Unity is a game engine, and it’s famous for its versatility and low resource requirements. Game engines are essentially a pre-made skeleton that studios can use to make their game without having to pre-program things like collision or an understanding of physics into it first. Game studios, big and small, use Unity for a wide array of projects.
Unfortunately Unity has decided to start charging for installs, thereby gut-punching all of those studios and destroying most of their hard-won credibility in one go.
Unity put out an announcement that on January 1st, 2024, they would introduce a new Unity Runtime Fee based on game installs. In that same announcement, they said they would add cloud-based asset storage, Unity DevOps tools, and AI at runtime at no extra cost to Unity plans in November of 2023.
“We are introducing a Unity Runtime Fee that is based upon each time a qualifying game is downloaded by an end user. We chose this because each time a game is downloaded, the Unity Runtime is also installed. Also we believe that an initial install-based fee allows creators to keep the ongoing financial gains from player engagement, unlike a revenue share.” (Unity Blog: https://blog.unity.com/news/plan-pricing-and-packaging-updates)
There are some more tidbits about the install further down, including their new thresholds for the fee (200,000$ of revenue in the last 12 months, with 200,000 lifetime game installs for the Unity Personal and Unity Plus plans, 1,000,000$ revenue and 1,000,000 lifetime installs for Pro or Enterprise) and the fees themselves, ranging from 0.20$ to 0.01$ depending on plan (Personal had the highest fee out of all the options).
Does that seem concerningly vague? Do you have questions? Unity isn’t interested in answering. Nobody knows exactly what counts towards the fee. Sure, in the magical world where everyone has an up-to-date computer that runs the game first-try, doesn’t have antivirus that stops install part-way, and nobody ever accidentally or intentionally downloads a pirated copy of the game, this fee structure is easy! But we don’t live in that world.
The phrasing implies that Unity is only concerned with installs, not purchases, so every install counts even if it doesn’t come with an additional purchase. If somebody wanted to destroy a development team they don’t like, all they would have to do is 1) buy the game once, 2) write a bit of code to install, delete, and reinstall the game, and then 3) wait. Once a certain threshold of installations and reinstallations is passed, the installs start to cost the studio 0.15$ each time as long as the payment thresholds were already met too. The double-threshold seems like a good guard rail, but if it’s counting revenue and not profit, a studio that broke even on a 750,000$ game could be driven into the red like that. And that’s assuming all purchases are legit purchases. Right now, nobody knows whether or not Unity can tell if the install used a pirated copy of the game or a legit one! If Unity is counting pirated copies towards the lifetime download threshold to start charging, then bad actors don’t even have to buy it first to wreck a company. The choice to work off of installs instead of purchases is truly baffling– it’s like Unity is siding with the pirates and charging them rent.
Unity’s vague announcement doesn’t even scratch one of the bigger issues with the announcement: to measure installs of a downloaded game (as in, the game is downloaded, the installation wizard is activated, and then the game itself is installed and able to run) would take an internet connection and some sort of communication back to Unity, which raises privacy concerns. So either Unity is not going to be able to keep track of installs (not downloads, which require internet, but installs, which don’t) accurately, or it’s going to quietly slip some spyware somewhere to keep track for their new fee.
The Consequences – For Unity
Things are not going so great for software consumers. Adobe, Photoshop, and a host of other companies have moved from ‘buy it once and have it forever’ to ‘buy a subscription and pay 8$ a month forever’. These programs make a lot of money this way. People who learned how to edit in Photoshop or how to securely track signatures in Adobe would have to re-learn these things should they ever go to another program, and for businesses, paying the 8$ is easier and cheaper than re-training their professionals. It’s annoying, but not so annoying that people stop going to classes built around these tools, or change their business standards to get new tools, or otherwise do things on a wide enough scale that Adobe backs down and reverts to the old model. Sure, individual consumers will eventually get fed up and switch to other programs (and there are many good, free programs made purely out of spite for the original choosing to cost money) but large businesses generally don’t.
With that in mind, one can see how Unity might have thought they’d be able to pull their scheme off successfully. For the little guy – the individual consumer – there’s nothing to worry about. If your project doesn’t hit 200,000$ worth of sales and 200,000 downloads, then they don’t charge. For the big guy, well – they can afford it. Big businesses would rather fork up the cash than retrain their artists. And here is where Unity miscalculated.
Video games are not Adobe. Studios are capable of making their own engines. There are teams who are dedicated to moving games out of obsolete, un-updateable systems into fresh, new ones. And unlike Adobe, a video game could simply cease to exist with no warning, and the developer wouldn’t be sued for taking down an important business tool. If a dev can’t re-tool their game (or make it entirely from scratch in a new engine), they may need to pull their game from sales to avoid meeting thresholds; with the end of the Flash plugin fresh on their minds, consumers know what it means when a game developer says that. They know that the developer didn’t kill their creation because they wanted to. Big indie studios can make a fun, popular game that isn’t actually profitable once their bills are paid. So much art is going to go missing. All those buyers know that it’s because of Unity.
Unity has done a smidge of backtracking, but not nearly enough – developers are already preparing to switch should Unity hold fast on this announcement. This whole situation is a game developer’s worst nightmare. Even if they totally reversed all of the decisions they made regarding this fee announcement, developers in every stage of the career life cycle will remember what they tried to do. Newcomers may pick a different engine; established studios may choose to make their own engine instead of relying on something unreliable. Unity has shot itself in the foot.