Unity Introduces New Fee For Game Installs, Devs React Angrily

Unity, the cross-platform game engine that powers games like Rust, Hollow Knight, and Pokémon Go, has introduced a new, controversial fee for developers, set to take effect next year. Indie developers quickly responded to the announcement, with many suggesting the costs of this policy would kill smaller games, while confusion spread as devs wondered how it would affect their bottom line. Unity’s attempts to provide clarity have only fueled devs’ frustration and spawned more questions from those with both currently active and in-development games using the engine.

The new Runtime Fee, announced in a September 12 Unity blog, is based on the number of installations a game built with the Unity engine receives, as well as the revenue it generates. Though it won’t start until January 1, 2024, the Runtime Fee will apply to any game that has reached both a previously established annual revenue threshold and a lifetime install count. Games developed with the lower-cost Unity Personal and Unity Plus plans reach that threshold at $200,000 of revenue in one year and 200,000 lifetime installs, while Unity Pro and Unity Enterprise accounts must reach $1 million in revenue and 1 million lifetime installs for the fee to kick in.

Read More: Unity CEO Calls Mobile Devs Who Don’t Prioritize Monetization ‘Fucking Idiots’

Unity Personal and Unity Plus devs will have to pay $.20 for every game installed past their subscription-specific thresholds, Unity Pro devs will have to fork over between $.02 and $.15 for every install past theirs, and Unity Enterprise devs’ costs range from $.01 to $.125. Developers in emerging markets will have lower costs per install past their threshold. The announcement was met with widespread confusion, as devs of free-to-play games scrambled to figure out if they’d end up owing hundreds of thousands of dollars, charity bundle creators became concerned about potentially being punished for supporting a good cause, and more.

Developers react to Unity Runtime Fee

Shortly after the policy was announced, Rust developer Garry Newman wondered if “Unity [wants] us to start paying them $200k a month” before doing the math and realizing that Facepunch Studios would owe the game engine company about $410,000 total.

“While this isn’t much, here’s some stuff I don’t like,” Newman shared to X (formerly Twitter). “Unity can just start charging us a tax per install? They can do this unilaterally? They can charge whatever they want? They can add install tracking to our game? We have to trust their tracking?”

Though many devs initially thought this new fee would apply to all games made in Unity (including free ones), and reacted accordingly, it soon became clear that the fee will only apply to monetized titles. Axios’ Stephen Totilo shared some clarification he’d received from Unity a few hours after the initial announcement, including that charity games and bundles are excluded from fees. But some of Unity’s clarifications only served to further suggest the notion that it didn’t really think this initiative through.

“If a player deletes a game and re-installs it, that’s 2 installs, 2 charges,” Totilo posted. “Same if they install on 2 devices.” This means that developers could be “vulnerable to abuse” from bad actors who repeatedly uninstall and reinstall their games. “Unity says it would use fraud detection tools and allow developers to report possible instances of fraud to a compliance team.” So, if you get a massive bill from Unity, you’ll just have to wait on their customer support line. Shouldn’t be an issue, right?

Xalavier Nelson Jr., head of Strange Scaffold, the indie studio behind games like El Paso, Elsewhere and An Airport For Aliens Currently Run By Dogs, expressed concerns about the entire situation. “This is the danger of modern games and game development cycles becoming exponentially more complicated, lengthy, and prone to immense dependency,” he told Kotaku via DM. “When a decision like this gets announced, and you’re three years into a five-year journey, you have little to no choice. You’re stuck with a partner who may be actively working against your interest, and who you increasingly cannot trust.”

Tiani Pixel, indie developer and co-founder of Studio Pixel Punk, the studio behind the 2021 Metroidvania Unsighted, told Kotaku via DM that “there’s a lot of things in Unity’s statement that aren’t clear and are very worrying.” She brought up not only how complicated it is to measure actual installs, but the privacy issues inherent with such a policy.

