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.


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…

Sinespace Celebrates Its 3rd Anniversary: Highlights from Chief Product Officer Adam Frisby’s Keynote Speech

The virtual world Sinespace has been celebrating its third anniversary with a week of in-world events, culminating in a keynote address given today by the company’s Chief Product Officer, Adam Frisby.

I had a long online chat with Adam before his presentation today, talking about various new features coming soon to Sinespace, and the following are some notes I took during Adam’s talk (Adam was also kind enough to share his presentation slides ahead of time with me, for which I thank him profusely for making my reporting job so much easier!).

Adam Frisby’s Keynote in Sinespace

Adam started off with a report on what had happened with Sinespace in 2019. Sinespace’s development team has doubled in size. Among the features worked on were:

The company has also been very hard at work on improvements to the default human avatars in Sinespace (which is actually already in the live release now). This major update to the avatars offers more accurate (less stylized) human proportions, with a new, powerful system of custom slider shapes or “morphs”. (Adam says that no pre-existing clothing will be broken.)

A new set of universal skin detail maps will be added to the existing skin maps on the human avatars. Adam shared a slide of what the new skins will look like, and I must admit they’re rather impressive:

There will also be several improvements to avatar clothing: a new auto-rigging algorithm, and blend shape support (for example, adding features such as dress length sliders to clothing). Sinespace already has support for in-world cloth physics, as you can see in the video below, and this functionality is expected to be improved even further in future software releases.

It’s now very clear that, despite experiencing some significant problems with upgrading Sinespace to Unity to 2018.3 in the past year (“the hardest we’ve ever done in ten years with Unity”, Adam says), the platform has benefited greatly overall from choosing to use Unity as an underlying game engine. In fact, Sinespace is now working in association with Unity, which offers the company even better support and more access to Unity engineers.

After some problems in marketing in 2019 (they fired the external company that was doing their marketing after one particular fiasco), Sinespace has just hired a new Vice President of Marketing, Al King.

So, in summary, 2019 was a big year for the Sinespace team in terms of building the product (mostly behind the scenes) and getting ready for a scale-up. Adam admits that the team has learned some expensive lessons, but ones he prefers that they have made before the platform scales up. Sinespace has also been watching competing platforms make some mistakes too, and hopefully learning from them. (For example, Sinespace has wisely decided to postpone a launch on Steam.)

And among future projects is a big push to provide mobile support (Sinespace has a full-time team devoted to this now, and there is an Android beta app already up on Google Play). They also want to improve the built-in screenshot capability, integrating it with social media. Another focus is improving what they call “the first five minutes” experience of new users, to encourage user retention.

Oh, and I saved the best for last: a brand-new contiguous mainland with in-client parceling, streamed regions and content, and a very cool new feature—voxel terrain editing, including the ability to dig caves and tunnels and create islands in the sky! (And Adam stated in my earlier chat with him today that they have implemented voxels “properly”; these are not the simple cubes used by Cryptovoxels!)

Here’s a couple of brief video previews Adam was kind enough to share with me of the voxel terrain editor in action (the second shows the digging of a cave):

And you can build mind-bogglingly large terrains using this tool: Adam’s test parcel for the voxel terrain editor is 96,100 cubic kilometres. (Approx. 23,000 cubic miles): 131,072 metres by 131,072 metres by 5,600 metres in size!

Oh, and did I mention? There’s voxel water, too!

An example of voxel water in Sinespace

So, as you can see, Sinespace is starting to look better and better all the time! And they are busy implementing features that many other social VR/virtual worlds cannot yet match. I must commend Adam and his team at Sinespace for doing a lot of hard work behind the scenes on the platform, and patiently biding their time before a full-scale product launch (perhaps sometime in 2020?). I’m quite looking forward to seeing how the platform evolves over the next year!

Normal: A Brief Introduction

Normal is mentioned as one of the companies working in social VR in the 2019 infographic published by the San Francisco-based venture capital firm The Venture Reality Fund (which is available here).

Normal’s website essentially consists of a blog and a store selling branded merchandise. They have one product called Normcore, which they describe on their blog as follows:

If you’ve ever tried building a multiplayer game, you know it’s a lot of work. Even just getting to the point where you can pass data between two clients can be challenging. It’s so much work that many developers decide from the beginning not to create multiplayer games. We love multiplayer games and apps at Normal. Especially when it comes to VR, multiplayer turns what has the potential to be a very isolated experience, into a shared one.
When we started implementing our own multiplayer titles, we realized the multiplayer aspect was going to be a lot of work. Sending messages between clients, synchronizing & smoothing movement of objects, implementing voice chat, matchmaking, running servers, etc. The list piles up quickly, and there are many engineering challenges that aren’t obvious until you’re months or even years into a project.
We’ve spent the last three years working on Normcore, a Unity plug-in for our own internal use, implementing all the different pieces—state syncing, physics syncing, voice chat, persistence, fast serialization with versioning, delta compression, flow control, and much more. Through this process, we noticed a pattern: Everyone currently needs to implement each of these pieces from scratch.
We’re releasing Normcore in an effort to not only save developers time and encourage more multiplayer titles, but with the hopes of creating the best multiplayer networking plugin available. Our goal is to refine and improve Normcore until it becomes so good, you wouldn’t ever dream of writing your own multiplayer networking. You should be spending that time on your game anyway.

So, instead of a social VR platform, Normal sells a multiplayer networking plugin for Unity-based games. So it is “social” in that sense. But it’s not very interesting from an end-user point of view, so I’m not going to include it in my list of social VR/virtual worlds.

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.