Unity’s acquisition of Weta Digital, announced this week, is a very big deal — both literally, with the price tag in the ballpark of $1.6 billion, and metaphorically.
Weta made its name on the Lord of the Rings movies (having been founded some years earlier by LotR director Peter Jackson) and has become a mainstay of the visual effects industry, arguably second only to Industrial Light & Magic in terms of the respect and recognition it commands as a VFX house. For a major division of such a storied company to be bought by a game engine firm is a pretty clear sign of where the wind is blowing in these industries.
An enormous amount of attention has been paid to the use of Unity’s biggest technological rival, Epic’s Unreal Engine, in the production of films and prestige TV — most notably on Star Wars series The Mandalorian, where the Unreal Engine is used extensively to project virtual sets in real-time behind actors. Acquiring Weta Digital is a clear statement of Unity’s intent not to be left behind in this race, which seems set to become an entirely new and very important market segment for real-time engine tools.
Acquiring Weta Digital is a clear statement of Unity’s intent not to be left behind in [film and TV production].
That alone is a rock-solid business case for this acquisition. Weta Digital has a lot of experience and skill in various different realms of VFX, but a major part of its offering is its suite of proprietary software tools, which is the bulk of what Unity is actually acquiring in this deal. These were developed to tackle the challenges of things like motion capture or large-scale crowd scenes; the company’s long track record of building software solutions that integrate with other firms’ systems and end up becoming industry standard tools seems like an excellent fit for Unity as it attempts to build up its presence in the film production business.
All of which makes perfect sense, but much of which you might have missed given the level of attention that’s been paid to a much more vague and unusual claim in the press release announcing the acquisition — in which Unity said that it was acquiring Weta Digital, in part, in order to create workflows for content creation for the metaverse. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the metaverse-related aspect found itself in many of the headlines announcing the deal; it’s only a few weeks since Mark Zuckerberg declared the metaverse to be the next big thing, and here’s one of the world’s most famous VFX companies being set to work in the metaversal salt mines.
I do understand why that reference made its way into Unity’s announcement of the deal. It’s far more palatable to hype up your $1.6 billion acquisition by talking in blue-sky terms about how it’s lining you up to rule the roost when the next big thing comes along than it is to hold up your hands, admit that your main competitor is running rings around you in a major new market, and say that you needed to spend money to catch up.
It’s not even that I doubt that some people at Unity have some earnest hopes about Weta’s tools playing a role in terms of metaverse asset creation; the notion of assets from film and TV being imported directly into the metaverse to be used in various ways is something that’s been discussed with varying degrees of seriousness for many years, and opening up access to the Weta toolset through a cloud service could definitely help to streamline that process.
It’s hard, though, to see Unity talk about putting the crown jewels of one of the most respected visual effects houses in the world to work on creating assets for the metaverse, and not recall John Carmack’s remarks at Facebook Connect a couple of weeks ago. Taking some liberties with the paraphrasing, Carmack essentially seemed to accept (with some lamentation) that the metaverse concept has suddenly shifted from being a realm of curious intellectual inquiry of the “won’t this be cool some day when it all actually works?” variety into being an unstoppable commercial juggernaut simply because Mark Zuckerberg now says it should be. There’s a real risk, therefore, that this is going to end up with vast amounts of time, money and effort being thrown at a massively hyped venture that ultimately ends up changing very little about how people interact with their hardware devices, with the Internet, or with one another, because the necessary groundwork — both the nuts and bolts of how it can work, and the intellectual question of how and why it should work — was very incomplete when the juggernaut started rolling.
There’s about to be an enormous amount of investment thrown into fancy interior décor for a building whose foundations haven’t yet been firmly laid — indeed, whose blueprints aren’t yet agreed upon
Unity slapping the “metaverse” terminology on this enormous acquisition as a justification is a pretty good example of how quickly that juggernaut has started rolling. I don’t think that word would have been part of the announcement prior to Zuckerberg’s recent Damascene conversion (or finally getting around to reading Snow Crash, or just really wanting to be in news headlines for something other than nurturing threats to democracy and fomenting genocide in the developing world, or whatever else it was that drove his decision to pivot to the metaverse).
The metaverse concept isn’t new, of course — coined by Neal Stephenson in the early 1990s, it’s been applied to all sorts of concepts and projects in the intervening decades. Aside from a few brave efforts at bringing various metaverse concepts to life (Second Life being the most famous of the bunch), though, in recent years it’s mostly been the province of hucksters with a beady eye for the cash of easily bamboozled investors. Some of the core features that have come to define “metaverses” (as distinct from other shared online spaces like MMORPGs or games like Minecraft) include things like in-game property ownership or leasing, a notion that seems to directly tickle some rent-seeking gland deep in the brain of less technically-savvy investors, making it a perfect high-concept pitch for ‘entrepreneurs’ in the evergreen field of separating fools from their money.
Needless to say, Facebook throwing its weight behind the metaverse has changed that calculus; nothing that the company has done so far has actually made the metaverse concept more real, or plugged any of the enormous holes remaining in both the technological and the intellectual underpinnings of the project, but the promise of Zuck’s billions pouring into this sphere has made it a damned safe bet for anyone who needs a nice buzzword to jazz up a press release.
Carmack’s concerns, however, are widely shared and make a hell of a lot of sense. I fear that there’s about to be an enormous amount of investment and work thrown into fancy interior décor for a building whose foundations haven’t yet been firmly laid — indeed, whose blueprints aren’t yet agreed upon.
For a start, talk to a dozen people working on or around “metaverse” related projects and you’ll get a dozen different definitions of what a metaverse actually is — there are commonalities, for sure, but they’re often focused on the financial structure of the system (the aforementioned obsession with allowing people to own virtual property and buy or sell virtual items, for example) rather than the nuts and bolts of how it actually works and what it provides to its users.
That focus somewhat belies the reality that the people most interested in the metaverse right now aren’t people who actually want to use a metaverse, but people who want to invest in it — investors sitting on scads of cash who know that the enormous growth opportunities offered by the first decade of smartphones have largely settled down, and are now desperately looking for the next gigantic tech growth market.
This isn’t to say that the metaverse — or a collection of metaverses — will not or can not happen, or that there isn’t value to the idea. Much like technological advancements like VR and AR (both of which will likely need to evolve at a breakneck pace to make the idea of the metaverse work in practice), this notion has been a persistent dream for decades precisely because it has a deep allure for a great many people.
But the feeling I get from seeing companies like Unity (and many others; I’m just picking on Unity because they’re this week’s most high profile example, and because the Weta announcement sent their share price soaring so high that I doubt they can hear the criticism over the clinking of champagne glasses) talk about asset creation for the metaverse, or building out services for the metaverse, is pretty much how I felt about companies building mobile phone games before smartphones.
Talking to pre-smartphone mobile game developers, it was impossible not to respect the vision and, indeed, the hustle — but looking at the reality of what they were building, it was incredibly apparent that it was vastly too early for any of this to be a success. Those companies were gambling on the technology and userbase catching up to their ideas before they ran out of money; some of them made it, and got their huge paydays in the end, but most of them went bust well before Steve Jobs ever held up an iPhone in front of the world.
It’s great that Unity is doing some blue-sky thinking about the metaverse and the tools it might require — but companies that can’t afford to spend billions should be far more circumspect, especially since the real value of Weta Digital to Unity is almost certainly going to end up being far closer to its own wheelhouse than to Zuckerberg’s grand and nebulous plans.