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Unity Founder, Ex-CEO: I Didn't Enjoy Being at the Top

"Running a big, complex company across five continents" isn't fun for everyone.

Unity’s announcement yesterday that it would replace its longtime CEO, co-founder David Helgason, with former EA CEO John Riccitiello left a few people scratching their heads. Helgason is said to be staying on at the company in an active role, and blogged that Riccitiello “completely agrees” with his existing vision for the company, so why the switch?

The reasons are a mix of personal and business, it seems. In an interview with Re/code, Helgason said he was proud of Unity’s growth over the past 10 years (it currently claims to have 600,000 “monthly active developers”), but had stopped enjoying “running a big, complex company across five continents.” His new strategic role is still largely undefined, but he said it will involve a mix of community outreach and internal product management.

The former and new CEOs met in the summer of 2013, and Riccitiello joined Unity’s board after investing in the company last November. Since then, he’s taken an unusually active hand in Unity for a board member, Helgason said, working directly with the now-outgoing CEO “one or two days every week.”

“I’ve never met anyone who could help me think as clearly as he could,” Helgason said. He praised Riccitiello’s consumer background and “strong intuition.”

Unity’s direct customers are not consumers, but rather game developers; its main product is the Unity Engine, a cross-platform suite of game development tools. However, in the past year the company has tried to broaden its focus to include game marketing, analytics and iteration, acquiring word-of-mouth marketing tool Everyplay in March and Playnomics in April.

Riccitiello oversaw EA’s growth as COO from 1998 to 2004 and its business as CEO from 2007 to 2013. Unity has long been rumored to be acquisition material; the appointment of such a prominent industry veteran has spurred analyst speculation that the company might be interested in an IPO or an acquisition from outside the industry.

Unity’s chief competitor in the game engine space is Epic Games, owned by Tencent, which makes the Unreal Engine. Earlier this year, in a bid to attract the independent developers with whom Unity is especially popular, Epic lowered its product licensing prices from $99 with a 25 percent revenue share for games making more than $50,000, to $19 per month with a five percent revenue share. Unity charges an array of either buy-to-own or monthly licensing plans, starting at $75 per month with no royalty fees.

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