Unity CEO John Riccitiello On Pong, Metaverse Madness, And Gaming Growth Sine Waves

Unity CEO John Riccitiello On Pong, Metaverse Madness, And Gaming Growth Sine Waves

When Unity CEO John Riccitiello talks about the metaverse, it’s not a horrible idea to listen.

Riccitiello has been in games and computing a long time. The first game he played was Pong. The first games he coded — “miserable” text-based games, he says — were on a PDP-1011 mainframe computer released by Digital Equipment Corporation in the 1960s and boasting less raw computing horsepower than a five-year-old iPhone 8. He’s the former CEO of Electronic Arts, and an early investor in the Oculus product that Mark Zuckerberg eventually bought and jonesed so hard for he changed Facebook’s name to Meta. And Unity’s software underpins 70% of the top 1,000 mobile games and literally half of all games made for mobile, PC, and console.

So what does Riccitiello think about the metaverse?

“I saw an analyst report that said by the end of the decade it’s going to be a $13 trillion industry,” he told me on a recent TechFirst podcast. “And I see quotes from so many like really important CEOs saying some things that are sort of, in my view, nonsensical.”

What the metaverse is, in Riccitiello’s opinion, is simple: the next version of the internet. And its defining characteristics look a lot like today’s fully-immersive games that — despite Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s fond dreams — still represent the “best of the metaverse,” according to a New York Times review of the new $1,500 Meta Quest Pro VR headset, regardless of Meta’s best attempts at positioning the device as a workplace productivity tool.

Those defining characteristics of the metaverse, he says, include:

  • real-time ongoing creation, like a video game (”What does that mean? It means the next frame isn’t something that’s already on the site. It’s created like a video game in response to your input.”)
  • 3D experiences (not always, but often)
  • persistent (”You go to Wikipedia, unless you’re an editor … you look something up, the world didn’t change because of you, but in these worlds they will change.”)
  • interactive (”there’s somebody on the other side. It’s multiplayer, if you will.”)
  • avatars are optional depending on the specific experience (yes for a virtual clothes fitting; no for a meet-the-gorillas nature experience)

Most of these do indeed sound very much like games, and in fact like games that we recognize today are either precursors of a metaverse experience or, if you will mini-metaverses.

“We have a glimpse of that already in gaming … products like Roblox and Fortnite,” Riccitiello says. “They’re live worlds to people. They’re 3D, they’re real-time, they’re persistent, and they’re massively enjoyed by audiences around the world. Now, they’re not the metaverse. They are a destination within a metaverse, a ride in the theme park. But there’s going to be millions of rides, if not billions of rides, as the fashion retailers and the medical researchers and the educators and people that are training people to work in factories of the future, all of these things become destinations in the metaverse, or destinations, period, of the next version of the internet.”

Which, I guess, in a way kind of proves the point of the analyst report that Riccitiello mentions.

Because, if you look back to the time before a pandemic proved to us how important digital connectivity actually is — let’s say 2014 — Cisco Systems then-CEO John Chambers predicted that the internet would be worth $19 trillion in just a few years.

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That doesn’t seem far-fetched today, embedded as we are in a reality where “the internet alone contributed $2.45 trillion of the [United States’] $21.18 trillion GDP,” in 2020. And that probably doesn’t take into account how much business and work would be impossible today if we had to go back to fax machines, phones, and couriers.

If the metaverse is the next internet and it’s even more immersive and compelling and capable than the current 2D version … it doesn’t seem at all unlikely that it will capture and create value somewhere at least in the neighborhood of what we see in a Ready Player One style future.

“It’s about real-time,” Riccitiello says.

“It’s about 3D. It’s about interactivity, it’s around social, it’s about persistence. And those are all possible because GPUs are massively faster. CPUs are massively faster. 5G is broadband in your hand, something that is barely really scratching the surface right now in terms of use cases. Server infrastructure supports lots of storage a lot cheaper. Databases are smarter. All of that underpinning technology is coming together to create the foundation that makes it possible for us to go from, you know, fairly pedestrian websites to what science fiction was talking about not that long ago, and people like Neal Stephenson was talking about when he wrote that amazing book Snow Crash.”

Driving this innovation is the games that offer these real-time, 3D, social, and persistent experiences right now.

And the number of us participating in that reality is, from a certain perspective, mind-blowing. Half of humanity plays video games, according to a recent Unity report. Most of those might play mostly in 2D experiences on the handheld computers they carry around in their pockets or purses, but every step is a step.

And gaming is still growing.

Sure, there’s a dip right now, given the massive Covid surge that saw games explode in popularity. But as a veteran of numerous console cycles in the old-school gaming industry, Riccitiello sees that as temporary: just part of the reversion to the mean that he’s seen in the up-and-to-the-right curving sine wave of gaming growth.

“The industry jumped up in 2020 and 2021 in ways that were out of trend, massively out of trend,” Riccitiello says. “And so, that we start to see in ’22, a little bit of that sine wave up into the right where there’s some correction against that, is not a surprise.”

What Covid may actually have done is accelerated the metaverse not just by means of making us more dependent on Metaverse 0.1, our current internet, but in fueling extra hunger for real-time, social, 3D experiences.

Those kinds of games, a recent Unity report says, grew 40% on mobile and 150% on desktop over the last year.

But the relentless metaverse hype is a problem for tech companies, Riccitiello says.

Over-promising and under-delivering — as Meta did in early releases of Horizon Worlds that were mocked as less visually appealing than decade-old games or almost 20-year-old experiences like Second Life.

“There’s precious few concepts that are more hyperinflated and confused than what is the metaverse,” he told me. “We’ve lost the simplicity because the baubles in front of us, the ornaments in front of us have obliterated the view of what’s really happening. And so that’s troublesome to me, because I think that misunderstanding is going to wash through the media where they’re going to say, ‘Metaverse, metaverse, metaverse,’ you know, ‘Long live the king,’ followed by ‘Metaverse, metaverse, metaverse,’ you know, ‘It’s over and gone and dead.’

In other words, the emperor has no clothes.

Perhaps its inevitable that every hyped technology goes through the trough of disillusionment before reaching the high plains of productivity.

Or perhaps it’s just those that some are desperate to sell us on.

Get a transcript of our conversation, or subscribe to TechFirst.

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