The groupies packed San Francisco's historic Masonic Center like Wi-Fi-toting sardines. The headliner? David Helgason, cofounder and chief executive of Unity , a video-game development engine that lets developers publish games across many different platforms. Helgason commanded center stage, clad in a sport coat with his collar standing straight up. (He apparently did one successful meeting like this and now it's his version of the iconic Jobs-black turtleneck.) Game geeks writhed in delight as he announced a slew of features and support, and if this stuff is up your alley, Gamasutra has you covered .
But what does any of this have to do with education, you ask? Fact: Gamers are going to the classroom. Whether it's because they have kids or want to build up a future customer base, more gaming kingpins are spending serious time and effort figuring out their play in education. Valve Corp., developers of the acclaimed Half-Life and Portal series, is one of the first mainstream gaming companies to partner with Digital Promise, a new nonprofit devoted to education tech. (Valve is hosting a STEM-focused video game competition for middle- and high-school students next year, offering prizes worth $250,000.) Zynga cofounder Steve Schoettler is also pouring his time into a stealth edtech company.
And then there's Unity, which is also making serious inroads in edtech and serious gaming. EdSurge writer Tony Wan  sat down with Helgason and Davey Jackson (formerly Unity’s education outreach director and currently director of simulation and visualization), who explained how Unity's central tenet--democratizing game development--has always had an education flavor, whether through helping people learn to make games or by enabling them to build better learning applications:
Back in 2005, when Unity was little more than three guys in a basement in Denmark, the trio hoped to make education a part of their business plan. Investors yawned; they urged them to make some money first. Investors including Diane Greene (cofounder and former CEO of VMWare), David Gardner (former CEO of Atari), and Sequoia Capital were later convinced that the team had what it took and put up $5.5M in 2009.
Ka-ching. Fast forward to 2011: Unity has 175,000 active users, eight offices around the world, and a development engine powerful enough to build mainstream titles from Tiger Woods PGA Tour Online to Battlestar Galactica. Even nicer: It has a fresh $12 million series B funding round to fuel plans to expand more aggressively into Asia.
Education still beckoned, though. Almost 30% of its users build 3-D simulations and modeling, such as visualization of product placements at retail stores. Unity’s popular game engine is now used in game development programs at more than 400 schools around the world (notably the Art Institutes in the U.S.). It has partnered with Noesis Interactive to provide discounted training materials and licenses to accredited institutions. And, last year, Unity hosted the Great Education Giveaway , offering free Nexus One phones and software to schools designing curricula for gaming in the mobile space.
At the Unity event, Jackson closed the conference with a serious games showcase featuring simulations covering everything from ER training for med school students to maintaining Patriot missile delivery systems for military personnel. Capabilities that make Unity's platform particularly attractive to K through 12 tool developers include:
- Cross-platform versatility. With the platform wars raging, and schools looking like a smorgasbord of every OS under the sun, developers anguish over what platform they should build for. Unity does just that--unifies the different programs so that code can be compiled for PCs, Macs, iOs, Androids, Playstation, Xbox, Wii, and its very own Web Player (requiring a small plug-in). Flash is coming, they say. And Chrome? Let's just say the rumor mill is churning.
- Backwards compatibility. A corollary to the question above is whether schools can even run the latest games. Yes, the media likes to rave every time an iPad finds its way into a classroom, but let’s face it--the majority of schools remain stuck with old, defunct hardware. The Unity Web Player can run comfortably on hardware up to seven years old, according to Jackson, who added that a significant number of Unity users are in developing countries and playing on true clunker machines.
- Price. Nothing beats free. A basic version of Unity is available at no cost and remains so regardless of how many games you decide to make and how much money you end up making from them. Don’t let the “basic” description fool you--it still packs quite a punch.
That means that the power to create visually stunning games is increasingly in the hands of anyone--including schools and students. “We see Unity as an enabler and not a dependency, and we look forward to seeing designs come to life, whatever they may be” said Jackson.
That's no guarantee that anyone will build more intellectually challenging games, or games that adroitly combine the best game mechanics and educational value. But it does mean that game developers--even small ones--have no excuses for churning out "edutainment" snoozers.