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Unity exec admits company wasn't "listening enough" to devs over Runtime Fee

Unity Create president Marc Whitten admitted that a year after promising to "talk more" with developers, the company still hadn't done enough listening.

September 22, 2023

6 Min Read
A headshot of Unity executive Marc Whitten.

After a chaotic two weeks for Unity developers, the engine-maker has begun rolling out updates to its planned Runtime Fee policy with the hopes of restoring goodwill with customers and the game development community.

Whatever developers think of today's changes however, there's no doubting that nerves will remain unsettled over the process that brought the Runtime Fee—which originally proposed charging high-performing games per user install—to life. How could Unity, one of two major pillars in the world of game development engines, make a policy some say risked putting them out of business?

According to Unity Create president Marc Whitten, the reason is this: the company had not been "listening enough" to game developers.

Whitten's comments came in an interview with Game Developer shortly after the company unveiled updates to the Runtime Fee. They were especially notable because just over a year ago, it was Whitten who told us that the company hadn't been "talking enough" to game developers.

Developers would have every right to look at these two statements, separated by a year, and wonder if Whitten and Unity have learned anything. Whitten apparently feels that the company did spend the last year improving its messaging to developers about planned changes to the engine, but failed to build channels that would have shaped a better version of the Runtime Fee.

"It's that kind of bi-directional iteration that I think we weren't doing enough of," he said. "The last week shows...that we weren't taking enough feedback back."

He said that for the last week and a half, he's been in conversations with developers to hear their concerns about the Runtime Fee, and that he had a lot to learn about how it would impact their business.

Why did Unity originally make the Runtime Fee apply to games made under the prior terms of service?

One of the biggest complaints developers voiced in the last week was how the introduction of the Runtime Fee threatened to upend their business models. Those models were built on certain assumptions regarding how much they would pay the company.

If a studio entered production with the belief it would only owe the per-seat fees that come with a Unity subscription, they were no doubt stunned to learn they would owe additional fees after launching their game (to say nothing of the realization that they would owe money on previously shipped games, potentially expanding their costs).

Whitten said receiving feedback on this topic was "one of the best pieces of feedback" he heard in the last week. "When you're starting a project, and you're choosing to get going on a particular version of Unity, you need to be able to understand the overall terms of service associated for as long as you're on that particular version of Unity," he said. "We're going to make sure that's the case."

Developers updating to the latest version of Unity (like the version that will debut next year and require the payment of Runtime Fees) can expect further changes to the engine's terms of service.

One source of anger for developers in the last week was the realization that Unity had taken down a GitHub repository in the last few months that developers could use to track changes to the terms of service. Whitten sheepishly admitted that he didn't know the repository existed until the last week. "We're putting that back up with all of the terms of service [versions] in them," he said. He claimed that the repository's removal had "nothing to do" with the Runtime Fee.

"It's more like—it's not where lawyers hang out in terms of tracking their changes," he said. "I thought that was a good [request] from the community, and so we're putting it back."

Unity's terms of service will continue to be available on its website, but they will also be viewable on GitHub again.

What's going on with Game Pass and Charity Bundles?

Unity's initial messaging about the Runtime Fee left developers with few clear answers about how they would report installations that took place through Xbox Game Pass, and installs that were affiliated with sales in charity bundles, where developers had deliberately given up a portion of their revenue. Whitten said the goal of the new Runtime Fee policy was to let developers report to the company the number that reflected the impact of such installations on their business.

Initially, Whitten told Axios that it would be platform holders who would be responsible for the Runtime Fee in the case of subscription services like Game Pass. However now that Unity has updated its policy to indicate developers are responsible for reporting revenue or "initial engagement" from such services, Whitten says he originally "misspoke" when discussing the policy.

"I misspoke when I said that," he told us. "That was not my intent—to be clear, it was not actually in the policy. I did misspeak in an interview."

If Whitten did misspeak when discussing Game Pass with Axios, it doesn't explain why Unity updated its FAQ the same day to discuss the topic. One official response posted on the Unity forum stated that developers aren't "responsible" for the Runtime Fee in such a case.

In another screenshot from the old FAQ, Unity said that "the entity that distributes the runtime" would be responsible for the Runtime Fee. Both responses point to a policy that would charge Microsoft if a Unity-built game were installed via Game Pass.

Whitten told Game Developer that the company's policy is designed to support developers who participate in charity bundles, so that they are not charged in instances where they may not receive any revenue. A Unity spokesperson promised more specifics on this topic before the launch of the next LTS version in 2024.

Unity did not directly comment on claims made by Orgynizer developer Lizard Factory regarding the legitimacy of Planned Parenthood and other organizations as "charitable causes." The developer said a Unity representative informed them the company viewed them as "political groups."

A company spokesperson pointed us to its aforementioned statement about offering more clarity on charity bundles in the future. "We're still refining our approach. We'll have more details to share before the LTS release in 2024," they said.

Can Unity recover from two weeks of outrage?

Though Unity's immediate interest is in recovering from two weeks of developer outrage, the reality is that the company might need to take a hard look on how it's communicated with game developers for the last two years. If the company hoped to improve its business and communication strategies after the backlash over merging with mobile monetization platform IronSource, this most recent chaos shows the company has a long way to go.

For many developers, Whitten's comments and Unity's policy adjustments likely won't restore trust in the company. They'll be safely able to plan the costs of launching a game on the current version of Unity LTS, but predicting the costs of future games may still be difficult.

Unity's decision to have developers count the "initial engagement" of users (previously it was "installs" is a unique method of pricing in the game industry. Other toolmakers like Epic Games will charge a percentage of revenue, while others charge a monthly subscription fee. Unity is still awkwardly straddling both businesses.

Some game makers will certainly be relieved that the possible hit to their finances isn't as bad as they initially projected. But others—especially those who can easily port their games to engines like Godot—may have every right to consider Unity an untrustworthy business partner.

If nothing else, Whitten seemed sincere about wanting to earn back that trust.

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