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During Unite Europe 2015, 80.lv’s correspondent had a chance to speak with John Riccitiello (JR). John is one of the most prominent figures of the game industry. He founded Elevation Partners, is the former CEO of Electronic Arts, and is now CEO of Unity. Kirill Tokarev learned a lot from what JR had to say and even more from what he preferred to leave unmentioned.
Hello, My Name is JR
This was the kind of start I was expecting from him, but life likes to throw in some surprises and so does JR. Sitting in the room with him was sort of like a religious experience. Composed, a little tired, and with a laptop running some top secret things, you wouldn’t expect him to notice you at all… and that’s where you’re wrong. In the corner of the table there was a little piece of paper with a complete profile of every reporter.
John Riccitiello has a certain presence. When you enter the room with him, you can’t help but feel it. In a way, it’s like meeting your college professor who’s about to trash your thesis. So I would say it is a little bit intimidating. I mean, being expected to answer the same types of questions over and over from a hundred journalists can have a certain effect on a person. Talking with such a big corporate visionary requires you to work out a vision of your own. I started off with asking him about how the company has changed ever since he became CEO. My question completely hit a stone wall.
“I’ve been in the job for about 7 months. I get this question from everybody so why don’t you tell me how it has changed? You were at the keynote”.
It has changed a lot. It’s turning into global company. It’s not just about offices around the world, or powerful research centers, or hundreds of PR representatives everywhere working 24/7 to make Unity work like never before. It just feels different. It feels big, massive, and hungry for more.
Unite Europe 2015 was a great place to go and see this change. It’s an obvious evolution with hundreds of people working on games and making their way with games.
JR listened carefully to what I had to say, and after a few more sentences JR stopped me and said:
I think you have a pretty good summary, so let me frame it for you another way.
The foundation of the company has always been to serve developers. We do that with some pretty thought through principles and we used to always talk about two. One is solving hard technical problems so the developer doesn’t have to. The second one is democratization. To that we’ve added a third, which is enabling their business success. So we now have these three principles and they really say the same thing. We’re trying to help developers build successful businesses, build beautiful games, reach more audiences.
What we are here for, what changed while I’ve been in the company (it probably would have changed even if I didn’t join the company). On every point, we’ve turned the volume up on loud. It used to be that we gave a free product away, but it wasn’t a good product. A good product is something we made you pay for. Now we’ve said even a developer that doesn’t pay us gets the best possible product. Unity 5 personal edition is fully featured, it can get the top performance.
We always got to all the platforms eventually, but we’re pushing the leading and the bleeding edge now. We’re pushing it harder than we’ve pushed it before. We’ve always been kind of buggy and we’ve made a very strong commitment to be the highest quality development environment out there. So all of the things that Unity used to reach here, we reach here now. We’ve got more ambition.
The last thing, this little new idea, is about enabling the success through ads and analytics. We recognize that most developers lose money. That means they’re not going to be developers very long if they continue to lose money, unless of course they have rich dads or something, so that can’t last. We’ve tried to tackle the next most important thing by listening to our developers. They need systems to make money and we’re building them in ways that are better than our competitors. We don’t really have any direct competitors.
The principles remain the same, the execution is changing to address greater ambition. It’s a young company which realized it has this amazing set of customers. Our customers are growing up, they want to be the world’s best, and we have to rise to that occasion. We’re supporting them in platforms, graphic capability, performance, ad yield, and analytics.
Creating Better Visuals Through New People
Visuals are probably one of the areas that Unity 5 still lags behind compared to its competition. So far the prettiest games with U5 were Ori and the Blind Forest and Firewatch: Campo Santo. They are cool and stylized games with lovely looks, but they are hardly a match for the incredible titles created at Electronic Arts, where JR used to be CEO. However, it’s all about to change.
Listening to my praise of The Blacksmith demo, I saw JR put on a sly smile.
We have high ambitions for the best possible graphics. We used to be about making pretty good looking games, but not awesome looking games. We invested heavily in PBR, new lighting systems, lots of new graphic systems. We’re bringing in lots of super talented people because we aspire to make the most beautiful games in the world so that you couldn’t possibly imagine using your own tact if you’re goal is to be more beautiful and as I mentioned be more critically acclaimed. So it’s going after that high bar. That wasn’t always Unity though. That’s one of the things that’s changing. It already changed with PBR and global illumination. When you see some of the people coming into the company, you’ll see where it’s going.
