Unity, the popular cross-platform game and media development engine, is on the defensive after receiving intense backlash against a controversial new fee structure, which developers using the platform have called destructive and unfair. Now, the company is trying to reverse the announcement, at least in part.
The engine is popular among indie developers as a way to get a game up and running across multiple gaming platforms while minimizing upfront costs. If a developer had revenue under $100,000, it was free, while a Plus tier took up to $200,000, and above that there was a Pro tier. As a result, some of the biggest games on the market use it: Pokémon GO and Genshin Impact, for example, as well as countless indie hits like Slay the Spire and Timberborn.
But the company announced Tuesday morning that starting in 2024, the company would charge a fee of $0.20 per install of a game once the title sells 200,000 copies and the developer earns revenue of $0.20. $200,000. Developers who pay for a higher subscription tier have higher sales caps and lower fees (and would remain free for those who don’t meet these milestones).
While selling 200,000 copies might be a dream come true for many indie developers, and Unity itself estimated that around 10% of its users would fall under that umbrella, there are also many for whom that rate could be disastrous. Suddenly, a game where the Unity licensing cost has already been recouped would often become a liability: an increase in sales could saddle you with thousands of dollars in fees. And on mobile devices, where many games are free and rely on ads or in-game monetization, a trip to the top of the App Store list could saddle their creators with enormous costs without any immediate income to pay them.
The original wording and description of Unity’s new fees also suggested that even pirated or repeat installations would incur fees, something the developers considered unprecedented.
Several popular game creators, perhaps the most recognizable being Among Us Developer Innersloth, said that instead of paying the fees, they would take their games offline or delay development to port them to a different engine. (The open source Godot has seen considerable interest.)
“This would hurt not just us, but also other game studios of all budgets and sizes,” the developer wrote in a post on X/Twitter. “If this happens, we will delay the content and features that our players really want to port our game elsewhere (as others are also considering). But many developers won’t have the time or means to do the same. Stop this. What is that?”
Size Five Games’ Dan Marshall was less diplomatic when speaking to Eurogamer: “It’s an absolute catastrophe, and I’m jumping on board with Unreal as soon as I can. Most of India simply doesn’t have the resources to deal with this kind of idiotic logistics.” (Unreal starts charging 5% royalties after $1 million in gross revenue from a product.)
The next day, Unity clarified and rolled back some of the policies, explaining that the fees would not be retroactive and changing the policy so that only the first installation on a device could incur costs. The fee would also be sent to the distributor, like Microsoft in the case of Game Pass (which produces a large number of downloads), but it’s unclear how this would be done and which platforms would fall under that umbrella. If any of the big game stores suddenly find themselves responsible for millions in fees for games, they are much more likely to simply remove Unity-based titles or challenge the policy than to pay. Unity did not respond to my questions on these points at the time of publication.
On the weekend, Unity apologized and said an updated policy would be announced “in a few days.” However, the news appears to have circulated internally in an all-hands meeting that Bloomberg’s Jason Schreier arranged. (Unity also did not respond to my questions about the report’s accuracy at the time of publication.)
In the updated fee structure that Unity is expected to announce soon, download counts would not be counted retroactively (i.e. all games would start from scratch when the policy is implemented) and fees would be capped at 4% of a game’s revenue when it reaches US$1 million. . The former measure makes the new fees less like a ticking time bomb for some publishers, and the latter is clearly aimed at making the engine competitive with Unreal, which, as noted above, charges a bit more.
Installs would also be self-reported, which brings its own challenges, and there’s still no clarity on whether Gamepass and similar services would be proxy payers.
The changes could help make the new framework palatable for some developers. But the buzz online among the maker community is Unity’s clunky implementation of what it should know (since their own employees told them) would be an intensely unpopular policy and suggests some kind of fundamental lack of understanding or care on the company’s part.
“It will be difficult for Unity to regain developers’ faith,” Danny Gray of Ustwo Games told GamesIndustry.biz. “Even though everything has been reversed now, trust is lost.”