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News + PoliticsLaborSurprise price hike spurs talk of video game developers...

Surprise price hike spurs talk of video game developers organizing

Young industry has been shy of unionization—but as a major game engine changes its terms, 'democratizing' gains strength

On September 12th, Unity Technologies—a San Francisco-based tech corporation that develops the Unity game engine, used to create popular video games—announced changes to its pricing structure, set to take effect at the beginning of next year. Among these changes, one particularly unprecedented policy stood out. Upon clearing certain revenue thresholds, Unity would begin charging developers a flat fee of 20 cents for every install of any game that used its engine—unless developers upgraded to more costly premium tiers, which would lower but not eliminate the fee. 

“Imagine you wake up tomorrow morning, start your car, and there’s a message on your screen that’s like, ‘To drive your car today, it’s going to be five bucks. But if you subscribe, you’ll get a discount—it will be four bucks,’” said Jedd Goble, a game marketer and hobbyist developer who runs the East Bay Game Devs networking group. “For devs who rely on this technology to make their games, that was kind of how it felt.”

Game engines are suites of tools that significantly reduce the work of creating a game. Without an engine, a developer would have to build complex, interlocking game mechanics from scratch: things like in-game physics or lighting and shadows. And while there are several different engines for developers to choose from, Unity had been a popular choice for indie developers owing to its ease of access and the breadth of its functionality.

Studio MDHR’s hit Cuphead, which combines bullet hell-style gameplay with a visual aesthetic inspired by the “rubber hose” animation of the 1930s, was made with Unity; so was Cardboard Computer’s contemplative, surreal point-and-click adventure game Kentucky Route Zero, which plays like an interactive Southern Gothic novel. Even major, industry-shifting games like Pokemon Go and Genshin Impact were made with Unity.

Gwen Katz, a game developer I connected with through another local networking group called the Bay Area Developers Collective, says that Unity can work for basically every kind of game: “Unity builds 2D games and 3D games. You can build 3D models, lighting, textures, animations, and sounds. [Otherwise,] you’d have to be making every single one of those elements from scratch.” Goble agrees, saying, “It was just so accessible. It had everything you needed.”

Unity Technologies previously charged developers a subscription fee for ongoing use of its premium tiers. And the idea of charging developers after their game has reached certain earnings thresholds is not new: Epic’s Unreal Engine, Unity’s biggest competitor, uses a percentage-based revenue share on its free tier. But tying revenue share to install numbers is uncommon, and developers were able to point out potential flaws with Unity’s proposal almost immediately after the announcement.

“How do you know how many installs there are?” Katz asks. “How are you tracking that? How do I know your number is accurate? What about users who bought the game once and then reinstalled it? Couldn’t people use this as a form of harassment, mass-installing a game in order to rack up fees?”

Moreover, Unity’s new terms were announced less than four months before they were due to take effect. In a medium where creation is measured in years, this wasn’t enough time for developers to adjust their plans. “Say you’re pretty far along in your game’s pipeline, and you’ve built it all in Unity,” says Katz. “There’s no simple way to switch it to a different engine… If you’ve put in years of work on a game that you’re planning on releasing next month, you’d have years ahead of you if you wanted to switch.” In effect, many indie developers felt that they were being forced into an unclear and potentially ruinous payment plan.

As a result, the proposal was met with a wave of outrage. Brandon Sheffield, the founder of the Oakland-based studio Necrosoft Games, penned an op-ed criticizing Unity the day that they announced the proposed changes, writing, “It screws over indies and smaller devs the most… It’ll squash innovation and art-oriented games that aren’t designed around profit.” These criticisms were echoed across the industry, and many developers proclaimed that they were done using Unity permanently.

The outcry ultimately led Unity to walk back many of their proposed changes a few days later; Marc Whitten, a senior executive at the company, wrote in an open letter, “We should have spoken with more of you and we should have incorporated more of your feedback before announcing our new Runtime Fee policy… We know we need to listen, and work hard to earn your trust. We have heard your concerns.”

But the damage had already been done. (An inquiry to the company was not returned by press time.) When I asked Sheffield how the whole affair had affected his work, he said, “We’re not going to use Unity going forward after our current project, mostly because we don’t trust them to keep their terms how they are… They don’t think very much about the majority of developers that make games.” He notes that the Boston Unity Group, a community of Unity developers that boasted thousands of members, decided to shut down at the end of last month. In their shutdown announcement, the group states, “The trust we used to have in the company has been completely eroded.”

Everyone I spoke with came back to this point: that regardless of whether or not Unity goes ahead with its proposal as originally planned, their actions make it hard to trust the company moving forward. In some ways, this seems obvious. “The reality is that we live in capitalism,” Goble says. “Businesses are going to do what businesses are going to do.”

While indie developers make up a huge swath of Unity’s customer base, small games do not and will not make the company very much money; no one seemed particularly surprised that a large tech corporation, searching for higher profits, would make a decision that is hostile to art. “You’re caught in this crossfire between shareholders and Unity’s board of directors… None of them have any reason to care what happens to you,” Katz says. “It makes you realize how precarious this is, as an industry, to be in as a creative.”

In other creative industries, like film or music, creative workers have unions to protect their interests and negotiate on their behalf. And the broad backlash to Unity’s proposal felt similar to the ways in which writers and actors used the media to communicate their concerns when they went on strike earlier this year. “A lot of people talk about unions and organizing everybody, collectively, to be able to stand up against stuff like this,” Sheffield says when I ask what might need to change in the industry. “It is an intriguing idea. That’s one of the main things I’ve seen proposed.” But while unionization might be a longer-term solution, the industry isn’t there yet.

I spoke with Andrew Thomas, a lawyer at the firm Carr & Farrell, who made a video walking through the legality of Unity’s proposal with Goble and Katz. When I bring up the prospect of unionization, he cautions, “Unionization is a very difficult thing. There are a lot of reasons why big companies don’t want people to unionize… Whether or not the game industry can unionize is really dependent on the will of the people to overcome those obstacles. Because to get to the point where the entertainment industry unionized was not easy.”

Sheffield concurs: “Unions are in a tough spot in games because they’re very early, and a lot of unionized groups have been getting let go.” Earlier this year, Activision-Blizzard fired two unionized employees in alleged retaliation for their criticism of the company’s plan to end remote work; in a settlement last year, Nintendo paid $26,000 to Mackenzie Clifton, a former contract employee who alleged that they were fired because they brought up unionization during an open forum.

Still, while formal unionization may not be imminent, the backlash to Unity’s original plan points to some possible paths forward for indie developers. “We need to still have that attitude and find ways to leverage our numbers in ways that are similar to what a union does,” Katz says. And everyone I spoke with mentioned that open-source tools like Godot and Blender are unlikely to impose terms similar to Unity’s, as both are sponsored by nonprofit organizations who don’t exert unilateral control over their software in the same way. Developers using these tools are able to edit and tinker with them at will, rather than being contractually obligated to adhere to a large corporation’s profit-driven standards.

“I think that the future is in tools like Blender… because it’s sort of starting to become the standard and it’s being used everywhere, and it’s free, and it doesn’t have a lot of hang-ups. And if we could get to something like that, that actually had that ethos, that might be a way to democratize things,” says Sheffield.

Whatever happens next, developers will be the ones trying to make sense of it all. This is an intimidating place to be, but there’s cause to be optimistic, too. “A lot of the employees and a lot of the people that run smaller [studios], even, are really good people who just want to make a really fun game,” says Goble. “Not everyone is just looking at the numbers.”

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