Unity Technologies is shaping the future of gaming, one creator at a time. One of the world’s most popular developer platforms for rendering simulated environments, Unity is currently used to create over half of the world’s video games, as well as dozens of feature films, every year. The stunning demo reels on the company’s web site feature a dizzying array of artfully realized scenes, from hypnotic spiral galaxies to bleak polar tundras to post-apocalyptic wastelands.
While the gaming industry is awash in huge investments and breathless headlines (Fortnite brought in $3B in profits last year), it can still be a high-volume, low- margin industry that remains relentlessly competitive. The comparison to Hollywood has its limits, but franchise games frequently have the budgets of major feature films and can succeed or fail quickly owing to an exacting audience base.
A few years ago, Unity decided to pursue a recurring revenue model as a hedge against boom-or-bust industry cycles. At the time, Unity was contending with several nice problems to have. Numbers were on their side—more games were being built on Unity’s gaming platform than any other. That also meant, of course, that massive numbers of developers were using their system all the time, for all manner of projects.
The company was also growing through acquisitions, which further complicated matters in terms of back-end systems. The management team saw their transactional solutions failing as the company grew like wildfire. They needed a new model that could help them go-to-market quickly with smart new offerings for an exceptionally sharp and demanding client base.
But the company’s shift from perpetual licenses to subscriptions wasn’t just a financial imperative— it was a creative one as well.
“In today’s world, we can’t leave customers behind for a year because we are in the process of releasing a major version,” said Unity cofounder Joachim Ante in a widely read blog post. “We think it would be very bad for Unity developers if we held features for a full number release, rather than launch these features along the way when they are ready. With our switch to subscription, we can make Unity incrementally better, every week. When a feature is complete, we will ship it. If it is not ready we will wait for the next point release. Our switch to subscription is absolutely necessary in order for us to provide a robust and stable platform.”
Today, Joachim Ante’s commitment to iterative development is manifesting itself in all sorts of arresting and unusual ways. The company has dramatically expanded its vertical expertise to include a range of industries, including automotive, architecture, construction, and engineering. Today, Unity’s 1,000 person development team works alongside partners like Google, Facebook, Magic Leap, Oculus, and Microsoft. And the company recently partnered with NVIDIA to create a simulated 3D experience for BMW.
As it turns out, all sorts of industries need help imagining and visualizing new scenarios, new landscapes, and new test cases. And pretty soon, those simulated environments may start blending with our own. Unity is also working with some mind-melting new VR and AR technologies that recall Albert Einstein’s observation that “reality is merely an illusion, albeit a persistent one.”
But as CIO Brian Hoyt notes, the company is only as successful as the creators on its platform. “The company is really about the creators, and enabling their success. It’s probably the most mission-driven company I’ve ever really encountered because everyone is super passionate about making sure that the creators are successful, whether they be in gaming or architecture or some other field. That’s a core, fundamental belief of the company. Everything kind of goes backwards from there, to be honest.”
So how does the CIO’s role change in a rapidly expanding company that includes a sizeable number of PhDs in silicon engineering and graphics technology? “You have to be equal parts self- confident and humble,” says Hoyt. “We are still a scaling company with a lot of challenges that are not going to be solved by me staring at a dashboard and trying to pump one or two percent out of a number, right? I spend my time talking to my peers in the business and with my team to make sure that nothing’s in their way. That’s what I do. I don’t like to hone in and try to shine up metrics and make them look great.”
Today we’re all contending with dozens of individual business applications, each with their own set of performance metrics and reporting capabilities. As Zuora’s CIO Alvina Antar has observed, this can frequently present technology executives with a “forest for the trees” problem. The imperative for Subscription Economy CIOs has changed—it’s not about managing systems anymore. It’s about coordinating with fiercely intelligent people to address fiercely difficult problems.
“I spend a lot of time on airplanes,” says Hoyt. “I think a lot of problems can be solved by going to visit somebody and sitting across a room and addressing uncomfortable truths. So, rather than trying to make my people completely hate me by talking about KPIs, I try to manage my stakeholders and ask them to manage theirs.”
So far Hoyt’s approach seems to be working. Unity is offering “imagination as a service” to hundreds of new creators every day, and building the future of gaming in the process.
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