Unity introduces Runtime Fee, sparks backlash from creators

With the advent of microtransactions and downloadable content (DLC), it’s not unusual for people to pay more than just the base price tag for a video game. Though these increased costs have usually only impacted the end-user, a proposal from Unity would have charged developers as much as 20 cents per install of a game that used Unity. Unity is one of the most popular game engines for video and mobile games, some games that use it include “Cities: Skylines,” “Hollow Knight,” “Subnautica,” “Genshin Impact,” and “Pokémon Go.”

Introducing the Unity Runtime Fee

On Sept. 12, Unity released an article on their blog titled “Unity plan pricing and packaging updates.” This article introduced the Unity Runtime Fee, which was based on “each time a qualifying game is downloaded by an end user.” This language led many to believe that if a user downloaded a game multiple times, Unity would charge the game developer the Runtime Fee multiple times.

This article outlined which games would be subject to the Unity Runtime Fee. Games made on Unity Personal and Unity Plus that have made more than $200,000 in the last 12 months and have had at least 200,000 lifetime installs, as well as games made on Unity Pro and Unity Enterprise that have made more than $1 million in the last 12 months and have had at least one million lifetime game installs, would be subject to the Runtime Fee. Unity Personal, Plus, Pro, and Enterprise are different plans developers can choose depending on their project and team.

Included below this information was a table that showed developers how much they would be charged per install, depending on how many new installs they had per month. These fees ranged from a half-cent per install to 20 cents per install.

Unity Plus will be retired immediately, and some of the other plans are receiving updates, including AI functionality at runtime.

Community backlash

In response to the Unity Runtime Fee proposal, many game developers stated they would switch game engines or take more drastic measures. For instance, “Cult of the Lamb” developer Massive Monster tweeted “Buy Cult of the Lamb now, cause we’re deleting it on Jan 1st,” the proposed day that the Runtime Fee would go into effect. Massive Monster also tweeted out another statement against Unity’s proposed Runtime Fee that included the phrase “Quit being Stinky Unity.”

“Slay the Spire” developer Mega Crit also tweeted their disdain with Unity’s decision to implement a runtime fee. Mega Crit called out Unity for deleting their terms of service from GitHub, stating “The retroactive pricing structure of Runtime Fees is not only harmful in a myriad of ways to developers — especially indies — it is also a violation of trust. We believe Unity is fully aware of this.” Though “Slay the Spire” is not made with Unity, a new game that Mega Crit has been working on for the past two years does. This was Mega Crit’s first public statement, and they ended their message with, “We have never made a public statement before. That is how badly you fucked up.”

Other studios and publishers that directly or indirectly responded to the Unity Runtime Fee proposal included Innersloth (“Among Us”), Aggro Crab (“Going Under,” “Another Crab’s Treasure”), Devolver Digital, Landfall (“Totally Accurate Battle Simulator,” “Stick Fight”), No Brakes Games (“Human Fall Flat”), and Running With Scissors (“POSTAL”).

Unity’s open letter

On Sept. 22, Unity Create lead Marc Whitten released an open letter on Unity’s website that clarified details about the Runtime Fee policy. He begins the letter by apologizing and stating he is sorry and says there should have been more community input into the Runtime Fee policy decision.

This open letter clarifies that there will be no Runtime Fee for games built in Unity Personal. For those using the Unity Pro or Unity Enterprise plans, the Runtime Fee will go into effect with projects utilizing the Long Term Service version of Unity shipping in 2024 and beyond, meaning current projects will not be subject to the fee. Additionally, projects that have not had over one million “initial engagements” or have not made one million dollars gross revenue in the last twelve months will not be subject to the fee either. These numbers will be self-reported by developers.

In terms of “initial engagement,” the FAQ defines it as “the moment that a distinct end user successfully and legitimately acquires, downloads or engages with a game powered by the Unity Runtime, for the first time in a distribution channel.”

Whitten also stated that for those games that are subject to the Runtime Fee, the creators will have a choice of paying 2.5 percent of their revenue share or the calculated amount based on the number of new people engaging with the game each month. Developers would always get billed the lesser of these amounts. Unity released a calculator for developers to get a feel of how much their monthly Runtime Fee would be.

The future costs of gaming

Now that we have all the background and news out of the way, I want to talk about what this means for the bigger picture of gaming. Unity has clearly lost a lot of trust in its development audience due to their poor announcement of this policy. Does this mean that we’ll see more games shifting away from Unity?

Short-term, I think the answer is no. These teams spend a lot of time developing games, and to move everything to a different game engine would take a lot of time and resources that a lot of smaller teams simply don’t have the time for. While Unreal Engine is an alternative, it’s focused on high-detail graphics for 3D games. Godot Engine is a more general alternative that is a free, open-source game engine for 2D and 3D games on all platforms, but it lacks a successful history of games like Unity has.

The reason Unity can make such a large announcement like this is because of the hold they have on the game development market. I’m sure that many of the teams who said they would move from Unity are still considering it or would have if the Runtime Fee was as far-reaching as it first seemed, but we would still see many games using Unity. Game development is a rough cycle and an added fee from Unity would most likely see higher costs for end-users.

Please don’t get me wrong: I fully support game developers and if I had to pay a little bit extra because the developers are facing additional fees from a company exploiting their hold on the market, I would.

But to me, this is just a reflection of the current video game industry. I’m sick of half-baked games selling well based on name recognition alone and the costly DLC and season passes that come with them. I think this situation is a little bit of just desserts for developers who overcharge for games or sell DLC that should have been included in the base game. Unity is playing the role of the exploiter that some video game developers have been for consumers for years.

While, yes, most video game developers don’t do this, nor to the degree that it originally looked like Unity was doing, I’m sick of developers overcharging for half-baked games. I still don’t know how exactly to feel about “Pokémon Scarlet and Violet” despite being out for over 10 months. On one hand, I did enjoy it, but it could have been so much better if more time had been spent on it. Additionally, the “Pokémon” DLCs have been disappointing and there is no reason why they shouldn’t have been included in the base game. I support Nintendo and the Pokémon company, but it’s getting ridiculous at this point.

In the end, I’m hoping this whole Unity Runtime Fee incident prompts some reflection in the video game industry about pricing and the hold that Unity has on the market, along with some of the predatory behaviors that exist.