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Unity Introduces Controversial Per-Install Fee, Several Indie Devs Respond

by Brian Shea on Sep 12, 2023 at 06:11 PM

Update, 9/22/23:

Earlier this week, Unity apologized for controversial changes made to its game development engine, including per-install fees for games made in it, stating that another update would arrive later. Unity released an open letter to the community today, apologizing for its rollout and messaging around changes while breaking down how fees and more will work moving forward. 

Below is Unity's open letter, in full: 

"To our community: I'm Marc Whitten, and I lead Unity Create which includes the Unity engine and editor teams. I want to start with simply this: I am sorry. 
"We should have spoken with more of you and we should have incorporated more of your feedback before announcing our new Runtime Fee policy. Our goal with this policy is to ensure we can continue to support you today and tomorrow, and keep deeply investing in our game engine. You are what makes Unity great, and we know we need to listen, and work hard to earn your trust. We have heard your concerns, and we are making changes in the policy we announced to address them.
"Our Unity Personal plan will remain free and there will be no Runtime Fee for games built on Unity Personal. We will be increasing the cap from $100,000 to $200,00 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.
"For those creators on Unity Pro and Unity Enterprise, we are also making changes based on your feedback. 
"The Runtime Fee policy will only apply beginning with the next LTS version of Unity shipping in 2024 and beyond. Your games that are currently shipped and the projects you are currently working on will not be included – unless you choose to upgrade them to this new version of Unity. 
"We will make sure that you can stay on the terms applicable for the version of Unity editor you are using – as long as you keep using that version.
"For games that are subject to the runtime fee, we are giving you a choice of either a 2.5% revenue share or the calculated amount based on the number of new people engaging with your game each month. Both of these numbers are self-reported from data you already have available. You will always be billed the lesser amount. 
"We want to continue to build the best engine for creators. We truly love this industry and you are the reason why. I'd like to invite you to join me for a live fireside chat hosted by Jason Weimann today at 4 p.m. ET/1 p.m. PT, where I will do my best to answer your questions. In the meantime, here are some more details. 
"Thank you for caring as deeply as you do, and thank you for giving us hard feedback." 

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Update, 9/18/23:

Last week, Unity announced per-install fees that would affect virtually every developer that uses Unity's engine to develop its games. It resulted in widespread concern from developers around the world (more details on that in the original story below). Now, roughly a week later, Unity has issued a statement apologizing for the changes, stating that another update will arrive in a couple of days and that changes are coming. 

"We have heard you," Unity writes on Twitter. "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." 

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Update, 9/13/23:

Unity posted an FAQ on its forums to announce its changes, which will go into effect on January 1, 2024. 

"[We will introduce a new Unity Runtime Fee that's based on game installs," the forum post originally began. "We will also add cloud-based asset storage, Unity DevOps tools, and AI at runtime at no extra cost to Unity subscription plans this November." It then links to its original announcement blog post and subsequent FAQ

Yesterday evening, a Unity spokesperson made an edit to the forum post, "Highlighting some of the question/answer pairs from this thread [of forum users and developers concerned] below for visibility." 

Here are those question/answer pairs, in full: 

"Q: How are you going to collect installs?
A: We leverage our own proprietary data model. We believe it gives an accurate determination of the number of times the runtime is distributed for a given project.

Q: Is software made in unity going to be calling home to unity whenever it's ran, even for enterprice licenses?
A: We use a composite model for counting runtime installs that collects data from numerous sources. The Unity Runtime Fee will use data in compliance with GDPR and CCPA. The data being requested is aggregated and is being used for billing purposes.

Q: If a user reinstalls/redownloads a game / changes their hardware, will that count as multiple installs?
A: Yes. The creator will need to pay for all future installs. The reason is that Unity doesn’t receive end-player information, just aggregate data.

Q: If a game that's made enough money to be over the threshold has a demo of the same game, do installs of the demo also induce a charge?
A: If it's early access, Beta, or a demo of the full game then yes. If you can get from the demo to a full game then yes. If it's not, like a single level that can't upgrade then no.

Q: What's going to stop us being charged for pirated copies of our games?
A: We do already have fraud detection practices in our Ads technology which is solving a similar problem, so we will leverage that know-how as a starting point. We recognize that users will have concerns about this and we will make available a process for them to submit their concerns to our fraud compliance team.

Q: When in the lifecycle of a game does tracking of lifetime installs begin? Do beta versions count towards the threshold?
A: Each initialization of an install counts towards the lifetime install.

Q: Does this affect WebGL and streamed games?
A: Games on all platforms are eligible for the fee but will only incur costs if both the install and revenue thresholds are crossed. Installs - which involves initialization of the runtime on a client device - are counted on all platforms the same way (WebGL and streaming included).

Q: Are these fees going to apply to games which have been out for years already? If you met the threshold 2 years ago, you'll start owing for any installs monthly from January, no? (in theory). It says they'll use previous installs to determine threshold eligibility & then you'll start owing them for the new ones.
A: Yes, assuming the game is eligible and distributing the Unity Runtime then runtime fees will apply. We look at a game's lifetime installs to determine eligibility for the runtime fee. Then we bill the runtime fee based on all new installs that occur after January 1, 2024."

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Original story, 9/12/23:

This morning, popular game-engine creator Unity Software announced an update to its pricing and packaging plans, which will go into effect on January 1, 2024. The new pricing plan introduces a fee that activates and charges developers of high-performing games each time the title is installed by a user or player. The justification is that each time a game is installed, Unity Runtime is also installed. 

