Unity May Never Win Back the Developers It Lost in Its Fee Debacle

Unity, the company behind the game engine of the same name, is walking back part of a controversial new fee policy announced last week that infuriated developers and ignited a firestorm of criticism across the industry. “We should have spoken with more of you, and we should have incorporated more of your feedback before announcing,” Unity president Marc Whitten wrote in a mea culpa published today on the company’s blog.

On September 12, Unity announced that beginning January 1, 2024, its pricing for developers would include a “Runtime Fee,” a new 20-cent charge to be levied every time a player installed a game after the title reached 200,000 downloads and $200,000 in revenue. Furthermore, that policy would not only impact games made after the changes, but “eligible games” that had already been released. The backlash from developers was swift, leading Unity to apologize and rethink its stance.

Friday’s changes remove the Runtime Fee for games created “with any currently supported Unity versions.” Instead, the fee will only affect games created or upgraded with the Long Term Support version of Unity expected in 2024. The fee will only be applied when a game has reached $1 million in gross revenue for the trailing 12 months and 1 million initial engagements. From there, devs can pay the fee “either based on monthly initial engagements or 2.5 percent of your game’s monthly gross revenue. Ultimately, you will be charged the lesser of the two.” Unity Personal, the version of the game engine generally used by smaller indie devs, will remain free of this fee, and developers will no longer have to add a Unity splash screen.

Online, developers expressed relief at seeing the Runtime Fee removed, but many remain skeptical, if not downright angry. “Some solid change here, but it feels like they’re putting the rug back in place and hoping you just stay standing on it until the next time they give it a pull,” wrote a dev from WB Games Montreal. “Unity leadership still can’t be trusted to not fuck us harder in the future,” posted another from Among Us creator Innersloth. An X account called “Game Studios Disappointed by Unity” that is dedicated solely to reposting developer statements shared hundreds of denouncements of the new policies.

Even though Unity has walked back the most egregious changes, some developers say the damage is done. “The demonstrated willingness, eagerness to change an agreement, even going so far as to delete their GitHub [repository] that stated developers would only be beholden to the agreement under which they signed up, erodes trust,” says Brandon Sheffield, one of the many developers who have been vocal about the changes announced last week. Part of that is because Sheffield and his team were among those “privy to these changes well before they went live, and pushed back against them,” he says. “We knew the reaction would be resoundingly negative, but we weren’t listened to.”

Regardless of whatever changes Unity makes, Sheffield’s studio, Necrosoft Games, won’t be using Unity for its next project. “We simply don’t trust them to stick to their word,” he says. “We don’t trust them to update their engine in ways that affect us, as PC/console developers, in a positive way. I think they have done irreparable damage to their brand for game developers in general, and the walkback isn’t going to fix it.”

Since its launch in 2005, Unity’s goal has been to “democratize” game development by making it more accessible. In 2018, CEO John Riccitiello claimed that Unity is used by “pretty much half of all games, period.” As Strange Scaffold founder Xalavier Nelson Jr. notes, it’s a “simple, versatile, very powerful tool” that allows a variety of games to exist within the same framework. While Unity “allows developers to modularly build entirely new systems and workflows within, again, the same engine,” as Nelson puts it, other tools are far more restrictive.

Other people credit Unity’s community for a large chunk of its appeal. “Because Unity was such a ubiquitous entry-level engine, it has allowed thousands of developers to invest their own time and energy in creating documentation, tutorials, supporting others, creating plugins, sharing code, etc.,” says Immortality and Her Story creator Sam Barlow. “There is no other engine with the same level of community and support.” It’s that society of developers that’s been jeopardized by the new fees, and the confusion around them.

According to some developers, the pushback from Unity’s users could have been avoided if the company had listened to the community’s internal advocates. That disregard remains a sticking point, evidence of an erosion of trust that had been won over years.

“They’ve stirred up a hornet’s nest,” says Nelson. “The fact that your toolset could strangle you in the process of winning the entertainment lottery is baffling and explains why every developer in the medium currently using Unity to make their most sustainable, profitable games yet is considering their exit strategy.”

Others have lost faith in Unity’s prospects as a company. Barlow cites “a sense of Unity being on the wrong path for a while, and this moment really took that to a new level.” Vlambeer cofounder and consultant Rami Ismail has similar concerns. “What they’ve communicated is that Unity cannot be trusted to remain reliable partners business-wise, but also that they’re desperate enough for funding that they don’t see other options,” Ismail says. Developers want consistency and reliability; Ismail calls these takeaways about Unity “terrifying revelations.”

It’s not just that Unity’s original plan was inconvenient or expensive, or even ripe for potential abuse. Developers WIRED spoke with repeatedly describe it as a betrayal. Game engines are critical investments for any developer, and Unity serves an enormous number of clients. There are alternatives, but making the jump is a tough road for anyone. “The engine is a once-per-decade kind of investment that studios do,” says Ismail. The best games out there tend to be made by people who specialize in one thing for a very long time—look at Baldur’s Gate 3—and now thousands of studios will have to start from scratch.”

For some developers, the damage Unity has done to its own reputation is permanent. “The real issue for me is almost everything had to be explained, in detail, to Unity reps,” says Sheffield. “They did not present themselves as aware of developers’ actual issues, which is not something you want out of a company making the game engine you work with.” Sheffield says his team pays for Unity and signed their agreement based on that. “It’s not on us to make their business model viable.”

Following the announcement today, Whitten answered questions about the company’s policies as part of a “Fireside Chat” with YouTuber Jason Weimann. “The most fundamental thing that we’re trying to do is we’re building a sustainable business for Unity. And for us, that means that we do need to have a model that includes some sort of balancing change, including shared success,” Whitten said. “That’s really, really important for the long-term future of how we think about our business.” When asked about how Unity plans to regain trust, Whitten said he’s committed to regaining trust by demonstrating change through action.

“I can’t tell you that you should trust me,” he said. “You have to decide that on your own.”

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