Taking Mobile Game Development to a New Level with Unity and Backtrace

Felix Thé from Unity and Abel Mathew from Backtrace talked about the tendencies in the mobile game industry, the solutions and support they offer to developers, and more.


Felix Thé, VP of Product Management, Operate Solutions, Unity: I am the VP of Product Management for Operate Solutions at Unity. Much of our digital experiences are becoming less static and more dynamic. As such, beyond the act of creation, creators will need to operate their content. Unity Operate Solutions is here to enable live digital content operations at scale. I have been with Unity for four years now.

Similar to Abel, I am a fellow alumnus from AppNexus – it is such a small world. Before then, I was wearing the customer’s hat when I was at Zynga. That collective set gives me a perspective of how our customers may perceive our products. At Unity, I have been directly involved in our Monetization and In-Game Advertising products prior to leading Product Management for the Operate group. 

Abel Mathew, CEO and Co-Founder, Backtrace I/O:  I’m currently co-founder and CEO of Backtrace I/O, a game technology company focused on helping game devs deliver high-quality games through error monitoring and observability. Prior to that, I was a systems software engineer at companies like AMD, IBM, and AppNexus. I really only started getting my hands dirty with game engines like Unity a handful of years ago as we began to see more game studios adopt Backtrace as part of their daily workflow

How Big Is the Mobile Games Segment and Who Do You Work With?

Felix Thé: Mobile is an ever-growing segment for us and generally in the industry. There are a couple of countries leading this initiative, but our focus is less on the concentration of regions or who does it successfully. Rather we allow all creators equal access to tools and resources such that no matter where you are or your size, everyone can be successful in creating game content. You can check out our newly released Game Growth Program for example. 

What Tendencies Have You Noticed This Year, Considering the Pandemic? 

Abel Mathew: I can really only speak to what we are seeing from the game development community. At the start of the pandemic, it’s fair to say that there was a period where studios were figuring out how to become remote-first. Studios figured out how to be productive in this environment relatively quickly and continued working on existing projects. Maybe one surprising thing worth saying is that we’ve heard about far more studios investing in existing titles as opposed to the development of new games.

Felix Thé: There are a lot of people that are flocking to digital experiences including video games due to the state of the world today. We really felt the difference in March 2020, when countries were announcing changes to normalcy globally. Now, it has started to normalize, but what we see is that the newly found love for video games is here to stay for certain people. That’s great news for content creators. That means they have a unique opportunity to attract new players to existing great IPs. It necessitates more focus on not just exploring new tiles but keeping your existing titles relevant and fresh.

Another trend we are seeing is that players are more open to a slightly longer core game loop. Hyper casual, for example, is typically consumed when people are extremely mobile, say riding public transportation, and only have a minute to spare. Since people are no longer commuting at large, most of the digital experiences are consumed at the comfort of your home with fewer disruptions. 

What Solutions Do You Offer to Developers?

Abel Mathew: Backtrace as a company is focused on providing game developers, across all platforms, with the ability to capture, understand, and act on the observability data their games generate across the game dev lifecycle. 

Today, Backtrace focuses on the crashes, exceptions, and errors generated by your game. For example, how do you capture crashes and exceptions from your mobile game? How do you ensure that you have enough context to resolve the issue without having to reproduce the issue? What if the crash is in a native component of your game and you require the capture of app memory or custom attributes? How do you quickly identify the patterns and trends in your error data so that you prioritize according to impact? 

These are all use cases that mobile, PC, and console game developers use Backtrace for. We enable these use cases by providing detailed crash reports with enough context to reduce the need to reproduce, the means to perform custom analytics on error reports to answer the questions that matter to you, and the ability to create augmented and automated workflows with Backtrace so that you can focus on building a great game. A testament to our technology is that 15 of the top 20 gaming companies in the world use Backtrace today.

Felix Thé: One big push we are doing is the Game Growth Program I referenced above. We believe that accessibility to marketing and advertising funds as well as methods will go a long way in helping solo developers in getting equal traction for discovery of their content. We are also tailoring our own advertising solutions to enable access to the mass market: we are building a capability in which you can use the revenue you have earned from in-game advertising to be transferred over and be used to acquire more audiences. We are also optimizing our advertising algorithm to allow solo developers with more finite means to get results quickly and provide ROI at scale.

In addition to that, Audience Pinpointer is one of our unique advertising solutions in obtaining the right users. Audience Pinpointer is meant to create an acquisition environment in which everyone that engages in the act of advertising with Unity will be guaranteed a positive return on investment. 

