Ah Enshittification, Here We Go Again

These sort of disasters are going to become more common.

Unity Technologies announced yesterday that they are retroactively instating a per-install charge for all developers who use their Unity engine, meaning that after developers reach 200,000 sales (for those who cannot pay a two thousand dollar per year subscription fee) or 1,000,000 sales (for those who do), Unity will demand between $0.01 and $0.20 from the developer for every single install of their game on a console. Factoring in platform costs and publisher fees, the average Unity developer now stands to make $0.46 on the dollar for every installation of their game.

This was rightfully despised by absolutely everyone when it was revealed that the plan was to backdate the numbers once the new revenue policy goes to into effect on January 1 2024, meaning that if you have installed a game based on Unity in the last twelve months (which could mean anything from Genshin Impact to Vampire Survivors to Among Us) the developer now owes Unity money for that installation. Downloaded it through a subscription service, like Xbox Game Pass? That counts. Installed it on your phone? You bet that counts. Downloaded a charity bundle with 100 steam keys in it? That apparently doesn’t count, but only because their clandestine ‘install tracker’ contains all the technological sophistication of the BBC’s unlicensed television-detecting Radar Vans.

The Genshin money is the primary motivator, here. Player numbers for mobile games are hard to come by, but rough player numbers from activeplayer.io put Genshin Impact at around 62 million total downloads, which, even at a conservative estimate and assuming a company like Mihoyo has the Enterprise Plan, would put between $10-13 million a year into Unity’s traditionally empty coffers, which have seen them borrowing money and fighting off acquisitions largely since their inception.

Genshin can afford it. Through the hallowed combination of exploitative gambling mechanics and anime waifus, the game has made a total gross of $4.3 billion, valuing that single game at about half of Unity’s total net worth. They’re not the only ones. Pokemon Go, another Unity joint, has grossed roughly $6.4 billion in the seven years its been out. Call of Duty Mobile, a soon-to-be-deceased mobile spin-off of the game franchise that Microsoft spent $40 billion acquiring Activision just to get their hands on, sits somewhere around 500 million lifetime downloads.

These are the whales Unity are chasing.

They’re also wholly unrepresentative of the average Unity user, to whom this revenue split is about to become untenable in the kind of way that sinks projects and closes studios. Unity spent twenty years building up their reputation as the engine for everyone that could and would ‘democratize game development’ by putting its engine in schools and colleges, by releasing it freely and charging relatively small revenue sharing fees compared to their principle competitor Unreal, and developers believed it. It’s the engine of bedroom coders, of small teams, of independent studios that fill the void between ‘big releases’ that now take anywhere between five and seven years from concept to disappointing and widely-panned releases.

It has not remotely lived up to that reputation for years, as Unity largely exists as an entity to funnel aspiring developers into spending money in their asset store before they inevitably get frustrated with the tutorials and uninstall the program, but the vestiges of that reputation have clung around Unity, even as they got in bed with malware developers and committed to whole-heartedly embracing AI technologies in a way that would make even the most opportunistic of techbros blush.

Indies who bought into the dream, and fluke their way into a successful hit like the aforementioned Vampire Survivors, stand to lose millions on a successful game. It has already become common practice in the mobile gaming community, where many of the games depend on randomly generated stats as a measure of success, to install a game up to a hundred times in order to get a starting roster with ‘good stats.’ A single highly-motivated user, of the kind that mobile gaming is psychologically designed to encourage, can now cost a Unity developer hundreds of dollars.

Developers also stand to lose millions if they speak out. That this system is easily exploited against developers by hate groups who can buy the game (either through key resellers or by exploiting Steam’s generous refund policy) and then setup bots to repeatedly install the games of developers who speak out against hatred and bigotry in the gaming space has been widely pointed out already, and remains a threat. This is likely to make charity bundles and co-op indie bundles, at least in their present form, a thing of the past.

If you develop for Unity, you now have four months to decide between pulling your games off store shelves, converting them to other engines, or accepting Unity’s financially ruinous terms at a time in which the cost of living has never been higher in recent memory.

This is a costly equation, both in money and man hours, and in many cases: this means retraining to develop on an unfamiliar engine from scratch. Unity is among few engines to natively support C#, which is basically a weird Microsoft-endorsed version of JavaScript, and fundamentally dissimilar to the C++ used by Unreal Engine or the Python and Lua and the assortment of bizarre proprietary scripting languages (such as Godot’s GDscript or Game Maker Studio’s Ruby-derived GML) that are supported as standard by other game engines. Transferring those skills, and especially workflows, to a new engine takes time and documentation-- documentation that open sourced engines like Godot or unpopular engines like the open-source-but-Amazon-backed O3DE lack, which leads to the community around them lacking in the resources to make the transition to new engines smoothly.

This means a lot of studios are going to move directly from Unity to Unreal Engine, leaving them potentially vulnerable to this exact same shit happening again when Epic, a publisher that has become notorious for both its short-sightedness in its pursuit of profit and monopolies, decides to do some similarly scumfuck shit to its own community of struggling independent developers in the pursuit of more profits from the 0.01% of developers who make an absolute killing from using their engine.

That might be six months from now, or it might be six years from now, but in all probability: it’s coming. As games have become more complicated and expensive to make and deadlines tighter, more and more developers have moved to the quickest and fastest solutions to getting games out of the door-- outsourcing, common engines, and middleware.

Middleware is the killer: Unity are the kings of making their engine shit, failing to update it, and then selling you a middleware solution to the problem. Unity owns not only Vivox, an essential voice and text chat middleware used in everything from League of Legends to Epic’s own Fortnite, but also number of lucrative-and-shady advertising and analytics middleware to get developers access to player data, as well as server hosting through Multiplay and streaming infrastructure through Parsec for developers who lack the time or resources to host and house their own server infrastructure (most of them).

Their proposed $2000 a year subscription will include access to Havoc Physics, an essential physics middleware for developers who don’t have the time or resources to code their own bespoke physics simulations for their games (again, most of them).

There’s still time for Unity to walk this back, but I don’t think they will. A lot of comparisons were made between this and the OGL debacle Wizards of the Coast blundered into when they similarly tried to charge developers for the use of their roll system, but tabletop publishing is a business where the overheads are high, most publishers depend on crowdfunding for the bulk of their revenue, and nobody is making that much money to begin with. Wizards of the Coast, and Hasbro by extension, could afford to about-face with a crowd-pleasing reversal of releasing an outdated SRD into Creative Commons because the money was never really the point-- it was nakedly a move designed to strangle any burgeoning ‘competition’ from exponentially smaller publishers like Paizo while D&D as a brand was about to enter a period that has historically led to fan uncertainty and backlash with the announcement of what was advertised (at the time) as a new Edition.

Here? There’s too much money on the line for Unity to ignore snagging the big fish on this one, and Unity have never really cared about the little guy.

I know that it’s going to be bleak. After a decade of game development becoming more inclusive, of widespread tools and accessible knowledge making it easier than ever for people with no formal education to get into hobbyist or professional game development, of a thriving independent scene making it easier (if not risk-free) for a developer at an exploitative publisher like Activision or Ubisoft to leave that toxic environment and develop games without facing discrimination or sexual harassment, the walls are beginning to close in.

If that doesn’t make you nervous about the future of the industry, it should.