The merger between Israeli app monetization developer ironSource (NYSE: IS) and US video game developer Unity Software (NYSE:U) is not going smoothly. The main reason is ironSource’s past. The company is currently known for its solutions in putting ads onto mobile phone games but more than a decade ago the company’s lead product was Installcore, a tool for installing home computer software. Installcore was highly criticized over the years for downloading unwanted programs onto computers like automatic pop-up ads and was even classified by Microsoft and other companies as harmful because it changed user’s definitions.
Installcore’s operations were halted in 2000 but it still remains the focus of opposition to the merger announced last week, which values ironSource at $4.4 billion, a 74% premium on the average share price on the 30 days preceding the deal. The opposition comes from independent game developers who are Unity’s customers, who describe ironSource as “spreading malware.” Some of the developers have even announced that they will abandon Unity and work with rival platforms.
US technology website “Protocol” described the merger as creating “the worst public relations crisis Unity has even faced.” Even if there is the slightest of possibilities that the rebellious independent developers will cause the cancelation of the merger, which is due to be completed by the end of the year, the affair still erodes confidence in the Unity brand, which serves 61% of the world’s game developers.
Following the announcement of the merger, Unity’s share price fell by 13%. This fall also has repercussions for ironSource which will hold 26.5% of the merged company when the deal is completed.
ironSource came to the NYSE last year through a SPAC merger that valued it at $11.3 billion but its share price collapsed along with the general fall in tech companies and when the merger was announced last week the company only had a market cap of $2.3 billion.
It didn’t take long for game developers to raise ironSource’s past. On the day the deal was announced, a Danish game developer named Andreia Gaita tweeted: “Wait a minute, let me see if I understood correctly, is Unity merging with a company that is mainly known for its malware distribution system?” Gaita wrote in a tweet that attracted 15,500 likes. “Manufacturers of mobile devices, Apple for example, need to trust the engine and be sure that it does not attach bad things to the game. So now Unity is merging with a company that specializes in attaching malware.”
Rami Ismail, a well-known games developer who also comes from Denmark, tweeted to his 200,000 followers following the deal that “you would think all Unity has to do is maintain goodwill, continue to improve its engine and not mix with evil villains.”
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Unity responded to claims that have been extensively reviewed in recent days on gaming sites around the world, saying that the PC activity, the one in which Instalcore was developed and operated, was split off from ironSource “several years ago” and today the company focuses on game and app developers. Unity further claimed that ironSource “suffered from players who tried to exploit it for bad purposes.”
In practice, the PC activity in question became Rise, which is also owned by the shareholders of ironSource. Rise was spun off with 150 employees at the end of 2020, just months before Iron Source announced the merger with private equity fund Spock in March 2021. So ironSource explained this spinoff as separating non-core activities.
ironSource’s past as a software installer has become a major source of resistance for game developers, but it’s not the only issue. Unity has emerged as a convenient and user-friendly tool for independent game developers and has created their own community environment. But for many of those developers the merger with Iron Source was seen as representing a wrong direction that the company and CEO John Riccitiello are following.
The merger with ironSource should strengthen Unity’s tools for monetizing games and the ability to make money from them, for itself and for the developers. But in the perception of some in the community, Unity should be focusing instead on developing its engine and technology, in other words, concentrating on art rather than business.
Lotte May, part of the development team of an independent game studio called Necrosoft and a gaming commentator, said in an interview with “Game Developer” that “Unity as a corporate entity only cares about chasing infinite growth and attempting to be the next Silicon Valley unicorn tech company and will kill itself trying to achieve that. We have been on this path for a very long time, but it has accelerated so much in the past two years, and it’s really hitting a breaking point for the community.”
Another criticism refers to the fact that only last month, just before the deal, it was learned that Unity was laying off 4% of its workforce. “Unity lays off hundreds of employees and then closes a multi-million deal to merge with a company that distributes damages. I have not seen such corporate suicide in a long time,” tweeted Canadian YouTuber Mutahar Anas, who specializes in gaming and technology.
The public relations crisis might not have become so big if the Unity CEO had not decided to be interviewed by PocketGamer.biz and comment on some of the allegations against the deal.
Riccitiello’s most problematic answer came when asked about Unity’s focus on advertising and the company’s desire to offer constant feedback to developers on how they can earn more from their users. He compared developers who oppose this to classic carmakers like Ferrari, who insist on continuing to use outdated manufacturing methods. “There’s a small part of the gaming industry that works this way, and these are the people I like to argue with the most in the world. They’re brilliant and pure people but they’re also some of the biggest fucking idiots.”
These words were not well received and in light of the discontent caused by the answer, Riccitiello initially claimed that it was a “clickbait” article that took things out of context. After that didn’t smooth things over, he posted on Twitter a long apology for his vulgar choice of words. But the damage, at least in terms of image, has already been done.
ironSource declined to comment.
Published by Globes, Israel business news – en.globes.co.il – on July 21 2022.
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