Tobold's Blog
Thursday, September 14, 2023

Imagine your landlord sends you a letter that starting January 1st in addition to rent he is going to charge you a “usage fee” of 20 cents per person per hour spent in your appartment. He would be doing the tracking of that with movement sensors, and just send you a bill for an unspecified amount of money, based on his own data at the end of every month. You would probably have concerns about the fairness of this all. You would have questions in how far you would be charged for specific cases, like holding a party, or having a dog or Roomba triggering the movement sensors. After some outrage you would probably do the reasonable thing and call a lawyer. This is contract law, and while your rental contract and existing laws probably foresee the possibility of regular rent increases, the landlord can’t unilaterally change the whole cost structure of the rental contract.

While this example seems far fetched, something very similar just happened to a lot of game developers. Unity Technologies, makers of the Unity engine, which according to Google has a 29.4% market share among game engines, announced a new “runtime fee” of 20 cents every time a user downloaded and installed a game. X, formerly known as Twitter, exploded with devs pointing out specific cases, like Humble Bundle or Microsoft Xbox Game Pass or free-to-play games. There was some backpeddaling from Unity, and some proposed solutions that for a Game Pass game the fee would apply to Microsoft, not the game studio. At this point it became clear to me that this would end up with the lawyers. You try to send an unsolicited bill to Microsoft for a fee you just made up, and a Microsoft corporate lawyer is going to legally blast you to smithereens.

In other, related news, the share price of Unity Technologies dropped by 5% yesterday after the announcement of the runtime fee. Some angry people pointed out the publicly available information that the CEO and senior management of Unity Technologies had recently sold their shares, which might be considered insider trading. Meanwhile game studio Massive Monster, makers of the highly successful game Cult of the Lamb, made with Unity, announced they would delete their game from Steam and all other shops on January 1st. Epic Games, makers of the competing Unreal engine, pointed out that their royalties haven’t changed, and are just 5% of any revenues above $1 million, with revenues from the Epic Games Store not being counted. The proposed Unity runtime fee would already kick in at $200,000 revenue.

A point that caused little outrage yet, but seemed curious to me, is the idea that Unity would base their fee on their own tracking data, which is impossible to verify by the game developer who has to pay the fee. And the idea that because with every installation of the game the current Unity Runtime software is installed too, Unity is technically capable of preventing an installation in case of non-payment of their runtime fee bills. Imagine Unity sends that runtime fee bill to Microsoft, Microsoft refuses to pay, and suddenly nobody can install games running on Unity from Game Pass anymore. The resulting legal fallout would make Epic Games vs. Apple look like a minor skirmish. The more I think about it, the clearer it becomes that Unity Technologies will either be forced to scrap their “runtime fee” charge, or this is going to end up in court.

Are you sure that things are so clear-cut as you make them appear? Software user (or developer) agreements are not the same as contract law.
Also, it seems more like Unity getting on the same level as the Unreal Engine, the $0.2 you mention only applies to the personal Unity agreement, Pro and Enterprise are lower. If you do the math, it's sitting close to the 5% mentioned by the Unreal Engine. Same for the threshold, which is $200k only for personal, Pro and Enterprise are at $1M.
Also, "Unity would base their fee on their own tracking data, which is impossible to verify by the game developer who has to pay the fee", the developer pretty much knows exactly how many copies he has sold, so the data is verifiable.
Free-to-play games would never pass the $200k threshold, so they will never be affected.
The whole story seems to me like a company trying to get some more money by aligning itself to market practices, and a lot of people going bananas over a non-event.
> "runtime fee” of 20 cents every time a user downloaded and installed a game

That is definitely NOT the same thing as "copies sold"
I'm quite ignorant as to what's legal or not in this space but it makes no sense to me that they can declare changes like this to be retroactive.

There is already talk of dev studios getting together to launch a class action lawsuit.

Also the whole "trust me bro" attitude by Unity is mind boggling. How will they even track a 1st install? How will they track someone who installs on VMs? How about hardware configuration changes? What about pirated copies?

This reminds me of the Wizards of the Coast debacle that they ended up back tracking on. The damage is already done even if Unity back pedals. Why would any dev commit to years of development time in Unity when they can just change their terms of service mid way through your games development?
There is also the question of how many installation fees for developers will be caused by piracy.

Ultimately, this business model is insane and will drive people away from Unity. I use it as a hobbyist for fun and to practice my programming skills, but would never publish even a free game under such a revenue agreement because it tells me I cannot trust Unity to maintain a fair license going forward.

I also worry about the many Unity games I already own. If Unity is charging per install, what happens when the developers don't want to pay for me to install or reinstall the game? What happens if developers decide to terminate their Unity license, or close their doors? Currently, if a developer goes out of business, I can keep playing my Unity games for as long as the hardware will run them. Starting January 1, that may no longer be the case.

Despite a number of what I considered mistakes that Unity has made in recent years, I have seen them as the same strong game engine that I've been puttering around in for more than a decade. Now, I am not sure I'd want to even start a new hobby project with their engine. The only reason I would is because I already own some classes using Unity that I haven't completed yet.
I also don't understand how anything can be retroactive. If we make an agreement, unless the court of law states the original agreement is unlawful, it should stand. If not, it's a lie. That is unless there is something in the original agreement that states retroactive changes can be made. I don't know enough about the details in this situation to know what the exact situation is. On the surface from the articles I've read it doesn't seem like a good thing to do. Making the change applicable to all future engine uses so developers know exactly what they're getting into from the start would seem to be a much better decision.
Cult of the lamb devs said two days later their stop selling on steam tweet was a meme/joke and a troll to media.

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