Unity Runtime Fee

Starting in January, games will qualify for the Unity Runtime Fee after the game has passed a minimum revenue threshold in the last 12 months and passed a minimum lifetime install count. Unity says it has intentionally set high revenue and install thresholds to avoid impacting smaller developers. Unity's current threshold for Unity Personal and Plus is set for games that have made $200,000 or more in the last 12 months and have at least 200,000 lifetime game installs; after hitting the threshold for those plans, developers will be charged $0.20 per install over the threshold. For the Pro and Enterprise versions, the games must have made $1,000,000 or more in the last 12 months and have at least 1,000,000 lifetime installs. For the Pro license, developers will be charged between $0.02 and $0.15 per install over the threshold, while Enterprise license holders will be charged between $0.01 and $0.125 per install over the threshold. According to Unity, the company will use proprietary data models to track and determine how much developers owe, which has some developers concerned about a lack of transparency.

Though Unity says it feels this new install-based fee will let creators keep their ongoing financial gains from player engagement, the policies do not directly address methods outside of traditional sales by which people can acquire video games in 2024, such as subscription services like Xbox Game Pass or Apple Arcade, free-to-play games, or piracy. Additionally, Axios' Stephen Totilo reports that if a player deletes a game and re-installs it, that counts as two installs towards the developer's push towards the threshold, or if they've already reached the threshold, two individual charges to the developer. The same applies if the game is installed on two devices by the same user. However, it sounds as though games and bundles sold for charity are exempt from the fees, though some have questioned how Unity will accurately track the difference between standard sales and sales for charity.

Following the announcement, Unity took to Twitter to clarify some of the points. While the company acknowledges this is a price increase for the use of its engine and technology, it is steadfast in its assertion that the majority of its developers will not be impacted by this change. "The developers who will be impacted are generally those who have successful games and are generating revenue way above the thresholds we outlined in our blog," the company said in a post on Twitter. "This means that developers who are still building their business and growing the audience of their games will not pay a fee. The program was designed specifically this way to ensure developers could find success before the install fee takes effect."

Unity also released an FAQ post in its user forums, addressing some of the prevailing questions. Of note, it says that demo downloads, if they are early access, beta, a demo of the full game, or you can get from the demo to the full game, will all count towards the download total; the sole example provided for demos that do not count towards the download count is if it's a non-upgradeable demo that consists of, say, a single level. Unity also claims that it has fraud-detection practices in place to detect pirated copies to prevent them from charging developers for those. It mentions that if a game has previously been released and, for example, hit the threshold years ago, Unity will begin imposing the Unity Runtime Fee for each new install starting on January 1, 2024.

You can read the full post on the Unity Blog here.

Developers Respond on Social Media

In response to these new policies, many independent developers have taken to social media to decry the new pricing plan and install-based fee.

"Today, Unity (the engine we use to make our games) announced that they'll soon be taking a fee from developers for every copy of the game installed over a certain threshold – regardless of how that copy was obtained. Guess who has a somewhat highly anticipated game coming to Xbox Game Pass in 2024? That's right, it's us and a lot of other developers. That means Another Crab's Treasure will be free to install for the 25 million Game Pass subscribers. If a fraction of those users download our game, Unity could take a fee that puts an enormous dent in our income and threatens the sustainability of our business. And that's before we even think about sales on other platforms, or pirated installs of our game, or even multiple installs by the same user!!! This decision puts us and countless other studios in a position where we might not be able to justify using Unity for our future titles. If these changes aren't rolled back, we'll be heavily considering abandoning our wealth of Unity expertise we've accumulated over the years and starting from scratch in a new engine. Which is really something we'd rather not do. On behalf of the dev community, we're calling on Unity to reverse the latest in a string of shortsighted decisions that seem to prioritize shareholders over their product's actual users. I f---ing hate it here." – Aggro Crab, the developer behind the upcoming Another Crab's Treasure, in a statement posted on Twitter.

Longtime indie developer Rami Ismail also posted on Twitter about some of the potential negative effects of this change from the player's perspective, stating, "Just as a note, gamers, the Unity changes mean the following for you: Demos are now risky to devs. DRM-free games are now risky to devs. Bundles are now risky to devs. Giveaways are now risky to devs. Updates are now risky to devs. Multi-device users are now risky to devs."

Developer Over The Moon Games initially reacted harshly to the news, saying that the 7 million people who downloaded the game when it was free on the Epic Games Store would cost the studio more than their lifetime earnings, but the developer's follow-up posts on Twitter feature a more measured take on the situation. "So [Unity's] new policy is s--- but I overreacted as well," the account posted on Twitter. "200k in the last month AND 200k installs protects a lot of cases. It's still insane and prone to abuse but if your game sells for 10 bucks a pop, $200k is 20k installs – at $10, you'd have to make 2MM before [you hit the] threshold. Actually if I understand it, it's even better – with a pro license you need to cross 1MM/1MM. At $10, $1MM is 100K Copies. That means you can make 10MM in a single year before fees kick in."

Massive Monster, developer of Cult of the Lamb, tweeted that people should buy the game now because it plans to delete it on January 1. 

It also commented a heart in response to someone saying the team won't have to delete it because Unity will "have this rolled back by then. All of that was from the Cult of the Lamb Twitter account. The Massive Monsters account then released the following: 

Among Us developer Innersloth released a statement on Twitter, stating that it uses Unity to make its games and Unity's new charges would not only harm the studio, but fellow game studios of all budgets and sizes. Innersloth also says if these Unity changes go though, it would delay content and features players want to port the game elsewhere. 

While the initial announcement was enough to cause Unity Software Inc.'s stock, which opened today at 37.41, to surge to 39.69, it quickly fell back to 37.58 before climbing back up to 38.98 before the stock market closed.

Popular games to use Unity as their engine include Sea of Stars, Pokémon Go, Call of Duty: Mobile, Cuphead, and Cities: Skylines. We've reached out to Unity for comment on the response from the development community but did not immediately receive an official comment from the company. We will update this story with its comment if it provides one.