We do this not by focusing on “high-quality players” but rather ensuring that every player is tied with the right acquisition cost in mind, such that the act of acquisition will be affordable all the time. We believe if CAC < LTV (Cost of Acquisition is less than Lifetime Value of the player), driving users into consuming new experiences can be done sustainably and at scale.

How Is Unity Used in Mobile Game Development?

Felix Thé: Unity is used for both game development and operations of said games. There are a couple of features that are more relevant for mobile game development, you can find them here. For an overview of both Create and Operate, you can check this page.

What Steps of the Development Process Rely On Outsourcing?

Abel Mathew: I think this question leads to two separate ideas around the desire to create games more efficiently. 

The first idea is outsourcing of steps and/or stages, which I believe is where your question is coming from. One approach to identify this is to look at the companies that exist in the space. It’s clear playtesting is a HUGE outsourcing industry in the gaming world. Some of these same playtesting companies also offer development studios to port games over to other platforms, or to help studios “get across the finish line.” This aligns with the ways we’ve seen game studios outsource steps/stages of the development process. 

The second idea when you think about outsourcing is really about leveraging technology and infrastructure to reduce your own development needs. This is where companies like Unity and Backtrace come in. The most obvious example here is the game engine but Unity also offers things like Multiplay for game server hosting and monetization solutions like Unity ads. Another way to think about Backtrace is to think of us as crash and error reporting infrastructure for your game. This form of outsourcing is pervasive in the gaming industry, and rightfully so. Which game developer wants to create crash and error reporting infrastructure? Not many because it’s not how their game differentiates itself to their core audience. That said, sufficiently useful crash and error reporting is crucial to shipping a successful game. Otherwise, you risk losing early adopters, and potentially loyal gamers, to unstable gameplay.

Felix Thé: Adding to this, we’ve found that roughly 88% of QA expenses are developer labor vs. outsourced QA management and modification of apps. With more than 75% of developers working for small or indie studios, they often don’t have the capital resource to outsource this work, let alone do it in-house. Thereby, QA can often fall by the wayside. What we offer developers in partnership with Backtrace is the ability to have the power in the hands of developer teams of all sizes and UA budgets, to ensure they can improve app store discoverability, just by having addressed game performance before the game hits the app store. The better the game performs, the better ratings it historically gets, allowing it to inch its way up the charts. 

What Advice Would You Give to Game Developers Looking for Success?

Abel Mathew: First, and this may sound cliche, but develop towards your passion. I’m a big gamer and the games I often get addicted to were clearly developed by a passionate group willing to go the extra mile. It’s the small details like fluid game mechanics and unique game art that make me stay. I think it’s also fair to say that, no matter how big the budget, passion and dedication are two elements at the core of successful game development teams.

Additionally, I’m encouraged by the string of games that have come out in recent years that leverage early access. I think this is one of the most powerful ways you can tap into a passionate and resilient group of gamers,  get meaningful feedback from your audience, and iterate on game ideas more quickly. I’m a big fan and advocate of early access for games. Just look at some of the biggest small/indie hits this past year and you’ll see how early access played a huge part in their success. 

Finally, I’d encourage folks to engage in the game development community through forums, chat, and events. You’ll be surprised at the people that are willing to help and your efforts to help others will pay off in the future. It’s also incredibly important to embrace the exchange of ideas for the betterment of the gaming community. Along those lines, Backtrace is hosting a free, two-day virtual gathering of game developers on February 24-25. The event will feature thought leaders from top game studios and tool vendors sharing best practices and personal anecdotes in debugging, performance, QA, and testing. To join us, register here.

Felix Thé: As a consumer of video games myself when I was growing up, I did not think about the success of my most favorite games tied to their blockbuster status. For me, it is not just the fun and dopamine I get when playing the game, but also every single element that makes it worthwhile like narrative storytelling, immersive artwork, and sound. 

Simply put – I loved the game. I don’t think making a game that people love changed because of Covid or the year 2020. The need to provide more access to a safe, digital form of entertainment as an alternative to many others might. 

So the best advice I would give is to not let Covid prevent us from creating an entertainment experience that our customers love when they need it arguably more than ever. Use technologies available at your fingertips to assist you so you can do more of what only you can do which is creating fun, engaging entertainment experiences free of operational bugs and user frustrations.

Felix Thé, VP of Product Management, Operate Solutions, Unity

Abel Mathew, CEO and Co-Founder, Backtrace I/O

Interview conducted by Ellie Harisova

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