About the Unity disaster (updated)

Original photo by Dan Loran via Unsplash, slightly edited for this post.

Note: this article was updated on September 15th 2023 to add extra details, marked with [NEW]. The original article is unaltered except for grammar updates.

You may have heard the noise, but just yesterday Unity announced the most controversial pricing change to date, sparking the biggest backlash from developers in their entire history and causing a major stir of the game development field. Here’s a summary of the most important changes:

  • The Plus plan has been canceled, effective immediately. Remaining Plus subscribers can keep the plan until it expires, then it will automatically renew to Pro unless manually canceled.
  • Starting from January 1st 2024, developers with more than 200k downloads and 200k in revenue per year will have to pay 0.20$ per game install. Both thresholds raise to one million for developers with a Unity Pro license. The count is not retroactive but applies to all existing games made with Unity. This also applies to free games.
  • Developers using the proprietary Unity backend services will receive a discount on the install fee.
  • Unity isn’t disclosing how they are tracking the installs, leaving doubts about mass-install retaliations, pirated copies counting towards installs, and a ton more questions.
  • Unity Personal (the free edition) becomes online-only and can only be used up to three days without an internet connection.

This doesn’t look too bad at a glance, but it gets worse the more you read it, especially if you read it from the official Unity blog with their generally vague wording, which they are updating on the go. It’s true that a lot of indie games struggle to reach 200k both in installs and revenue so they might never be affected, but there are ton of games, some of which you already know and love, which will be hit in the face by these changes. Beat Saber, Gorilla Tag, VRChat, but also Genshin Impact, Vampire Survivors, Cult of the Lamb, and a ton more that are more or less famous, will be hit by this new fee.

If you take a trip on Twitter today and search for “unity” you will find out what a mess it actually is, and how much developers are hating this change. Various users are doing the math and some examples report that if we assume this install fee was already in force years ago, many games today would be bankrupt. Luckily install fees start to add up from next January and previous installs will not need to be paid (but will count towards the threshold), but this means there is a solid chance for some games to hit bankruptcy later on, and even if they don’t, they’ll still end up paying thousands and get nothing of value in return. Icing on the cake, removing the Plus plan means you either keep the much hated Unity splash screen, or you pay almost 4x to get rid of it. Considering the track record of the company, this much backlash from developers isn’t going to improve the situation if not by assessing a few points like installs counting just the first time, rather every time an user installs the game.

[NEW] In fact developers have been asking actively how installs would be tracked, but all that Unity has been able to communicate is that they are using internal, non disclosed ways to calculate that, reassuring users they will just calculate installs the first time, not for demos, not for test builds, and not for charity bundles, and sending their users a monthly report on installs: basically a “just trust me” situation. Many developers were quick to note this system cannot realistically exist without using tracking software, or phone-home code, or directly some form of spyware. Someone from Unity, in the related forum thread (182 pages at the time of writing) even mentioned they are still looking at how this will exactly happen, and that install count will be a conservative estimate. Additional communications from Unity mentioned leaving to developers all the paperwork to notice them as they adde their game to charity bundles, for example. The “installs” situation is currently extremely vague and feels like an extra complication and burden for developer.

And the problem is not just economic and systemic. This is yet another case, and the most inconvenient one in practice, where Unity challenged the trust of its userbase with something completely unwanted. After laying off the whole team working on Gigaya and more, after the CEO called developers “fucking idiots”, then the Ironsource merge and contracts with the military, and recently the push on AI, now they gave us this (also worth mentioning the CEO has sold 2000 shares just days before this announcement). By looking at the reactions it’s clear they’ve hit the bar at which developers cannot hold it anymore. It wasn’t news that many devs were already considering moving to another game engine for different reasons, and with yesterday’s blow, this feeling seems to have sprung to action. Other engines such as Unreal, Game Maker and Godot are riding the wave to lure developers into their garden, but how can you blame them? This is the best Unity has ever been at providing fertile soil for other engines to thrive.

