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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Game On: Unity game engine price model shift sparks developer uproar

Popular game engine Unity announced a “Runtime Fee” policy on Sept. 12 that, starting Jan. 1, would incur a fee upon developers each time a game utilizing Unity was downloaded. The change has been met with near-unanimous negativity, with many studios threatening to move onto a different game engine altogether.   (Unity Technologies)
By Riordan Zentler For The Spokesman-Review

Popular video game engine Unity made headlines earlier this month when it announced massive changes to its pricing structure, sparking confusion and outrage. Unity proclaimed that on Jan. 1 it would be implementing a pay-per-download pricing model to charge developers a flat fee any time someone installs a video game utilizing Unity software.

Unity attempted to justify this “Unity Runtime Fee” by explaining that “we chose this because each time a game is downloaded, the Unity Runtime is also installed. We believe that an initial install-based fee allows creators to keep the ongoing financial gains from player engagement, unlike a revenue share.”

A great number of studios – many of them small, independent operations – felt cheated by this sudden change to a game engine that has typically made most of its money upfront. Worse, Unity’s initial announcement made absolutely zero mention of how they would be assessing the many, many instances of people buying a game once but downloading it multiple times.

A cost anywhere between $0.02-0.20 per download depending on overall install numbers might not seem unreasonable, but it’s not at all uncommon for gamers to reinstall a game multiple times – to play on multiple devices, temporarily free up hard drive space or have a “clean install” if they’ve run into lots of bugs, for instance.

Those are just the reasons for everyday gamers to install a title multiple times. When it comes to pirates and other bad actors, there are numerous nefarious reasons, and the proposed Unity Runtime Fee would almost certainly introduce all manner of new incentives.

Unity attempted to assuage developers’ fears by clarifying they would implement fraud detection tools and allow studios to report potential cases of abuse. When this feedback was deemed insufficient by most, Unity further promised that only the initial installation of a game would incur a fee and that game demos “mostly” won’t trigger fees.

The drama continued all month until Sept. 22, when Unity revealed a revised pricing plan – removing the fee altogether for Unity Personal users, and allowing Unity Pro and Enterprise developers the option to avoid the charges in exchange for a 2.5% revenue share. They also made changes to the Personal plan, increasing the revenue cap from $100,000 per year to $200,000, after which studios are upgraded to a higher tier.

To be clear, nothing that Unity has done is illegal – the company is well within its rights to modify all aspects of its game engine, pricing models and so on. On the flipside, game studios are within their rights to cease using Unity in favor of another engine such as Unreal Engine or Godot. The problem is that game development typically takes many years, and shifting engines mid-development is a massive undertaking.

Accordingly, developers feel betrayed and blindsided by Unity’s money-first, people-second change. Since its initial release in 2005, Unity has always prided itself as the user-friendly, community-driven game engine – and this abrupt shift proves the company no longer embodies such values.

It’s a shame, because Unity has been the backbone of countless excellent titles – popular examples include Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout, Vampire Survivors, Subnautica, Cuphead, Hollow Knight, Among Us, Slay the Spire and Cult of the Lamb. Several prominent developers have already confirmed they won’t be using Unity for future titles.

Unity’s decision to make sweeping pricing changes in the face of backlash follows that of several tech platforms this year. In July, Reddit began charging egregious sums for API access, effectively destroying all third-party Reddit apps and moderation tools. This month, Elon Musk revealed that X, formerly known as Twitter, is considering charging all users for access to the platform.

The most likely fallout of Unity’s abrupt price model shift is that game studios already a year or more deep into development will bite the bullet and finish the job in Unity before moving onto a different engine for future titles. While the Unity toolset is solid, its primary strength above the competition has always been its community-driven approach. With the company doing its level best to erode that reputation, developers will surely be moving on in the years to come.