Game Developers Are Frustrated With Unity’s New Predatory Business Model

On September 12, Unity Technologies–the company behind the popular cross-platform game engine Unity–announced it was rolling out a new business model. In the hours to follow, frustration, fear, and confusion from game developers spread like wildfire across social media–and for good reason.

In a Unity blog post, the company laid out a new monetization plan that now includes a Runtime Fee. This fee, Unity explained, is based on the number of times a game built with the Unity engine is installed. Games developed using the lower-cost plan will face charges once they hit $200,000 in revenue in a year and 200,000 lifetime installations, while Unity Pro and Unity Enterprise accounts have a threshold of $1 million in revenue in a year and 1 million lifetime installations before they are charged.

Once developers using the Unity engine surpass these thresholds, those using the lower-tier plans will have to pay the company $.20 per game installation while those on the higher-tier plans will pay anywhere from $.01 to $.15 per installation. The plan is slated to start on January 1, 2024, and will ultimately impact a number of popular games, such as Among Us, Genshin Impact, Cuphead, Hollow Knight, Firewatch, Outer Wilds, Cult of the Lamb, Pokemon Go, and countless others.

It didn’t take long for developers to run calculations and realize the fees they would incur due to Unity’s new business model would be astronomical–especially since the Runtime Fee would also work retroactively, meaning every studio with a game made using Unity’s engine that had ever passed Unity’s established threshold would be responsible for paying Runtime fees. Beyond that, developers also expressed confusion as to how Unity would obtain these numbers, what it meant for charity bundles and demos, how games in contracts with distribution services (such as Xbox Game Pass or Apple Arcade) might be affected, how piracy might impact their installation numbers, how bad faith actors could abuse installations to financially tank a studio, and several other pressing issues. Unity kept its responses to these queries vague and brief.

“We leverage our own proprietary data model, so you can appreciate that we won’t go into a lot of detail, but we believe it gives an accurate determination of the number of times the runtime is distributed for a given project,” a Unity representative wrote when asked how they would track installations.

Rami Ismail, an independent game developer and noted industry spokesperson, is among the most vocal dissenters on X (formerly Twitter). Ismail was quick to dissect all the ways Unity–and bad faith consumers–could abuse these new fees.

“If you’re a Unity developing studio, good luck if you ever piss off your user base,” Rami posted. “Instead of tanking your Metacritic with a mass review-campaign they can now straight-up tank you financially by organizing a mass install-campaign.”

As an initial response to questions regarding “installation-bombing,” Unity wrote, “We do already have fraud detection practices in our Ads technology which is solving a similar problem, so we will leverage that know-how as a starting point. We recognize that users will have concerns about this and we will make available a process for them to submit their concerns to our fraud compliance team.”

For Marcus Clarke, an independent game developer working on the upcoming game Overmorrow and someone who is part of the LBGTQ+ community, this is one of his biggest fears.

“This change potentially opens up a direct method for marginalized groups to be targeted in a way that hasn’t been possible before. We’ve already seen a history of minority developers who have had their games review-bombed for being ‘woke,’” Clarke told GameSpot. “I am now in fear that any opinion I share uplifting LGBTQ+ and other minority people may put me at risk of being a target for potential ‘install attacks’. It’s not something I would like to have to consider in my choice of development engine.”

At approximately 6 PM PT on September 12, however, Axios reporter Stephen Totilo stated that Unity executive Marc Whitten had reached out to him with an update amending and clarifying some of the company’s more contentious terms. Whitten told Totilo that, after regrouping, the company decided that only the initial installation of a game will trigger a fee–a tactic the company is choosing to employ to reduce the “install-bombing” mentioned by both Ismail and Clarke. However, it’s worth noting that installing games on different systems will trigger additional fees, meaning a title that a player downloads on Xbox, PC, and Steam Deck, for example, would incur three installation charges.

Whitten also said that most demos will be exempt from fees unless they are part of a download that includes the full game, such as titles in early access. In addition, charity bundles can be self-reported to keep them exempt from charges. Yet Whitten still didn’t offer any explanation as to how this data would be collected or monitored.

Unity also addressed the assumption that studios in contracts with larger distribution services–such as Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass–would be responsible for paying the installation fees incurred through that service which, considering their reach, could be astronomical. Whitten stated that studios would be “off the hook” as distributors are responsible for paying these fees. He then cited developer Aggro Crab’s relationship with Xbox Game Pass as an example.

