Editorial: Unity’s Fee Changes Could Be Harmful for Subscription Services

Unity Raining Down from the Clouds

The video game industry has been abuzz for a week after Unity announced that it will begin charging game creators a new per-installation fee on games that use the Unity Engine (which is especially popular in creating Indie games). After a threshold is reached, Unity is planning to charge $0.20 every time a user installs a Unity game on a new device. They have already begun to backtrack given the response, but it is currently unclear where they end up.

This new fee (should it go into effect) applies even to the install of existing Unity games (which could be 10+ years old) going forward, starting in January. You can see why developers would be up in arms over the change. It certainly feels like a major bait and switch to the agreement developers thought they had.

To complicate matters, Unity doesn’t actually have the ability to directly measure user installs of games with Unity. There is no “phone home to Unity” feature built in (thankfully). It will instead use a heuristic approach to estimate the number of installs. Unity isn’t willing to actually share exactly how it computes these estimates, but it does want to “assure” developers that it is “accurate.” I am skeptical…

What makes this situation even messier is the fact that Indie developers often deliver their games in a bunch of different ways and at different prices, and they often do demos and promotional giveaways etc. Indie developers also tend to use DRM free installations – a downside being that piracy is an issue that is hard to control and measure.

Of particular relevance for us at Cloud Dosage, is the distribution of games via various subscription services like Xbox Game Pass, PlayStation Plus, Amazon Luna+, Blacknut and Utomik.

Thankfully Unity had the following to say about streaming games:

We are not going to count web and streaming games toward your install count.

… for now! But, Unity has proven they are more than willing to alter their terms whenever they want. But, yes… for now, it looks like the most affected services mentioned above will be Game Pass, PlayStation Plus and Utomik – which all have local-install options for games in their library.

With such a subscription, players often install a game just to “check it out.” It certainly doesn’t seem fair to charge for a user simply checking out a game and then deciding to uninstall it.

According to an update from Unity, Unity is actually planning to charge the subscription service itself the fee for installs on a subscription instead of the developers. I.e. it is going to attempt to bill Microsoft for Unity games installed via Game Pass. It is unclear exactly how this will work – as the subscription service is essentially a third party in the agreement between Unity and the developer/publisher. For example, Utomik isn’t present when developers sign an agreement with Unity.

If Microsoft, Sony, Utomik etc. do actually accept this “installation fee” for every user trying out a game (something I think is very unlikely), they’d have to pass that cost either onto the user or back onto the developers/publishers. A user simply trying out 20 games in a month could rack up $5.00 in Unity charges. Keep in mind, Utomik’s basic plan starts at $4.99 a month!

Realistically, prices would have to go up on these subscription services because of this move if Unity games were included. More likely, the service may choose to simply say: sorry game builder Sally and Bob, it just isn’t worth it to us to put your game on our service because it uses Unity.

In conclusion, the whole thing seems like a poorly thought out and desperate cash crab. It’s based on a quantity they can’t actually measure and has potential consequences that neither they nor the developers can control. Let’s hope they rethink this quickly.


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