On September 12, Unity Technologies–the company behind the popular cross-platform game engine Unity–announced it was rolling out a new business model. In the hours to follow, frustration, fear, and confusion from game developers spread like wildfire across social media–and for good reason.
In a Unity blog post, the company laid out a new monetization plan that now includes a Runtime Fee. This fee, Unity explained, is based on the number of times a game built with the Unity engine is installed. Games developed using the lower-cost plan will face charges once they hit $200,000 in revenue in a year and 200,000 lifetime installations, while Unity Pro and Unity Enterprise accounts have a threshold of $1 million in revenue in a year and 1 million lifetime installations before they are charged.
Once developers using the Unity engine surpass these thresholds, those using the lower-tier plans will have to pay the company $.20 per game installation while those on the higher-tier plans will pay anywhere from $.01 to $.15 per installation. The plan is slated to start on January 1, 2024, and will ultimately impact a number of popular games, such as Among Us, Genshin Impact, Cuphead, Hollow Knight, Firewatch, Outer Wilds, Cult of the Lamb, Pokemon Go, and countless others.
It didn’t take long for developers to run calculations and realize the fees they would incur due to Unity’s new business model would be astronomical–especially since the Runtime Fee would also work retroactively, meaning every studio with a game made using Unity’s engine that had ever passed Unity’s established threshold would be responsible for paying Runtime fees. Beyond that, developers also expressed confusion as to how Unity would obtain these numbers, what it meant for charity bundles and demos, how games in contracts with distribution services (such as Xbox Game Pass or Apple Arcade) might be affected, how piracy might impact their installation numbers, how bad faith actors could abuse installations to financially tank a studio, and several other pressing issues. Unity kept its responses to these queries vague and brief.
“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,” a Unity representative wrote when asked how they would track installations.
Rami Ismail, an independent game developer and noted industry spokesperson, is among the most vocal dissenters on X (formerly Twitter). Ismail was quick to dissect all the ways Unity–and bad faith consumers–could abuse these new fees.
“If you’re a Unity developing studio, good luck if you ever piss off your user base,” Rami posted. “Instead of tanking your Metacritic with a mass review-campaign they can now straight-up tank you financially by organizing a mass install-campaign.”
As an initial response to questions regarding “installation-bombing,” Unity wrote, “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.”
For Marcus Clarke, an independent game developer working on the upcoming game Overmorrow and someone who is part of the LBGTQ+ community, this is one of his biggest fears.
“This change potentially opens up a direct method for marginalized groups to be targeted in a way that hasn’t been possible before. We’ve already seen a history of minority developers who have had their games review-bombed for being ‘woke,'” Clarke told GameSpot. “I am now in fear that any opinion I share uplifting LGBTQ+ and other minority people may put me at risk of being a target for potential ‘install attacks’. It’s not something I would like to have to consider in my choice of development engine.”
At approximately 6 PM PT on September 12, however, Axios reporter Stephen Totilo stated that Unity executive Marc Whitten had reached out to him with an update amending and clarifying some of the company’s more contentious terms. Whitten told Totilo that, after regrouping, the company decided that only the initial installation of a game will trigger a fee–a tactic the company is choosing to employ to reduce the “install-bombing” mentioned by both Ismail and Clarke. However, it’s worth noting that installing games on different systems will trigger additional fees, meaning a title that a player downloads on Xbox, PC, and Steam Deck, for example, would incur three installation charges.
Whitten also said that most demos will be exempt from fees unless they are part of a download that includes the full game, such as titles in early access. In addition, charity bundles can be self-reported to keep them exempt from charges. Yet Whitten still didn’t offer any explanation