Unity adds new runtime fee

Much to the dismay of developers. Unity says ‘Oops.’

Karen Moltenbrey

Unity holds the lion’s share of the game engine market, and for the past few years, the company has been acquiring impressive technology to rev up its engine with robust features and capabilities. However, users aren’t very happy right now. That’s because Unity recently announced a runtime fee based on game installs, effective at the start of 2024. Users were taken aback by the surprise announcement, expressing dismay, displeasure, and distain for the planned charge (and the company), whose fees and assessment were dropped on them suddenly. To make matters worse, there are many questions regarding the fees developers are about to face for projects that have already been released. Unity quickly paused its plan and announced there would be forthcoming changes to the policy. Exactly what changes will result is anyone’s guess, along with when Unity will announce those changes. In the meantime, Unity engine users continue to stew. 

What do we think? It appears that the decision to institute this runtime fee was not well-thought-out. The company apparently believed it was clear and well designed, but users disagree, leaving many confused and bewildered, despite Unity’s attempt to respond to as many questions as possible on the Unity forum. Users have good reason to be upset. The change came with little notice considering the development cycle for games, and it could greatly impact a developer’s bottom line. The structure is retroactive, affecting games that have already been released. How does a developer plan for that? It’s not like removing a favorite feature from software. This decision could impact a company’s revenue stream, especially at a time when independent game developers are struggling. So, after pissing off its users, Unity hit pause, basically telling them to sit tight while they try to sort out this mess. But, is there really any fix to erasing the mistrust and anger now flowing among the Unity community? This is not a time for a knee-jerk reaction. However, Unity needs to come up with a plan to fix this situation, and fast.  

Unity drops a runtime fee on users, then reels the decision back—sort of

Unity recently opened a very large can of worms when it announced a new Unity Runtime Fee based on game installs, which was to take effect January 1, 2024. Community outcry quickly ensued. Days later, on September 17, 2023, Unity issued an apology on its website and said it is in the process of revamping that policy.

The note states: “We have heard you. We apologize for the confusion and angst the runtime fee policy we announced on Tuesday [September 12, 2023] 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.”

Unity comprises two substantial software components: the Unity Editor and Unity Runtime. The latter is code that executes on player devices and makes made-with-Unity games work at scale—as Unity states, “with billions of monthly downloads.” No doubt Unity saw that as money left on the table.

The Unity Runtime Fee is charged each time a user downloads a qualifying game. Unity said it instituted this fee because each time a game is downloaded, Unity Runtime is also installed. “Also, we believe that an initial install-based fee allows creators to keep the ongoing financial gains from player engagement, unlike a revenue share,” Unity contends.

According to this fee policy, which Unity appears to be rethinking at least in part at the moment, games would need to surpass a minimum revenue threshold during the last 12 months ($200,000 for Unity Personal and Unity Plus, and $1 million for Unity Pro and Unity Enterprise). Games would also need to exceed a minimum lifetime install count coinciding with the same amounts as the revenue threshold figures. Unity later stated that the fee would be assessed on new installs after January 1, 2024, and that they are not perpetual, as users only pay once for an install. There is also a list of discounts and fee reductions for using additional Unity services, for example.

That is the simple explanation. In actuality, it gets much more confusing. The Unity FAQ regarding the fee policy has been taken offline, with a note saying a new FAQ will be available “within the next few days.”

Meanwhile, the announcement also noted that Unity subscription plans will be updated in November “to add extra value.” The company further stated the new tools and services would come with no increase in seat pricing. However, Unity announced it has retired Unity Plus for new subscribers as of September 12, 2023, to simplify the number of plans it offers. Current Plus users will be notified in October with an offer to upgrade to Unity Pro for one year at the current Unity Plus price.

A week and a half after this news dropped, customers are still waiting for Unity’s changes to the fee policy. On its forum page, a Unity rep noted that the price increase is very targeted, and that more than 90% of the customers will not be affected by the change, as was initially announced. “Customers who will be impacted are generally those who have found a substantial scale in downloads and revenue, and have reached both our install and revenue thresholds. This means a low (or no) fee for creators who have not found scale success yet and a models onetime fee for those who have,” Eduardo Oriz, Unity content marketing specialist who goes by LeonhardP, stated.

Developers may get more information. On the forum, as there are many questions and answers there, as well as a plethora of comments, most of which are not favorable to Unity or the fee structure. One user pleads with Unity to resolve the questions concerning the fees now so developers can plan ahead for the next year, as they need to understand how this (or any revised change) will affect every single project that has already shipped or those planned for release.

There’s also a good amount of outrage and mistrust expressed on the page from users who feel deceived. One asks what is stopping Unity from increasing the prices in the future, especially since it is “adding another fee to games people have already shipped.” Others call the policy confusing, ridiculous, absurd, and poorly thought-out.

Many questioned how the installs would be tracked. Would software made in Unity call home to Unity whenever it is run? In response, Unity said it uses a composite model for counting runtime installs that collects data from numerous sources, and that the Unity Runtime Fee would use data in compliance with GDPR and CCPA, and would be used for billing purposes.

Games engines have become an important part of the modern content-creation process, as highlighted in our DCC report. And the two most popular commercial game engines for real-time content creation are Epic’s Unreal Engine and Unity’s engine. Both are packed with features, and both have loyal customers across various genres. Nevertheless, there are differences between the two engines, and not all of them involve features.

As one Unity user points out on the forum, the Epic Unreal model, where the company takes a percentage cut of all revenue over a certain threshold, is very clean. (Unreal Engine comes fully loaded and is production-ready out of the box and is free to get started for game development. However, a 5% royalty is accessed when the title earns more than $1 million.) “It essentially means that Epic is successful when their customers are successful. It means there’s less risk for devs, as a failed game with Unreal doesn’t cost any money (on the Unreal side of things, at least). It also creates a very good incentive structure for Epic—they need to maximize their users’ profits. Unity’s current model, on the other hand, needs people to use Unity and the asset store to make games, and the success of those games doesn’t really influence Unity’s bottom line. The Plus subscription has been paid, the asset store assets have been paid for, and if you sell 13 copies on Steam in a year, Unity’s doesn’t really care,” the user states. He adds that revenue sharing would be better for end users than subscription plans.