Unity Technologies CEO John Riccitiello threw out some impressive numbers last week at an event at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco.

He said that games built with the Unity game engine were downloaded more than 16 billion times in 2016, up 31 percent from the year before. A couple of million users of Unity make it the most popular engine in the world. And more than 59 percent of VR developers use Unity.

Those are impressive numbers in the San Francisco company’s battle with arch rival Epic Games, which claims that it still has double the revenue of its closest rival. In this competition, Epic is coming down from the high end of Triple-A games while Unity is rising from the low end of game development from mobile and lighter projects.

But Riccitiello said that Unity is still moving forward. The Unity 5.6 release coming on March 31 will be the final installment of Unity 5. After that, the beta version of Unity 2017 will be available. And the goal of that version will be to put game designers and artists on an equal footing with programmers in making games. It’s all part of a larger mission of making the lives of game developers easier, Riccitiello said.

After the press event, I caught up with Riccitiello for a wide-ranging interview at his company’s new headquarters in San Francisco. Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

John Riccitiello, CEO of Unity Technologies.

Above: John Riccitiello, CEO of Unity Technologies.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

GB: Are game engines strategic? I think of them as analogous to other strategic assets. It seems like for a while every big company wanted to have some kind of cloud, some reason to build up their cloud. If the other guy’s building a cloud, I have to get one. I see game engines in the same way.

John Riccitiello: When I showed up here I might have said yes. We were just a tool. But Unity isn’t just that anymore. We’re close to half the world’s content now. 38 percent of mobile, 70 percent of VR and AR, half of all console, close to half of PC. We’re picking up four or five points of market share every year in the last three years. From an influence standpoint — strategic implies leverage. I’m not sure of that yet. I think we hustle.

The next largest game engine in the west — our growth last year was three times their business. I’m not so sure you can lump it all together into “game engines.” I love Amazon, but they have maybe something in single digits, maybe six games being built? I don’t think that’s strategic. Our position in the market is that more people build on Apple using Unity than any other system by far. Ditto Google and ditto Microsoft. At that level it’s interesting, at a bare minimum, whether “strategic” is the right word or not. But it’s all a maniacal focus on making life easier for developers.

Adam demo, built with Unity engine.

Above: Adam demo, built with Unity engine.

Image Credit: Unity

You saw me describe the delta between evolution and revolution. When we go from “you can make Adam in Unity” — no one’s made a better-looking bit of interactive content than that. And then we get to the point where we start pressing other buttons. We talked about removing all limitations from the renderer, which has never been done before, or about bringing C# job systems and CPU optimization on multi-threading to a small development house, which has never been possible before. Natalia talked about assisted content creation, which is not the same as procedural. It’s fundamentally changing the way content is created.

As a business, we’re much bigger in analytics and revenue generation for our customers than we are as an engine. We’re something different. Since no one marries even two out of those three things together, I’m not sure you’d point at a sector. Epic is building games. They built an engine to build games and then they sold their engine to other customers. That’s a different business than the one we’re in. It’s probably strategic for them, in their own way.

John Riccitiello, CEO of Unity Technologies, at GDC 2017.

Above: John Riccitiello, CEO of Unity Technologies, at GDC 2017.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

GB: It seems like developers in the past have been — they can still be powerless in the face of things like platform owners. If they’re at the mercy of platform owners, it’s not a healthy thing for the industry. But it seems like game engines, and Unity in particular, help balance that out.

Riccitiello: We don’t hurt platform owners. I don’t know this to be true, but any given mobile platform would probably have half a million fewer games if we didn’t exist. We help fill out their portfolio a lot. And on the other hand, you saw the presentation from Owlchemy today. They didn’t know what was going to work. They did a bit of everything, and weirdly enough it turned out to be VR that worked. They thought other platforms were going to generate their revenue.

You don’t need to build in Unity to build an Oculus game, but if you go back to Oculus Connect from last fall, it was either 22 or 23 out of 25 of their products were built in Unity. They didn’t say that. We weren’t at the event. Brendan’s a good friend, but that’s one we didn’t get to. But I’m very proud of the fact that we were — it’s the majority at a bare minimum. It’s a dominant majority.

GB: It’s still very important to think about how to make developers’ lives easier, basically?

Riccitiello: We said that today. Blood, sweat, and no more tears. If “strategic” means we — if we had a singular mission it would probably revolve around the idea of keeping developers alive, helping them to be successful. If there’s an underpinning to that — I really do think it would be cool if there were more content creators in the world. Not just consumers. More technology developers. In the Valley everyone thinks they can do all this stuff, but in most of the world they don’t think that way. We’re changing that.

GB: The Xiaomi deal (where Unity makes it easy to publish on Xiaomi’s mobile platform in China) seemed interesting. How much of the Chinese market can you access? Is it still a very small crack into the market?

Riccitiello: Well, for us it’s no longer a crack. It’s not as if it’s on the other side of Mars. It’s just on the other side of an approval layer. Part of it’s the regulatory regime. That’s one reason we partnered with Xiaomi. They can work on getting games approved using their local relationships with various ministries that need to sign off. But from a technology perspective we’re collapsing the distance. From a content deployment perspective we’re collapsing the distance. And when it comes to the ability to monetize we’re collapsing the distance.

Even on a dollar revenue basis, it’s the biggest market in the world. Our goal is to make it normal for a western game developer to generate revenue in China.

GitHub - Unity

Above: GitHub – Unity

GB: If you look at the stats now, I’d assume that western developers have a tiny market share there.

Riccitiello: They do, but if you look at FIFA or World of Warcraft — Supercell’s products are in the top 10. A number of games do well. But they had to get through a labyrinth of barriers. We’re not magic. We can’t just wave our hands and make all those challenges go away. But one by one we can knock them back.