Unity, the cross-platform game engine that powers games like Rust, Hollow Knight, and Pokémon Go, has introduced a new, controversial fee for developers, set to take effect next year. Indie developers quickly responded to the announcement, with many suggesting the costs of this policy would kill smaller games, while confusion spread as devs wondered how it would affect their bottom line. Unity’s attempts to provide clarity have only fueled devs’ frustration and spawned more questions from those with both currently active and in-development games using the engine.
The new Runtime Fee, announced in a September 12 Unity blog, is based on the number of installations a game built with the Unity engine receives, as well as the revenue it generates. Though it won’t start until January 1, 2024, the Runtime Fee will apply to any game that has reached both a previously established annual revenue threshold and a lifetime install count. Games developed with the lower-cost Unity Personal and Unity Plus plans reach that threshold at $200,000 of revenue in one year and 200,000 lifetime installs, while Unity Pro and Unity Enterprise accounts must reach $1 million in revenue and 1 million lifetime installs for the fee to kick in.
Unity Personal and Unity Plus devs will have to pay $.20 for every game installed past their subscription-specific thresholds, Unity Pro devs will have to fork over between $.02 and $.15 for every install past theirs, and Unity Enterprise devs’ costs range from $.01 to $.125. Developers in emerging markets will have lower costs per install past their threshold. The announcement was met with widespread confusion, as devs of free-to-play games scrambled to figure out if they’d end up owing hundreds of thousands of dollars, charity bundle creators became concerned about potentially being punished for supporting a good cause, and more.
Developers react to Unity Runtime Fee
Shortly after the policy was announced, Rust developer Garry Newman wondered if “Unity [wants] us to start paying them $200k a month” before doing the math and realizing that Facepunch Studios would owe the game engine company about $410,000 total.
“While this isn’t much, here’s some stuff I don’t like,” Newman shared to X (formerly Twitter). “Unity can just start charging us a tax per install? They can do this unilaterally? They can charge whatever they want? They can add install tracking to our game? We have to trust their tracking?”
Though many devs initially thought this new fee would apply to all games made in Unity (including free ones), and reacted accordingly, it soon became clear that the fee will only apply to monetized titles. Axios’ Stephen Totilo shared some clarification he’d received from Unity a few hours after the initial announcement, including that charity games and bundles are excluded from fees. But some of Unity’s clarifications only served to further suggest the notion that it didn’t really think this initiative through.
“If a player deletes a game and re-installs it, that’s 2 installs, 2 charges,” Totilo posted. “Same if they install on 2 devices.” This means that developers could be “vulnerable to abuse” from bad actors who repeatedly uninstall and reinstall their games. “Unity says it would use fraud detection tools and allow developers to report possible instances of fraud to a compliance team.” So, if you get a massive bill from Unity, you’ll just have to wait on their customer support line. Shouldn’t be an issue, right?
Xalavier Nelson Jr., head of Strange Scaffold, the indie studio behind games like El Paso, Elsewhere and An Airport For Aliens Currently Run By Dogs, expressed concerns about the entire situation. “This is the danger of modern games and game development cycles becoming exponentially more complicated, lengthy, and prone to immense dependency,” he told Kotaku via DM. “When a decision like this gets announced, and you’re three years into a five-year journey, you have little to no choice. You’re stuck with a partner who may be actively working against your interest, and who you increasingly cannot trust.”
Tiani Pixel, indie developer and co-founder of Studio Pixel Punk, the studio behind the 2021 Metroidvania Unsighted, told Kotaku via DM that “there’s a lot of things in Unity’s statement that aren’t clear and are very worrying.” She brought up not only how complicated it is to measure actual installs, but the privacy issues inherent with such a policy.
“There are some certifications you need for having such service in your game and releasing it on consoles and other platforms. You need an end-user license agreement (EULA), because you’ll be sending info from the player’s device to an external server. So, will indies be forced to add such DRMs on their games so they can track the installs? Again, Unity does not make it clear. Forcing DRM on games has a long (and bad) history in gaming. Many tools used for this are literally indistinguishable from malwares…There’s no benefit to the devs or the user here.”
She also pointed out how these new fees could affect indie developers. “Small indie games, like our game Unsighted, which had the chance to appear on services like Xbox Game Pass, (in which the game isn’t sold directly to the consumer), might be penalized for becoming popular there, because we will be charged for every install,” she said.
Brandon Sheffield, creative director at Necrosoft Games, warned game developers off the engine in a scathing op-ed for Insert Credit. “But now I can say, unequivocally, if you’re starting a new game project, do not use Unity,” he wrote. “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.”
The op-ed ends by stating that Unity is “digging its own grave in search for gold.”
