“This Is a Disaster:” Game Developers Scramble to Deal With Unity’s New Fees

The enshittification of the popular game engine got much worse today, with some developers saying they are already looking at open source alternatives.
Immortality game.
Immortality, a game made with Unity by Half Mermaid. 

Unity, one of the most common tools for making video games, announced additional fees yesterday that will charge game developers every time someone installs their game. It was instantly and universally rejected by many game developers, who said Unity’s announcement undercuts work they’ve been doing for years and could potentially bankrupt them.

Unity announced the new plan in a post on its website, but more details emerged on Game Developer, a site catering to people working in the video game industry. The new fees are in addition to the annual cost of making commercial products with Unity, which are available at a few tiers between $2,000 and $5,000 per year. According to Game Developer, these new fees will be collected from game developers on a monthly basis, charging them between $0.01 to $0.20 per install, depending on how many copies they sold, in what region (emerging markets have lower fees), and what Unity plan the developer is paying for already.

The video game development community is still scrambling to unpack how Unity’s new pricing scheme will impact them, but some developers who spoke to 404 Media said that Unity’s changes are a “disaster” and that they are already eyeing open source alternatives for their next projects.

The news appears to hit the indie game developers especially hard because so many of them use Unity as an affordable, easy to use game engine.

Sam Barlow, writer and director of Immortality at game developer Half Mermaid, referenced a term coined by Cory Doctorow, “enshittification,” to describe what Unity is doing. Enshittification refers to companies that create a good product, then ramp up fees and deteriorate the service to take advantage of users who are locked into it.

“This feels like a real enshittification moment for indie game developers,” Barlow said. “It seems born of a focus on games-as-service and a live ops process of maximizing cost per install. That's not the world I make games for—a world where premium indie games are more and more looking to subscription to break even, there's a key disconnect between installs and actual revenue.”

“I've been a paying Unity user since 2010, starting with Unity 2.6. This is an incredibly damaging and poorly thought out policy, whose announcement raises a horde of questions,” Danny Day from QCF Design, a developer in South Africa, told me. “If Unity goes ahead with this change, it's going to impact many developers negatively, most notably those that started working on projects in Unity years ago, under the assumption that the company wouldn't suddenly spring new costs on them or make their work unattractive for certain platforms.”

The core issue is what Unity is calling “Unity Runtime Fee.” This pricing scheme will charge game developers a fee every time someone installs their game after the game developer reaches a certain revenue and install threshold. Specifically, Unity will start charging game developers under the Unity Personal and Unity Plus plans after they make $200,000 in the last 12 months and have at least 200,000 lifetime game installs. Game developers in the Unity Pro and Unity Enterprise plans will get hit with the fee once they’ve made $1 million and a million lifetime game installs.

Critically, Unity clarified to 404 Media in an email that “The counter for Unity Runtime fee installs starts on January 1, 2024 - it is not retroactive or perpetual. We will charge once for a new install; not an ongoing perpetual license royalty, like revenue share.” I say critically because I saw some developers interpret the policy to be retroactive, meaning they would suddenly be hit with a bill for years’ worth of installs. Unity says this is not the case. However, new installs on new games will apparently impact game developers, forcing a new business model they didn’t prepare for when they initially published the games. Regardless of when a game was released, it'll be subject to these new fees starting in 2024.

Even worse, Unity later clarified that it will charge developers for multiple installs by the same user. This creates a nightmare scenario for developers where disgruntled gamers could install, delete, and reinstall games as many times as they can stand just to inflict fees on developers they don’t like, a scary possibility in an industry where users are known to review bomb and send death threats to game developers.

After this article was first published, Unity backtracked on the reinstall fees. On Wednesday morning Unity told 404 Media in an email that it will not charge developers a fee for reinstalls. At the time of writing, Unity has yet to update an FAQ on its website to reflect this policy change.

Unity is not clear in its FAQ how it’s keeping track of who is installing Unity games. To the question “Is software made in unity going to be calling home to unity whenever it's ran, even for enterprice [sic] licenses?” Unity says: “We use a composite model for counting runtime installs that collects data from numerous sources. The Unity Runtime Fee will use data in compliance with GDPR and CCPA. The data being requested is aggregated and is being used for billing purposes.”

