Since launch in 2005, Unity’s goal was to “democratize” game development by making it more accessible. In 2018, CEO John Riccitiello claimed that Unity is used by “virtually half of all games, period.” As Strange Scaffold founder Xalavier Nelson Jr. notes, it is a “simple, versatile, very powerful tool” that allows a variety of games to exist within the same framework. While Unity “allows developers to modularly build entirely new systems and workflows within the same engine,” as Nelson puts it, other tools are much more restrictive.
Other people credit Unity’s community for much of its appeal. “Because Unity has been such a ubiquitous entry-level engine, thousands of developers have been able to invest their own time and energy into creating documentation, tutorials, supporting others, creating plugins, sharing code, etc.” , say Immortality And Her story creator Sam Barlow. “There is no other engine with the same level of community and support.” It’s the developer community that has been put at risk by the new fees and the confusion surrounding them.
According to some developers, the backlash from Unity’s users could have been avoided if the company had listened to internal community advocates. That neglect remains a sticking point, evidence of an erosion of trust gained over the years.
“They stirred up a hornet’s nest,” says Nelson. “The fact that your toolset could strangle you while winning the entertainment lottery is mind-boggling and explains why every developer in the medium currently using Unity to create their most enduring, profitable games is considering their exit strategy.”
Others have lost confidence in Unity’s prospects as a company. Barlow mentions “a sense of Oneness that was on the wrong track for a while, and this moment really took that to a new level.” Vlambeer co-founder and advisor Rami Ismail has similar concerns. “What they have communicated is that Unity cannot be trusted as a reliable business partner, but also that they are so desperate for financing that they see no other options,” says Ismail. Developers want consistency and reliability; Ismail calls these insights about Unity “terrifying revelations.”
It’s not right that Unity’s original plan was inconvenient or expensive, or even ripe for potential abuse. Developers WIRED spoke to repeatedly describe it as a betrayal. Game engines are crucial investments for any developer, and Unity serves one enormous number of customers. There are alternatives, but making the leap is a difficult path for everyone. “The engine is an investment that studios make once every ten years,” says Ismail. The best games out there are usually made by people who have specialized in one thing for a long time – check it out Baldur’s Gate 3– and now thousands of studios will have to start all over again.”
For some developers, the damage Unity has done to its own reputation is permanent. “The real problem for me is that almost everything had to be explained in detail to Unity representatives,” says Sheffield. “They presented themselves as not aware of the real problems developers face, and that’s not something you want from a company that makes the game engine you’re working with.” Sheffield says his team pays for Unity and signed their agreement on that basis. “It is not up to us to make their business model viable.”
Following the announcement today, Whitten answered questions about the company’s policies as part of a “Fireside Chat” with YouTuber Jason Weimann. “The most fundamental thing we’re trying to do is build a sustainable business for Unity. And for us, that means we need a model that includes some kind of balance change, including shared success,” Whitten said. “That’s really, really important for the long-term future of how we think about our business.” When asked how Unity plans to regain trust, Whitten said he is committed to regaining trust by demonstrating change through action.
“I can’t tell you to trust me,” he said. “You have to decide that for yourself.”