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What's next for Unity after the IronSource merger?

Unity senior vice president Marc Whitten discusses the company's future now that it's fully merged with monetization firm IronSource.

Today Unity announced that it and IronSource finally completed their merger in a deal that valued the Tel Aviv-headquartered business platform at $4.4 billion.

News of the merger (and a series of not-great headlines in the weeks that followed) pushed some game developers to openly question if Unity was still a company laser-focused on the video game market. In September, senior vice presidents Marc Whitten and Ralph Hauwert hastened to explain that the company is still a games-first firm.

Now where is Unity headed? In a follow-up call with Whitten, the senior vice president of Unity Create was able to share some interesting details about the company's direction. He's apparently spent the last few months on calls and in conversation with Unity clients, and he's bullish on the company's ability to improve the platform for game developers.

What's next for developers working in Unity?

Whitten declined to describe any specific details about what the next few months for Unity look like, but our conversation kept dancing around the topic of having game developers ship on multiple platforms.

When we quizzed Whitten about how he sees Unity's major merger in relation to the waves of mergers and acquisitions taking place across the industry, he pointed toward the proliferation of multi-platform development. "There's more and more of an emphasis on the need to...reach across multiple platforms," he observed. 

Whitten clarified that this topic includes multi-platform play (letting players on different platforms interact with each other) and multi-platform title availability (letting players purchase or download games on multiple platforms).

This topic spun off into a conversation about the proliferation of handheld video game consoles that have become a dominant trend in 2022. Whether it's the Steam Deck or the Xbox Cloud Gaming-optimized handheld from Logitech, players are investing more and more in these mobile-friendly platforms.

You wouldn't think either device would directly impact Unity (if a developer optimizes their game for Steam or Xbox, in theory they're ready to deploy on those devices), but Whitten says this topic has come up in frequent conversation. He brought up Unity's longstanding relationship with Nintendo, and how discussions about making games for the Nintendo Switch have begun to matter outside of Nintendo's ecosystem.

"They were talking about how much they continue to emphasize...how much they work to make sure developers understand how to think about their Switch game when it's plugged into a TV...and when it's handheld." Those conversations haven't just been about user interfaces or graphics capabilities. They've apparently also discussed the length of game loops and how they differ for players in both settings—and now that line of conversation goes beyond the realm of Nintendo.

Whitten predicted that games tailored for specific devices aren't going anywhere, but games that are "life experiences" will be more and more optimized for platform flexibility. There may be a point where a live service game like Destiny 2 is playable on PC, console, mobile, and video game handheld. "That's a trend that's only going to increase," he said.

Unity is watching the HTML5 and WebGL game development scene

Last time we spoke with Whitten, he and Hauwert casually brought up the improvements Unity has made for developers working on games for Google Chrome and Chromebooks. In the COVID-19 pandemic, Chromebook usage expanded across the globe, along with a number of other low-end hardware devices that according to the team at Gamesnacks, are being "brought online" for the first time.

Whitten said that he thinks WebGL and HTML app development are "really going to increase." "I think there's gonna be people that are playing more in the context of a web browser of some sort," he said. Whitten also observed that the concept of what a platform even "is" is also in a state of flux. "Super apps" like WeChat, Grab, and Gojek are a core part of the online experience for this new class of internet user. 

"The one thing I can tell you is if something's a 'platform,' if something has a lot of users, games want to flow there," Whitten said. It's a trend we've even seen at companies like Discord, which has re-added games to its platform as a kind of side-experience for users in channels.

Whitten also grew excited at how Unity's continued support for WebGL can support game developers and traditional software developers alike. "It's really critical in non-gaming use cases," he said. "Think about things like real-time 3D more broadly. No one's downloading an app for their car configurator or those sorts of things."

"Continuing to make sure the tool is really optimized for that and works great has other benefits outside of [games]."

More good news for game developers in the future?

Whitten's personal passion for the world of game development shone through in our conversation, as he noted that he spent plenty of time at Unite 2022 talking to developers about their wants and needs for the platform. "I'm really committed—as is the company—on making sure we're showing folks a path and showing them that we're listening," he said. "And then...the only thing that matters is that we continue to serve their needs."

Whitten and Unity seem both pretty invested in the idea that video games and the games industry are "a long-term valuable investment" (his words), what will be most interesting to watch is if Unity and its clients' definition of "game" continue to line up.

If you look back at CEO John Riccitiello's controversial comments from the summer, he seemed squarely focused on revenue-generating free-to-play titles that could make the most of IronSource's tools. Whitten himself doubled down on the talking points Unity released today, saying that the two companies are delivering an "end-to-end platform," where developers can obtain any service they need from one company.

There are some developers for whom that pitch is a bona fide boon. There are also plenty not sure what that means for their businesses. If Whitten's personal campaign to talk to more and more developers bears fruit, hopefully those benefits will become clear in 2023 and beyond.

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