The fall of Riccitiello

Colin Campbell, Tuesday, October 10th, 2023 10:45 am

I first interviewed John Riccitiello in the late 1990s, when he was pretty new at Electronic Arts. In those days, executive appointments from outside the gaming industry were still rare. His history working for consumer brands like Pepsi, Haagen Dazs, and cake outfit Sara Lee was an easy opportunity for any journalist who wanted to know what it took to run a big gaming operation, if not experience with actual games.

The interview is lost, but I recall Riccitiello being smooth and a bit smarmy. To me, he looked like a bad guy from a 1980s daytime soap, but I liked him well enough. He gave good quotes, and he obviously enjoyed talking to reporters. 

He didn’t try to bluff some deep love of games. He said he’d played a lot of Doom but otherwise was not a huge gamer. His interest was in opportunity, growth and, of course, money. He said all the right things about what a great company Electronic Arts was. (Even in those days, EA’s days of being beloved by gamers was long gone.)

Riccitiello spent the next 25-odd years in senior roles in gaming and in entertainment media. At EA, he eventually became CEO, though he departed under a cloud after a run of misses. At Elevation Partners, he wheeled and dealed profitable partnerships and mergers, like the one that married mega-developers Pandemic with Bioware, which was later acquired by EA. 

A decade ago he joined the board at dev-tool maker Unity, becoming the boss in 2014, where he remained – until his resignation, yesterday. 

Catastrophic bungling

Riccitiello’s fall follows a catastrophic attempt to reconfigure Unity’s business model, essentially charging its development customers in ways that enraged them to such an extent, that they began to quit the platform en masse. 

A hasty, and half-assed attempt to roll back the disaster did little to save what had once been a well-regarded brand, which supplied tools, assets, and sharing platforms that are especially useful to independent game developers, but also to larger companies. 

Riccitiello’s attempts to tap into some of the gargantuan profits of those big publishers – especially those operating on mobile platforms at a global scale – made the error of scooping into its maw a whole lot of indies, who are often seen as the creative engine that drives game development forward. They are, basically, struggling artists. 

Riccitiello found out that while they don’t necessarily have a lot of financial clout at an individual level, they have collective power. He ought to have known better. Last year, he was forced to apologize to the development community for calling some of their number “fucking idiots”. 

Out of context, the quote looks a lot worse than it did in the original Pocket Gamer interview. He was trying to make the point that things change and people need to move with the times. But it was still a bad look for him, and he was forced to backpedal. Now he’s messed up again, but this time, an apology was never going to be enough. 

(An aside. Pocket Gamer posted an amusing tweet today: “Sad to see Riccitiello go. Unity blunders are responsible for four out of the top five all-time most-read stories on my site.”)

Subscription model

In its investor press release announcing his departure, Unity characterized the move as a “leadership transition” in which the erstwhile CEO, president, and chairman was merely going to “retire” from his role. Board president Roelof Botha said that Riccitiello “will continue to advise Unity to ensure a smooth transition”.

He is being replaced by James Whitehurst, who previously served as senior advisor and president at IBM and of IT service company Red Hat. 

“Working with Unity under John’s leadership has been one of the highlights of my career,” Botha said, making no reference to the recent carbuncle.”John has led Unity through incredible growth over the last nearly 10 years, helping us transition from a perpetual license to a subscription model, enabling developers to monetize, building other game services to serve our creator community, leading us through an IPO and positioning us as a pioneer in the developer community. Unity would not be where it is today without the impact of his contributions. I remain excited for the future of Unity.”

Riccitiello also did not reference the events of the past few weeks. “It’s been a privilege to lead Unity for nearly a decade and serve our employees, customers, developers and partners, all of whom have been instrumental to the Company’s growth,” he said. “I look forward to supporting Unity through this transition and following the Company’s future success.”

Despicable greedy

It’s often said that all political careers end in failure, and it may be broadly true of business too, especially with people like Riccitiello who I personally doubt had any intention of retiring from his role until very, very recently. His handling of the Unity situation will probably make for a good few business school theses in the years to come, though I doubt he’ll want to read them.  Maybe he’ll pop up someplace else. Maybe not.

For now, developers seem broadly glad to see the back of him. Game programmer Mike Dailly wrote on Twitter: “He really is a despicable greedy ****, so it’s good to see him go.” 

Dan Pearce wrote: “John Riccitiello sucks ass, but it’s also worth noting that Unity went public and now has a board of stakeholders who also seem to suck ass. Unless you see meaningful, long-term effort to nurture developers and rebuild trust, then it’s still worth keeping one eye on the door.”

Many noted that while game developers are struggling with an adverse employment environment right now, execs like Riccitiello generally do just fine out of failure. A Google search puts his net worth at around $150 million. 

As game developer Emilia Lazer-Walker puts it: “John Riccitiello won’t see your tweets, but your friends who also destroyed beloved products in the name of capitalism and then took 8-9 figure golden parachutes to resign will.”

Colin Campbell

Colin Campbell has been reporting on the gaming industry for more than three decades, including for Polygon, IGN, The Guardian, Next Generation, and The Economist. © 2024 | All Rights Reserved.