The entire market for game engines has started to look an awful lot like Unity Technologies. Companies like Epic and Crytek have pushed for more diverse platforms, more open pricing models, and more accessibility for smaller teams, but always two steps behind the pace-setter, behind Unity. Indeed, one gets the feeling that every major player in the market would rattle on about "democratising game development" if David Helgason, Joachim Ante and Nicholas Francis hadn't adopted it as their mantra a decade ago.
However, Unity's own trajectory shouldn't be ignored, either. The iconoclastic company has been open about its desire to support AAA game development for a long time, using the stage at its annual Unite conference to showcase the increasingly impressive results of its labour. Ultimately, it seemed there was a danger of the big engine companies were heading towards the same ill-defined middle ground, shedding their distinctive qualities in the process.
"It's interesting that a company like Valve, which makes its own engine, is showing demos for VR, and all but one is built with Unity"
David Helgason, who stepped down from his role as CEO of Unity in October last year, was generally evasive when it came to questions about the competition. John Riccitiello, the former CEO of EA and Helgason's successor, is a little more game.
"We're putting more energy and more engineering into this business than any [competing] company by a wide margin," he says when we meet following his first ever Unite keynote. "So I actually think the advantage we have expands over time. I don't see any meeting in the middle, because that's not the vector we're on.
"Engines are growing as a percentage of the total industry, the total industry is growing, and Unity is gaining share. We have a triple wind at our back, if you will. We're not losing customers, and if they're winning any customers at all it must be people who are new to game engines, because they're not coming from Unity's core base."
Regardless of how much Unity's network of tools and services has improved, that progress has been underpinned by the adherence to a handful of core values. "Speed, the ability to iterate quickly, and to save money," Riccitiello tells me, pointing to Glu Mobile as a good example of the sort of company with which Unity has been typically associated. A less typical example is Colossal Order, the Finnish developer behind the breakout hit Cities: Skylines, whose CEO, Mariina Hallikainen, shared the stage with Riccitiello only a few hours before.
"Look at what Mariina was talking about with the development of Cities: Skylines," he says. "Two programmers. Two programmers and eight team-mates. I know of another city-building game that, starting from scratch, employed nearly 100 engineers for three years. I mean, yes, perhaps there's a little more to that other game, but not 50 times more. Colossal Order got a lot out of very little. It's inspiring."
”The VR we had in the Nineties is as close to the VR we had in the Nineties as the Flintstones car is to a Tesla"
And yet while Colossal Order may be attracted to the very same qualities as the company's first customers, Cities: Skylines still represents change. Unity's engine would not have been able to support that fidelity and scope as recently as a few years ago. Today, it can help a development team of ten people to create a product that rivals - and some would say surpasses - EA's SimCity. At the start of his keynote address, Riccitiello emphasised that Unity's users no longer need to identify as separate from the world of AAA games. With version 5.0 of the toolset, the resources are already there to realise that ambition, and Riccitiello insists that there is much more to come.
"What we're doing now with heavy investments in rendering and graphics and VR - areas that one might have associated more with other engines - I think that's going to take most of the air out of the room," he says, looping back to the various companies generally considered to be Unity's rivals. "We're not just doing that to take the air out of the room, but it will help our developers get where they want to be."
Evidently, Unity's developers want to be working with virtual reality, at once a brave new creative frontier and as blue an ocean as the games industry has to offer. Virtual reality - and to a lesser extent augmented reality - has been a major point of discussion at this year's conferences and trade shows. Unite Europe is no exception to that trend, and with good reason: in VR, the company clearly sees a major opportunity to dominate a potentially vast new market, stealing a march on companies that, even three years ago, would have seemed a more natural fit for the demands of the hardware.
In the keynote, Riccitiello claimed that Unity already has, "the best system for creating content for VR." In the interview that follows, he makes the even bolder claim that it is already the dominant player.
"We have the highest market share [in VR] right now, so we're already there," he says. "It's interesting that a company like Valve, which makes its own engine, is showing demos for VR, and all but one is built with Unity."
"We have recognised a break in the road relative to what's now possible, and we don't know where that's going to lead"
Given that the consumer VR market scarcely exists yet, Unity's position relative to the pack is less relevant. However, it's easy to recognise how core values like rapid iteration and lower costs will find favour among developers attempting to solve some of the toughest design problems since they first encountered a touchscreen. Failing fast and failing cheap will be vital if VR is to become a sustainable new market for gaming, and it's safe to assume that the industry's biggest companies will be hesitant to take that risk. Between Unity's technology and its one million monthly-active developers, however, VR might already have the generously supplied software pipeline it will inevitably need.
The VR headsets preparing to launch over the next year are, Riccitiello says, "as close to the VR we had in the Nineties as the Flintstones car is to a Tesla." But this hasn't stopped a clutch of veteran game developers from using E3 as a podium to speak out against its likelihood of success. Riccitiello mentions nobody by name - and certainly not Warren Spector, who was less than encouraging about VR on this very website - but it's clear that this backlash-in-earnest has touched a nerve.
"In the last 48 hours I've seen a lot of sour grapes interviews coming out of E3," Riccitiello says, with entirely credible frustration. "Notable industry luminaries have come out and said VR is no fun, or VR's not going to be interesting. I tend to think it's sad when all people can think is whether it would be fun to play Call of Duty in VR. I mean, for God's sake, too many people are still answering the wrong question.
"Each successive generation of technology has yielded different kinds of experience, and the games have fundamentally changed. VR and AR are going to deliver fundamentally different experiences. They also try to make the analogy to 3D TV - it's a bad analogy. 3D TV wasn't really that different. VR is really different, and AR is really different from VR. We don't know what's going to come out of this. We have recognised a break in the road relative to what's now possible, and we don't know where that's going to lead yet."
"What's that software experience going to be? I don't know, but I do know that, in ten years, we'll be doing this interview by hologram"
If Riccitiello has any doubt about the commercial future of VR, it certainly doesn't show. There are now too many people working too hard for the answers to remain elusive for long. In the near term, meaning headsets like the Oculus Rift and Sony Morpheus, he doesn't expect VR to build a "meaningful" audience outside of the games industry, let alone the consumer games market. On that count, he admits, the cynics might deserve just a little credit.
On every other potentially fatal problem, though, from hardware specs to motion sickness, it will simply be a matter of time.
"Right now, if you really want 90 frames a second and to do all of the things that are possible you're going to need a new PC. But I think that's okay for now," he says. "It's actually going to give some new life to the PC makers who we thought were long-lost and dead. Moore's law has continued apace, but there hasn't been a good reason for the consumer to care for a while.
"Well, VR is a reason to care, and it's going to yield this staggering orgasm of the new. I think the PC makers and the VR companies can rise to the occasion, but nobody ever buys hardware, really. What they buy is a conveyance for software.
"What's that software experience going to be? I don't know. What I do know is that, in ten years, we'll be doing this interview by hologram."