Unity has unveiled significant alterations to its Unity Engine pricing structure, introducing a monthly charge for each new game installation starting from 1st January of the upcoming year. This decision has been met with substantial backlash from the developer community.
That’s actually a massive understatement.
Unity, the powerhouse behind renowned games such as Tunic, Cuphead, Hollow Knight, and many others, previously operated on a royalty-free licensing model segmented into subscription levels. Developers with annual revenues or funding under $100k (and who didn’t opt for premium features like removing the Unity splash screen) could use the free Unity Personal license. Those generating up to $200k required the Unity Plus subscription, and revenues beyond that necessitated a Unity Pro or higher subscription.
However, starting 1st January 2024, developers will need to pay an added monthly Unity Runtime Fee for each new game installation. This includes re-installs and multi-device installations. This fee will be applicable for games that have garnered $200k or more in the past year and have a minimum of 200k total game installations. For Unity Pro and Unity Enterprise subscribers, the fees come into play after achieving $1m in revenue and 1m total game installations.
Upon reaching these thresholds, Unity Personal users will be charged $0.2 for each new installation beyond the 200k mark monthly. Unity Pro and Enterprise subscribers will pay $0.15 and $0.125 respectively after surpassing the 1m mark. These rates will decrease as installation numbers rise. Additionally, Unity Plus will be discontinued, meaning advanced features will now necessitate a minimum $2k yearly subscription, marking an increase of over $1600 from the Unity Plus rate.
These new charges will be retroactively applied to existing games that surpass Unity’s revenue and installation criteria. This raises concerns about the feasibility of offering free games, demos, bundles, and more. There’s also apprehension that developers might be billed for unauthorized game installations. Questions have also arisen about the potential complications this might introduce for platforms like Game Pass.
The industry’s initial reactions have been a blend of shock, dismay, and bewilderment. Several developers have openly declared their intention to transition to other engines. Eurogamer has sought comments from various studios, including Dan Marshall from Size Five Games.
Marshall expressed his severe discontent, stating, “This is a complete disaster. I’m planning to transition to Unreal as soon as possible. The majority of independent developers lack the means to navigate these absurd logistics.” He further elaborated on the potential pitfalls and ambiguities of the new system, highlighting concerns about multiple installations and the challenges posed by platforms like Game Pass.
Marshall concluded, “This is a terrible move, likely influenced by financial motivations. It’s infuriating. After a decade with Unity, I’m now considering abandoning it.”
It’s a massive mess, and upends the business plans of uncounted developers, including some big ones. One of the biggest is Disney.
Lawyer Cage Match
Disney has released dozens of games using the Unity 3D gaming engine, and now all their marketing and licensing for these games is in question. We’re pretty sure they’re not going to take this lying down. This kind of bait and switch “pull the rug out” business tactic is specifically illegal, and this fact may put a fast halt to Unity’s plans.
The legal principle involved is called “Promissory Estoppel.”
Promissory estoppel is a doctrine in contract law that stops a person from going back on a promise even if a clear contract does not exist. It’s applied to avoid injustice or unfairness that can arise if a party reneges on a promise which another party has relied upon.
Here’s a basic breakdown of how promissory estoppel works:
- Promise: One party (the promisor) makes a promise to another party (the promisee).
- Reliance on the Promise: The promisee relies on that promise to their detriment. This means they’ve taken some action or made some decision based on the promise that was made to them.
- Injustice: It would be unjust or unfair to allow the promisor to go back on their promise.
How it applies to Unity’s new licensing plan is this: Unity, having given away the runtime engine for free, and allowing game developers to make business decisions based on that promise, and now deciding to charge for that previously free service, now potentially faces the threat of promissory estoppel from its own customers to prevent Unity from charging. There is absolutely no way that Disney, one of the most litigious companies in the entertainment industry if not the world, is going to just go along with this.
Unity has essentially poked the dragon and woken it up.
Even if all the publishers to whom this new price gouge would have applied claim promissory estoppel, and the new licensing ends up applying only to Unity’s new business partners, the likelihood of developers choosing Unity over, say, the Godot engine or the Unreal Engine, will likely not be that high. Even the impression of monkey business with the licensing is going to make new developers think twice over their choice of engines for new projects. Developers, especially the smaller ones, are not likely to go with licensing they can’t understand without the help of an attorney, and the rest of the game engine world is a mouse click away.
Unity has fallen for the classic error that industry giants often make: in their hubris, they have assumed that they are such big fish that nobody can do business in their arena without going through them. They have since tried to backpedal and “clarify” their new licensing push, but the developer community is having none of it.
The Industry Response
The industry response so far appears to be a mixture of outrage, disbelief, and confusion, with some developers already publicly pledging to switch engines. Eurogamer has reached out to number of studios for their response to today’s changes, including Size Five Games’ Dan Marshall, creator of the acclaimed Lair of the Clockwork God, The Swindle, and more.
“It’s an absolute f-ing catastrophe,” Marshall told Eurogamer, “and I’ll be jumping ship to Unreal as soon as I can. Most indies simply don’t have the resources to deal with these kind of batshit logistics. Publishers are less likely to take on Unity games, because there’s now a cost and an overhead,” he continued. “How this is being tracked is super vague and feels half-thought-through. It seems open to review-bombing exploits, but in a way that actually costs developers. If someone buys a game on Steam and installs in on three machines, are Devs liable for three payments? If so, that sucks. Gamepass is suddenly a massive headache… the list goes on.
“It’s all just utterly horrible, and they need to backtrack on this instantly or every Dev I know is likely jumping ship tomorrow.”
“I have a couple of projects on the go in Unity right now,” Marshall continued, “and they’re far enough along that changing engine isn’t an option, and I get a sickly feeling in my stomach just thinking about this. A horrendous policy, presumably dreamed up by the money men. I’m legitimately quite angry. I’ve been using Unity for over 10 years, that’s a lot of investment in a system I’m about to drop like a hot rock.”