Unity Drops a Bombshell: What Will Be the Impact on Social VR Platforms?

A collage of Twitter (sorry, X) statements from smaller game developers announcing they are dropping Unity after the company’s announcement earlier this week (source)

On Tuesday, Unity dropped a bombshell on software developers: a new fee structure that will charge devs using its popular game engine on a per-install basis, with less than four months advance notice. Ars Technica reported:

For years, the Unity Engine has earned goodwill from developers large and small for its royalty-free licensing structure, which meant developers incurred no extra costs based on how well a game sold. That goodwill has now been largely thrown out the window due to Unity’s Tuesday announcement of a new fee structure that will start charging developers on a “per-install” basis after certain minimum thresholds are met…

This is a major change from Unity’s previous structure, which allowed developers making less than $100,000 per month to avoid fees altogether on the Personal tier. Larger developers making $200,000 or more per month, meanwhile, paid only per-seat subscription fees for access to the latest, full-featured version of the Unity Editor under the Pro or Enterprise tiers.

“There’s no royalties, no fucking around,” Unity CEO John Riccitiello memorably told GamesIndustry.biz when rolling out the free Personal tier in 2015. “We’re not nickel-and-diming people, and we’re not charging them a royalty. When we say it’s free, it’s free.”

Now that Unity has announced plans to nickel-and-dime successful Unity developers (with a fee that is not technically a royalty), the reaction from those developers has been swift and universally angry, to put it mildly. “I can say, unequivocally, if you’re starting a new game project, do not use Unity,” Necrosoft Games’ Brandon Sheffield—a longtime Unity Engine supporter—said in a post entitled “The Death of Unity.” “Unity is quite simply not a company to be trusted.”

Sheffield goes on to say:

…I can say, unequivocally, if you’re starting a new game project, do not use Unity. If you started a project 4 months ago, it’s worth switching to something else. Unity is quite simply not a company to be trusted.

What has happened? Across the last few years, as John Riccitiello has taken over the company, the engine has made a steady decline into bizarre business models surrounding an engine with unmaintained features and erratic stability.

Ultimately, it screws over indies and smaller devs the most. If you can afford to pay for higher tiers, you don’t pay as much of this nickle and dime fee, but indies can’t afford to on the front end, or often it doesn’t make sense in terms of the volume of games you’ll sell, but then you wind up paying more in the long term. It’ll squash innovation and art-oriented games that aren’t designed around profit, especially. It’s a rotten deal that only makes sense if you’re looking at numbers, and assume everyone will keep using your product. Well, I don’t think people will keep using their product unless they’re stuck. I know one such developer who is stuck, who’s estimating this new scheme will cost them $100,000/month on a free to play game, where their revenue isn’t guaranteed.

Unity is desperately digging its own grave in a search for gold. This is all incredibly short-sighted and adds onto a string of rash decisions and poorly thought through schemes from Unity across the last few years.

And it’s not just games that are affected by this news; many metaverse platforms are using Unity too, and it remains to be seen how this news will impact them. Among the social VR platforms I have blogged about, which rely on the Unity game engine, are:

  • Anyland
  • Bigscreen
  • ChilloutVR
  • Engage
  • Lavender
  • NeosVR
  • Rec Room
  • Sinespace/Breakroom
  • Somnium Space
  • VRChat

(Ironically, the social VR platform Sansar deliberately made the decision not to use a third-party game engine, to avoid being blindsided by exactly what happened to Unity developers this week. Not that it helped with uptake of the platform.)

So, I posted the following question to the most knowledgable (and opinionated!) group of metaverse experts I know, the over 700 members of the RyanSchultz.com Discord server. Here’s a sample of some of their comments:

The devs at VRChat say, on Reddit, that nothing will change. We shall see…this guy is staff:

Other comments and responses to the news, from my Discord, are:

Lots of big-name devs are swearing off of Unity, dropping it even for projects already in progress.

For Neos itself I’m actually worried the least. For years they have planned to eventually move away from Unity, so the way the FrooxEngine actually interfaces with Unity is quite minimal. But like, most other VR Social games don’t have the “luxury” of running on two Engines frankensteined together. VRC will probably have to pay for it, the likes of Chillout are likely still far too small for that… But it still sucks that they have that lingering over their head now as the platform continues to grow.

Yeah, I mean, this is exactly why you shouldn’t rely too heavily on a third-party like this, because they can pull the rug out from underneath you…I am quite sure that VRChat is going to be okay. It’s the smaller, more niche metaverse platforms I’m a little worried about.

Sansar’s in-house engine looks pretty good right now, eh?

Okay, so it’s clear to me that this IS gonna have a large impact on any company that uses Unity. Question: how hard is it to move from Unity to, say, Unreal, or Godot? Is it an impossible task?

For an existing game? You’re usually basically re-writing it from scratch at that point.

For an existing project, it’s like remaking it from the ground up. An open engine similar to Unity would be a much better choice probably, for example Stride 3D.

The skinny seems to be that Unity will undo this, but trust will have been broken.

The last commenter makes an excellent point: even if Unity responds to the backlash by retreating from this decision, the damage has already been done, and the trust between Unity and developers has been broken.

The comments over on Reddit have also been uniformly negative. Again, here’s just a couple of examples:

Whatever Unity does, they already lost the trust of devs. Even if they retract, it will be “for now”. Fuck them.

and:

Cost per license sold? Sure. That’s fine, you can just bake it into the cost of the game.

Cost per install? Charged to the developer/distributor???? Fuck no. You have no idea how much money each customer will cost you.

