In the press, we call this "a megaton." The sort of story that breaks just a handful of times a year, one that grabs the attention and prompts immediate discussion.
Over the past decade, Unity Technologies has grown from a Danish startup with the high-minded goal of democratising development, to one of the most influential companies in the ever-changing landscape of the games industry. Through it all, David Helgason has been the company's public face, and while he might continue serve that purpose, he won't continue to be its CEO.
That responsibility now rests on the shoulders of John Riccitiello, someone best known for his time at the head of EA, the kind of monolithic company that Unity was founded to oppose. In this interview, Helgason talks about why Riccitiello is the best possible fit for the role, and offers some reassurance that his own time at Unity is far from over.
Q: The first question really has to be, Why? We've talked in the past about the way Unity has grown, and how quickly that's happened. Is this an acknowledgement that the company now needs someone with more experience and different skills to move forward?
DH:Yes, in a way. We've grown dramatically since I became the third founder of the company 12 years ago. We're not quite 500 people now, but we're very close.
Q: That number has gone up sharply just about every time I've talked to you.
"'What if John just tries to change everything?' All I can say is that there would be 499 people inside Unity who would disagree with him"
And I've always been someone who's spent a lot of time in the company, talking to the teams and so on. One of my tasks, one of my passions, has always been to actually be out there, listening to the community, listening to our customers, listening to hardware companies and software companies, trying to understand what Unity's position is in this world and how can it make the whole of the industry better. As we grew, I had less and less time for that.
I met John about 18 months ago. We started spending time together during that following half-year, and we really got to like each other a lot. We realised at some point that Unity was good at making tools to help people make games, and we'd even been pretty innovative on stuff like the Asset Store. But we started realising that we could and should help developers with more aspects of the business, namely this broad concept of how to find and connect with an audience.
So we knew this, but the thing is I don't have experience in publishing. I've been around a lot of developers so I have a fairly good grounding in it, but meeting John, who had been through all aspects of it. I mean, EA is famous for some of these AAA titles, but they also had Pogo, they had mobile publishing…
Q: That's one of things that occurred to me. Obviously, Unity and EA are very different companies.
DH:Oh totally [laughs]. On purpose.
Q: Absolutely, but when I last talked to you it became clear just how many facets there are to what Unity does now. There's advertising, publishing, metrics, and it's expanding all the time. Unity isn't like EA exactly, but it's nearly as diverse as that kind of organisation. It's not just about an engine any more.
DH:Maybe in some ways, yeah. And because of those conversations and because of his knowledge - and his energy, frankly - I convinced him to join the board in November last year. He brought this deep understanding of the challenges facing both game developers and publishers, and besides EA, which he's most famous for, he's also advised a lot of smaller companies, served on boards around the games industry, and just generally been somebody who's connected to a lot of things - many more things than he's famous for.
"He's somebody who's connected to many more things than he's famous for. He brought a lot of knowledge that I just didn't have"
He brought a lot of knowledge that I just didn't have. And besides being on the board and hearing me out quarterly - which is what board members often do - he would also spend one or two days with me every week, analysing the company, analysing the space. He helped us pick the companies that we then convinced to join us through acquisitions, and he was very close to developing the strategy with me and the executive team.
At some point he knew the company so well that me and the board and the other founders agreed that he should be CEO, and I could then focus on the stuff that I really enjoy.
Q: So there is a personal dimension to this, then? I've been to the Unite conference a few times, and you do seem very at ease talking with your community. Balancing that against the needs of the whole company must have become quite difficult.
DH:Yeah. We've got 18 offices now. It's really complex. I've been blessed with a lot of passion for what we do and a great team, but there's just a whole bunch of aspects that I enjoy less. I think I've done a pretty good job of many of them. I don't think I've failed in any particular ways, but I can see it's getting even more complex and somebody like John… If you don't know him it's hard to explain, but he's just an incredibly experienced executive. He's famous for being CEO of EA, but he was also COO of EA when it grew from, like, 500 to several thousand people. He's been a venture capitalist, he's even started tech companies.
