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Our Incredible Indies panel reflects: Unity cannot be trusted

Our panellists from PGC Helsinki follow up their thoughts on the Unity situation
Our Incredible Indies panel reflects: Unity cannot be trusted
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If you were lucky enough to be with us in Helsinki for Pocket Gamer Connects, you may remember our closing panel of the show.

Our Incredible Indies panel, “Can Indies Make it in Mobile Anymore?” was a fairly straightforward one exploring the scene for indie developers on mobile. However, it was when we switched focus to the then-fresh news of Unity instituting new installation fees that things really switched into high gear.

Each of our panellists offered their thoughts in precise and distinct ways. Whether that was Visible Realms CEO Eliza Jappinen talking about the straightforward effects and the way it would influence developers, director at Picnic Game Labs Mo Mohsen taking a hard swipe at Unity as a whole and the precedent this set for the wider game industry, or simply Christian Lövstedt and his blunt appraisals of the situation.

Our panellists were in agreement that this was a poor move, but different in the effect they believed this would have on the industry, Unity and game developers. So a week later, with many new wrinkles in the story, what’s changed? We put some questions to our panellists and aimed to get an overview of what they thought now that the news has had time to settle. Can you give us a brief reaction to the initial Unity announcement?

Mo: In light of recent developments, Unity's announcement aligns with the trajectory evident in their decisions and communications, notably their merger with ironSource. While it may be disappointing for many, it is not entirely unexpected.

Christian: It feels like a mobster type of action where Unity uses its strong position in the market to maximise revenues. It is a surreal and extremely provocative move that will discourage any developer from using Unity for new projects. Maybe this will be the start of a mass exodus from Unity’s engine.

Eliza: The first reaction was complete and utter disbelief with a feeling that this must end up being walked back shortly. Followed with, (when it wasn’t walked back within a day or two) a stern resignation that soon we have to make hard decisions for the business moving forward and we need to know what we’re actually dealing with. With the very real consequence of we cannot trust them anymore.

What do you think Unity's runtime fees announcement says about the company?

Mo: The announcement of runtime fees marks a pivotal moment in Unity's timeline, signifying a departure from its historical identity. This strategic move suggests that Unity is aligning itself to leverage its reputation, once fostered by independent developers, to support its overarching objectives indicated in the merger with ironSource.

Christian: Not sure what is behind this but it signals that they are desperate.

Eliza: Clearly there is management within the company who thought this was a feasible and acceptable move. That management made themselves look to be either incompetent in not knowing the business of their users, or then malicious. Regardless of how much is walked back, we need accountability. They must be in over their heads or greedy beyond belief. But it looks like they are mostly in trouble.

How do you think this announcement, and the reaction to it, relates to the broader game industry?

Mo: It underscores the ongoing impact of marketing integration within the gaming industry and the profound influence of data-driven design on the types of games developed. This phenomenon also highlights a shift in priorities, where developers may not create games solely for their design excellence but rather by business considerations, such as marketing budgets and barriers to entry. These factors are reshaping the industry and altering global perceptions of gaming.

Christian: The Game Engines market is unhealthy if one supplier can become this dominant.
Do you think mobile is more or less vulnerable to the effects of these changes?

Eliza: Considering that the company has not been profitable makes you question how many bubbles there are across the industry? With the industry becoming more and more difficult to break new titles and innovations into profitability, it very much feels like a games market crash is where we are headed.

Do you think mobile is more or less vulnerable to the effects of these changes?

Mo: Mobile games are highly vulnerable to these changes. One significant concern revolves around the uncertainty surrounding Unity's enforcement capabilities. The ability to accurately track game installations within the complex web of privacy policies further amplifies these vulnerabilities. These uncertainties present challenges for developers and raise considerable concerns for consumers.

Christian: Mobile games are highly vulnerable to this revenue model based on installs since the dominating business models are free-to-play, and install numbers are significant even for smaller players like us. The proposed fees will jeopardise our very existence as a company.

Eliza: In regards to the runtime fee it is most vulnerable. It looked like it was nearly by design to cull the market of mobile competition. But for instance the hypercasual/hybrid causal market is such a fast-paced business that if there is any side that is ready to adapt and move to a new platform it's those devs working on cheap and profitable hits. Sadly it would probably kill some mobile studios.

Is there anything that can be done in future to prevent or discourage companies like Unity from making these unpopular changes?

Mo: Future efforts to prevent or discourage companies like Unity from making unpopular changes can benefit from fostering a resilient ecosystem of independent developers and developing viable alternatives to Unity driven by different guiding principles. These are essential for countering the monopolistic leverage Unity aims to exert.

Christian: Legislative bodies must examine how to ensure healthy competition in the game engine business.

Eliza: Legislation. A lot of what happened has been discussed as whether or not it is even legal. I think we need to have some legislation that protects users from price changes and term amendments to platforms that are considered nearly public domain by how deeply they’ve become part of our everyday use and livelihood. I would like our governments to take this kind of digital overreach very seriously. And realise that while the format is different certain situations do constitute classic partnerships and employment even when it’s disguised as a service. It is important to hold the bad actors accountable because there are others looking to do the same.

Do you think the controversy and coverage of the announcement has contributed to Unity's tentative announcement that they will roll back these changes?

Mo: Indeed, the controversy and relevant media coverage surrounding the announcement have significantly influenced Unity's decision to reconsider these changes. However, those in our industry implicated or at risk in Unity’s expected pivot should consider this an ongoing challenge.

There may be future attempts by Unity to implement similar changes as the company pursues its signalled direction. Therefore, individuals, communities, and organizations must continue exploring independent alternatives.

Additionally, it's worth considering the possibility of well-informed and study-based governmental regulation and possibly even other parts of the industry potentially playing a role in overseeing such changes in how we work and create.

Christian: Unity has built a strong brand in the game development community over the years. This move will tarnish Unity´s brand for a long time. Studios of all sizes will be hesitant to venture into new projects that depend on Unity if they have to live with this type of erratic behaviour.

Still, we do like their technology, so we would like to keep using it, but we would need to trust that they are using a consistent, clear, and affordable fee model.

Eliza: 100% it has. Alongside the boycott by studios and the swift moves towards other platform options by devs. However their first responses were a far cry from sounding like they saw any error in their calculations… How devoted were they to their plan? How much will they concede? And seriously what on Earth were/are they thinking? The damage has most likely been done.