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"I think a lot of people were expecting me to charge everybody"

John Riccitiello's vision for the future of Unity

Transitioning between CEOs is always tough. New people at the top bring new priorities, new experience, new expectations - and before they've settled into the cosy chair behind the nice desk, they'll be second guessed for pretty much every move that they're going to make.

When your company has grown as fast as Unity, and the man on the way out is a co-founder famed for his personable, relatively non-corporate style, the weight of that attention is going to be heavier. When the firm's reputation and success has been based around community, democratisation and accessibility, it's very easy to be perceived as the cut-throat heavyweight looking to bring up the bottom line, whatever the cost.

For John Riccitiello, the pressure is nothing new. Having held some of the biggest jobs in the industry, he can take a few knocks. He's also pragmatic enough to know that, despite being very much on the record about his feelings for those who are willing to sacrifice everything for profit, not everyone was hugely optimistic about Unity's direction when it was announced that he was graduating from investing board member to CEO. So was he really just brought in to corporatise?

"I think a lot of people were expecting me to charge everybody and get rid of the free access, that kind of stuff"

"I think a lot of people were expecting me to charge everybody and get rid of the free access, that kind of stuff," he explains. "I'm a giant believer in the company and where it was and what it's achieved and that it needs to continue on that mission. I guess I'm cognisant of the fact that Unity had achieved a massive amount before I ever showed up, and so a lot has been achieved in the independent development community."

We're talking on the afternoon of the first day of Unite Boston, a three day event dedicated to the engine. The presentations here are technical, instructive, dense. This is a conference for developers, not press and I'm aware of the fact that Riccitiello would probably rather be doing something other than spending the afternoon with a procession of journalists. In fact, over the course of the rest of the conference I see him roaming the halls a few times, smiling as he plays a demo on a Samsung Galaxy VR HMD in the middle of a drinks mixer, watching over the shoulder of his CTO Joachim Ante as he plays some of the games in the Unity showcase hall. I've no doubt that there are plenty of meetings lined up for him this week, but it feels like he wants to get back to the developers outside, not the board room.

Cover image for YouTube video

"If you paid attention to the presentation (see above), one of the things I said was that a year ago we were talking about democratisation," he continues. "What we did at GDC this year, what I think most people were gasping about, was that we took Unity 5 - not a de-featured version of Unity - and made it free for indies that can't afford to pay for it. That's sort of unprecedented by us or anyone in the industry. I would say at one level it's the Unity that you would have hoped for if you knew nothing about us before March of this year, other than that you had a new CEO come in and you'd asked: 'what are they going to do?'"

One of the things I've mentioned in my pre-amble is the potential for Unity to expand towards catering for the AAA developer, to push forward into the high-end rendering space which has previously been the domain of Unreal and CryEngine. With a huge base of indie support in place, does Riccitiello see the sense in opening up that front as well?

"The Unity that you saw today, it's probably day one of Unity 2.0. It's really about content development through its discovery and monetisation cycle"

"The second thing we talked about today is that we're like the Unity you knew before, but a lot more ambitious," he explains. "What things are different? Some of the things you mentioned. We've hired a couple of hundred engineers this year and a lot of them have experience with extreme high-end graphics and physics and lighting and systems and the performance around that. When we say we're going to solve hard problems...there's a lot of hard problems that Unity hasn't solved before. We're intent on solving those problems in part because those problems are going to be even more manifest when we get to the VR and AR as we are now.

"My view is Unity probably captures 90 per cent of the industry revenue - or whatever it happens to be, but we have a large share. We consequently are able to afford the largest engineering contingent. Our challenge isn't so much making a hard-to-use tool that does high-end graphics - there's more than enough of those around. Our ambition is to make an easy-to-use tool with those high-end graphics and higher and higher and higher end over time in addition to fleshing out the 2D space and all those specific tools. You know you'll start to see things in future versions of Unite when we start showing how you create things like VR and AR from within the environment of VR and AR because that's the only intuitive way to do it."

VR and AR are very much a part of the landscape at the show, and feature heavily in the plans of many of the developers I speak to over the course of the week, but much of what the company has revealed about the future of Unity is more immediate. Head-mounted displays are the shiny new toys exciting almost everybody at the moment, but Riccitiello is keen to point out that they're addressing other concerns too, particularly when it comes to monetising the games made in the engine.

"You saw the power of John Cheng showing up to talk about the heat map and how you can tune your game and we've also put up some pretty staggering numbers for our ad network. We poured a lot of resources into that because we recognise that two-thirds of the development community is losing money. So we look at that problem and say it's a hard problem that needs solving. It fits with the ethos of the company. At the same time it's a skill-set that nobody inside Unity had any experience with, so I've hired a lot of people that know how to solve that particular problem and we're in the process of solving it at scale. Because what's the point of having a lot of beautiful bankrupt games that can't find an audience?