I spoke with Aggro Crab studio head and art director Nick Kaman earlier that day about precisely this situation occurring. Kaman, whose upcoming game Another Crab’s Treasure is scheduled to release on Game Pass next year, was quick to point out why it would also be extremely detrimental to game studios: If a distributor knows it will ultimately be responsible for paying a game’s installation fees, why would it choose to distribute that game?

“Sure, Microsoft could step in and compensate for Unity’s decision, but it doesn’t feel like that’s their responsibility. Both ourselves and Xbox are happy with the terms of our Game Pass agreement,” Kaman said. “Services like Game Pass aren’t the problem here when ultimately Microsoft, the developer, and the consumer benefit from it. It’s a valid business model that the new Unity fee inexplicably doesn’t seem to account for. Even in the potential case that publishers, investors, or distributors offer to take on the burden of this fee, won’t that just greatly disincentivize those sources funding Unity games in the first place?”

Some developers have lost trust in Unity all together. Among them is Necrosoft Games creative director Brandon Sheffield, whose team is currently using Unity to complete their upcoming title Demonschool. Sheffield explained his frustrations with the company and its “poorly thought through schemes” in an opinion piece published on his website, Insert Credit, shortly after Unity’s initial announcement. Sheffield then reached out to GameSpot to discuss matters further.

“We’ve been working on a game for four years. In that time, Unity’s pricing scheme has changed twice, they’ve gotten rid of the subscription tier we pay for and we’re forced to bump to a higher one, and they have proved they can and will change financial agreements dramatically right out from under us, with absolutely no options on our part. They can’t be trusted, and quite simply, you shouldn’t use their product.”

Sheffield also expressed skepticism around Unity’s prior claim that charity bundles will be exempt from installation fees, explaining that ” they have no way of knowing which installs come from charity bundles. There’s no mechanism for that, only for platform origin.”

A lack of data and mystery surrounding the mechanisms for collecting it are a recurring point of frustration for developers. And ultimately, it leads to a larger complaint against the company: Unity just doesn’t understand how game studios operate.

“Unity’s new pricing model shows an evident lack of understanding or interest in how many of its users’ business models operate,” Massive Monster creative director Julian Wilton told GameSpot. “There is more nuance than just selling a game to the consumer, including demos for marketing, deals with storefronts, and selling bundles of keys. Not to mention, anyone targeting a lower price point or free model for their game will be very much affected and will have a lot more trouble with scalability.”

The Cult of the Lamb developer went on to explain that installs “do not always translate to revenue,” and that the payouts studios receive from platforms can often take a considerable amount of time. If fees kick in before a company receives its payout, it could easily create “uncertainties in cash flow for developers.” In an industry as volatile as the gaming industry, cash flow insecurity could easily halt production at smaller or even mid-sized studios–if not completely shut them down.

Massive Monster first entered the conversation after telling fans to “buy Cult of the Lamb now because we’re deleting it on January 1,” and statements like these are precisely what Aggro Crab’s Nick Kaman thinks might help Unity understand the impact of its new policies.

Aggro Crab was among the first studios to share a message regarding the new business model, writing that these new policies have placed “us and countless other studios in a position where we might not be able to justify using Unity for future titles.” Kaman told GameSpot that similar statements coming from different studios could be vital to reversing the decision.

“I personally would like to see other studios put out statements similar to ours that address how this decision affects their unique situations. We need legitimate sources like game studios and articles like this one to speak out and raise awareness, because a lot of this stuff is initially completely opaque to the average player.”

Since then, the studio behind the massively popular Among Us, InnerSloth, has also put forth a statement. In it, the studio writes, “If this goes through, we’d delay content and features our players actually want to port our game elsewhere (as others are considering). But many developers won’t have the time or means to do the same. Stop it.”

However, statements against Unity are just the beginning. Strange Scaffold head Xalavier Nelson Jr. took to X with news that a “significant group of developers” are currently looking into taking a class-action lawsuit against Unity. When I reached out to Nelson, he told me that while details are being kept under wraps, he could “confirm that concrete talks are happening among some of the most significant developers in the space using the engine.”

Additionally, there is reportedly division within Unity Technologies. In a since deleted X post, an employee wrote, “We communicated extensively internally how horribly this would be received. Stressed simplicity and an extensive FAQ detailing all edge cases.”

GameSpot will update this piece with more information as it is made available.

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