BY BENJAMIN SAVAGE
So it’s very likely that Unity Technologies (or Unity, affectionately) will be going public in 2020, probably in the fall. How, if at all, will this affect XR development? To get a clear picture and a panoramic view of the situation, let’s start by realizing that over 60% of all XR content is created using Unity’s famous game engine. It’s the goose that lays the golden XR eggs. And becoming an XR-enabler was a very shrewd business move for them; they knew very well that many devs coming from a gaming background would latch on to these technologies. To top it off, Unity put a tasty icing on the cake by making the transition from game development to XR development nearly seamless. It’s even safe to say that if developers are already familiar with the Unity engine, they have very little to learn besides maneuvering around manageable APIs and how to integrate a few plugins.
So what will this mean financially for XR and what will it mean for XR development in general?
While many assume a “sky is falling” attitude on sites such as Reddit and Twitter (“RIP Unity”, “Time to switch to Godot”), it’s doubtful that any cataclysmic financial change will come about. We’ve seen familiar giants like Facebook and Twitter go public (though not without vocal portents of doom and gloom) with no bigger consequences in the end than a larger influx of cash. Hiccups, yes, but ruination, no. By definition, “going public” is really nothing more than making the switch from private investment and venture capital to public ownership via the stock market. In other words, Unity is basically being sold to the masses in shares. And if the masses think that Unity is doing a good job and will continue to do a good job, more people will buy Unity stock. And if Unity suddenly announces it plans to switch to the soft drinks market, people will ensure it dies a quick death by selling the stock. You get the picture. Could the whole thing flop and drive Unity to ruin? Possible, sure. But not likely.
However, the negative reactions on social media to Unity’s IPO don’t spout from the fear that the company’s financial health could be in trouble, but rather are founded more on the feeling that Unity will somehow become “more corporate” and “forget about the little guy”. On the contrary, Unity going public is much more democratic and pro “little guy”: although other people who have nothing to do with gaming or Spatial Computing will also be throwing their money at the company, we, the “little guy”, can also take part in the success of the company by buying stock and owning a piece of the company ourselves. The bottom line is that we need more publicly traded companies that work in XR because it’s a win-win: it’s very hard to deny the fact that more money floating around in the industry is a positive thing for all of us.
If you were to scour the panorama of publicly traded XR companies today, you’d find exactly what you’d expect: Microsoft, Facebook, Apple, Alphabet, Tencent, Sony, etc. However, these titans are mostly focused on the hardware end of things and certainly don’t provide you with independent tools to make rich, game-like experiences (with the possible exception of Facebook’s tiny Spark AR Studio). In fact, most of the software solutions that come out of these companies are often designed to be compatible with Unity’s game engine. As clever as you may be, you won’t be making the next Pokemon GO or Beat Saber (both made in Unity) with just ARKit. This sheds light on exactly how powerful the position Unity holds really is.
In fact, the only real competitor for Unity in the XR space is Epic, the creator of Unreal Engine. Unreal Engine is a bigger, more graphically powerful game engine, but with a slightly larger barrier to entry for some developers due to its enormity. This incredible “game engine with plate mail” doesn’t quite have the pull in XR that Unity does, but anything can happen in the years to come and we could one day see the tide turning to favor Unreal. To go out on a limb and wager a prediction (based on an article based on a prediction nonetheless!), after Unity makes their (supposed) announcement, I predict Epic will follow suit and announce an IPO a year or two later.
So will the increased influx of cash help Unity make better products? We developers sure hope so! I love developing my products in Unity and it has held a special place in my heart for years. I’ve been to the Unity offices in San Francisco a number times, have witnessed their massive presence at GDC over the years and have seen firsthand how obvious it is that the inspiration for their new features stems from direct developer feedback. This is an excellent thing and I wish more software companies listened to their customers as closely and as often. The Unity team is also very approachable and helpful – something which developers certainly appreciate.
So here’s hoping that Unity’s (supposed) IPO goes well, that they continue to listen to and keep a tight connection with their developers and that XR remains a central focus in the years to come. With the technological direction the world is taking recently, it seems highly unlikely that they will stray from this path.