Following the platform’s switch to a subscription model, Unity CEO John Riccitiello discusses balancing triple-A ambitions with accessibility, convincing smaller studios to take on the mobile giants and going beyond its origins as the ‘indie engine’

Unity’s John Riccitiello: ‘There’s no food too good for the indie developer to eat’

At this year’s Unite Europe you described Unity as ‘evolving’. How and why do you feel that the engine is changing?
What’s not evolving is our principles. We really believe we’re here to serve our developers. That’s the most important thing: build something that helps our developers solve their problems.

We do that in many ways; we do that by helping them be more productive when creating their games. We build an engine for that that covers multiple platforms. We help them by giving them tools to create better-looking things because there’s a more competitive market out there. We do it by helping them understand their business: in-app purchases through analytics or advertising. And in helping them generate revenue so they can stay alive.

I think we’re partly evolving because the world’s evolving. If you go back before the iPhone or smartphone, it was maybe 300 million people on the planet that had ever played a game. Now it’s 2.5 billion that play a game every month. In that mass, people have high expectations and we want to make our product, and the products that are created by our developers, live up to those high expectations.

We also change because CPUs and GPUs are getting more powerful, and that means there’s an increasing expectation for higher resolution, multiplayer and social capabilities, and a level of graphic performance that people haven’t really been used to.

You can’t say there’s one answer for this market, but we have to provide technology that supports both types of products, whether people are seeking to make something beautiful or something incredibly simple and easy.

You get more complex to do more complex things, and we try to simplify those more complex things. 

Unity started with a very indie-friendly persona and has subsequently scaled up towards offering a triple-A level of quality and features. Has that caused a perception problem for the engine?
It’s a complicated answer. I have never met a developer who doesn’t aspire to make something beautiful. They may not be making that beautiful thing now, but they’re going to invest years of their lives perfecting their skillset within a technology base. Whether that is Unity or not, that’s up to them, but many of them, five million of them, have perfected their technology skills in and around Unity.

To say we’re getting more triple-A, we are, but with Unity 5 we said the Personal edition is free and has all the power of Unity – we had never done that before. That was designed exclusively for the indie: people with less than $100,000 in revenue. Our userbase exploded.

I don’t think that there’s a food too good for the indie developer to eat – the question is whether we prepare it right.

As we always have, we occasionally slip up: we do something that causes less stability, we put a feature in that causes something to crash, we’ll do something that doesn’t work as well as we would like. That’s actually where the rub happens. There can be a perception: ‘Hey, you put this beautiful thing in here, but you got less stability.’ That’s happened many times in the last ten years, and it will happen again. We are currently, and always will be, focused enormously on stability. 

Do you feel that Unity’s technical ambitions are limited by its dedication to remaining an accessible engine?
If all we did was have a super approachable product that wouldn’t allow you to make a commercial product, we would be a company with 50 people and 200 customers and they would all be very happy with the narrow product we produce. But our customers want VR and AR, they want mobile, they want PC, they want console. There’s tens of thousands of companies that focus exclusively on AR and VR. So no, I don’t think that’s a conflict or that it holds us back – it just challenges us to do more.

I don’t believe Unity has got more difficult to use, but some systems that you don’t have to use, like global illumination or PBR, are harder to use than systems that they replace. But our customers really want them.

We’re always looking at ways to make those things simpler, more stable and more effective, but I don’t think we’ve got more complex in general. What does happen is you get more complex to do more complex things, and we try to simplify those more complex things. 

Unity led the way with a free-to-play model in Personal edition. A lot of people are copying that. That’s flattering; we’re doing the right thing.

You said at Unite that smaller mobile developers should invest in advertising rather than analytics and user acquisition as their larger competitors do.
The people at the top of the charts are playing a very sophisticated game. Table stakes is making a great game that appeals to a lot of people, but the reason they’re at the top of the charts is they’re also playing a second game very effectively; they’re arbitrating the delta between lifetime value and user acquisition spend.

The first thing they do is tune their products to optimise revenue – that’s a combination of advertising and usually in-app purchases. They’re doing that really well, tweaking their day-to-day, month-to-month engagement levels and minute-to-minute monetisation numbers up, so they have more money to work with.

Then they’re doing some very tuned communication where they’re spending money to acquire users. If for a similar product they can generate $2 more lifetime value, then they can spend $2 more on user acquisition than anyone else in a world where acquisition of users is somewhat limited. The guys at the top of the charts are there because they have that formula down to perfection.

In games, a lot of the old-timers that have been at this for 10 or 15 years who cut their teeth on premium games think advertising cheapens the experience. The data shows the consumer doesn’t think that. The data is clear, but there are developers who don’t believe it. If they don’t think that, and they don’t try advertising, they’re turning away an important revenue stream. 

If these same developers that are so good at optimising revenue per user and lifetime value choose not to invest in bringing that revenue in on the ad side, they’re going to have less revenue than someone that makes a product just as good as them. Ultimately that will cause them to lose their position at the top of the charts. 

We’re seen Unreal and CryEngine move their business models closer to that of Unity, introducing payment models suited to smaller budgets. Unity, meanwhile, has brought in new subscription tiers. Is there a danger of the engines converging?
I don’t know. If you add up CryEngine and Unreal, we probably have ten times more customers. I don’t know if we’re converging. We do a lot of things well and they do certain things well and we don’t wish them ill.

Unity led the way with a free-to-play model in Personal edition. A lot of people are copying that. That’s flattering; we’re doing the right thing.

When you announced the Unity certification programme at GDC, we heard from a number of creators who perceived it as a form of tax on Unity developers. How would you respond to this criticism?
The vast majority of developers are independent developers. What increasingly happens is that there’s no standard out there for figuring out if you’re good or bad.

This is a simple certification programme; it’s designed to help people have a credential that says they’re capable and they’ve been tested.

If you don’t want to do it, we’re not forcing anybody to do that. In fact, we give away our technology inside of universities and high schools to give more people the opportunity to create.

I hear most complaints, I haven’t heard anything on this one. I guess it’s a unique point of view, if it was a big issue I would’ve heard more about it.

This interview is from our September issue, and part of our Engines Special.

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