Unity engine proposed fees leave video game developers confused and outraged

Unity engine proposed fees leave video game developers confused and outraged
  • PublishedSeptember 16, 2023

Hollow Knight. Cult of the Lamb. Moving Out. Untitled Goose Game. Frog Detective. Gubbins. 

If you’re one of the 81 per cent of Australians who play video games, it’s likely you’ve heard of — or even played — these acclaimed Australian-made titles.

What you might not know is they all have one thing in common: They’re made with a software called Unity.

Most Australian game developers, from indies to larger studios, use Unity to build games for PCs, consoles and mobile. Across the world, Unity reigns as one of the most popular development engines.

But, almost overnight, it has become the most maligned.

After Unity on Tuesday announced a new pricing plan for developers using its engine, a wave of anger, fear and confusion spread across the global game development community. 

“I feel like everyone is scrambling to understand what’s going on, including myself,” Melbourne video game designer Grace Bruxner said.

One of the most universally panned changes, known as the Unity Runtime Fee, means developers using a free version of the engine will be charged 20 US cents (31 cents) every time their game is installed on a device.

The changes kick in after the game hits 200,000 downloads and earns $US200,000 ($310,000) in revenue and are due to come into effect on January 1, 2024.

Though Unity has stated the new fee “will not impact the majority of our developers”, the shift has perplexed the game development community, leaving unresolved questions about how installs will be tracked, privacy requirements and exactly who will be making the payments.

And the change could also affect players, forcing delays on upcoming, highly anticipated games or increasing fees for subscription services like Xbox Game Pass.

The announcement has led to an international firestorm in game development, the likes of which has hardly been seen before.

“It’s definitely a PR disaster for the engine in general,” Jacob Janerka, a game developer from Melbourne, said.

Disunity

Unity is a game development software that acts as a scaffold for building and creating games. 

“It’s the kind of software where you can take your graphical assets, like 3D models, music assets, your sound — it’s the place where you put everything together,” Queensland University of Technology digital games researcher Brendan Keogh said.

A tree-like giant sits on the edge of a planet looking at the phrase "Gubbins, it's a word game"
Gubbins, by Studio Folly, was made with Unity.(Supplied: Studio Folly)

Dr Keogh said Unity underpins many games outside of big, high-budget titles and the Australian game development industry has been hugely dependent on it over the past decade.

The engine has lowered the barrier of entry into game development and helped the local industry rapidly scale from around 840 developers in 2016 to more than 3,200 today.

When a game is downloaded and installed, Unity also installs a “runtime code” alongside it. This code tracks what a user has done with the game, sending data back to Unity.

The proposed Runtime Fee relates to this code and, Unity said in an FAQ on its website, “goes towards the continued investment in that code to support the billions of devices served every month”.

But how the fee was rolled out caused concern among developers.

Darcy Smith, a game developer at Studio Folly in Melbourne, likened the rollout to ordering a coffee, except the cafe changes the price of your cup before it arrives.

Or, worse still, the cafe asks you for more money mid-sip.

“That’d be easily the worst cafe of all time, right?” he said.

Unity did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Doubt

The crux of the complaints against the change stem from Unity’s desire to charge developers per install and how prone this system could be to abuse, piracy and privacy breaches. 

Unity’s original announcement suggested multiple installs would result in multiple charges, but it has since clarified that a player uninstalling and reinstalling the game will not see two charges raised against a developer.

It also said fraudulent installs — say, if a malicious person were to deliberately install a game thousands of times — would also not be counted towards the fee.

But the greater mystery is: how, exactly, will installs be counted? And how will the company differentiate between different installations? 

Unity has said that it will leverage its “own proprietary data model” but has not provided detail about the model. It does note the model provides “an accurate determination of the number of times the runtime is distributed for a given project”.

However, a post on Unity’s forums on Tuesday, claiming to be from a Unity employee, suggests the company “hasn’t completely figured out how to count installs yet”.

