Unity apologizes, offers furious game devs a tweaked runtime install fee plan

Game engine maker Unity on Friday walked back part of its controversial plan to charge developers a fee based on the number of game downloads installed.

In an open letter, Marc Whitten, who heads the outfit's Unity Create group, began with an apology, which is not entirely surprising given the fury in the Unity community. The engine is used by games ranging from Pokemon Go and Hollow Knight to Cuphead and Heartstone.

"I am sorry," said Whitten. "We should have spoken with more of you and we should have incorporated more of your feedback before announcing our new Runtime Fee policy."

Whitten said Unity's goal was financial, "to ensure we can continue to support you today and tomorrow, and keep deeply investing in our game engine." And yet since announcing on September 12 a change in its fees - essentially charging games developers a royalty when someone installed a qualifying title built on Unity - the biz's share price has fallen from about $39 to just below $32 today, never mind the destruction of any loyalty devs had held for the business.

Unity customers became incensed because the engine maker in 2019 promised it would charge developers "a flat fee per-seat - not a royalty on all of your revenue." Its per-install runtime fee, which didn't apply to all games, flew in the face of that commitment. The backlash proved severe enough that the company closed offices a week ago because of an alleged threat. And among game developer forums, many posts discussed alternative game engines and code porting options.

Last week, the updated pricing plan looked like this. Under those rules, the following games qualified for the runtime install fee, starting from January 1, 2024:

The size of the install fee varied depending on the circumstances, but could be as high as $0.20. After the announcement, the biz sought to clarify the situation and calm people down by pledging to, for instance, not charge royalties for reinstalls or fraudulent installs, and to only tax new installs from January 1.

Developers had feared they would be install-bombed - trolls reinstalling a game over and over to cost dev houses, or pirating games and costing the makers money - and that Unity would ding them for previous installs. There was a good deal of rumor, attempts at explanation, and upset.

On Monday, it appeared that a policy reversal was coming. In a post on Facebook, David Helgason, Unity's co-founder and ex-CEO, was unequivocal about the public relations disaster.

"We fucked up on many levels," he said. "No other way to put it: a new business model for Unity was announced in a way that was hard to understand, but it also missed a bunch of important 'corner' cases, and in central ways ended up as the opposite of what it was supposed to be."

The following day, Unity promised a policy update in the days to come to undo some of the mess.

Today, Whitten revealed the revised policy in his post.

One main thing is that the "Unity Personal plan will remain free and there will be no Runtime Fee for games built on Unity Personal." Unity Personal is aimed at individual or small teams of developers, and the annual revenue-and-funding limit on the Personal plan will be raised from "$100,000 to $200,000 and we will remove the requirement to use the Made with Unity splash screen."

"No game with less than $1 million in trailing 12-month revenue will be subject to the fee," he added. An FAQ goes into more detail:

The version of Unity you use and when you choose to release your title matters: "If you release a game using Unity 2022 LTS, the Runtime Fee would not apply. If you release or upgrade a game in 2024, using the Unity 2023 LTS (to be released in 2024), the Runtime Fee would apply."

Essentially, older software will remain under the terms and conditions established for that version.

And for games that are subject to the runtime fee, Unity devs will have the option to choose the lesser of two revenue sharing options based on self-reported figures - either 2.5 percent of revenue or "the calculated amount based on the number of new people engaging with your game each month."

Regaining the trust of developers may take some time, however. There are still going to be install fees, just not like the way announced last week. ®

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