“I think this is worse in some key ways than a revenue share agreement like Unreal's, which serves a similar purpose. Downloads are not a good proxy for revenue, and the gap between them creates some real risk for developers,” Andre Infante, a game developer at Meta, told me. Infante said he was only speaking for himself, not his employer. “People have raised the specter of being charged for piracy, or people installing the game on virtual machines over and over again to punish developers who displease them.”

Unity has not responded to 404 Media’s questions about how this system might be abused, but Stephen Totilo of Axios said Unity told him it plans to use fraud detection tools and allow developers to report possible instances of fraud.

“In all my years of working on products for developers, I simply cannot think of any instance where this would have made it to the drawing board, let alone the general public, because it requires a fundamental misunderstanding of what a middleware company is to even try to enter that territory,” Ethan Lee, a developer who specializes in maintaining and porting games to Linux, told me.

On Twitter, Infante said “I'm pretty upset about having to learn a new engine. I've spent the last ten years getting pretty good at Unity. Most of those skills will transfer, but not all of them.”

Some developers also wondered if Unity was expecting game developers to self-report their revenue, as Unity would not have a clear picture of exactly how much money their games are making. Unity told 404 Media, “We leverage our own proprietary data model, so you can appreciate that we won’t go into a lot of detail, but we believe it gives an accurate determination of  the number of times the runtime is distributed for a given project.”

"In games at least, I can't think of a truly comparable example that would have the same scale of impact,” Laine Nooney, a media professor at New York University and the author of The Apple II Age: How the Computer Became Personal, told me. “These are monetization tactics basically only possible under platform capitalism – where software like Unity can leverage the surveillance capacities of networked computing to continue to slice out revenue for itself in ways that would have been previously impossible.”

Even if Unity’s proprietary model was accurate and developers were not subject to abuse by repeated installs, developers told 404 Media that the new pricing structure was a shocking and upsetting change. One big problem is that some Unity developers publish games for free and then earn money via in-game purchases. In these scenarios, only a fraction of people who install the game actually pay for anything. Another problem is that many indie games are sold via bundles, where they are included for a fraction of the price, or are also included for free. In these scenarios, game developers are racking up many installs without earning enough money to cover the fees.

“Certain traditional practices (bundling, discounting) combined with subscription models mean there are scenarios I can imagine where a dev *loses* money with certain types of success,” Barlow said.

“The policy seems to be completely unaware of how the market is currently structured, with massive impacts on bundle deals, subscription services, giveaways, f2p games and even piracy,” Day told me. “Do I, as a developer, have to pay Unity when pirates install my game? Platforms that have information security and privacy obligations are going to suddenly view Unity projects as potential risks rather than the favorable view they had previously... This is a disaster.”

Some developers told me that they are already looking at different game engines, like Unreal. One emerging alternative, seemingly as a reaction to what the profit seeking did to Unity, is an open source game engine called Godot. Four game developers I talked to said they are looking to move to Godot in the future because of the Unity news. The other two told me they are looking at Unreal.

But that will take time. Until then, game developers have to deal with Unity’s new pricing scheme, which will impact their published games, or games that are too far into development to switch to a different engine.

“The absolute biggest issue for me is that their new terms apply retroactively to games already released, to older versions of Unity, where people released projects expecting and relying on unity's business model to remain the same and so throwing this curveball is a massive breach of trust,” Freya Holmér, who makes tools for Unity developers and has a popular YouTube channel on the subject, told me.

They told me that the news is especially hurtful because Unity was the technology so many of them used to get into game development in the first place.

“Unity's original mission was ‘Democratizing game development,’” Andreia "shana" Gaita of Spoiled Cat told me. “Unity made game development accessible (not just being easy, but affordable) to everyone. There's a reason the majority of mobile games are Unity – small developers, small budgets, successful projects, people could make a living from games. This is not the same Unity as it was in those days.”

“If this was just the future of Unity, it'd still sound pretty upsetting and confusing, but the fact they are applying this retroactively to *every game every made in Unity* seems like a real slap around the face and stab in the back at the same time,” Barlow said. “My indie career started because of Unity and I guess that makes it even more confusing and painful.”

Update 9/13/23 8:53 AM: After this article was first published, Unity changed its policy and said it will not charge game developers multiple times if the same user reinstalls their game. The article has been updated to reflect Unity's change in policy.