Unity Price Hike Puts Australian Game Developers Into Engine Crisis

Unity engine has been a massive factor in reducing barriers to entry for game developers in Australia.

From Crossy Road to Untitled Goose Game to Cult of the Lamb, Australia’s vast network of small but mighty independent studios has come up with some great titles that have gone on to achieve global acclaim. What you might not know is that the majority of game developers in Australia go to one place for their game engines. At least, they do for the moment. 

Last month, Unity unveiled revisions to its pricing plan, which will come into force in January 2024 and have caused consternation from Perth to Sydney. The most contentious change is the new Unity Runtime Fee, which means developers using a free version of the engine will now be charged US$0.20 (AU$0.31) for every download of their game onto a device after the game tops a threshold of 200,000 downloads and earns US$200,000 (AU$310,000) in revenue.

Moving goalposts create a PR disaster

Game studios across Australia have taken to Reddit to both vent their shock and to exchange ideas on alternatives to Unity. At the same time, Unity has tried to pour oil on troubled water, arguing that the new fee “will not impact the majority” of their game engine users. 

Not everyone agrees. Game development consultant and mentor Rami Ismail said he had 50 different game studios asking him to recommend an alternative to Unity within 24 hours. Meanwhile, Melbourne developer Jacob Janerka commented that this was “a PR disaster for Unity” regardless of how it would ultimately pan out. 

Casino pokies among the hardest hit

In Australian player circles, the change could have the biggest impact on one of the nation’s most important niches. Australian players spend more per capita on slot games, or pokies as they are known locally, than any other nationality. The best online casinos in Australia provide high-end slot games and Unity is among the top game engines used in the online slots niche, alongside Unreal and Corona. 

Slot developers work on a different model to other sectors, as the games are not typically downloaded by players but instead are played via online casino platforms. However, their revenue models are also quite different, and when a specific slot captures the imagination of gamers, it can bring in revenue that significantly exceeds the thresholds currently under discussion. 

Lack of clarity sending studios elsewhere

The biggest problem for studios is that Unity is bringing in a potential cost that did not exist when they signed up. The number of game developers in Australia has risen from about 840 in 2016 to 3,200 today, and the Unity engine can take a lot of the credit for that. It has been a massive factor in reducing barriers to entry. 

Darcy Smith is a game designer at Melbourne-based Studio Folly. He compared the pricing change to buying a coffee only for the café to suddenly demand more money for it while you are in the middle of drinking it. 

At first glance, Unity should be right, and the new charge should not have any impact on the majority of engine users. The one potential issue is multiple installs, and here, Unity’s reassurances have sounded hollow. 

In its initial announcement, Unity gave the impression that multiple installs would be counted separately and would therefore result in multiple charges. The company has now clarified that if a player uninstalls and reinstalls the game, this only counts as one charge raised against the developer. Unity also asserted that in the case of fraudulent installs, for example if a bot installs a game thousands of times, that will not be counted towards the fee.

This, however, raises the question of just how it will go about counting the installs, and what measures it has in place to differentiate between these different scenarios. Unity claims to have its own “proprietary data model” that can handle this, but has not given any details about how it works. The company just states that its model “provides an accurate determination of the number of times the runtime is distributed for a given project.”

This assertion has been thrown into doubt by a post on a Unity forum that is purportedly from a Unity employee and says that Unity “hasn’t completely figured out how to count installs yet.”

Time is running out. Unity needs to provide comfort to all that it has its shop in order, and there is no use waiting till the end of the year to do so. Already, developers are voting with their feet.

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