Two hands hold an xbox controller above a black keyboard
Unity said it would pass the new fees on to distribution platforms, such as Xbox GamePass.(Reuters: Benoit Tessier)

If that’s the case, user privacy may be compromised. Unity suggested this would not be the case and that it receives aggregated data to count installs.

But the lack of transparency has many developers and industry experts such as Dr Keogh worried.

“How is Unity finding out what we’re playing and what we’re installing in order to charge the creators of our games 20 cents?” he asked.

Developers are also concerned conflating installs with downloads and revenue is not a sharp enough metric to determine who should be paying Unity and when.

Ash Ringrose, studio head of Gold-Coast-based developer SMG Studio, explained that  downloads and revenue are not the same as profit for some studios and smaller developers, and the fee doesn’t take into account expenses and other development costs.

Studio Folly’s Mr Smith suggested the changes would hurt small, independent studios trying to pursue ethical monetisation models in particular.

Dazed

The ABC spoke with more than a dozen Australian developers, and the one consistent feeling was confusion.

What defines an install has been constantly changing. Information has been difficult to find and FAQs slow to update. 

Community feedback saw Unity clarify the proposed pricing plan on Twitter, reversing its stance on several proposed changes, including counting re-installs, demos and installs associated with charity bundles.

But the damage may have already been done, with many developers feeling like trust has been broken.

“A lot of game developers are feeling like ‘No, the house is on fire, we gotta get out of here now,'” Dr Keogh said.

Julian Wilton, the creative director at Melbourne’s Massive Monster, said if Unity pushed ahead with the changes, the studio would likely look to a different game engine when building their next game.

Grace Bruxner, the video game designer from Melbourne, used Unity to produce her acclaimed series Frog Detective. She also said she would  consider switching engines for her next game.

“In reality, Unity’s tools just aren’t unique enough for me to justify the financial burden of this change,” Ms Bruxner said.

This is where the changes could begin to affect players.

As developers — particularly independent, small teams — begin switching to other engines, they suggest games could be significantly delayed as developers learn new skill sets on other engines.

For other developers like Jacob Janerka the switch is pretty much impossible. 

The Melbourne-based developer is currently building his new game, The Dungeon Experience, in Unity. It’s far too late for him to change.

“It basically would be impossible to remake it into a different engine,” he said.

“It just would be devastating to do that.”

Discord

Another sticking point for game developers has been around distribution platforms, like Xbox Game Pass, and how their installs via these platforms would be counted.

With Game Pass, players pay a flat fee to Microsoft to access a huge library of games they can download or stream, like using Netflix.

Developers can opt to join Game Pass to get their games in front of more than 25 million subscribers. They get to share in a revenue sharing arrangement with Xbox based on the successes on the Game Pass service.

Unity has said distributors would front the cost of the Runtime Fee for Unity games on a service like Game Pass. In this case, that means Xbox would need to foot the bill.

the Unity engine logo sits in the foreground with a blurred out staff member at a computer in the background
Many of the most popular games outside big-budget titles are ‘Made with Unity’.(Getty Images: Bloomberg)

It’s currently unclear how Unity plans to bill platforms like Xbox or Apple, but developers like Mr Ringrose suggest that if they do, the platforms might have to pass the costs on.

However, he also believes it’s possible the platforms would refuse to pay the Runtime Fee in the first place.

“Can you imagine getting Apple and Xbox to pay this fee? They’d be like, ‘Uh, no.'”

Xbox said it was unable to assist with requests around the Unity fee. Apple did not respond to requests for comment.

The Unity price updates come shortly after the company, which is publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange, cut about 600 jobs in May.

It also restructured and said, at the time, it was positioning itself for “long-term and profitable growth”.

Its stock price took a brief tumble after the announcement, dropping from $US39.69 to $US37.58 ($61.70 to $58.42). By close of business Thursday, it sat at $US35.71 ($55.50).

While the stock price has bounced back, some developers suggested Unity’s response to the backlash could be to completely wind back the changes prior to January 1, hoping to save face.

But the community’s reaction suggests it may already be too late for that.

SOURCE: ABCNEWS

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *