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For Marc Whitten, senior vice president and general manager of Unity Create, the metaverse is an overused and ill-defined word. But if it means a version of the internet with a lot more 3D, he is pretty sure it will be built with the Unity game engine.
I spoke with Whitten about his predictions for gaming in 2023, and we also talked about how the democratization of game development could lead to the creation of the metaverse. After, it’s going to take a huge amount of content, in particular user-generated content, to populate the metaverse and bring it to life. So Whitten says we’re only going to get there with tools that are a lot more accessible, interoperable, and easy to use from any device.
“To me, the biggest challenge of the metaverse is actually content creation. Not even reuse. Creating 3D content is hard,” Whitten said.
And that’s why Whitten’s job is to make it all easier to conceive, build and deploy.
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Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: Tell me some of your predictions for 2023.
Marc Whitten: The key things that I see happening, that I think are gathering steam right now, and then there’s a couple where you can maybe see them ramp up in this year–the gathering steam side, not surprising, basically every game is a live game now. The idea that a game would be this thing that’s static is really going by the wayside. Which, for a class of games, it’s been that way, but in mobile and across all sorts of genres and types of games, and that’s become more important. You don’t see very many launches that feel like just a contained experience, versus something that’s going to grow, have community, and have people deliver into it. That’s going to continue to accelerate this year. That’s one of the biggest that we see.
Going with that—this is an area where we spend a lot of time talking to game developers, but it’s this desire and need for multiplatform. It goes along with the live game side. The idea of a live game is you should expect to be able to play that game in some form on the device that you care about as a user, which raises a lot of expectations around how games design. Not just for being ported to a different screen, but thinking about the experience more deeply on a different screen. That’s continuing to accelerate.
GamesBeat: Are there some consequences for the game engine because of these changes? The kinds of tools within the larger engine that get used more? Things that skyrocket in usage?
Whitten: A big part of what happens when you have to think about multiple device types in particular is the ability to scale the rendering solution to take advantage of whatever that device is. It looks as good as possible on all devices, versus maybe really being optimized for one particular type of device. That means, inside the engine, the ability to take a set of assets, be able to manage those assets at various levels of detail or at various resolutions or various other rendering techniques, so that you can do something that looks great on a console or a high-end PC, but also looks good on a powerful phone without draining the battery of the phone. Those sorts of things are more and more aligned.
It’s also impacting the design side, though. One of the things aligned with this is I just think there’s a resurgence in dedicated hardware. You look at things like Steam Deck. You obviously look at the long success of the Switch. The Switch is a great example. If you look at data on the Switch, it’s almost evenly split in terms of people who play their Switch 100 percent plugged into the TV versus 100 percent mobile versus half and half. They have three cohorts that are almost exactly the same size.
The design of a good game experience is not just—screen state is very different. How you think about control surfaces is very different. Game developers are having to think more and more about an optimized multiplatform control and design experience. They’re using a lot of those types of tools in the game engine.
GamesBeat: Would you say you were ready for these trends of 2023 some time ago?
Whitten: Certainly I think one thing that’s fundamental about Unity is this idea of making it easy to reach the hardware that your users care about. That’s been fundamental to how we build the game engine for many years. It doesn’t mean we’re not constantly having to keep up with change. One thing that’s interesting, you continue to see this rise in power on the mobile devices. The way you would have thought about your power envelope for a phone-class device two or three years ago is completely different now, including what that means in terms of the technology available for a game creator. There’s constant work there.
GamesBeat: Your iPhone’s resolution is now better than your computer’s.
Whitten: It’s not just that. Obviously, it’s the resolution. There’s a great GPU that goes along with it. 5G is getting deeper and deeper embedding so there’s more bandwidth available. You can suddenly imagine doing more things than you would have thought of in a game two or three years ago.
This is one reason, by the way, that I wanted to hit the live games thing. There’s still an interesting set of—a lot of interesting blockers you have to solve for. For example, publishing into a mobile app store, there are often limits on the download package size. Terms of service limits. Therefore, if you’re a modern game, Marvel Snap or something like that, you have to build a game that’s going to be able to be packaged inside the app stores, but still be as rich as you want to deliver given that you have all these capabilities on the end devices. There’s a lot of architectural work that game creators are doing that requires access to the cloud, requires these live services, requires them to think about how they’ll deliver bits, not just in this package, but over time to their players.
GamesBeat: How much are people placing expectations on the game engine to solve their problems and explore their new possibilities? “I’ll wait for Unity to figure out the blockchain stuff before I do it.”
Whitten: One of the long-term tenets of Unity has always been to be a pretty open platform. Regardless of whether we’re doing it ourselves, or someone else in the ecosystem is adding to it, often Unity is a tool that’s ready to explore a new space like metaverse or blockchain or some of these others that you’re talking about. That also helps inform us on the next two or three things we should do to make it better for game developers. But yeah, we have a lot of work to do to continue to keep up and drive it.
My goal is to allow a game creator to take advantage of anything interesting about the set of devices that they want to ship on, while minimizing as many of the headaches of managing multiplatform as possible. I want to take the headaches away as much as I can, while also giving them access to what’s unique, making it easy for them to focus on the fun of the game and the long-term life of the game as they build. We get that right in a bunch of ways. We have work to do just like anyone else to keep improving on it.
GamesBeat: What would you say is your assessment of those two new areas, blockchain and metaverse? How big are they going to be?
Whitten: Blockchain is still early. We’ve seen these ups and downs. The main thing, like with most new types of platforms, is finding sustainable fun that players care about. A lot of people are investing in that space, and there are interesting ideas around what it means to move beyond—to have ownership that lasts longer than just the life of a game or across one game. Those are interesting ideas. But people are still trying to understand if it’s something fundamental about technology of blockchain. Is it about the design paradigm? What are the interesting games that come along with that? We’ll see some that are interesting. We’ll see some that are more technology proof points, where people are just trying things out to see where they go. But I think there will be a lot of interesting stuff there.
Metaverse, it depends on your definition of metaverse. We’ve had this conversation in the past. For me, metaverse is just this evolution of the internet when it is coupled with real time and 3D and simulation capability. It’s going to continue to grow. Maybe the word itself has become kind of meaningless because it was so overused for a while. But the ability to use augmented reality, 3D in a real-world space, to be connected with people—whether that’s in games or non-games, it’s going to continue to grow. We see a ton of continued growth there in a bunch of different areas. That one, to me, feels like it’s doing nothing but accelerating. Again, “metaverse” is an overused word, but the underlying capabilities behind it, those are on a rocket ship.
GamesBeat: The opportunity there seems like Unity for other purposes. If Unity is being used to make movies and things like that now, it can also get out of games and make metaverse experiences, especially if those are not considered games.
Whitten: There are going to be a bunch of games like that too. But certainly, metaverse or digital twins or industrial uses of real time and 3D are accelerating pretty deeply. It’s a big part of the business now. What we see there is, regardless of industry, whether it’s manufacturing or architecture or commerce or health care, there are these amazing use cases for 3D that make it either safer, better, or more efficient, whatever it is in that particular industry. That’s pretty durable—it’s going to be a huge explosion.
Now, again, those things will be used for games as well. One thing that’s cool is we actually built our first version of what we call the high-definition render pipeline, which is the version of our rendering pipeline that provides higher fidelity because it pulled from industrial use cases. As soon as we shipped it, it was immediately used by games. Some of our best games are now built on top of the HDRP pipeline. That cycle of how those use cases push the technology forward is a powerful thing.
GamesBeat: One of the things that was going to tell me when the metaverse was here was reuse of assets. If someone over on the enterprise side, the industrial metaverse factory side, creates something, and that winds up being usable in a game, and all this starts happening because interoperability has arrived, then that would be a metaverse environment. You could say something like Second Life is metaverse-like, but it’s not the metaverse, because that’s not happening. All the assets created inside Second Life stay inside Second Life. They don’t travel far and wide.
Do you see much of this yet, whether or not some of that reuse is happening? Or do we still have a ways to go before any of that becomes more real?
