Videogames cost money to make, but monetizing videogames is tough: Premium prices (opens in new tab), microtransactions (opens in new tab), and loot boxes (opens in new tab) (especially loot boxes) are all subject to criticism from various quarters. Yet it’s important that game developers put thought into how they’re going to approach the subject early in the process, Unity CEO John Riccitiello said in an interview with Pocket Gamer.biz (opens in new tab), because an ill-considered payment model can tank what would otherwise be a successful game.
“Ferrari and some of the other high-end car manufacturers still use clay and carving knives,” Riccitiello said in reference to developers who resist monetization efforts.
“It’s a very small portion of the gaming industry that works that way, and some of these people are my favourite people in the world to fight with—they’re the most beautiful and pure, brilliant people. They’re also some of the biggest fucking idiots.”
That’s a hot take by any measure, and Riccitiello’s words sparked almost immediate backlash, particularly from the indie development community.
But his broader point, which he clarified in follow-up comments, is decidedly less incendiary: The world has changed, and developers who want to be commercially successful need to adapt.
“It used to be the case that developers would throw their game over the wall to the publicist and sales force with literally no interaction beforehand,” Riccitiello said. “That model is baked into the philosophy of a lot of artforms and medium, and it’s one I am deeply respectful of; I know their dedication and care.
“But this industry divides people between those who still hold to that philosophy and those who massively embrace how to figure out what makes a successful product. And I don’t know a successful artist anywhere that doesn’t care about what their player thinks. This is where this cycle of feedback comes back, and they can choose to ignore it. But to choose to not know it at all is not a great call.”
One game that immediately leaps to mind when considering that philosophy is Skate (opens in new tab), which is published by Electronic Arts—the company Riccitiello headed before joining Unity. EA has made a point of emphasizing its desire for community feedback during Skate’s development, and during a showcase earlier today (opens in new tab) the developers talked specifically about Skate’s microtransaction-based monetization model, which they acknowledged is a “sensitive subject.” It’s basically the reverse of the Star Wars Battlefront 2 blowup with loot boxes in 2017, which saw a rollout followed by increasingly strained explanations, justifications, walkbacks, and ultimately a Guinness World Record (opens in new tab) that nobody wanted.
Riccitiello’s perspective may not be terribly relevant to hobbyist or indie developers who are doing it for the love of the game, but for anyone committed to making a go of it in the business, his statement seems on point. Not everything needs microtransactions—Elden Ring, a full game with zero microtransactions, is one of the most successful 2022 releases so far—but it is something that developers need to put thought into if the option is on the table. As we saw with Diablo Immortal (opens in new tab), even popular studios like Blizzard aren’t immune to backlash against hamfisted, overly aggressive monetization.
“I’ve seen great games fail because they tuned their compulsion loop to two minutes when it should have been an hour,” Riccitiello said. “Sometimes, you wouldn’t even notice the product difference between a massive success and tremendous fail, but for this tuning and what it does to the attrition rate. There isn’t a developer on the planet that wouldn’t want that knowledge.”
The CEO’s comments aren’t the only thing that has Unity users heated up: The company also recently announced that it’s entered into a merger with IronSource (opens in new tab), the creator of InstallCore, an application that’s commonly known for being used to install malware.