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.