The chaos of democracy - MCV

The chaos of democracy

Catching up with Unity CEO John Riccitiello, co-founder Nicholas Francis and former creative director Charles Hinshaw, Develop discusses the merits of making game engines and tools available to all and the potential problems it causes
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The democratisation of games development rumbles on, but is the industry prepared for the flood of new creators that the technology firms crave?

Speaking at Unite Europe in Amsterdam last month, Unity CEO John Riccitiello once again reiterated the company’s dedication to this democratisation. It’s a sentiment that has been adopted by major rival and Unreal Engine creator Epic Games, as well as more specialist firms such as PlayFab, which have both made their products available for free over the last few months. 

The ever-diminishing barriers to entry means that anyone can make a game. The downside, some argue, is that anyone can make a game.

“I don’t see any downside to that,” Riccitiello told Develop. “If I had my way, I’d like to see 50 million people using Unity – although I don’t think we’re going to get there any time soon. I’d like to see high school and college kids using it, people outside the core industry. I think it’s sad that most people are consumers of technology and not creators. The world’s a better place when people know how to create, not just consume,
and that’s what we’re trying to promote. 

“Anyone can be a creator. It’s not a velvet rope with a bouncer, which is the way it seems to most people – it seems intimidating. We’re trying to reduce that barrier and increase the power and give you the possibility of dreaming. I don’t know what the future holds, but there’s not going to be self-designing games any time soon. The point is, I’d like to see more people create.” 

OPENING THE FLOODGATES

It’s a wonderful dream, but the plethora of clones, copycats and uninspired titles on the market – particularly on mobile – would suggest that the ‘world of creators’ Riccitiello often referenced in his Unite keynote won’t be the utopia he hopes for.

It’s something that the Unity team has been aware of since the very beginning, although co-founder Nicholas Francis says this never dissuaded them from pursuing their goals. 

“Before we did Unity, I was an indie filmmaker and when the Final Cut editor became available, suddenly there was a floodgate opening, allowing more people to do new things in that space,” he says. “I very much wanted to enable that creativity in games.

“Most indie films – including the ones I made – are junk, but that’s fine. I guess something just happened once the App Store came in where suddenly you could make a tonne of money. There were some unfortunate feedback mechanisms that I don’t think anyone saw coming.”

If I had my way, I’d like to see 50 million people using Unity. The world’s a better place when people know how to create, not just consume.

John Riccitiello, Unity

Charles Hinshaw, former Unity creative director and fellow co-founder at Francis’ new studio Framebunker, agrees – adding that the “gold rush mentality” is the best example of democratisation’s “ugly side”.

“Democracy is chaotic thing,” he said. “I don’t want to minimise the possibilities it offers – it’s a great win for everyone, especially when there are mechanisms to find signal in all the noise that it has created.”

Francis adds: “It becomes messy, and it always takes a while for someone to figure out how to clean up this mess and find a good path through the jungle.

“But I would rather have a jungle with no part than a desert, which is what we had before. I’d rather have diversity, and the mess that results from it.” 

QUALITY BEATS QUANTITY

Video games is not the only market to suffer from this flood of content, of course. The world of literature has been forever changed by the eBook and online services like CreateSpace, which allow anyone to have their title available on Amazon within less than a day’s work.

But Riccitiello says the presence of so much sub-par content doesn’t necessarily damage the quality products that are out there.

“Think of it this way: there’s millions of people creating content for YouTube, and not all of it’s good,” he said. “There’s billions of people taking photos on their smartphones, and yet the world of photography is still a vibrant sector where people can make careers.

“The better content that has commercial potential is always going to find a market.”

Francis agreed, adding: “If there’s tonnes of crap out there and no one’s buying it, then it’s not doing much harm. It’s taking up space on a server somewhere – so what?”

However, Hinshaw warns that reams of poor quality titles might get in the way of people finding “the real gems”, content that could be transformative in some way for them.

The responsibility, it seems, then passes to the app stores and marketplaces to help guide users to the better quality content. Apple, certainly, has gone to great lengths to improve on this, revamping its App Store in the last few months to focus on editorially curated recommendations and lists, rather than algorithms that developers have found
ways around.

Hinshaw argues that not only is it everyone’s responsibility to improve disoverability, but the industry is already well on its way to doing so.

“The press are helping every time they cover a game, because they’re only writing about the games that are good,” he says. “We as developers are doing our part to stop the flood by making something that isn’t crap. A player does something to stop it every time they tell a friend they played something cool. When there’s a lot of noise, it becomes about amplifying the signal and everyone plays a part in that.” 

If there’s tonnes of crap out there and no one’s buying it, then it’s not doing much harm. It’s taking up space on a server somewhere – so what?

Nicholas Francis, Framebunker

GAMES DEV FOR ALL

Is a flooded market a small price to pay for the democracy Unity so proudly inspired? Both Francis and Riccitiello maintain that it is, with the former pointing out that a market that allows devs to release games so easily also enables them to learn from any mistakes they make.

“Sometimes something you thought was noise becomes something better if the developer keeps toiling away at it – maybe there was a good idea there to begin with,” said Francis. “You don’t want to deny developers the chance to get things like that started.”

Riccitiello, meanwhile, keeps his attention focused on the ‘world of creators’ he so determinedly wants to build during his tenure at Unity.

“We’re trying to make things better so more creators can find a market,” he said.

“Frankly I hope every high school kid in the world makes a game before they graduate in the next five years. Because in doing that, they’ll find out something about themselves. They’ll find out that they don’t have to look at their
television with a quizzical expression wondering how it works. And I just think that’s a better place to be.

“That doesn’t mean that all of them are going to find a commercial market,” he adds.

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