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.”
…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:
- Rec Room
- Somnium Space
(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.
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…