“There are some certifications you need for having such service in your game and releasing it on consoles and other platforms. You need an end-user license agreement (EULA), because you’ll be sending info from the player’s device to an external server. So, will indies be forced to add such DRMs on their games so they can track the installs? Again, Unity does not make it clear. Forcing DRM on games has a long (and bad) history in gaming. Many tools used for this are literally indistinguishable from malwares…There’s no benefit to the devs or the user here.”

She also pointed out how these new fees could affect indie developers. “Small indie games, like our game Unsighted, which had the chance to appear on services like Xbox Game Pass, (in which the game isn’t sold directly to the consumer), might be penalized for becoming popular there, because we will be charged for every install,” she said.

Brandon Sheffield, creative director at Necrosoft Games, warned game developers off the engine in a scathing op-ed for Insert Credit. “But now I can say, unequivocally, if you’re starting a new game project, do not use Unity,” he wrote. “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.”

The op-ed ends by stating that Unity is “digging its own grave in search for gold.”

Unity continues to court controversy

Shortly after Unity’s blog post went live, game developer John Draisey posted that Unity had “eliminated Unity Plus subscriptions” and that the company was automatically switching members to its Pro subscription next month. Draisey shared an image showing the price difference between the two subs, which are billed annually, and it was nearly $3,300. “Be careful not to have auto-renew on your account if you can’t afford the price. And this is with just 2 people on my team with project access,” he warned.

It’s unclear how the potential change in subscription options will translate to the newly minted Runtime Fee, as the thresholds are different for each sub. Kotaku reached out for clarification, and a Unity spokesperson pointed us to their FAQ page. When asked for further clarification, the spokesperson sent this statement: “Unity Plus is being retired for new subscribers effective today, September 12, 2023, to simplify the number of plans we offer. Existing subscribers do not need to take immediate action and will receive an email mid-October with an offer to upgrade to Unity Pro, for one year, at the current Unity Plus price.”

The bigwigs at Unity have been making some, uh, interesting decisions as of late. In June, the company announced two new machine-learning platforms that would be integrated into its engine: Unity Muse (essentially ChatGPT for using Unity, a service that would allow devs to ask questions about coding and get answers from a bot) and Unity Sentis, which “enables you to embed an AI model in the Unity Runtime for your game or application, enhancing gameplay and other functionality directly on end-user platforms.” As former Kotaku writer Luke Plunkett pointed out at the time of the announcement, AI technology heavily relies on “work stolen from artists without consent or compensation,” so Unity Sentis raised a ton of eyebrows.

And as Rust’s Newman shared shortly after the latest Unity announcement, it seems these changes are having a negative impact on the company at large: their market shares tanked as of 11:17 a.m. EST. Let’s see if Unity sticks with these changes, or makes adjustments based on feedback from developers.

A character in Rust wears a hazmat suit and stands in front of a blue sky dotted with clouds.

Image: Facepunch Studios

Unity responds to negative feedback

At 6:38 p.m. EST, the official Unity X account shared a post on the game engine’s official forums titled “Unity plan pricing and packaging updates.” The post contains a series of frequently asked questions that cropped up shortly after the announcement of the Runtime Fee, many of which were focused on game installations.

As many devs worried on social media before these FAQs were released, under Unity’s new policy, multiple reinstalls or redownloads of games will have to be paid for by creators—and the definition of “install” also includes a user making changes to their hardware. Further, any “early access, beta, or a demo of the full game” will induce install charges, according to the FAQs, as can even streamed or web-based games. And Unity won’t reveal how it’s counting these installs, posting that “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.”

The FAQ does not clarify how Unity will ensure it does not count installations of charity games or bundled games with its “proprietary software.”

The Verge’s Ash Parrish was quick to point out that the multiple install charges could give right-wing reactionaries a new way to damage a game and/or studio: revenue bombing. If certain groups are angered by, say, a queer character in a game or a Black woman lead (both of which have whipped gamers into a frenzy before), then they could repeatedly install said game over and over again, racking up Unity’s Runtime Fee for the studio.

“I can tell you right now that the folks at risk of this are women devs, queer devs, trans devs, devs of color, devs pushing for accessibility, devs pushing for inclusion—we’ve seen countless malicious actors work together to tank their game scores or ratings,” developer Rami Ismail wrote on X.

