Unity closes offices, cancels town hall after threat in wake of runtime fee restructure
Backlash has spilled offline and into potential violence
The backlash against Unity runtime fees has been so extreme that the game engine company felt the need to cancel a town hall meeting and close two offices after receiving a "threat," reportedly from an employee.
As reported by our sister publication DevClass, Unity dropped a bombshell on its developer community earlier this week by telling them it is introducing per-install fees for games built with the engine once they pass specified thresholds based on the license purchased.
This flies in the face of a "commitment" – their words – the company made only back in 2019 to being "an open platform." Unity once took pride in charging "a flat fee per seat," not royalties from a game developer's revenue.
But it looks like that promise was not worth the paper it was written on. The issue is that Unity's former business model – license fees and free tiers – was the precise reason why so many games are built on the engine. It is powerful and versatile, and had a low barrier to entry for hobbyist and independent devs.
This allowed small teams of one or more people who had struck gold with a game idea to make comfortable wages off their work.
From January 1, those types of developer could feel like they are being penalized for success as Unity takes a cut of their product's revenue. Some are reporting that it will no longer be financially viable for them to sell their Unity-based game going forward, meaning livelihoods may be put at risk by this about-turn.
It's somewhat akin to Adobe, which is already expensive software, waking up one day and deciding it requires a slice of all revenue generated where PhotoShop, Premiere Pro, After Effects etc were involved in the production of that good or service. Or a more mundane example – a tool manufacturer taking royalties from any house purchase where its hammers were used in construction.
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Developers have been vocally opposed to the change in Unity's forums and further afield online, with many declaring intent to take their business elsewhere, but the counterblast took a dark turn yesterday when the company said it had been "made aware of a potential threat" against its offices in Austin, Texas, and San Francisco, California.
Unity CEO John Riccitiello was due to address staff that morning, Bloomberg reported, but this was also canceled as a precaution.
San Francisco police, which responded to a report from Unity, told Polygon that "an employee made a threat towards his employer using social media." The employee works in an office outside California, police said.
The Register asked Unity to comment on the closures, to confirm the employee line, and whether the company would consider revisiting its policy change given the magnitude of the backlash.
A spokesperson told us: "We have taken immediate and proactive measures to ensure the safety of our employees, which is our top priority. We are closing our offices today and tomorrow that could be potential targets for this threat, and are fully cooperating with law enforcement on the investigation."
Why Unity would do this to its business is mind boggling. It can squeeze its existing base however much it likes, but it beggars belief to assume that developers will keep opting to use Unity after the license change when alternatives, like the open source Godot, are available. We can only assume they like money. ®
Riccitiello was once CEO at Electronic Arts. During a 2011 investor meeting, he said:
When you are six hours into playing Battlefield and you run out of ammo in your clip and we ask you for a dollar to reload, you're really not that price sensitive at that point in time, and so essentially what ends up happening, and the reason the play-first, pay-later model works so nicely, is a consumer gets engaged in a property. They may spend ten, twenty, thirty, fifty hours in a game. And then, when they're deep into the game, they're well invested in it, we're not gauging but we're charging.
More recently, of mobile games developers who don't think about monetization early on in the process, he said:
Ferrari and some of the other high-end car manufacturers still use clay and carving knives. It's a very small portion of the gaming industry that works that way, and some of these people are my favorite people in the world to fight with – they're the most beautiful and pure, brilliant people. They're also some of the biggest fucking idiots.
He later apologized to Unity's customers.