Unity’s runtime fee controversy: Diving into the why and how

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The recent rollercoaster ride of Unity’s controversial runtime fee rollout has left the game development community bewildered and seeking answers.

After an initial announcement — followed by modifications and a reannouncement — Unity’s President, Marc Whitten, addressed the issue in a live fireside chat on YouTube, attempting to shed light on the reasons behind this turbulent rollout.

Apologies for missteps

Whitten began by offering a heartfelt apology to the community. “I just wanna say I’m sorry,” he expressed during the Q&A session with Jason Weimann, a prominent Unity tutorial creator. He acknowledged that Unity had not gathered enough feedback before launching the program, a critical oversight that contributed to the chaos.

Quest for sustainability

Unity’s decision to introduce the runtime fee was primarily rooted in the pursuit of building a sustainable business model. Whitten emphasised the importance of establishing a “balanced exchange” between Unity and its users, promoting a sense of “shared success.” 

The new plan now gives developers a choice, enabling them to pay fees based on either the number of new users engaging with their games monthly or a flat 2.5 percent of revenue, whichever is lower. However, the exact details of the “calculated amount” for user engagement remain unspecified, prompting questions that Unity has yet to address.

Why not a revenue share plan?

A recurring query among developers was why Unity didn’t simply introduce a revenue share plan from the start. Whitten explained that their goal was to create a fair and valuable exchange for games once they achieved a level of success.

The “pay-per-install” plan aimed to link the software’s value to high-performing games, with the calculated amount often proving more beneficial to developers than a flat 2.5 percent deduction.

Flexibility and choice

Unity recognised that the runtime fee program posed challenges for developers in budget planning, especially for games that unexpectedly achieved viral success. To address this, Unity introduced a revenue share program to provide developers with flexibility and certainty regarding their obligations.

In essence, the runtime fee served as a means for Unity to capture additional revenue from highly successful games, adopting a “we don’t get paid unless you do” model. The company has now narrowed down the scope of developers subject to the fee, affecting only those games generating $1 million or more with 1 million or more “engagements with new users” in the last year.

Understanding “engagements” and terms of service

During the Q&A, Whitten delved into the definition of “engagements,” which he described as legitimate users of software on a specific distribution channel. Engagements encompassed first-time usage and excluded cases where users re-downloaded previously purchased games on new devices.

Unity also faced scrutiny over changes to its Terms of Service (ToS), as the company had deleted its ToS GitHub page, raising concerns about transparency. Unity has since restored the GitHub page and promised to maintain updated ToS on its website, along with a commitment to allowing developers to lock in specific ToS versions.

The challenge of rebuilding trust

Despite these changes and assurances, Unity faces a considerable challenge in regaining the trust of its user base. Many reports suggest that this trust has been eroded. Whitten emphasised that trust could only be restored through actions rather than words.

Unity’s introduction of a flexible payment model, ToS updates, and GitHub page republishing are steps towards rebuilding trust. However, Whitten acknowledged that it would ultimately be the community’s decision whether these actions suffice.

“I can’t tell you that you should trust me,” Whitten concluded. “You have to decide that on your own.”

Unity’s tumultuous journey with the runtime fee program serves as a cautionary tale for companies seeking to balance profitability with user satisfaction, highlighting the importance of communication, transparency, and a clear understanding of users’ needs.

You can watch the full chat with Whitten below:

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