Popular video game engine Unity is making big changes to its pricing structure that’s causing confusion and anger among developers. On Tuesday, Unity announced that on January 1st, 2024, it would be implementing a pay-per-download pricing scheme that would charge developers a flat fee any time a game using Unity software is installed.
“We are introducing a Unity Runtime Fee that is based upon each time a qualifying game is downloaded by an end user,” the company shared on its blog. “We chose this because each time a game is downloaded, the Unity Runtime is also installed. Also we believe that an initial install-based fee allows creators to keep the ongoing financial gains from player engagement, unlike a revenue share.”
Unity went on to explain in detail how this new program works, but here’s the gist: before a game is charged with these new fees, it must meet a specific revenue and download threshold that changes based on which tier of Unity subscription a developer pays for. These fees are further broken down depending on where a game is purchased, meaning that a game bought in the US, UK, and other “standard” markets is assessed a higher fee than when it’s bought in “emerging” markets like India or China.
Here’s the table Unity included in its announcement that shows the new fees broken down by subscription tier, markets, and download thresholds.
These changes go into effect January 1st, 2024. Developers were concerned that they’d be hit with huge bills come that date, but Unity did make it clear that while it will take a game’s previous sales and downloads into account, it will only charge developers based on activity after that date. So, for example, if you, a Unity Personal subscriber, have a game that has made $200,000 and has 200,000 downloads by January 1st, you will be subject to the new fees but only on any downloads made after January 1st. If you only sell one copy of your game for the month of January 2024, you only owe Unity 20 cents.
The news was met with fear, anger, and disgust from the game development community. The primary complaint is that these changes would be particularly harmful to solo, indie, marginalized, and mobile developers.
Of particular note is the fact that Unity is assessing these fees based on the number of installs a game has without seeming to account for the many reasons, legal or illegal, a game might have multiple installs without multiple purchases. After a game meets the revenue threshold, if its downloads far outstrip its revenue generation, a developer will be on the hook to pay. Pirated games, demos, games downloaded across multiple devices, and games offered on subscription services like Game Pass are all potentially affected by these new fees.
Additionally, there’s the concern that malicious actors could use this information to run up charges by continuously downloading and redownloading games as a form of protest or griefing.
Those fears were seemingly confirmed when Stephen Totilo of Axios tweeted that Unity stated it would indeed charge a developer each time a game was redownloaded or downloaded to different devices.
An additional tweet from Totilo stated that Unity would implement fraud detection tools and allow developers to report potential cases of abuse. Charity bundles (i.e., Humble or itch.io) are also exempt from these fees, but for a time, it was unclear if subscription services or demos would also be exempt from these new fees.
On Tuesday evening, Totilo shared some clarifications from Unity. Importantly, company executive Marc Whitten told Totilo that Unity is going to charge only for a game’s initial installation. However, as noted in in Totilo’s article on Axios, “an extra fee will be charged if a user installs a game on a second device, say a Steam Deck after installing a game on a PC.”
Whitten also clarified some other points with Totilo. From Totilo’s Axios article:
As for Game Pass and other subscription services, Whitten said that 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.
Runtime fees will also not be charged for installations of game demos, Whitten said, unless the demo is part of a download that includes the full game (early access games would be charged for an installation, he noted).
Another complaint is that these changes were made unilaterally with no real warning to developers, locking them into a product they have no choice but to use and pay for.
“We did not plan for this, and it screws us massively on Demonschool, which is tracking to be our most successful game,” wrote Brandon Sheffield, director at indie developer Necrosoft Games. “[We] have no option to say no, since we’re close to release and this change is 4 months out. You can’t simply remake an entire game in another engine when you’ve been working on it for 4+ years.”
Developers have also noted that Unity is implementing this new fee structure on top of charging yearly subscription fees while removing cheaper tiers and shunting developers into higher, more expensive ones. Embedded in today’s announcement was also the news that Unity would no longer be offering the Unity Plus subscription tier.
“Unity Plus is being retired for new subscribers effective today, September 12, 2023, to simplify the number of plans we offer,” Unity wrote. “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.”
A Unity Plus subscription was about $400 per year. After that one year, however, it stands to reason that those former Plus users will have to pay the new Pro rate, which is currently over $2,000 per year.
Developers are also concerned these new fees could impact digital preservation efforts as now game makers are seemingly incentivized to delist older games so they aren’t charged for them. There’s also the question of how Unity plans on tracking installs and whether or not such tools run afoul of government privacy laws. Here’s a tweet from the official Unity account explaining how it intends to monitor a game’s installs.
Suffice it to say game developers are extremely unhappy with this news. Many have lost faith in Unity as a partner or are afraid that they will lose what little money they make with game development's already razor-thin profit margins for developers who are not major publishers like EA, Ubisoft, or Activision Blizzard.
“Everyone buy Venba,” tweeted Abhi, developer of the wonderful cooking game Venba, out now pretty much everywhere, including Xbox Game Pass. “But don’t install it. Come to my house and you can play it on my PC. I’ll serve Idli or Dosa for lunch.”
Update September 12th, 9:43PM ET: Added new information from Axios.