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What's next for Unity and its new CEO? Co-founder David Helgason explains

Today, Unity announced that co-founder and CEO David Helgason would be stepping down, to be replaced by EA veteran John Riccitiello. Gamasutra speaks to Helgason about his new role and the company's future.

Christian Nutt, Contributor

October 22, 2014

5 Min Read

Earlier today, Unity announced that co-founder and longstanding CEO David Helgason would be stepping down from the role, to be replaced by EA veteran John Riccitiello. Riccitiello is best known as the CEO of the publisher, a role he left last year; he also served as EA's COO prior to that. Helgason tells Gamasutra that Riccitiello has been collaborating closely with Unity's leadership team since he joined its board of directors a year ago, and has brought vital strategic insight to the team. Riccitiello will take pressure off of Helgason, allowing the man who's run the company for the past 12 years to focus on the engine, and what its customers -- game developers -- want. "He really got our vision and really believes in it," Helgason told Gamasutra in a phone interview from Copenhagen this afternoon. "I really hope it comes through that there's no drastic change," Helgason said. "He's been here for a long time, and he's liked by people at the company. We really feel like he's going to make the company better without changing it too much." The Unity co-founder describes Riccitiello as "a really, really experienced executive who shares my vision of what Unity should be, and how it should act in the world. I can really focus on that, and work closely with him." "He helped me clarify some of the thinking about how we can expand our effort to help developers more broadly," said Helgason. Riccitiello will allow Unity to "keep what's good, and learn some new things as we have to." "I'm proud to have convinced him to join us," said Helgason.

Change is scary

Judging from early comments on Gamasutra's report, however, developers are worried about change to what has rapidly become the game industry's most popular tool. According to the company, Unity has 45 percent global game engine market share. Many remember that after EA acquired third-party engine tool RenderWare, it ceased licensing it to developers. "I think it's a silly comparison, honestly," says Helgason, when reminded of this fact. "The basic plan is to keep doing what we've been doing for many years, and keep trying to do it even better." Rumors have also recently swelled that the company was up for sale -- rumors which co-founder and CTO Joachim Ante categorically denied less than two weeks ago. What Ante said is "very much true," said Helgason. "We want to put that behind us." "Me and John, and the board, and everyone around us, thinks Unity has a very solid future around it." Helgason said Riccitiello has already been closely collaborating with Unity leadership, contributing "10 to 20 times" more time to the company than the average board member -- on average, a couple of days a week. He was already "borderline part of the exec team," in Helgason's words, prior to stepping up to the CEO role. "A lot of the strategy was done in collaboration between me, my co-founder, my tech team, and John," says Helgason. "He owns the strategy."

Helgason's new role, moving forward

Formally bringing Riccitiello onto the team allows Helgason to more closely focus on the engine's future. Helgason recently relocated from San Francisco, where Unity is headquartered and where Riccitiello will work, to Copenhagen, which hosts the company's biggest office and the bulk of its engine development team -- including its leadership. "As CEO of Unity for many years, I've sort of done everything," said Helgason. "There's a lot of the mechanics [involved in] running a big company -- the HR, the people, organization and reporting, and all this stuff that is a lot of work, frankly. And I enjoy that much less. What I enjoy the most is engaging with the industry -- from the smallest, the hobbyists and students, to the biggest, and platform companies." And that's what Helgason will be doing, moving forward.

The changing face of the engine business

This year has seen tremendous change to the engine licensing business model. Epic and Crytek have both adopted a subscription model for Unreal and CryEngine. We had to ask: Will Unity's model change under Riccitiello? Helgason did say that the new CEO would be pondering "how to take Unity's business model forward." However, said Helgason, "we've been very happy with our low, reasonable price points. We don't like taking rev share from people; we'd rather give them more revenue, with our services" -- for example, Unity's ad network. Helgason said, "we have a free offering that's very aggressive, and John wants to make it more aggressive in the future." By "aggressive," he said, he means "generous," from the game developer's perspective. Helgason also noted that "being able to rely on other revenue streams, such as the Asset Store and ads, allows us to take pressure off relying on the engine" to generate revenue for his company.

That services strategy

We talked a bit about this services strategy that has become so much a part of Unity in 2014. The company acquired Applifier, including its Everyplay video sharing service and cross-promotional network, and also acquired the Playnomics analytics platform. It's also beta testing new cloud services, and has its own ad network. Is this the future of Unity? And are more acquisitions on the cards? "First, we really want to just deliver the services we've taken up," said Helgason. "There's no obvious next step that we've announced -- we really want to bring it together, really tightly integrated and make it easy to use, while also putting out Unity 5 and its incredible features and performance." "We see developers really being not very well-served" by a lot of other game-service companies, he said, "and we see developers [that are] not using services not being as successful and they could be and should be."

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