. Being a Nintendo fanboy, Nick was super excited then super disappointed.

The talk was fairly dry and didn’t really tell us anything we couldn’t easily find out from Sir Google. So we learnt our lesson and stayed away from all the other ‘sponsored’ talks during the conference.

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Nick playing around with the Leonar3do modelling tool, devised to make it easier for students and beginner artists to create 3D assets.

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Being shown one of the various prototypes.

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Coffee break! Half hour breaks were scheduled after each talk. Everyone was mega grateful. This is Semin. He’s in my class.

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Andrew is also in my class. He’s usually super sleepy.

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Time for the second lot of talks for the day. This one was hosted by Brian Kehrer, former project director and co-founder at Muse Games, creative technologist at Psyop and founder of Icosahedra.

This was a post-mortem for Guns of Icarus Online, a Muse Games title. It’s a  steampunk themed multiplayer first-person shooter.

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The talk covered the do’s and don’t’s of their development process. Namely, how despite major early hiccups, they still managed to create a successful product.

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The first major issue was that the scope for their game was much too large.

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They wanted all this stuff:

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But weren’t aiming to make an MMO.

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And this was the size of their team.

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Good question.

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Kehrer then explained how halfway through, they utilized the Agile method of game production to get their game back into shape.

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Context of issues:

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Guns of Icarus Online also raised $35,238 from a Kickstarter campaign.

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They reduced their scope, keeping the essentials in mind.

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AGILE: Rapid development, frequent iterations, focus on being release ready, adapt to changing requirements, work at a sustainable pace, value simplicity and do not underestimate co-location.

I thought the last point about co-location was particularly interesting, considering the rising trend in outsourcing tasks. Kehrer stated that outsourcing is suitable for larger companies, but unthinkable for a small team, where co-location is the only option as it speeds up and makes easier communication, allowing for a greater number of iterations of game prototypes.

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Kehrer then discussed team efficiency:

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Kehrer advocated for artists, engineers and designers to share tasks in each other’s fields. For example, if the engineers take some time to teach the artists how to render their own assets, then the production line becomes shorter and it frees up the engineers to work on more specialized tasks.

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Apparently this is super important.

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They massively reduced their scope to what they could handle, and what was necessary for a fun game.

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I’m not going to post as much about this talk because to be honest, I didn’t understand most of it – but Itay Keren, creator of Mushroom 11, discussed the physics and design workarounds used to solve issues that arose from Mushroom 11’s complication organic design. Mushroom 11 is a platformer that has been described as a cross between World of Goo and Conway’s Game of Life. It is expected to release in 2014.

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Another coffee break!

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Time for another post-mortem.

Postmortem: Girls Like Robots. Or: How I Accidentally an Adult Swim Game.

Taken from the Popcannibal website:

Girls Like Robots is a puzzle game about seating arrangements, wrapped around an epic tale of love and danger!

Make friends and break hearts while saving the world and bouncing along to an authentic, old-time, string band soundtrack!

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Ziba Scott (left) and Luigi Guatieri. Ziba did the design and programming for Girls Like Robots, and Luigi did the art, which was nominated for a Unity award in the category of best 2D visual experience.

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They began by giving thanks to third-parties that helped their project.

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Similar to the Guns of Icarus Online talk, their postmortem was also about the do’s and don’t’s – although from more of a design perspective, and less of a project management perspective.

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Ziba emphasised the importance of sharing your design ideas with others, so that you can get feedback. I spoke with him after the talk and he said that his original idea was about arranging the proletariat and the bourgeoisie in a factory. A far cry from girls who like robots.

This was a preliminary sketch that he drew and showed around, receiving lots of interest and tips for improvement from those who saw it.

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However the guys said that ideally, they’d spend more time in pre-production, because they pretty much went with their first idea. For example, the below picture displays Luigi’s brainstorming for how the art should look – which is pretty much like the final product (even though this worked immensely well for them).

Furthermore, this meant that their levels didn’t start getting polished until after the first few.

My old writing teachers always used to say – write 10 pages then discard them and continue where you left off – and only now will the start of your story be strong enough.

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Ziba’s next tip was to spend money, instead of asking friends to do stuff for free (because then stuff never gets done because you can’t pressure someone do to something under time constraints when they’re not getting paid).

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Their next tip was to ‘Eat a Sandwich’ …which related to Ziba scouting around for an artist, and Luigi making himself available by going to game jams and meet ups and showing his work to people so he could get hired. Why the sandwich? Because on the day they met Ziba bought Luigi a sandwich.

The next tip was to find a unique art style.

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The above volcano is the one that Ziba sketched out for Luigi to draw – which Luigi then turned into the bottom volcano. I foresee this is the exact kind of design transformation I’ll be doing! My drawing expertise is about stick-man level.

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The next pro-tip was to ‘Be in an Awesome Team!’

Lots of love between these guys. I’m looking forward to seeing what they come up with in the future.