Update: three days later

[NEW] It’s been roughly 72 hours now since the original announcement, and Unity did not backtrack an inch on this decision despite the obvious consequences that anyone could guess as they ignored all the Unity insiders. At the time of writing, Unity looks like a massive, self-feeding fire: lots of developers are abandoning the engine, collaborators are cutting ties, employees are resigning, companies are unionising to stop using Unity Ads. Details about the new pricing model are still unanswered and problematic despite latest Unity replies. The news reached the press everywhere, even the TV, and if all of this wasn’t enough apparently there was one employee threatening CEO John Riccitiello with death (here the full statement from the San Francisco police). Twitter is exploding with posts about Unity and a quick search there shows the situation doesn’t have any sign of improving, as more and more developers and even players make their voice heard and announce leaving Unity behind for good. As an extra, I’d like to mention these two tweets by Aras Pranckevičius and Matt Mirrorfish, notable ex Unity employees, mentioning how until 2017 Unity was earning regularly with a team of 500 people by just selling seat licenses, then all went downhill as the company decided to pursue hypergrowth model.

[NEW] Unity’s decision this week hit the game development industry like never before, and should they backtrack the decision, it won’t be enough to gain back the trust of their users. This is no longer an “Everyone hates us but they’ll come back” situation because this time there are valid industry standard alternatives, first of which is Unreal Engine, a battle tested engine with a long story of successes and a large community, used by indie and AAA studios all over the world. But this event finally gave spotlight to open source engines like Godot and Defold, as many developers are already tinkering with them for the first time. Godot in particular saw a surge of users and donations, passing the 30,000$ threshold on their recently launched Godot Development Fund. Game engines big and small are doing their best to welcome ex Unity users with tutorials, guides on how to switch, and even adding better features and documentation. It’s the best time ever to explore other game engines- or even to make your own, as more and more resources are being shared online.

On a more personal level

Allow me to speak just as Danjel now, rather than as Commuter Games.

I started using Unity since version 2.1 back in 2010 and never stopped so far, so it’s pretty safe to say I know this engine very well and I’ve watched it grow and evolve over the years. For more than half of this journey, things have been pretty good and consistent, and I’ve always been extremely happy with Unity to the point where other engines didn’t make sense to me, after using them for some time at my past job. In my experience, the balance between ease of use, iteration time, compatibility and overall quality was simply unmatched compared to other engines.

Things started to slowly go downhill when I began making VR games using Unity 2018, short time after Quest 1 came out. It was very easy to setup a VR project and in fact it took mere weeks to have the very first version of V-Speedway up and running. But as development went on I started to get caught in some technical difficulties between performance and SDKs, and it quickly became a game of guessing which Unity version would run without issues in combination to which SDK version. This was still bearable for some time, until it was clear that my projects ran slower and slower with each new Unity version. The trend continues today at an alarming rate (check my blog entry from last June for some insight on that), with the added problems that more recent Unity versions have random issues such as crashes, glitches, or a massive memory leak I discovered and reported a couple days ago.

All of this culminated some days ago into thinking that I don’t want to make VR games anymore after Downtown Club is complete. I’ve spent too much time trying to work around issues with Unity and I hate how my work is becoming less about making a game, and more about making my work environment function properly, so I thought that leaving VR out of the equation could make this job pleasing again for me. I was already really stressed by this whole situation, then yesterday’s news arrived and put the last nail in the coffin. After thinking for some time, I’m now pretty sure Downtown Club will be not only my last VR project, but also my last game made in Unity. I’m tired of putting up with a company that’s been favouring the shareholders more than the actual users, leaving core features broken in favour of new features nobody wants (that will still be left broken once the new trend is in), and now charging more for absolutely no extra value.

My trust in Unity has now been eradicated completely and the only thing that could make me go back would be a change of their CEO, their board, their pricing model and who knows, maybe going open source. Just reverting the last pricing change won’t be enough. V-Speedway and Neodori Infinity won’t be affected by this change, but again, I’m out of trust for this company. It pains me to think Downtown Club will have to stick to Unity because it’s too far into development to even consider porting it elsewhere, and unfortunately other engines don’t support VR as well as Unity does, despite the problems. Making games for me it’s not a corporate job, but a work of passion. I used to be able to mindlessly create games and see them work almost out of the box even if I was just a solo developer, but that reality seems to fade day after day- at least with Unity.

There is a lot more I want to say, but my brain is slowly emptying and I believe this was enough of a rant.

I am tired. I am really tired.

Danjel Ricci “SkyArcher”