Hiring seems to be the next big thing for Unity. Mike Capps, former president of Epic Games, is the company’s internal adviser if you remember. The company is quickly becoming a place to meet the biggest people in the industry. While I was near JR to take a small photo, I saw that the lid of his MacBook was half closed, covering all of the possible secrets of the future of Unity’s hiring policy. I guess there are some big names coming to Unity.
The Moore’s Law in Games
Watching JR talk gives you that incredible visionary vibe, which I witnessed at GDC 2015. Talking to the CEO of Xsolla, listening to Oculus Rift’s founder’s speech, and having a little talk with the Allegorithmic’s dev, we got a feeling that these people are living somewhere in the future. They know exactly how it’s going to go, or at the least they are not afraid to make some predictions.
GPUs and CPUs are getting more powerful. One of the big places that games are going to be played on are on smart TVs. A smart TV is being produced by Samsung and other major television manufacturers are this powerful already and they are going to be high-end i7 by the end of next year. Which means they can power high-end console games without a console.
It doesn’t mean that consoles are going away, it just means that everyone can play them. There’s going to be competition and they are going to rise to the standard of the device. That’s always been the case. When all you had was a floppy, games were small, because floppy disks were small. You had CDs and games were 10x bigger. Then you have DVDs and games were 7x bigger. Now you have servers and games got so big you can’t even keep track.
So in the competition to meet the demand of the user it fills out the CPU and GPU memory and storage devices that are available. We’re probably at a point where we’re probably going to stop all the storage because storage is getting close to free.
What I think is going to happen is there’s always going to be now with Unity, 2 or 3 person teams building great content. Look at some of the endless runner games out there, they are built by 2 people (a husband and wife in the case that I’m thinking about). I do think you’re going to see people compete for beauty and the craft of execution will come into play and it’s not going to be easy for a few people.
Eventually, if Mariina Hallikainen wants to take Cities: Skylines and build the depth of simulation below it – like right now she’s simulating individual cars and individual people and she’s giving them names, gender, and age. She’s not really simulating a deep economy. If she wants to simulate a deep economy, which she can do, that’s going to take more effort. So she’ll build out her team, in response to our marketplace (we’ll find out).
The Discoveries of Virtual Reality are still Ahead
VR seemed like a big thing this year at GDC (read our report here) and it was also huge at Unite Europe 2015. John, however, is more cautious about his predictions. Like most of us, he’s still waiting for those killer apps that are going to turn the tide and make the whole thing feel a bit different:
I think it’s a matter of what people are saying, they don’t really think about it. No one even knows what a good VR experience really looks like yet. It’s going to take a while. Realistically in 2015 or 2016 it’s going to cost $1500 to buy a PC that’s going to run it. By 2017, your mobile PC with the new high-end CPU and GPU will be fine to run VR. It’s going to take a couple of years, but AR is going to take a couple of years more because it needs to be even more powerful.
While people are getting more and more powerful PCs, developers are going to be creating more interesting stuff. I think 2015, 2016, and 2017 are likely to be a developers community (core hobbyists). It’s not going to be a mass market. By 2017, 2018, 2019 it’s going to be a mass market. It’ll be a mass market because it’s awesome, but there’s a lot of work to do to figure out what exactly feels right. I mean, no one even knows how to control locomotion in VR. You can walk 6 feet with Vive, but 6 feet is not very far for a driving game.
So what are you going to do? We don’t know what you are going to do, we have two controllers and no one knows what the right experience is going to be. It’s going to take a while. I do know that I want to do AR with people like you sitting across from me having a conversation as if we’re in the same room, I want that. I want like a perfect VR camera hanging from the Taj Mahal, Times Square, Saint Petersburg, a subway in Tokyo, and a disco in New York. Also the backside of the moon, and the outside of a 747 airplane. I just want to sit there, flipping channels and be in these places. There’s a lot of things I want, and I can get them. I don’t know what they all are yet.
What’s happening right now is people are saying that it’s not a big deal. They are saying, “Call of Duty in VR.” It’s not very imaginative and that’s not going to work in VR. I mean, Call of Duty didn’t exist on text-based PCs either. Each massive evolution in technology brings new intellectual property and new gameplay. I mean why do shooters not work on touchscreens? Because the UI is terrible, they need to come up with a new idea.
