Unity has fallen. Oh, sure, the company has rolled back the worst parts of its incredibly boneheaded “give us money for your successful game” nonsense, but not all of it… but frankly, it doesn’t matter. Once the company started floating the idea of doing it, the gloves came off. All of the goodwill that Unity had built up as an engine evaporated more or less immediately. It was a play for more money, and now it will result not only in not getting more money but in getting less money – because nobody really wants to build games on an engine that attempted a mafia shakedown for a product that developers bought.
This is not new this year, though. Elon Musk, the world’s most divorced man, has been busy throwing hammers at Twitter after he overpaid for it, right down to attempting a disastrous, unsuccessful, and just stupid rebranding that has mostly provided a convenient offramp. We’re on year I-have-genuinely-lost-count of World of Warcraft and Blizzard acting as if it can do no wrong while in the middle of doing wrong, trying to will people into not noticing or caring. The gaming industry and tech in general is littered with this stuff.
Which prompts the question of why. Why is it that so many studios, developers, and CEOs think their products are invincible?
The obvious answer to that question is usually a result of success. If you managed to have a smashing success and suddenly became the universal metric of success, then you can kind of get lost in that success and think that you’re invulnerable. This is definitely an understandable impulse… but it also doesn’t cover literally any of the products that I talked about in the introduction.
Unity’s current CEO, John Riccitiello, joined in 2014 when the company had already been operating and been successful for years. The current WoW team is not the team that launched the game, including at least one person in current leadership who was running a competing product (EverQuest II, anyone heard of that), and several of the people who did launch the game are currently in the forgetting closet because of that sexual harassment lawsuit scandal. There are definitely arrogant designers with success stories, but a lot of the time that arrogance is in fields unrelated to their success. (Like Tim Sweeney being mad people called him a nerd in high school.)
Now, I’m not sure I have the answer. I’m not a therapist, and I do not have access to the hidden cloisters of anyone else’s mind-prison. But I do have at least one theory, and it comes from a similar place that generates a lot of player arrogance in MMOs, especially in games that enforce a rigid hierarchy for players. And to explain this, I think we’re going to need to talk about Nate.
Nate was someone I knew in Final Fantasy XI. I didn’t say he was a friend because I don’t actually think anyone was friends with Nate. Not because Nate was awful, mind you, but he was just… not great. Like, he was never outright rude, but he just skirted the line there. He was abrasive in that kind of mildly exhausting way where he hasn’t said anything really objectionable, but you still didn’t want to hang out with him again. But Nate had something that the game really required: time.
I can’t recall what Nate’s job was, but it was a tech job that let him work at home (which was uncommon then) and paid well enough while still leaving him free enough to play the game most hours of the day. He could be more or less camping Notorious Monsters, farming, or leveling pretty much all the time. And he had enough gear and enough jobs – and was around so often – that Nate was pretty much always on your friend list.
You didn’t like Nate, but you didn’t really dislike Nate. And if you didn’t have a whole day to play the game it was easier to just… sigh and ask Nate if he would join your party because he was there and he could fill the role. So Nate became a kind of vital part of the social fabric of the game, and Nate clearly knew it.
This is why when Nate started to actively be a jerk – stealing rolls, harassing players, and the like – people put up with it for a while.
Now, keep in mind, Nate was in no way the gatekeeper for FFXI. He was not the origin point of the game. None of us knew Nate beforehand. He was not responsible for it. But he had become so ubiquitous that he knew it would be hard to operate without him. There would have to be a big sea change to excise him from social circles. And it’s easy to assume that at that level that you can act with impunity, especially when, say, I know that if I had pulled half the crap Nate did that I would have been in a much worse place.
So what happened? Nate just kept being more of a jerk and eventually people stopped inviting him. And all of Nate’s power went away real fast. Especially when a whole lot of people dropped the game for WoW, which – at least for leveling – couldn’t be gatekept by Nate.
It’s really easy to assume that Newton’s first law applies to social situations and the software industry just as much as it does to physical objects. When you’re already a needed part of the industry, you can start thinking that you are going to remain a part of the industry. People can’t just stop using Twitter or MySpace or LiveJournal or Facebook or whatever. They won’t just stop buying Nintendo consoles. They won’t really all swap over to IBM PCs instead of Apple. The list goes on.
And the thing is that these institutions are right… to a point. But the problem is that the people who realize “I am very tied into all of this and it would be hard to excise me” never think about how that equation is shifted based on the latest set of actions. It’s easy to say that WoW is the industry leader in MMOs, so we don’t have to listen to people whining about being hostile to casual players because where else are they going to go? And then they go, and suddenly you don’t have the understanding or staff to comprehend the change that’s going on, and you double down on assuming you are too big to fail.
You can look at the state of anything – a social scene, a software development scene, social media, or whatever – and feel like everything relevant is fairly well set in stone and unbreakable. But stone isn’t unbreakable. Apply enough force to it and it shatters, and apply enough unpleasantness to a situation and people will figure out how to get rid of you. Tip the balance too far, and you get a lesson in how unassailable you aren’t.
You could, of course, also learn that without destroying a development tool that’s been wildly useful to the industry. Apparently Unity didn’t get that part of the memo.