Unity just did the impossible: They made game devs all agree with each other.
Sometimes you read the news for a day and just see some real stinkers. Unity, the game engine that powers a substantial amount of games you play daily, made the headlines over the past 24 hours for willfully tanking whatever trust they had with game developers.
Basically, Unity showed off its new “Runtime Fee”, which changes the entire model of how developers pay Unity for using the engine. The problem is that it cuts harshly into developers’ revenue once it hits a certain threshold.
The Unity Runtime Fee kicks in at a certain point, starting January 1st, 2024 when a game makes a specific amount of revenue and has at least a specific number of installs. That number changes depending on whether you’re using their free Unity Personal license or the more professional Unity Pro and Enterprise.
They detailed it all on their official blog. They’re phasing out Unity Plus immediately, giving Plus users the upgrade for a year to Pro at the same cost. The blog tries to make it seem like this is all a good thing.
Let’s put it in simpler terms, for the non-game developers in the room
On the surface, the up-to 20 cent fee doesn’t seem so bad if your game isn’t free. It’s when you start to look at it through the lens of Gamedev that you start to see that Unity has royally screwed up.
Let’s say your game hits the threshold. What then?
The way that it works is that your game pings their Runtime servers every time it’s installed somewhere. For every install, it ticks a counter on their end. If someone pirates the game or is bundled together, it still counts.
The word “retroactive” is used, as well. This means that if a game comes out now or sometime in the past, it’s being affected by the new terms starting next year if the game is still live and getting installs, even if they no longer make money.
Let’s use Humble Bundle as an example. Ending today is their Masterful Modern 3D Platformers Bundle, which, as the name suggests, is all about 3D Platformers. It’s nearing the end of its run (with around 9 hours left as of writing this).
This bundle has up to 11 games in it. One of those games, New Super Lucky’s Tale, is made on the Unity engine. Currently, 18,302 bundles have been sold.
Doing the math out, being a part of an (admittedly low-count) Humble Bundle would mean that if every person who gets the game installs it, the dev would owe Unity over $3,600 just for being a part of the bundle, on top of their yearly dues. There is a lot more to it, but you get the general idea.
Why not just move to Unreal or Godot?
For the unaware, game engines just don’t work interchangeably. Think of it like engines in vehicles. Even though they might have some crossover, obviously, not all car and motorcycle engines are the same.
The same idea works for game engines. They may do similar things like designing games or being forms of transportation. But, the differences require specialties and experts for each.
Devs can’t just jump from Unity to Unreal overnight, similar to a car mechanic trying to learn how to work on a motorcycle. Doing so means you’re scrapping a large portion of your game to start over entirely. This means that, if Unity maintains its course, the industry is about to look very different.
Game developers unite against Unity
Needless to say, game developers are pissed. Unity has clearly lost their trust and no one knows what to do.
One prominent, popular indie title, Cult of the Lamb, announced on X to “Buy Cult of the Lamb now, cause we're deleting it on Jan 1st.” They end the tweet/post with a kissing face emoji.
Other developers, such as Aggro Crab, are ready to jump ship entirely if Unity doesn’t walk this decision back. They have nowhere else to go and are essentially starting over from scratch if they continue working in Gamedev. Warning: Their language is not exactly NSFW, and rightfully so.
Rami Ismail, a prominent game dev and industry consultant, has been tweeting a lot in the past day. With the current trajectory that Unity is heading, he believes the future is bleak.
First off, he agreed with George Broussard, one of the co-founders of Apogee Software and 3D Realms, about some talk that the higher-ups at Unity ignored all internal concerns about poor messaging and communication.
Going into more detail on social media, Ismail believes that there are four things that Unity needs to do to make things right, based on their initial blog post. These things are that they should not change terms and conditions on products or sales already made, as well as the new terms timeline being way too short.
Additionally, another problem here is that we’re supposed to trust a company with secret figures and numbers that no one can see. And finally, the last problem is that games that make no money after a certain point are still affected by these terms.
He believes that if they can figure these four points out, they might solve the issues raised by game developers.
The future of Unity is full of distrust, disappointment, and disdain
According to Axios game journalist, Stephen Totilo, they’re slowly dripping out more information and potential revisions, as well as details on what exactly happens in certain situations.
Unity has been slowly backpedaling to explain that games in charity bundles or on Game Pass don’t count, and they have fraud protection set up to understand when a game is pirated.
It’s also been stated that most game demos are excluded, as well as people who install a game multiple times on the same machine. But, game developers, including Ismail, don’t see how they could possibly track that successfully.
One major problem that remains is the absolute lack of communication and proper messaging from the game engine. Unity needs to understand that they’re dealing with game developers, some of the most detail-oriented people on the planet.
These are the same people that can spend hours looking for a misplaced comma in code. Of course, they need all the information and minutiae.
As mentioned, developers could always learn a new engine. But, that takes time. Many games are either mid-development or nearing completion. Dropping Unity at this point could set some games back years or bankrupt them entirely.
Unity pulled a Wizards of the Coast. That isn’t a compliment.
This reminds me of when Wizards of the Coast recently tried to drop their Open Game License that’s been established for around two decades. The OGL 2.0 is what allowed writers and game makers to use the Dungeons and Dragons tabletop engine (there’s that word again), details, monsters, and anything in between to make their own thing.
They claimed it was to protect their IP and property, but the prospect didn’t last long. After the entire community banded together (sound familiar?), WotC entirely backpedaled and came up with entirely new terms that were much more amicable.
The problem, though, is that WotC lost all of the trust of game and module designers and is still dealing with the backlash and aftermath to this day.
I expect this is going to go a similar route with Unity. Even if they drop the Runtime Fee entirely, users and developers will remember that they are always capable of doing this again.