John Riccitiello, the former chief executive of Electronic Arts, was named the CEO of game engine maker Unity Technologies on Wednesday. He replaced David Helgason, who co-founded the company in 2004 and built it into one of the key platforms of the era of digital games. Unity’s mission was to “democratize game development,” or create tools that made it easy for smaller, independent developers to make high-quality 3D games that could run across a bunch of platforms.
Much of that mission has been fulfilled, as indie gamemakers are challenging big game publishers for dominance in segments such as mobile and online games. Unity has more than 630,000 developers using its engine to create cross-platform games. That has made it valuable, and it has stirred interest by various parties in acquiring the company. Co-founder Joachim Ante has said Unity isn’t for sale, but the change in leadership has stirred more questions. Riccitiello joined the board some time ago, and now he’ll lead Unity into its next stage of growth.
We got on the phone with Riccitiello shortly after he addressed Unity’s 500-plus employees. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: Why did you join Unity?
John Riccitiello: Unity’s a great company. I’ve been on the board for more than a year, working very closely with them. I’m a huge believer in the company, the vision, the mission, the philosophy of game development. Nicholas and Joachim, the founders, were prescient and brilliant. The management, the founders, have been talking about who is the right person to lead the company over the last year or so, and in the end, I’m the guy they asked.
David was a big supporter of the idea. David is going to remain deeply engaged. It isn’t much more complicated than that.
GamesBeat: They said that they wanted to remain independent. It sounds like you’re on board with executing that vision.
Riccitiello: I’ve been CEO for four hours and 39 minutes. I’m not trying to dodge that question, but that’s not an easy one. I hope Unity goes on to become a successful public company or remains private forever and continues to live up to its vision. I don’t have a strong answer to that question.
More to the point, I don’t have a strong answer to any questions. That would be a great conversation to have in a month, and I’d certainly be happy to do that with you. But right now, I’m seeing the company from the vantage point of a board member. I just spent my first half-day working with people. I’m getting on a plane first thing next week. I’ve been to Copenhagen before, but I haven’t been to Lithuania. I’m going to spend a lot of time talking to different people and learning a lot.
The company is on a good trajectory. I’m just here to be part of the group that’s leading it forward. I don’t have — there’s not going to be much I can tell you as far as standard CEO pontification about things I don’t know much about. I’ve never been big on that.
GamesBeat: You’re not going in because of a set of decisions. You’re going into this fresh and thinking, “I have this job, now what should be done?”
Riccitiello: I’m going in fresh with a gigantic respect for a company that’s built an enormously successful and incredible community among developers around the world. Most people don’t realize the importance of that, how damn cool democratized game development is. I talked a little bit about this on your stage when you were interviewing me. A lot of people have no inkling about this whatsoever.
During the conversations what we had, it seemed like a smart thing for the company for me to do this. I thought about it, and it’s a good thing. Beyond that, I don’t have an agenda. It would be a dumb man who starts with the answer. I start with a question. I have to learn more.
It’s not like I’m a stranger to the game industry or a stranger to technology. It’s not going to take a couple of years to come up with an agenda. It’s not problematic or unclear. I’m just part of a team now, and I have to make sure I understand how things are organized.
GamesBeat: What’s the value for you to have David Helgason stay on in what sounds like a more technical role?
Riccitiello: David’s a fantastic guy. Losing David would be the better thing to ask about – how did we keep him? I kept him because we have a great deal of mutual respect. I think you know that if you heard him talk earlier today. We want to help take this thing and go forward into the future. It’s similar with other senior executives of the company, but in particular with Joachim, who helped found the company.
Losing David would have been a great loss. David, more than any individual I know of, represents the developer ideal inside the company. That’s awesome. I want him to stay a part of this as long as he can.
Riccitiello: People have approached Unity and that’s kind of it. I expect people have been approaching Unity for years and they’ll keep doing so. What we decided when we had this conversation was, “not now.”
GamesBeat: Joachim’s comment on the forum post, the one where he stated that Unity wasn’t for sale. That was a bit unusual. It brought some clarity.
Riccitiello: I didn’t ask why he posted it. I can certainly imagine why, though. I probably would have done the same thing. It’s a weird thing to hear from a public company, but if you’re a private company and people come your way and something doesn’t make sense — if people don’t stop asking the question, sometimes you just want to put the question to bed.
GamesBeat: How many people are at Unity now?
Riccitiello: More than 500, less than 600.
GamesBeat: Are you going on a tour now to talk to everyone, basically?
Riccitiello: Yeah, that’s the plan. So I can actually know what I’m talking about the next time I talk to you.
GamesBeat: That’s probably easier than visiting 10,000 people at EA.
Riccitiello: I don’t know that I’d compare the two in any way. When I arrived at EA, it was kind of a turnaround, so that was hard. It was hard dealing with that for years. I’m happy with how all that worked out, putting the digital business together. The quality is way up. All those things are covered. I liked all that. But Unity doesn’t have any problems right now. The company is doing really well.
GamesBeat: Do you feel like you learned anything from your tenure at EA that you’d apply at Unity?
Riccitiello: I don’t know if anything from EA applies at Unity. It’s a really different situation.
GamesBeat: It did sound like you were starting to enjoy not being a CEO for a bit there. Are you back in your CEO mode?
Riccitiello: I liked what I was doing when I was helping a lot of companies. I love Unity. I’m doing this next. I’m not sure exactly what “CEO mode” means. But I’m in the mode of helping lead Unity right now and take it into the future.
GamesBeat: It didn’t seem like you took much of a vacation.
Riccitiello: No, I guess I didn’t. I mean, you’ve been doing all sorts of things your whole life — writing books, what you’re doing now. I’ve never seen you take a vacation.
GamesBeat: Eh, it’s overrated.
Riccitiello: That’s what I think. But let’s talk when I actually know something.