Nelson confirmed to Kotaku via DM on the evening of September 12 that “concrete talks are happening among some of the most significant developers in the space” regarding a class-action lawsuit against Unity.

After its announcement was met with an almost universally negative response, and the FAQ forum post did not seem to allay concerns, Unity “regrouped” in the evening of September 12 to discuss the terms of its Runtime Fee, Axios reports. Despite initially confirming that the fee would apply multiple times “if a player deletes a game and re-installs it,” Unity is now saying that it will “only charge for an initial installation.”

Unity executive Marc Whitten “hoped [that this policy clarification] would allay fears of ‘install-bombing,’” a concern many devs expressed not long after the initial Unity blog post announcing the new revenue scheme.

The company also reassured Axios that “games offered for charity or included in charities will be exempt from the fees” as there will be a way for devs to inform the company of their charity status. Whitten also said that, in regards to things like Xbox Game Pass, “developers like Aggro Crab would not be on the hook, as the fees are charged to distributors, which in the Game Pass example would be Microsoft.”

Finally, Whitten suggested only about about 10% of developers who use Unity will have to pay fees because of the thresholds the company has established.

Update 09/12/2023 7:35 p.m. ET: Updated to include information from an official Unity forum post, more reactions from devs, and the confirmation of a potential class-action lawsuit.

Unity Apologizes For New Fee Causing ‘Confusion And Angst’

Unity, the game engine used in popular titles like Cuphead, Fall Guys, and Among Us, has apologized for the “confusion and angst” caused by a newly announced fee. On September 12, the company released a lengthy post announcing its Runtime Fee, which would charge developers for each game installation past a certain threshold.

Developers reacted swiftly and angrily to the announcement, pointing to a host of problems the fee might cause, from charity bundles costing developers hundreds of thousands of dollars to the potential for bad actors to revenue-bomb games by repeatedly uninstalling and reinstalling them. The reaction was wide-reaching, with the heads of major indie studios behind games like Cult of the Lamb and Rust lambasting the new fee—even Game Awards host Geoff Keighley got involved to express his displeasure.

Read More: Unity Bosses Sold Stock Ahead Of Scummy Dev Fees Announcement

Unity apologized in a post shared to X (formerly Twitter) on September 17. It reads, “We have heard you. We apologize for the confusion and angst the runtime fee policy we announced on Tuesday caused. We are listening, talking to our team members, community, customers, and partners, and will be making changes to the policy. We will share an update in a couple of days. Thank you for your honest and critical feedback.” A response from Keighley asking to “see the changes” is currently the top comment under the post.

Bloomberg reports that, though the company has not gone public with any concrete changes to the policy, it has plans to overhaul it. “Under the tentative new plan, Unity will limit fees to 4% of a game’s revenue for customers making over $1 million,” the report reads. The new approach will also reportedly not retroactively count installations that took place before the policy goes into effect.

The controversial new Runtime Fee, set to go into effect on January 1, 2024, is based on the amount of revenue a game generates as well as the number of times it’s installed past a certain point. Unity Personal and Unity Plus plans reach the Runtime Fee threshold by earning $200,000 in a year and 200,000 lifetime installs; Unity Pro and Unity Enterprise accounts hit it at $1 million annual revenue and 1 million lifetime installs. But developers and other industry leaders were quick to point out how difficult it is to determine how many times a game is installed, especially since keeping track of those installations would require wading into some murky privacy waters.

Bloomberg also reports that Unity executive Marc Whitten said the latest changes aren’t public yet because “executives are still running them by partners and don’t want to repeat last week’s communications debacle.”

Unity attempted to right the ship shortly after the announcement, releasing a set of FAQs that only further worried developers. At first, the company reconfirmed that multiple reinstalls or redownloads of games would count towards the fee, but later backtracked that statement after “regrouping,” according to Axios’ Stephen Totilo. Then Whitten assured concerned developers that “games offered for charity or included in charities will be exempt from the fees,” though many pointed out the (still unclear) process to apply for redemption would likely be needlessly tedious. Unity also refused to release information about how it would be keeping track of installs, instead only saying that it would rely on “proprietary software.”

