The Fight Against the New Unity Fees Isn’t Over Yet

It’s always wild to see how quickly the news cycle can move us past industry changing events, and the Unity drama is a perfect example. 

Early last month, the prolific game engine developer revealed they were planning to charge developers using certain tiers of their game engine fees for any installations of games made using the engine that surpassed 1 million collective lifetime sales. This applied to games past and present, which could quickly spell trouble for any developers who managed to see a modicum of success with their releases.

Indie game devs and gamers alike were swift in decrying this move. The company faced prolonged backlash, with developers even saying they would remove their games from digital retailers should the game engine developer move forward with the plan. This resulted in Unity apologizing and scaling back their proposed fee policies, and the door remains open for further pressure to be applied until their plans are fully reworked.

I wouldn’t blame anyone for believing the fight is done, because a large part of it is. The wider gaming community managed to keep a company from gouging game devs even partially, and ensured the business side of the industry doesn’t choke out the artistic side just yet. But to say we’ve outright ended the problem would be grossly inaccurate. The initial hubbub around the Unity fee proposal is only the tip of a much larger and more dangerous iceberg the entire community needs to be ready for.

As gaming has continued to grow into one of the biggest media markets on the planet, a multitude of people have seen the potential it holds for expression and sharing one’s ideas with others as an entertainment product. Such has led to a boom in the number of people making games, with the industry now held up by a steady stream of offerings from developers big and small. Said offerings have continued to push the boundaries of what games can do, elevating the medium all the while.

However, this has come with a cost. Game development has never been easy, but rising expectations about how a game should look, play, and control have forced heavier development burdens on the people and teams that make games. This in turn has led to a conundrum for devs: Is it better to spend years and heaps of funds making your own engine capable of streamlining development, or to use a game engine to cut your game’s development time down considerably?

Outside of teams with considerable financial backing, the majority have embraced the latter option. And why wouldn’t they? A game shouldn’t take as long as a decade or more to make, and the cost of purchasing the right to use Unity, Unreal, or another engine pales in comparison to the prospective cost of making a brand new engine from scratch. The potential cost of a game failing is also substantially lower, meaning devs won’t be as devastated by any given project missing the mark.

But herein lies the core problem, and the reason Unity felt confident enough to try instituting their new fees in the first place: Because so many developers use game engines to make game development more tenable, there aren’t as many alternatives should game makers take issue with a policy or cost change related to them.

Sure, they could move to a new engine, but few are capable of offering the features and polish of Unity for a similar price point. Not only that, but hopping to a new engine usually requires learning an entirely new system of game development or even a different coding language.

Unity knows this, and even if they were convinced to stand down slightly, they haven’t completely backed off from instigating these fees. Even worse, there’s nothing to stop them from trying it again later. New game engines that offer the same array of tools and in the same coding language aren’t likely to appear before then, and developers will be just as strapped for alternative options should this occur.

In the worst case scenario, other top tier game engine development companies could follow Unity’s lead. After all, if the precedent is set that developers will put up with such fees, then there’s no reason businesses designed to make money would shy away from a means of bringing it in by the thousands or millions.

Should such fees become common place, the repercussions could then be disastrous. When paired with the cost of making, marketing and supporting games long term, these royalties could force all but the most successful developers to switch over to different engines and delay titles that could have otherwise released much sooner. An on even more grim note, some might have to shutter their companies and halt the creation of further projects due to the costs being too high.

We would then see a massive decrease in the variety of games offered, as only games which catered to the highest volume of players and stuck to specific genres would have a chance of succeeding. What was once a medium filled with different types and genres of games would wither into a barren field of games tied to the same genres with little to differentiate them.

But what can the community do to stem another attempt at gouging debs for further profits? Fortunately, it’s rather simple, if a little demanding. We need to stay aware of what Unity tries to do moving forward, and show our unwavering support for developers when the need arises. Everyone, from gamers to developers, needs to keep from becoming complacent or apathetic, responding to strong-arming tactics like a wide-reaching royalties change with the appropriate united front of opposition.

It can be as straight-forward as supporting the developers who speak out against the changes, and making it known that the wider community and medium stands against such actions. So long as members of the medium don’t roll over and accept it, there’s at least the chance it can be averted.

To be clear, I understand that we won’t be able to fully excise business practices like these from the video game industry. Games, game engines, and so many other pieces that go into making our favorite titles are products that need to be sold and make money to succeed or stay viable long-term. Sometimes decisions need to be made to keep companies that make video games out of economic danger zones, and that can lead to changes that aren’t ideal for the wider community.

But this trend cannot and should not be the one we let slide. Games can be some of the most inventive and creative forms of media out there, and bleeding them for profits through a cornered market strategy like what Unity wields will only serve to drain that imaginative spark until nothing is left.

We have the power to keep speaking out against changes that could hurt our industry. If we don’t take advantage of that, the industry we know and love won’t last nearly as long as it should.

About the author

Keenan McCall

Keenan has been a nerd from an early age, watching anime and playing games for as long as I can remember. Since obtaining a bachelor’s degree in journalism back in 2017, he has written thousands of articles covering gaming, animation, and entertainment topics galore.

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