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‘They will destroy indie gaming’: Why Unity’s runtime fee is the biggest gaming scandal of 2023

The game engine Unity announced a controversial 'runtime fee' that could bankrupt the studios behind games like 'Among Us.'

 

Gavia Baker-Whitelaw

Internet Culture

Posted on Sep 14, 2023

In just three days, the ubiquitous game engine Unity has completely torpedoed its reputation in the games industry, facing colossal backlash for its new “runtime fee.”

Announced on Tuesday, this new payment policy will charge developers up to 20 cents every time someone installs a game built with Unity. It’s essentially a tax on a product that customers have already used and paid for.

Industry insiders describe this as a greedy and destructive move. Unity is one of the most widely used game engines, providing the framework for a wide range of games from obscure indie titles to mainstream hits like Pokemon Go and Among Us. Detractors say this new fee could “destroy indie gaming.”

Alongside the basic financial burden of paying Unity for every install, this fee sparked other concerns. One developer said it could “kill charity bundles,” and others worried about the potential for trolls targeting studios with malicious installs.

Responding to a laundry list of criticisms, Unity attempted to defend the fee by saying “more than 90% of our customers will not be affected.” The company clarified that demos and charity-related sales wouldn’t be charged, and claimed they’d police fraudulent installs.

Unity’s comment about “90% of customers” refers to the fact that the fee only kicks in after a certain threshold. There’s a tiered system, but at minimum, a game will only get charged after 200,000 installs or $200,000 in revenue. However numerous developers say this could still kill successful indie studios.

Game developers vow to boycott Unity or remove their games from sale

Devs are now scrambling to find solutions to the Unity fee, with some taking drastic action. The creators behind the popular roguelike game Cult of the Lamb claimed they’d “delete” it when the fee kicks in. (Although their kissy-face emoji and certain follow-up tweets suggest they may not actually do this.)

Other indie devs have announced more solid plans to either pull their games from sale, pause production on upcoming titles, or start using different game engines. There’s also a lot of discussion about the logistics of porting pre-existing games to a new engine.

Necrosoft Games director Brandon Sheffield simply wrote, “if you’re starting a new game project, do not use Unity. If you started a project 4 months ago, it’s worth switching to something else. Unity is quite simply not a company to be trusted.”

A programmer at Among Us studio Innersloth said they may temporarily pull their games from sale. “Innersloth has always paid Unity appropriately for licenses and services we use,” he tweeted. “I’m not a discourse guy, but this is undue and *will* force my hand.” He noted that it could be cheaper to transfer Among Us to another engine.

This scandal is a textbook example of what happens when a single company gains an industry monopoly and then goes mad with power.

Unity’s runtime fee relies on the assumption of a captive customer base. Many developers can’t just abandon Unity and switch to another game engine. They have no choice but to pay a fee that could hurt their business. Meanwhile, gamers are concerned that their favorite creators are going to go bust.

The most plausible hope now is that big companies like Nintendo will object to the fee and persuade Unity to cancel it. Either way though, Unity has destroyed any sense of trust or goodwill with a vast swathe of its customer base, inspiring an entire industry to seek out viable alternatives.

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*First Published: Sep 14, 2023, 9:45 am CDT