Imagine StarCraft on the table, some bits are dark as I’m moving the environment out, I’m moving troops around, I’m drilling over here, I’m taking guys that are shooting over here and I see it. I look away, it doesn’t move. I look back, it’s still there.
It’s going to happen. I mean who is not going to want that? I just think that people who say that VR is a fad are right. People that say VR is going to massive are right. The first guys are right first, and the second guys are right second. They are right in order. It’s going to be a fad and then it’s going to be a hit. It’s not going to be initially because there isn’t going to be enough great content. Hardware is going to be expensive too.
People aren’t going to go back and buy desktop PCs. You can’t carry one around with you. What people are going to want is something portable fast enough to run VR, 2017.
The EA Legacy
The fun part came when the conversation moved into games. With a background as former CEO of Electronic Arts and having released some of the biggest games of the last decade while he was in his position, I just couldn’t pass on the opportunity to ask JR about the recent E3 2015. John looked at me straight in the eyes and said:
I didn’t go, but Cuphead was my favorite. It was built using Unity. A lot of people think that won E3 as the coolest game. For EA I did the Star Wars deal before I left and set up the game for Battlefront. I think it’s awesome looking and I want to play. I also started the Mirror’s Edge franchise when I was at EA. I loved Mirror’s Edge. Faith is one of my favorite characters in all of gaming.
Games still remain a large part of JR’s DNA. We switched things up a little and talked about the EA days of old and I praised the renaissance of EA’s past product lineup: Mass Effect, Dead Space, Mirror’s Edge and Battlefield. These were some of the biggest games that in a way, defined a beautiful decade. JR seemed visibly pleased that I mentioned some of his biggest games.
He also mentioned Command and Conquer as one of his big achievements. Being in the game industry for over 20 years and having a lot of sentimental feelings for Westwood Studios, I felt brave enough to mention that technically Command and Conquer was there a long time before EA turned it into Generals.
Silence suddenly erupted into sound. JR squinted like a cowboy in a western showdown. I don’t know if he was amused at my nerves or amused to see a person who remembers games made by Westwood. He looked at the guy beside him who was buried in his laptop, they exchanged glances, and JR said:
This guy knows his games.
I certainly do, and JR certainly knows Unity. While talking with the members of the international team of Unity Technologies and interviewing former members of the Unity evangelist teams, I received nothing but positive feedback on JR. He seems to be very focused, reliable, knowledgeable and understanding, but also as hard as nails in making necessary business decisions. This is the kind of CEO Unity was waiting for.
The Content Abuse is Over
Unity 5 is about expansion. It’s about growing into a massive juggernaut of a game engine that encompasses the most useful services for the game developer: analytics, editors, visual tools, scripts and well content. John has a very clear understanding of the Asset Story policy and he’s not very optimistic about the future of games created entirely out of somebody’s assets.
I don’t think that’s going to keep going for very long. The game industry has been mods forever. So if somebody puts up a game in the asset store and somebody messes around with it a little and it’s still 90% the same game, it’s basically a mod. I can take somebody else’s book, change fifteen lines, and I may be accused of plagiarism, but it’s legal. People are going to do that with mods and they’ve always done that with mods.
What’s happening now is that there is a market for it. In fact, Steam is embracing and finding controversy in the market around mods. It’s not about restrictions, but what is our role? If I had my way there’s five million people in world that’s used Unity, but I’d like it to be 50 million or 100 million. Why? The world is a better place if people know how to create technology instead of just consuming. Now there’s still the challenge of having a flood of content in the world and the question is, what is the good stuff?
You’re a journalist right now. The vast, vast majority of what goes out on the internet is total crap. Yet, good journalists have a voice. It’s hard to get through, but I think the world is a better place for the voice of all the journalists. It’s the same kind of thing. I’d love it if the world would get up and like to speak. Now do I wish the racists would shut up? Yes, of course. Do I wish the bigots would shut up, the sexists would shut up? I wish they would all shut up, but you can’t have a central resource deciding who can speak.
After the short talk standing with colleagues in the press room, I feel like I have a better understanding of Unity. Not just that, but the hiring of JR seems to make so much more sense. With a tough and qualified manager like this, Unity Technologies does feel like a different company. It’s more focused, it’s consistent (big plans to squash the competition is very evident) and it’s about to kick ass. It feels like a revolution is coming.