Q: I don't think most people realise that John's been on the board at Unity for a year, so when they see the news it reads as, 'Old boss of EA is the new boss of Unity.' It's easier to digest that way, but it sounds like a much more fluid and organic process.
DH:Exactly. He's spent a lot of time with us and worked on some real stuff with us. We only decided very recently, but in a way it's been a long time coming.
Q: How do you expect the community to react to this? John has done much more than just EA in his career, but the fact is that most people will know him for that above all else. To some, he represents a part of the industry that Unity grew up, if not in opposition to, than at the very least separate from. Unity has really been about transferring power away from companies like EA.
"It's now my personal goal that people will remember him as the CEO of Unity rather than the ex-CEO of some big publisher"
DH:I've just been chatting with people on Twitter, but I'd say there seems to be two camps. There's people who generally like Unity and trust me and the team, and/or know how great John is. They're either accepting that it'll be more of the same, or excited that we have more firepower to do our stuff.
And then there are people who remember a game that crashed during his tenure. Or, and this is more serious, they had a friend that got fired during the massive layoffs that EA had to go through. That's not fun.
Q: No, definitely not, though I do find it surprising that such a personal association would colour somebody's view of in that way.
DH:Especially of someone who was brought in to save the company from bankruptcy and turn it around. And who, as far as anyone can see, did just that. But there are people who only know that side, and are worried about him or afraid of him or think he's bad news. And I think that's incredibly unfair. I said on Twitter that it's now my personal goal that people will remember him as the CEO of Unity rather than the ex-CEO of some big publisher.
That's really all there is to say. Yes, there are people who are upset about it. I think they're wrong. And I can say that because I know him and I have a really great working relationship with him. If people like what I did at Unity, they should feel pretty good about this next step.
Q: People will focus on the financial reports at the end of John's tenure, but I've been working in the games press for long enough to remember what EA was like before he was CEO, and the positive changes that happened while he was there. He moved the focus back towards quality and new IP, he brought digital into the picture.
DH:I'm glad that there's a journalist who still remembers this stuff. He did a great job there.
"Yes, there are people who are upset about it. I think they're wrong. And I can say that because I have a great working relationship with him"
Actually, the last thing that people ask about is whether there's anything nasty going on. And to that I can only say that I'm still here, and the press release doesn't say anything about 'spending time with family' [laughs] - I think that's the code phrase for being pushed out, right?
Q: I'd say that's generally the case, yeah. What does John's AAA experience bring to Unity? Some of the biggest changes in the engine over the last few years have been around making the final product more sophisticated, more in line with the sort of games that AAA studios make. Your audience is still largely smaller developers, but could John's experience and contacts help you push further into that world?
DH:Well, John is as excited about Unity 5 as anyone, and that's getting very close now. He's a big fan of advanced technology in general. He oversaw a lot of investment in DICE and its tech and the Battlefield series. He's not an engine-maker, but he has a passion for high quality and pretty pixels.
Q: We posted the story about the appointment yesterday, and it didn't take long before it was suggested that John's being brought in to groom Unity for an IPO. He would be a sensible choice if it were.
DH:There's no plans like that right now. Being an independent company for a long time, and being a company that can do its own thing and set its own agenda, that's something we all want. It's what we've wanted ever since we realised that we were actually building a company and not just a cult [laughs].
I'm not being cagey for any reason. Some companies that stay independent for a long time eventually IPO, and some don't. For us, there's no plan beyond just being an awesome company and supporting our customers as well as we can.
Q: That assumption may stem from there being a lot of developers that really wouldn't want to see that happen. Very few companies identify so closely with their users, and let that be the guiding force behind the big decisions.
DH:Well, we all want that. Somebody asked me, 'What if John just tries to change everything?' All I can say is that there would be 499 people inside Unity who would disagree with him a lot.