The company then sent out another set of clarifying information via X on September 13, asserting that only about 10% of developers would be affected by the new policy. The post was quickly hit with a clarification badge pointing out that this meant roughly 23,000 developers would be affected by the change, based on a 2022 gaming report from Unity that stated about 230,000 developers used the game engine. The post was then taken down.

A credible death threat closed the Unity offices just days later on September 14.

It’s unclear what the upcoming changes to the runtime fee policy will entail, but we’ll update this story accordingly. Kotaku reached out to Unity for comment.

Update 09/18/2023 at 1:10 p.m. EST: Updated with new info from Bloomberg report.

Unity CEO Riccitiello Retires After Big Install Fee Controversy

CEO John Riccitiello has retired from game development software company Unity after possibly its worst month of bad headlines ever. The tech company that’s slowly morphed into an in-game advertising firm announced a confusing and seemingly predatory new set of fees for game makers in September, only to walk the policy back after studios threatened to abandon the Unity engine moving forward.

James M. Whitehurst, former head of the IBM-acquired open source software company Red Hat, will take over from Riccitiello as interim CEO while Unity’s board of directors search for a new long-term replacement. “It’s been a privilege to lead Unity for nearly a decade and serve our employees, customers, developers and partners, all of whom have been instrumental to the Company’s growth,” Riccitiello said in a press release. “I look forward to supporting Unity through this transition and following the Company’s future success.”

Riccitiello joined Unity back in 2014 shortly after leaving Electoronic Arts. He oversaw the game engine company’s shift from one-time licensing fees to an ongoing subscription model, launched the IPO in 2020, and made a series of acquisitions, including the in-app monetization firm IronSource in 2022. When Unity first went public, its stock price was around $68. Today it’s just over $30.

Once synonymous with the explosion of creativity and experimental design in the indie gaming space, Unity is being left by Riccitiello a month after a bungled new monetization strategy rollout burned bridges with tons of game makers. The initial messaging made it sound like game developers might be charged fees every time their game was installed, including retroactively.

A follow-up apology by president and general manager Marc Whitten later clarified that the new terms would only apply beginning in 2024, and laid out much bigger carve-outs for smaller studios whose games don’t hit a certain threshold of income. But for many developers it was too late. Their trust in the company had already been irrevocably shaken. Re-logic, maker of the Steam hit Terraria, pledged $200,000 toward the creation of a Unity competitor, and Slay the Spire dev, Mega Crit, says it will still move to rival game software platform Godot.

Rethinking monetization more aggressively was also one of Riccitiello’s legacies at EA. His seven years at the FIFA (now EA Sports FC) and Battlefield publisher saw it experiment with day-one DLC, microtransactions, and a focus on post-launch content. While there was no week-long crisis moment on the scale of what happened at Unity last month, it’s clear he helped usher in the company’s current live-service era, which many players now feel nickel-and-dimed by. Madden and FIFA’s lootbox modes were both added while he was head of EA, though they didn’t become the billion-dollar windfalls they are today until the tenure of his successor, current CEO Andrew Wilson.

Perhaps nothing summed up Riccitiello’s time at both EA and Unity better than another controvertial incident last year. In an interview with Pocketgamer.biz in July 2022, he called developers who don’t think about monetization early in the process “fucking idiots.” He immediately walked the comments back the next week, calling articles about it “clickbait” that took his comment out of context, but later apologized, saying he should have chosen his words more carefully.

That unforced error came shortly after the company revealed hundreds of layoffs at the same time it was buying IronSource in a $4.4 billion all-stock deal. Six hundred more were laid off at Unity earlier this year. Meanwhile, Riccitiello, in addition to the millions he has in Unity stock, will be kept on salary until April of 2024.

Update 10/11/2023 4:50 p.m. ET: SFGate reports that Riccitiello is set to earn up to $8.4 million through stock options over the next six months. That’s in addition to the roughly $253 million he already holds in current Unity stock.