"The Unity that you saw today, it's probably day one of Unity 2.0. It's really about content development through its discovery and monetisation cycle. That's a much different, richer company than we were before, but it's built on a fabulous foundation of a decade of building up a community and building up a product that really delivers for people. What's been nice is that every time we add one of these things we had another 100,000 users. So it turns out that the things we're building are apparently desired by the development community. And of course the other thing that's pretty evident is we didn't go from 600 million installs last year to 1.2 billion installs this year exclusively by increasing the number of developers. We did it because the developers are getting more installs, which is part of what we're facilitating."

Even if Unity's more recent growth has been down to games rather than licences, some still see it as problematic. At this year's GDC veteran indie developer Cliff Harris let loose in a rant session over the ubiquity of the engine, and the fact that its very accessibility is creating a flood of new titles, contributing heavily to what many see as the biggest problem facing developers today: discoverability. With the company tacitly acknowledging that it can do more to showcase the best through its Made With Unity program, does Riccitiello feel that it should also be doing its bit as a gatekeeper further up the line of production?

"In the era of the Romans only the noblemen were taught to read," he says, flatly. "Personally I think that was a bad idea. I don't picture a world where only the elite read and only the elite know how to create technology and only the elite understand how the world works. Most dystopian views of the world start with that as a premise and end up in 1984.

Key to Unity's success is diversity of output, but will it be enough to avoid the problems of ubiquity and curation?

"I can understand why one who considers themselves elite might want to pull up the drawbridge or yank up the ladder and say, 'No more, I'm here and it's mine.' I mean, there's some frankly pretty sharply evil veins in the nature of the games industry where people - Gamergatey - sort of want to pull up the drawbridge and say women aren't allowed, or people who have different sexual preferences are not allowed, or people who have different orientations to life are not allowed. I understand the fear that comes from democratisation but there's been no greater notion on this planet since our species has been created than the idea that opportunity is afforded to those that have the mind to apply to it. Not to have the tools in the hands of people seems nuts.

"One of the nice things about Unity is that Unity stands with those that want to put themselves in harm's way of creation. That's a hard thing. If you go back and look there's a great Teddy Roosevelt quote about those that put themselves in the ring of being evaluated, that try to do things, and the rest of the world stands as critics, and he sides with the creator, he sides with the leader. I believe it's part of our job to make that possible for more people. And the reason we've been so expansive in our principles to incorporate not just democratisation but also solving hard problems and then ultimately enabling success is because at a certain point we do create nothing more than frustration if all we do is allow you to create a game that can't be discovered and monetised. We want to be able to finish the loop."

"In the era of the Romans only the noblemen were taught to read. Personally I think that was a bad idea."

The Made With Unity initiative is a definite move towards curation then, and Riccitiello is well aware of the issues that come with that, but he's also keen to point out that this isn't just 'Steam for Unity'.

"It couldn't be anything further from that. Unfortunately that's the cynical view that I expect most people to get to because they haven't really thought about it. Steam takes 30 per cent, they own the customer and they don't even tell developers where the user is. What we're talking about is actually quite different. We're creating a site that is still going to monetise because it's an Apple app, through the App Store - we're not going to take a rev share. It'll monetise through Google Play. We're not going to get a rev share on that. It'll bounce to your individual website, you still have hegemony over you user.

"We're actually doing this for the purpose we set out. The fact that someone can read into it and say, 'Oh there's some other agenda,' it's just not what we're doing. We have plans to do more and more and more, and the story won't ever be as simple as we'd like it be, but if what we were trying to do was that we'd be competing with Apple and Google and how long would that last? How long would we be able to sustain that?

"I don't really see somebody trying to mimic what we're trying to do. Maybe they will, but you kind of have to build the street cred in the development community before any of these other things make sense"

"We support Apple and Google on behalf of developers and we're trying to find a way to get them installs that Apple and Google don't give them. We think we can. Unfortunately the world is so full of false advertising that people get to that conclusion. It's just not what we're doing."

So with an ad network, a metrics engine and a quasi-storefront all on the portfolio, Unity has expanded well beyond the original vision of the accessible graphics engine originally envisaged by Helgason and his two co-founders. It's taking on some of the biggest and the best established teams in the business on home turf, opening new fronts across the industry - a risky strategy that could well be indicative of a little over-confidence. If Riccitiello is nervous about that, he's not showing it, and he's bullish when I ask him whether he sees anyone else attempting the same ambitiously holistic approach.

"I see we compete with different people for different pieces of the pie, not anybody that's trying to do the whole thing. The other thing is that when you've got 180 customers it's kind of pointless to put an ad network together or analytics together...But it might be an awesome solution, for example, for making a high end PC game that does stereoscopic 3D. Crytek does that really well.

"So no I don't really see somebody trying to mimic what we're trying to do. Maybe they will, but you kind of have to build the street cred in the development community before any of these other things make sense."

"GamesIndustry.biz attended Unite Boston as a guest of the organiser. As a part of that arrangement, travel and accommodation costs for attendance were covered by the show organisers."

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Dan Pearson