Unity continues to court controversy
Shortly after Unity’s blog post went live, game developer John Draisey posted that Unity had “eliminated Unity Plus subscriptions” and that the company was automatically switching members to its Pro subscription next month. Draisey shared an image showing the price difference between the two subs, which are billed annually, and it was nearly $3,300. “Be careful not to have auto-renew on your account if you can’t afford the price. And this is with just 2 people on my team with project access,” he warned.
It’s unclear how the potential change in subscription options will translate to the newly minted Runtime Fee, as the thresholds are different for each sub. Kotaku reached out for clarification, and a Unity spokesperson pointed us to their FAQ page. When asked for further clarification, the spokesperson sent this statement: “Unity Plus is being retired for new subscribers effective today, September 12, 2023, to simplify the number of plans we offer. Existing subscribers do not need to take immediate action and will receive an email mid-October with an offer to upgrade to Unity Pro, for one year, at the current Unity Plus price.”
The bigwigs at Unity have been making some, uh, interesting decisions as of late. In June, the company announced two new machine-learning platforms that would be integrated into its engine: Unity Muse (essentially ChatGPT for using Unity, a service that would allow devs to ask questions about coding and get answers from a bot) and Unity Sentis, which “enables you to embed an AI model in the Unity Runtime for your game or application, enhancing gameplay and other functionality directly on end-user platforms.” As former Kotaku writer Luke Plunkett pointed out at the time of the announcement, AI technology heavily relies on “work stolen from artists without consent or compensation,” so Unity Sentis raised a ton of eyebrows.
And as Rust’s Newman shared shortly after the latest Unity announcement, it seems these changes are having a negative impact on the company at large: their market shares tanked as of 11:17 a.m. EST. Let’s see if Unity sticks with these changes, or makes adjustments based on feedback from developers.
Unity responds to negative feedback
At 6:38 p.m. EST, the official Unity X account shared a post on the game engine’s official forums titled “Unity plan pricing and packaging updates.” The post contains a series of frequently asked questions that cropped up shortly after the announcement of the Runtime Fee, many of which were focused on game installations.
As many devs worried on social media before these FAQs were released, under Unity’s new policy, multiple reinstalls or redownloads of games will have to be paid for by creators—and the definition of “install” also includes a user making changes to their hardware. Further, any “early access, beta, or a demo of the full game” will induce install charges, according to the FAQs, as can even streamed or web-based games. And Unity won’t reveal how it’s counting these installs, posting that “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.”
The FAQ does not clarify how Unity will ensure it does not count installations of charity games or bundled games with its “proprietary software.”
The Verge’s Ash Parrish was quick to point out that the multiple install charges could give right-wing reactionaries a new way to damage a game and/or studio: revenue bombing. If certain groups are angered by, say, a queer character in a game or a Black woman lead (both of which have whipped gamers into a frenzy before), then they could repeatedly install said game over and over again, racking up Unity’s Runtime Fee for the studio.
“I can tell you right now that the folks at risk of this are women devs, queer devs, trans devs, devs of color, devs pushing for accessibility, devs pushing for inclusion—we’ve seen countless malicious actors work together to tank their game scores or ratings,” developer Rami Ismail wrote on X.
Nelson confirmed to Kotaku via DM on the evening of September 12 that “concrete talks are happening among some of the most significant developers in the space” regarding a class-action lawsuit against Unity.
After its announcement was met with an almost universally negative response, and the FAQ forum post did not seem to allay concerns, Unity “regrouped” in the evening of September 12 to discuss the terms of its Runtime Fee, Axios reports. Despite initially confirming that the fee would apply multiple times “if a player deletes a game and re-installs it,” Unity is now saying that it will “only charge for an initial installation.”
Unity executive Marc Whitten “hoped [that this policy clarification] would allay fears of ‘install-bombing,’” a concern many devs expressed not long after the initial Unity blog post announcing the new revenue scheme.
The company also reassured Axios that “games offered for charity or included in charities will be exempt from the fees” as there will be a way for devs to inform the company of their charity status. Whitten also said that, in regards to things like Xbox Game Pass, “developers like Aggro Crab would not be on the hook, as the fees are charged to distributors, which in the Game Pass example would be Microsoft.”
Finally, Whitten suggested only about about 10% of developers who use Unity will have to pay fees because of the thresholds the company has established.
Update 09/12/2023 7:35 p.m. ET: Updated to include information from an official Unity forum post, more reactions from devs, and the confirmation of a potential class-action lawsuit.
Update 09/12/2023 at 10:20 p.m. ET: Updated to include information Unity shared after it “regrouped.”