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The video game industry is in uproar over a software pricing change. Here's why

A Unity sign is displayed at the company's booth at the Game Developers Conference 2023 in San Francisco.
Jeff Chiu
A Unity sign is displayed at the company's booth at the Game Developers Conference 2023 in San Francisco.

The software framework that powers popular video games like Among Us and Pokémon Go is getting an overhaul to its pricing model. Game developers are furious, and say the change could have a devastating impact on the entire video game industry.

What is it? It's called Unity Engine.

  • Unity is a software company that makes Unity Engine, a suite of video game development tools. Massively popular games across all platforms are made with Unity Engine – games like Among Us, Cult of the Lamb, Pokémon GO, Genshin Impact and many more. 

  • Unity currently charges game developers a flat yearly rate to use the engine. But last week, the company announced a new pricing model that would charge developers a fee every time someone downloaded their game. The change was initially announced to roll out Jan. 1, 2024.

What's the big deal?

  • Unity's announcement infuriated game developers, and a slew of companies released comments denouncing the change. "Stop it. Wtf?" wrote Innersloth, the makers of Among Us, in a statement. Another company, Massive Monster, said: "Quit being stinky, Unity."

  • Using an engine is standard practice in the video game industry. Game companies either use their own engine that they build from the ground up, or pay to use someone else's. Unity Engine is popular among smaller studios that don't have the resources to build their own engines because it's relatively cheap, but it's powerful enough to produce high quality games. 

  • After a week of uproar from the developer community, who were angry at the cost and sceptical of how Unity would track how many people downloaded a game, Unity has issued an apology and some clarifications on the policy.
  • Unity's websitestates that developers using Unity won't be charged an install fee until their game makes at least $200,000 in revenue and surpasses 200,000 installations. 

  • The company's statements since the initial announcement have also addressed how the new policy will account for game demos, subscription game services like Microsoft's Game Pass, pirated installs, and other exceptions. 

What are people saying?

  • In a statementon Sept. 17, Unity issued an apology and promised changes to the policy: "We have heard you. 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."

  • "I don't think there's any version of this that would have gone down a whole lot differently than what happened," Unity CEO John Riccitiello said in a meeting recording obtained by Bloomberg. "It is a massively transformational change to our business model."

  • Unity's statements have alleviated some developers' fears about the burden of the new fee, but to developer Nick Kaman, the damage to Unity's reputation is done.

  • Kaman is the studio head and art director at Aggro Crab Games, which is using Unity Engine for their upcoming title, Another Crab's Treasure. He's worried he'll have to pivot to a new game engine and throw away 10 years of experience in Unity. "A lot of us have kind of staked our lives on these platforms," he told NPR, adding: 

    So what now?

    • Unity planned to implement the new fee structure in January, but in a statementUnity said it will be announcing changes to the policy in the coming days.

    • Kaman feels Unity's actions are indicative of a more concerning trend in the video game industry: "It's getting harder for independent developers."

    • Kaman says since COVID and Elon Musk's takeover of Twitter, it's been difficult to build community in the indie game world. Kaman worries that a struggling indie scene will spell bad news for everyone: "I would say that indie games is where a lot of the innovation in the industry happens, and it's created a lot of games that people really love. It's just bad for everyone, whether you actually play indie games or not."

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    Kai McNamee
    [Copyright 2024 NPR]