Whitten: I’ll give you another marker that’s similar to that. Let me talk about reuse first, though. The reuse side, if you talk to any of us technology providers, we’re all going to talk to you about Universal Scene Description (USD). How do you extend USD? How do we drive toward more ability to ingest content from multiple places and push it into whatever workflow? There’s a level of investment in that that’s very high. At least from an asset perspective, that will lead to more reuse. There’s then logic. In this game, what does this object mean in terms of its game parameters? Another layer still needs to get figured out that people are still looking at. But those things will happen.
Another one that I might give you on when you might start to imagine that the metaverse is becoming reality is the rate of creation of 3D content. I’ll give you two things that you’re seeing right now, but I think you’re going to see this extraordinary curve on them. The first one is normal people capturing stuff in 3D. I have this interesting chart I’ll show you sometime. It’s the number of photos created in the world from 1896 to now. The thing that would not surprise you, if you looked at 2011, it was a really big number. We all had phones and we were all doing some crazy stuff. I want to say the number then was about 300 billion photos in 2011, some number like that. If you then looked at the curve from 2011 to today, it’s vertical. In 2020 it was something like 2 trillion, and in 2021 it was like 8 trillion. We all know why and we all know the use cases that ended up being used for that.
The same thing is about to happen—if you look at these early examples of 3D reconstruction apps, NeRF technology and all those sorts of things out there, those things are going to lead to everybody capturing in 3D. And that content is going to start to be used in a bunch of different areas. You’re going to suddenly see a billion people having the ability to create a 3D object, which will be a game changer. They will want to use it in different places, which will drive more sockets, metaverse-like sockets for it.
And of course my other trend that I think is on the—maybe it’s not there yet, but it’s on the explosive growth thing. That’s AI. We’ll have these tools that allow people to generate 3D content and use it in a bunch of different use cases. In some cases that will actually skip around the reuse thing. I won’t have to have a packaged version of this asset here, because I can just instantiate one out of whole cloth.
To me, the biggest challenge of the metaverse is actually content creation. Not even reuse. Creating 3D content is hard. That’s why any triple-A game you talk about, their schedule is dominated by the time it takes to build all the content. Until that goes through a 10X, 10X, 10X type of change, you won’t have the raw tools. But that’s happening. I’m not saying 2023 suddenly means that’s all fixed. But I clearly see the trends, and those trends are accelerating.
GamesBeat: This democratization trend that you picked up on as the reason to form the company is really the thing that will tell us that the metaverse is here.
Whitten: And that goes into the democratization of players to creators. We obviously see great examples of that in the world, whether it’s Minecraft or Roblox or Rec Room or other things like that. There are lots of ways that will all start pushing in the same direction toward interesting experiences.
GamesBeat: There are still a lot of skeptical people out there. I wonder whether you get into discussions with them. What do you say to people who think that, say, blockchain isn’t going to happen, metaverse isn’t going to happen, cloud isn’t going to happen?
Whitten: I think they have a lack of imagination. Well, I wouldn’t say it quite like that. We all have a lack of imagination. I’ll give you my example on that photos thing. Let’s imagine you and I were sitting around and talking in 2011. If we were, I can tell you I would come up with some good ideas. That’s about the time that Adobe switched to perpetual licensing and started doing Adobe Creative Cloud. A really smart idea, very clear on that trend. You know what I would not have imagined? TikTok. I would have never said, “You know what’s gonna happen next? 12-year-olds will be influencers selling billions of dollars of real-world stuff.” That would never have come to me.
I always tell people that there’s some seven-year-old who’s going to invent the metaverse, or what we all look for as the example of what the metaverse. They’re growing up with these technologies as they mature. They’ll have this idea. Maybe it’s a 50-year-old. It’s not necessarily about age. I’m just saying that the creators coming through this will use these tools in different ways than we think they will. I’ve done platforms my whole career. The one thing I can tell you as a platform creator is that your imagination for what your platform can be used for is woefully inadequate.
One thing that’s awesome at Unity is you have so many creators. We’re surprised every single day with what someone decides to use the tool for. People have this thing in their head about what they think the metaverse is, but that’s them. You’re asking me, a 30-year career—I’m so imprinted with my examples of what I think Second Life and Minecraft and whatever these things are. That’s very different from how a lot of people are going to look at that.