Initially, Unity stated the fee would apply every time the game was installed, or reinstalled. Then they backtracked that, but installs on multiple devices will have the fee charged multiple times. Install it on your PC? That’s a fee. Now also on your Steam Deck? That’s another fee. Your laptop? Fee again. Replaced your PC? Have another fee! And god forbid someone remembers that PC cafes are a thing. There’s zero information about how a “device” will be kept track of, so potentially just changing the hardware in a device will cause the fee to reset.

Piracy is a huge unknown. Unity says developers will simply have to trust that Unity’s anti-piracy solution works.

You just don’t do business like that, ESPECIALLY when you make this change retroactively. Companies are going to have to retool their entire profit estimation for something they cannot even account for.

Anyway, it will be interesting to watch as developments unfold over the next few weeks. Unity is a part of so much software development work (it’s even said to be a part of the upcoming Apple Vision Pro VR/AR headset!), so there will definitely be ripple effects. And, of course, the only people guaranteed to make money off this are the lawyers, so expect to see the lawsuits fly! Stock up on popcorn…

Herding Cats, Part III: Taking a Third Step Towards Developing a Taxonomy of Metaverse Products by Categorizing Social VR Platforms by Architecture, Game Engine, and Scripting Language

H’yaaah, little kitties! H’yaaahh!!

OK, I have shared a first draft of the following infographic to as many social VR Discords as I could find, and I got a fair bit of feedback, so I’m reasonably certain that this will stay Version 1.0 for a little while longer than my thrice-updated Venn diagram of social VR platforms by purpose (here, and the original blopost is here).

As with the previous infographic, I have set this one to CC BY 2.0 CA. Feel free to reuse and remix this, just give me credit, please.

The following diagram is available to view and download in various sizes from Flickr, up to a whopping 800 by 2000 pixels.

Please note that this is an updated and expanded version of the information from the last three columns of this table (my original blogpost). I really need to update that table too, especially since things are evolving so quickly in the social virtual reality marketplace.

As always, comments and corrections are welcomed. Thanks!

I created this infographic using Canva.com, which happens to be a great tool for this sort of thing.

Why Linden Lab Is Building Its Own Engine for Sansar, Instead of Using Unity or Unreal

Inara Pey has done her usual excellent job of expertly summarizing last week’s Sansar Product Meetup, where the topic of discussion was why Linden Lab decided to build their own game engine for Sansar, instead of using an off-the-shelf engine such as Unity or Unreal.

So, rather than reinvent the wheel, I am just going to point to her blogpost, and tell you to go over there and read it all. Among the Linden Lab staff present at the meeting were:

  • Richard Linden, Sansar’s Chief Architect
  • Jeff Petersen (aka Bagman Linden), Linden Lab’s Chief Technology Officer 
  • Landon McDowell, Linden Lab’s Chief Product Officer

So you can get the scoop straight from the people directly involved.

While I think the reasoning for this decision is very sound, the unfortunate fact remains that since Linden Lab is a smaller company with limited resources, feature development will tend to lag behind off-the-shelf engines like Unity and Unreal, which have bigger development teams and lots of users. However, as mentioned in Inara’s notes, backwards compatibility of user-generated content (UGC) is a key issue that needs to be addressed in any successful virtual world. I still think that Sansar is on the right track.

A Nasty Dispute Between Improbable and Unity Puts Several Virtual Worlds/Games in Jeopardy

Worlds Adrift 11 Apr 2018
Worlds Adrift is one of the virtual worlds impacted by the disagreement between Improbable and Unity

The Guardian newspaper reports that a spat between two companies, Improbable and Unity, has put numerous virtual worlds/games in jeopardy:

[Improbable’s] core product, a cloud-based server system called SpatialOS, allows video game developers and others to build enormous virtual worlds that exist and operate independently of player action.

SpatialOS only works in a finished game when paired with a graphics engine capable of displaying those worlds on the computers, phones or games consoles of players.

On Thursday, the developers of one of the largest commercial engines, Unity3D, told Improbable that a change to the engine’s terms of service was intended to block SpatialOS, and all games created that use the technology – including those which had already shipped – from working with Unity.

“Unity has clarified to us that this change effectively makes it a breach of terms to operate or create existing SpatialOS and Unity games and in-development games, including production games,” Improbable said on its website.

The company added: “Unity has revoked our ability to continue working with the engine for breaching the newly changed terms of service in an unspecified way.

“Overnight, this is an action by Unity that has immediately done harm to projects across the industry, including those of extremely vulnerable or small-scale developers and damaged major projects in development over many years.

“Games that have been funded based on the promise of SpatialOS to deliver next-generation multiplayer are now endangered due to their choice of front-end engine. Live games are now in legal limbo.”

Among the virtual worlds/games which are suddenly impacted by this dispute are Worlds Adrift (which has already launched) and Seed (which is a promising virtual world/MMO still in development).

Frankly, this sort of dispute is one of the reasons why companies such as Linden Lab and High Fidelity build their own game engines, even though that means it often takes longer to add new features. For example, both Sinespace and VRChat are built on top of the Unity game engine (one of the companies involved in this particular fight), which means that they have to carefully check for things that break whenever Unity issues an update to their game engine.

Then again, Linden Lab and High Fidelity need to do that when they update their in-house game engines as well. But at least they have complete control over the situation. I’m sure that the developers of Worlds Adrift and Seed are feeling rather powerless tonight.

Thanks to Gindipple for the heads up!