Unity disunity: Community up in arms after announcement of runtime fee from January 2024

Unity disunity: Community up in arms after announcement of runtime fee from January 2024
Unity game engine

Game engine company Unity has announced a new runtime fee, applicable from 1st January 2024, based on game installs, causing unrest within its developer community. It is also discontinuing its Unity Plus subscription.

A post yesterday introduced changes to the terms of use for Unity. The Unity Runtime is the part of the Unity engine that runs on the user’s device, and the company said that it is “introducing a Unity Runtime Fee that is based upon each time a qualifying game is downloaded by an end user.”

The fee is only applicable after two criteria are met, the first being a minimum revenue threshold in the last 12 months, and the second being a lifetime install count. These thresholds are set at $200,000 and 200,000 installs for Unity Personal and Unity Plus, or $1,000,000 and 1,000,000 installs for Unity Pro and Unity Enterprise.

The actual fee varies according to the product version and the region. The top rate is $0.20 per install for Unity Personal and Unity Plus, with tiered reductions for increased volume, and special rates for what the company defines as “emerging markets.” Unity Enterprise developers, for example, will pay only $0.01 per install after over 1,000,000 installs per month; however the tiering is designed such that they still pay $0.125 per install for the first 100,000, and so on as they move through the tiers.

The company said it is also adding extra value to its subscriptions by including a running AI model in the runtime, called Sentis, in all Unity plans, as well as a cloud-based Unity Asset Manager with a limited amount of storage included.

The Unity Plus subscription, a paid-for license for smaller developers, is being discontinued. Unity Plus was limited to developers with less than $100,000 revenue from Unity-based products in the previous 12 months. It is no longer available to new subscribers.

The news has attracted 1000s of messages in the Unity forums, most from developers protesting about the changes and discussing moves to rival engines such as Unreal or the open source Godot. “We are 2 developers and we have over 1 million downloads and a revenue of one million+/year,” said one post today. “With the current installs/day we would have to pay 2000$ per day to Unity. But we can hardly pay ourselves a salary from what is left … we have to take the game off the stores on 1.1.2024 and for us our dream job is over. Porting our game to another engine is unfortunately not possible for us in the short time available.”

One of the issues is that basing runtime fees on the number of installs appears to many both risky and arbitrary.

It is arbitrary because every time a user or even a tester reinstalls a game, a new fee is due – though the company appears to be backtracking on this, telling journalist Stephen Totilo that it has “regrouped” and “now says only the initial installation of a game triggers a fee.” Exactly how this will be identified, and how it will apply in cases like Microsoft’s Game Pass where users subscribe to a service offering thousands of games, is not clear.

It is risky because the developer cannot control the number of installs and there is potential for abuse, such as installing another vendor’s product multiple times in order to do them harm, or for a pirate to distribute a game and put the original developer on the hook for the fees. Unity states in its FAQ that “we do already have fraud detection practices in our Ads technology which is solving a similar problem, so we will leverage that know-how as a starting point. We recognize that users will have concerns about this and we will make available a process for them to submit their concerns to our fraud compliance team.” 

Developers though are not reassured by the existence of an uncertain process which they will have to submit to in the event of fraud.

Another problem concerns the way the change has been introduced, at short notice, and with the possibility of further changes that impact business planning. It introduces cost unpredictability. In 2019 Unity posted about its “commitment to being an open platform,” including the assertion that “We charge a flat fee per-seat – not a royalty on all of your revenue,” and that changes to the ToS (terms of service) would not be retroactive. “When you obtain a version of Unity, and don’t upgrade your project, we think you should be able to stick to that version of the ToS,” the post said.

The new post appears to contradict this and the company said in the forum that even games which “have been out for years already” will attract the fees, saying that “we bill the runtime fee based on all new installs that occur after January 1, 2024.” A linked official GitHub post to show ToS changes now comes up “page not found.”

“This new deal is unthinkable. I’m moving on. I put 10 years into this engine, I got my whole tech stack built around it. … with these new costs, and no idea of knowing what’s incoming, I’ve lost my trust in Unity,” said a developer.

Moving to another engine though is not easy – and in the case of Unreal Engine, which charges a 5 percent royalty under its standard terms, some calculate that Unity remains a cheaper option.