The line between games and films is set to blur even more as the publicly traded tech firm Unity enters into an agreement to acquire Peter Jackson’s Weta Digital for $1.625 billion in a combination of cash and stock. This means that the world’s most popular game development engine, Unity3D, is about to inhale the technical prowess of one of the five most skilled animation and visual effects houses in the entire world.
Unity shared the news alongside its Q3 2021 financials on November 9, announcing that it has entered into a definitive agreement to acquire Weta’s engineering workforce along with its “tools, pipeline, [and] technology,” including dozens of tools, its interoperable 3D art creation platform, and the thousands of VFX assets in its library.
Weta is the Wellington, New Zealand-based VFX house behind the Oscar-winning effects on Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and James Cameron’s Avatar. The deal is expected to close before the end of the year.
Unity’s acquired company, the tech assets of Weta, will be titled Weta Digital, while Peter Jackson’s Weta visual effects business will remain separate under the banner of WetaFX.
Once the ink is dry on that agreement sometime in Q4, Weta Digital and its 275 engineers will join Unity’s Create Solutions segment while its VFX teams will spin out as the external company “WetaFX,” owned by Jackson and expected to be Unity’s largest customer.
Recent Weta work includes VFX on Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, Eternals and Godzilla vs. Kong. James Cameron and Jon Landau are currently working with Weta on the Avatar sequels.
Unity is the maker of the Unity real-time game engine used in the fast-growing area of virtual production for entertainment content. “Weta Digital’s tools created unlimited possibilities for us to bring to life the worlds and creatures that originally lived in our imaginations,” said Jackson in a statement.
He added: “Together, Unity and Weta Digital can create a pathway for any artist, from any industry, to be able to leverage these incredibly creative and powerful tools. Offering aspiring creatives access to Weta Digital’s technology will be nothing short of game changing and Unity is just the company to bring this vision to life.”
Prem Akkaraju, who joined Weta Digital in early 2020, will remain CEO of WetaFX. As Weta’s CTO Joe Marks joins Unity he will oversee Weta Digital.
On the tech side, with this transaction Unity acquires Weta’s 275 engineers and proprietary technology including Weta’s cloud service and tools including Manuka and Gazebo renderers, Barbershop hair and fur system, Loki physics-based simulation tool for water and smoke; and facial capture technology.
“We are thrilled to democratize these industry-leading tools and bring the genius of Sir Peter Jackson and Weta’s amazing engineering talent to life for artists everywhere,” said Unity president and CEO John Riccitiello in a released statement.
Unity versus Unreal
The new push by Microsoft, Facebook (now “Meta”) and others to create a new VR-based metaverse holds the promise of largely replacing the internet with a more compelling, immersive experience for everyone. Most of these efforts appear to be centering around Unity3D, and not Unreal Engine, but there are many chapters in this story yet to be written.
There is a divide in game development with respect to which of the two game development platforms is better. Some swear by Unreal Engine because you can program it in C++, it handles asset management better on extremely large scale projects, and of the two it has the superior rendering system. Unreal Engine is already in use for real time visual effects solutions, such as the Stagecraft technology used to create many of the backgrounds and environments on Lucasfilm’s The Mandalorian.
Unity, on the other hand, has a much shallower learning curve, programs in C#, and is catching up fast in terms of the quality of images it can produce, to the point where the differences from a consumer standpoint are negligible. About 70% of all commercial games are made with it, so there’s a huge pool of skilled developers available who know how to use it. VRchat, a popular virtual reality social platform, uses Unity3D; despite its technical shortcomings, it is hugely, hugely popular, and unless you’re making a massive MMO, you’re not likely to hit any of them.
Unreal Engine, long considered the pinnacle in terms of visual quality, has held that top spot pretty much since its creation in 1998 for Epic Game’s Unreal. It appears that Unity is now trying to close that gap. With the power and magic of Weta Digital soon to be at their fingertips, they’ll likely do it.