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Their next tip was to play-test like crazy, which should be a given, but I was surprised at the number of people in my class who didn’t play-test their rules when we made our board games in Term 1. I think sometimes people underestimate the importance of play-testing, in favour of spending more time creating assets etc. But what good is the stuff you’ve made if you haven’t made sure it A) works and B) is fun?

Ziba then advised to focus on tutorial. He steadfastly stuck to his rule of finishing the tutorial first so that after doing so – he’d pretty much made the majority of the game. This is because each level introduces a new mechanic which must be taught to the player.

He then advised to code it simple. I didn’t completely understand the process he outlined, but it sounded like he did everything in the most complicated way possible – which worked for him, but which probably wouldn’t work for the majority of people.

The below picture is an example of a problem he came across because of his complicated methods. Because his camera was centred, even though the two robot faces are on the same level, the one on the left appears to be behind the girl’s head, instead of in front of it.

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Their next don’t-do was to ‘Admit it’s a Mobile Game’. Similar to the Guns of Icarus Online, Ziba and Scott were making a game that was best suited to the casual mobile market – but Ziba had in mind that it would be a desktop game, to be sold on Steam.

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So when they put it up for Steam Greenlight, they got some amusing feedback. (Their favourite was the bottom one.)

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The next thing Ziba said they’d definitely do again, was partner with Adult Swim. He emphasized the importance of submitting your games to festivals and getting noticed, because when they brought Girls like Robots to Pax East, Adult Swim came by and

whispered so many sweet nothings in my ear.

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Ziba admitted that their analytics needed more work. The spike in the graph comes from their ‘free app giveaway day’.

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And here, half the users are shown to mute the game, opting to not listen to folksy music.

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The next thing they’d change is they’d make it a shorter game. The below graph shows the number of attempts at each puzzle players made. Thus, players were satisfied at playing the first third of the game, but stopped playing after that. And since the game got high ratings, it’s not a matter of the game becoming bad to play, but that players would have been just as happy with a shorter game.

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Ziba and Luigi would also have done more research to ‘know our audience’. The graph is blurry, but it depicts the gender breakdown of their players. They admitted that they didn’t know who their target audience was, but that ultimately, they wanted to make a game that they themselves would enjoy.

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And finally, Ziba’s last would-do-again was to make a game with Luigi!

Which he has. Because the duo are working on another game, titled Captain Astronaut’s Last Hurrah.

I have yet to play Girls Like Robots, but the guys were kind enough to give out free keys to the game to members of the audience after their talk, so expect a review on Appletomypi sometime soon.

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In the meantime, my pre-production teacher Chris Mitchell managed to score himself a brand new tablet and keyboard by entering his business card into a Microsoft draw …and then being the only fellow keen enough to show up for the draw!

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So after yet another coffee break, Nick and I headed over to the serious games showcase.

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In my post, I’m just going to focus on David Sarno’s talk, because it was most relevant to me.

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Taken from the Unite Speakers Bio:

After a decade as a technology writer and observer at the Los Angeles Times, David Sarno went to Stanford’s Knight Fellowship program for innovation in journalism, where he worked on using Unity and game design to add a new dimension to digital storytelling. His company, Lighthaus Inc., builds small-scale, interactive 3D experiences that bring the user into the world of a subject – seeing the inside of the human body, learning about aircraft hazards, or discovering the mechanics of a complex process like fracking – all by allowing the user to engage in the process itself.

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So Sarno demo’d an interactive display about fracking that would be used in a digital newspaper.

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The reason I was drawn to Sarno’s talk is because although interactive media is used for all sorts of educational purposes, traditional media has been reluctant to adapt to emerging technologies.

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For those of you who don’t know, I majored in journalism at Bond University and I had a ‘woah!’ moment sitting in the audience when I saw two things that I’ve invested so much time into (journalism and interactive media design) colliding.

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Nick and I had a hefty debate about the merits of such technology. Nick argued that having an interactive diagram with minimal movements required by the user is akin to asking the user to press next, and as such bring little to the table but extra work.

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I argued that the target demographic isn’t necessarily adept at using technology, and so any extra level of interactivity forces a level of concentration that will lead to a greater understanding of the subject matter.

I guess we’ll just have to see how Lighthaus Inc goes in the long run!

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The sole lonely picture I took at the Facebook party. I may have been too busy taking advantage of the free food. This is Ziba and Luigi, makers of Girls Like Robots.

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The Facebook party was packed with people, loud music, free booze and food (they even had a candy table!). But just you wait until my next blog post – where I share the many photos (that I actually took this time) from inside the Unity party.

Thanks for sticking through this mega-post guys!

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2 thoughts on “Unity 2013 Unite Conference Day 1: Keynote, Occulus & Postmortems

  1. Gonzalo says:

    Very interesting talks. I especially liked the part about high cross functional teams that actually iterate exponentially faster than specific teams. I also liked the importance of knowing your audience. I didn’t consider all those things.

    I can’t wait for Unity 4.3!

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