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Unity, the invisible but critical ingredient in your favorite games (Q&A)

CEO John Riccitiello has a mission to get more game builders to use Unity's tech and create new forms of fun, such as virtual reality.

Unity CEO John Riccitiello
"We work really hard at solving very hard engineering problems," says Unity CEO John Riccitiello. Stephen Shankland/CNET

SAN FRANCISCO -- Unless you're a programmer, you've probably never heard of Unity Technologies. But you've almost certainly heard of some of the 174,000 games that developers built in recent months using the company's software.

Unity can even get some credit for the rise of smartphones because its game engine software runs many of the most popular mobile titles, including Fallout Shelter, Temple Run, Monument Valley, and Hearthstone: Heroes of Warcraft. Game engines offer the tech needed to handle complicated game components like graphics and simulated physics.

The company also has its hand in new forms of entertainment, such as virtual reality that surrounds you with computer-generated worlds. Its engine allows programmers to shift games among different platforms, from PCs and mobile devices to Microsoft's Xbox One and virtual-reality headsets.

Unity-run games were installed 2.5 billion times on 1.1 billion devices between April 1 and July 31. Regardless of its ubiquity, Unity is the rare San Francisco company that isn't aiming to go public. Instead, Chief Executive John Riccitiello, who was hired after a rocky tenure at gaming giant Electronic Arts, says game developers' happiness is the top priority. He hopes as many as 30 million developers will use Unity a decade from now.

Riccitiello spoke with CNET at Unity's headquarters here about his company's direction. The following is an edited transcript of the conversation.

Q: The average person doesn't know about Unity. Can you give a thumbnail sketch of the company and describe your game engine software?
Riccitiello: It's the core elements that you need so a group of people that do different things -- artists, programmers, people that specialize in physics -- can create something awesome.

Unity's logo appears as giant wall art at the company's San Francisco office.
Unity's logo appears as giant wall art at the company's San Francisco office. Stephen Shankland/CNET

Unity was really the first company to put something together that was simple to use and attracted not just thousands, but tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, and millions of customers. It's why more games are built in Unity than anything else, by a very wide margin: The new Angry Birds game, Fallout Shelter, Hearthstone, the Minions game from EA. About 30 percent of everything shipped on Android, about a quarter of everything on iOS, and 75 or 80 percent of the AR [augmented-reality] and VR [virtual-reality] games are built on Unity.

How do you make a business when so many tools are free, including your own basic version?
Riccitiello: I'm very proud of our financial profile, but at no point do we say that we're trying to sell tools to developers to make money. It doesn't show up in our top 10 list. It comes down to three things. We work really hard at solving very hard engineering problems. Second, we believe really strongly in democratization. There are about 5 billion consumers in the world and probably fewer than 10 million people creating technology or technology-based entertainment. That ratio kind of sucks. I think the world's better if more people can create. Last, we care a lot about the health of the ecosystem.

Your last job was CEO of EA, a company that alienated its customers. What went wrong?
Riccitiello: The first time I was at EA, from 1997 to 2004, it seemed like we did everything right. I came back when we were the most unpopular company in the world. We screwed up the transition to the Xbox 360, the PS3 and the Wii. We lost I think $254 million my first year. I had to lay off thousands of people. I'm very proud of the fact that by 2012 we had the No. 1 Metacritic average for any publisher and had five consecutive years of profit growth. Those were survival days for the company.

At Unity, it's not the same thing. It's not a mess. It's not a public company. Thankfully, I've landed at third base instead of deep in the dugout hoping to get on base.

What will VR and AR gaming look like?
Riccitiello: We're at the very, very, very beginning. At some point, there'll be a billion people wearing VR glasses. Is that five years? I don't think so. Is it 10 to 15? Probably. I've seen some pretty magical experiences. I was at [VR headset maker] Oculus with a guy giving me a demo. I happened to pick up some of the items on a tabletop. I can juggle, and he could juggle, and we started trading the balls back and forth -- virtual objects. It was the one of the coolest things I've ever experienced.

Ultimately, it'll be like the Jedi Council. Your friends can sit around the table with you and you'll enjoy a meal even if they're in five different countries. Someone will create the Metaverse from Snow Crash or the Oasis from Ready Player One.

Do you have to rethink gaming?
Riccitiello: We do. One of the biggest problems right now is people trying to imagine how to do Call of Duty or Battlefront. It's not actually a creative-enough question. Did you ever play a game [in which] you were afraid of falling? No. That's an entirely different emotion. The rules are changed.

Correction, 10:52 a.m. PT: This story incorrectly said Game of War: Fire Age was made with Unity. The story was also updated to note that the 2.5 billion installations took place from April through July.