After Unity announced, then modified, then reannounced its new runtime fee program, the video game development community wanted to know how and why this disastrous rollout happened. In addition to the letter Unity Create president Marc Whitten published on Friday, he also held a live fireside chat on YouTube in which he addressed some of the community’s biggest questions and concerns.
One of the first things Whitten did, both in his letter and during the chat, was offer an apology.
“I just wanna say I’m sorry,” Whitten said in his Q&A with Jason Weimann, a YouTube creator known for his Unity tutorials. “It’s very clear that we did not take enough feedback before we rolled out the program.”
One of the first and most important questions asked had also been circulating throughout social media since Unity’s initial announcement: “why?” Why add onto Unity’s current pricing plan — which was a tiered, subscription-based service — something that quickly became universally reviled and just as quickly walk it back?
“It’s very clear that we did not take enough feedback before we rolled out the program.”
“The most fundamental thing that we’re trying to do is [build] a sustainable business for Unity,” Whitten answered. He said the runtime fee was meant to be a “balanced exchange” between Unity and its users that would incorporate a kind of “shared success.”
Additionally, the new plan now offers developers a choice. They can either pay fees based on “a calculated amount based on the number of new people engaging with your game each month” or a flat 2.5 percent of all revenue, whichever is lower.
(Neither the letter nor the Q&A addressed what exactly is involved with this “calculated amount,” and The Verge has reached out to Unity for clarification.)
Whitten’s answer touched on another big “why” question developers had: why didn’t Unity simply introduce a revenue share plan in the first place?
“We’re trying to build a model that we think is fair and is a good value exchange that works for games once they find a level of success,” Whitten said.
He explained that the “pay-per-install” plan was a way for Unity to tie the software’s value to the high-performing games that use it and that, in most cases, paying the “calculated amount” would be better for developers than Unity simply taking a flat 2.5 percent off the top.
“We think that in a pretty reasonable number of cases that [the calculated amount is] actually a smaller number, and we think that’s good,” Whitten said.
However, Whitten acknowledged that the company received feedback that implementing such a program would make it difficult for developers to plan their budgets, like in the case of a game receiving viral success. Whitten said that introducing a revenue share program was a way to offer developers more flexibility, allowing them to always have an idea of what would be owed while also giving them a choice of how to pay.
Essentially, the runtime fee was a means for Unity to capture additional revenue from high-performing games — a kind of “we don’t get paid unless you do” model. However, the company cast a very wide net in terms of how much developers needed to make before they started paying, while unilaterally deciding how those affected developers would pay.
The new plan simultaneously cuts down the number of developers subjected to the fee while introducing new options for how those developers pay that fee.
Now, the only games that are affected by this plan are those that have made $1 million or more and have 1 million or more “engagements with new users” in the last 12 months.
Engagements as a metric was introduced in the letter Whitten wrote, but it was not clearly defined. In the Q&A, Whitten went into a bit more detail on what “engagement” means, defining it as “a legitimate user of your software on a particular distribution channel.” These engagements would also be self-reported by the developers.
He clarified that a legitimate user was someone who didn’t pirate or refund a game that they got through a distribution channel, whether that be via a store purchase or use from a subscription service. He also clarified that an engagement was a first-time use and therefore did not include someone downloading a previously purchased game on a new device.
“Our intent is very simple,” Whitten said. “Which is that the first time that your game using our runtime engages with a very legitimate user on a distribution channel — use that as a count.”
Unity’s terms of service — or ToS — was another big topic that dominated the Q&A session. Back in 2019, Unity created a GitHub page dedicated to tracking changes made to its terms of service. That page, however, was quietly deleted sometime before the new runtime fee was introduced. Developers were upset by this, seeing it as Unity going back on its previous commitment to transparency.
On social media, the official Unity account offered an interesting, if extremely unsatisfying, explanation for why the company deleted its ToS GitHub page:
“Genuinely disappointed at how our removal of the ToS has been framed across the internet,” Unity posted on X (formerly Twitter). “We removed it way before the pricing change was announced because the views were so low, not because we didn’t want people to see it.”
During the Q&A, Whitten admitted that he actually didn’t know about the GitHub page until recently. However, he said that the page had been restored and that Unity will also continue to update its ToS on its website. Furthermore, as a part of this new plan, Unity stated that it would once again enshrine in its terms the ability for developers to lock in whatever ToS corresponds with their version of Unity.
“People need to know that they can rely on a set of terms when they start using a version of Unity,” Whitten said. “So we’re going to make sure that’s the case.”
There was also a question asking what, if anything, prevented Unity from changing its terms of service again. The company has not yet updated its terms to reinclude the ability to “lock in” a particular version of the terms of service. And while this is a welcome addition to the pricing update, the reality is that there is nothing stopping Unity from changing its terms yet again.
Essentially, all a developer has is trust that Unity won’t.
“I wrote that letter and I wouldn’t put [that] in the letter if I didn’t think that the company was going to stand up for it,” Whitten said.
“I’m committed to making sure that we continue to work as hard as we can to earn your trust,” Whitten said. He also said that this could only be done through “actions not words.”
Whitten explained that Unity introducing a flexible payment model, updating its terms of service, and the republishing of the GitHub page were the actions meant to earn back trust. But ultimately, Whitten acknowledged that it would be up to the community to decide if those actions are enough.
“I can’t tell you that you should trust me,” Whitten said. “You have to decide that on your own.”