A DevRel perspective on the Unitypocalypse

illustrations illustrations illustrations illustrations illustrations illustrations illustrations

Published on 21 September 2023 by Andrew Owen (4 minutes)

For those of you who don’t work in video games development, Unity is one of the most popular game engines. It’s particularly popular with independent developers. Last week, without warning, Unity Technologies announced a radical change to its licensing model, and alienated so many of its users that the story was carried by mass news media outlets, not just the video games press.

Wild claims and conspiracy theories abound, but I’m not in a position to shed light on any of those. Although I do have some insight into the company. At one point, I was in discussions about a technical writer role. The only reason we didn’t move forward was because I live in a country where Unity doesn’t have a legal entity. Ultimately, the role was taken by a former colleague of mine. And many other people I worked with during my time in video games software later went to work for Unity.

There are plenty of people who are better informed than me and better able to assess exactly what effect the new “Unity Runtime Fee” will be. So I’ll confine my opinions (and that’s all they are) to how the announcement was handled from a developer relations point of view. As someone who has worked as a developer advocate, I feel I’m at least speaking from a place of experience if not necessarily expertise. And this is an interesting case because numerous Unity customers are themselves developers.

Unity was forced to clarify that the fee wouldn’t apply under certain circumstances. It claimed that the change would affect only 10% of developers. Developers disagreed. One studio that produces ad-free mobile apps for children posted on Reddit that the fee would amount to more than 100% of its gross revenue. By Sunday, Unity had updated its announcement:

“We have heard you. We apologize for the confusion and angst the runtime fee policy we announced on Tuesday caused. We are listening, talking to our team members, community, customers, and partners, and will be making changes to the policy. We will share an update in a couple of days. Thank you for your honest and critical feedback."—Editor’s note (September 17, 2023)

So what could Unity have done differently?

  • Engaged with developers to set out the proposed changes and get feedback before making any final decision.
  • Clearly stated the reasoning behind the change.
  • Provided supporting arguments to back up the claim that an installation fee is fairer than a lifetime revenue share.
  • Put engineering resources into dealing with developer concerns such as mobile installations, malicious installations and piracy.
  • Given developers at least six months after an agreed policy change was put in place to adapt to the change.
  • Done market research to see how the proposed changes would be perceived by developers.

But perhaps most obviously, a well staffed developer relations team would have helped Unity to understand the needs of its customers and get buy-in for changes to its pricing. Companies forget at their peril that customer retention is an order of magnitude cheaper than customer acquisition.

Since last Tuesday, the chat in every GameDev Twitch stream I’ve been in has revolved around Unity. This isn’t a representative sample, but the views I’ve seen expressed include:

  • Everything is fine. This won’t really affect me.
  • I’m migrating all my projects to Godot.
  • Why won’t Unreal add C# support?

The big problem Unity has now is that, even if it finds a pricing model that developers are happy with, the way the announcement happened has destroyed trust. But it’s actually the trust of its own staff that it needs to win back first. If it can do that, it can then try to turn the public relations disaster into a pivot point. For example, by putting in place a developer relations team and having an ongoing dialogue with developers to rebuild trust.

And what is corporate trustworthiness? According to Dr. Graham Dietz, senior business lecturer at Durham University, there are three main characteristics:

  • Ability; technical competence to perform a task reliably.
  • Benevolence; having benign motives.
  • Integrity; acting according to acceptable ethical principles, such as fairness and honesty.

Back when I worked in video games, I always recommended Unreal for teams, and Unity for individual game developers. I like that Unity started out on macOS, having lived through a time when Mac video games were PC ports that arrived years later. I like that it was originally a Danish company. I like that its England office is in Brighton. I hope that Unity can turn this experience around and learn from it.


A day after I published, Unity announced revised runtime fee terms. Retroactive fees were dropped. The new fees would only apply to games developed with Unity 2024 or later. The threshold for Unity Persoanl fees was doubled to $200,000. Fees would be based on the lesser of 2.5% of monthly revenue or a calculated value based on monthly engagements, both based on self-reporting. On October 9, Unity reported that CEO John Riccitiello would be leaving the company, replaced by Jim Whitehurst as interim CEO and president.