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Illustration: Jackie Carlise for Bloomberg Businessweek

One of Gaming’s Most Hated Execs Is Jumping Into the Metaverse

After leaving EA a mess, Unity CEO John Riccitiello turned mobile games into a lucrative advertising wasteland. Now he’s betting his company’s future on commercializing virtual worlds.

John Riccitiello was on top of the metaverse. Last November the chief executive officer of Unity Software Inc. spilled the news to his staff during a Zoom town hall: The company was about to buy the technology division of WetaFX, the visual effects shop behind the Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones movie and TV franchises. The $1.6 billion deal, Riccitiello believed, would give Unity the 3D development tools they needed to conquer all types of augmented and virtual realities, things like immersive digital worlds and hyper-realistic avatars. “We go from being a player in this space,” he told employees, “potentially to being the leading artist platform for literally everything.”

Developers love Unity for the easy-to-build-on game engine it licenses to third parties such as Niantic Inc., which used it to create the wildly popular app Pokémon Go, and smaller studios that have built hits from Cities: Skylines to Cuphead. But it makes much of its money the way many internet companies do these days: through targeted advertising. If you’ve ever found yourself watching a 10-second commercial on a free iPhone casino or brain-teaser app, it’s likely Unity served it. By acquiring the hottest visual effects tools, the company could branch deeper into the metaverse, the catchall term for the 3D environments that sci-fi nerds and Silicon Valley potentates won’t stop talking about.