I have one more trend for you that reads on this. I’m very passionate about this. This one is a little longer-term than 2023. One thing, to me, that’s exciting about all of these pieces of technology—it kind of goes to a democratization point, because it makes it possible for groups of people to be able to use this technology that never had access to be able to be creators using these types of tools before.
Most population growth over the next 10 to 20 years in the world is going to happen in Africa. Africa, many parts of Africa missed a big chunk of the industrial and technological revolution. But when you sit there and say, “You can create these virtual worlds and do these other interesting things,” there’s a creator in Africa who’ll have this amazing read on what the metaverse looks like. Take Axie Infinity as an example, since you brought up blockchain. No one bats an eye that this huge franchise was made by someone in southeast Asia working in their flat. That’s the power of these tools.
I don’t think Unity will know the answer to what the metaverse is. We’re about enabling this set of creators, because there’s going to be so many of them using the tools. They’re going to create these things.
GamesBeat: There are people who are always checking on rumors that someone is going to announce a new platform. Apple is going to do VR, or Nintendo is going to replace the Switch. What do you tend to notice about the platform cycles now? There used to be this five-year console cycle that you could stick with, but that’s gone by the wayside. What do you see about how new platforms are being introduced and why?
Whitten: The most interesting thing is, it feels like there’s more diversity happening in types of platforms launching. There was this explosion around the phone, and then the types of phones got into a couple of different categories. Then it’s been incremental, led with things like VR and AR over the last five to seven years. There’s been more diversity of types of devices. That’s leading back to things like—again, I think the Steam Deck is such a great example of a return to more types of fixed-function devices.
As you know, we often talk to a lot of people because they’re all thinking about how they’ll go build their ecosystem out. A lot of diversity is happening out in the world. It’s encouraging. A bunch of them won’t work, but some of them will. We try to make sure that we can help creators for the ones that are going to be the interesting to create something for players and go do cool things.
Another thing I can tell you, just as a fan of something like the Switch, it’s amazing to see how strong—in part it’s because of digital distribution. There’s a much stronger pipeline of games that goes onto these devices. The number of new games coming out for the Switch, the number of unit sales going along with that, for a platform that’s as old as it is? That’s extraordinary. It speaks to how vibrant the game industry is.
GamesBeat: When we look at other things that are predictable in 2023, there’s the economy versus the growth that could happen because we have new games coming. What do you think about that? We have a weak economy now, but there are a lot of delayed games that are probably going to show up this year.
Whitten: It’s hard to tell. It’s definitely a tough economy. People are trying to find their way through it. There will be more of an emphasis on how you can ensure that you have a good launch and you have a business that’s manageable as you go through it. Obviously at Unity we do a lot in mobile advertising, as an example. One thing there that’s been—we see more and more interest in tools that allow someone to self-publish and have a very clear understanding of the economics of their game, a very transparent understanding. They’re all trying to make sure they’re investing—they’re sitting here doing this as their job and their livelihood, trying to figure out if they’re making the right investments to be able to build something great that will last.
It also puts more pressure on things like analytics, understanding what’s going on with your player base so you can make sure you’re doing a reasonable job of keeping the game fresh. You want to continue to monetize it and launch other things at the same time. When you go through a down economy, there’s just more and more of an emphasis on making sure that those tools are efficient and accurate, so you can make better choices. That’s certainly something where we see a lot of interest from game creators.
GamesBeat: When it comes to openness, this interest everyone has in the open metaverse and open game platforms, what’s predictable on that front?
Whitten: Most of the big platforms for gaming have been relatively open, whatever that means for them. You can do plugins inside of Unreal. You can do pretty deep plugins inside of Unity. A lot of what you were talking about earlier is about how you can make sure it’s easy for assets themselves to move through. But I don’t really see a change there. There’s so much activity that happens around open platforms. And not even just in the game industry itself. You look at something like Blender as an example of how you create more open environments around content creation tools. That’s a 30-year trend that we continue to see growing.
The value of that openness is there’s so much more value that gets added from around the overall ecosystem, more than any one company could ever do. If you’re a platform, you look for that because it helps you make sure you stay relevant and understand the needs. If you’re a creator, you look for it because you don’t want to be locked into something that’s not going to have the flexibility that you need.