From launch to live ops. How technology created in Dundee is driving the next generation of Unity products
The Changing Nature of Videogames
Since the early 1980s, when videogames finally reached the homes of a mainstream audience, a single development and publishing model prevailed.
Videogames were created as stand-alone projects. They were completed and finalised before being published and sold via retail as ‘products’.
However, over the last 8-10 years, thanks to the inexorable growth of the mobile and online gaming markets, more and more games are now released with ongoing updates, new downloadable content, live ‘events’ and online multiplayer competition.
This model requires game creators to manage the entire player life-cycle, from initial discovery, through to churn and reengagement, in order to maximise the lifetime value of every player.
This demands a very different skill set to that of videogame development, as well as a whole new set of tools to manage the ‘live operations’ (live ops).
While videogame developers worldwide have access to powerful tools and platforms which enable them to create and publish their work across multiple platforms, few of these game ‘engines’ provided live ops capabilities.
This offered an opportunity for an innovative developer to create a new solution.
A Changing Marketplace: From Art to Science
How did Unity Technologies, one of the world’s most successful game development platforms come to have a presence within Dundee’s pioneering videogames cluster? The answer goes back to a technology created by one of the city’s most experienced development studios.
Tag Games is one of Scotland’s most productive commercial game developers. Founded in 2006, the studio established an international reputation for commissioned projects, working with some of the world’s leading brand owners and entertainment companies, including the BBC, Channel 4, Endemol, Nickelodeon, Mattel, and Sony Pictures. The studio has also released a number of its own original titles.
The studio was aware of a growing number of games being released which included a range of social and connected elements. Tag understood that the impact of these aspects of gaming, along with the growing demand for cross-platform play, to compete with friends, would be significant.
In order to provide clients with a cutting-edge service, as well as creating more data-driven and engaging games, the studio began to explore the opportunities and potential of including social and online elements within its own games.
Tag built a number of tools which would enable it to capture, analyse and use data within a ‘live’ game. The studio used the launch of its own original title Astro Ranch (2010), as a free-to-play game, as a test-bed for these new technologies.
The release of the game, and conversations with fellow developers, encouraged the company to look at the range of individual tools it had created and find a way to integrate them into a single ‘tech stack’ which could be used within the studio for a range of other projects.
The new platform was dubbed ‘ChilliConnect’.
Learning Live Ops
The leadership team at Tag Games realised that the company did not at that point have the right skills in-house in order to effectively build ChilliConnect. So in 2016, the company looked beyond the games sector in order to find someone with the key experience of server-side and ‘cloud’ services to oversee the development of the platform.
ChilliConnect was initially developed by a small, dedicated, internal team, with the company’s work-for-hire projects funding the ongoing development.
When it came to commercial opportunities, it became apparent that for many developers, giving a ‘rival’ studio access to data about their games and players was seen as a potential risk, so interest in having Tag run live ops as a service was limited.
As such Tag decided that the most commercially advantageous approach was to spin ChilliConnect out as a separate entity, in order to provide a credible, objective service.
However, the development of the platform was greatly enhanced by the studio’s use of its own technology. Being developed within an experienced games studio enabled the fledgling company to identify and focus on the key requirements for videogames developers. This gave ChilliConnect’s technology an advantage over rivals which were not necessarily tailored towards the day-to-day needs of studios moving into live ops games.
From Start-Up to Exit
ChilliConnect was founded as a limited company in October 2016. The company’s technology proved popular with developers, as its creation within a professional videogames studio ensured that the platform’s focus on fast, simple integration and efficient workflow, created a unique selling point for studios working across all devices.
The company was operating within a competitive environment, with international companies such as GameSparks and PlayFab both securing major investment from Silicon Valley investors.
In 2018 the company achieved breakthrough success, thanks to the success of the Love Island mobile game, based upon the popular TV series, created by Fusebox Games. The success of the game, which has had over 12 million players to date, was instrumental in giving ChilliConnect market validation and proving its worth to potential investors.
2018 also saw the acquisition of two major competitors. PlayFab (acquired by Microsoft) and GameSparks (acquired by Amazon), highlighted the value attached to live operations within the global games marketplace.
ChilliConnect successfully closed its seed funding in early 2019, with TechStart Ventures leading the investment.
The same year, ChilliConnect approached Unity, the creator of the hugely popular Unity 3D game development engine, in order to get into the online asset store. This would put ChilliConnect in front of a very large – and growing – audience of game developers and publishers around the world.
ChilliConnect continued to gain momentum and grow adoption within the global games market, as discussions continued between the two businesses.
In October 2019 ChilliConnect was acquired by Unity Technologies, in one of the fastest exits ever achieved by a Scottish videogames company.
Unity now has a strong presence within Dundee’s pioneering videogames cluster. With the technology created by ChilliConnect, Unity is building new game services so developers around the world can access and integrate live ops for their games.