The Obvious Warning Sign

The decision by Unity to screw over its developers, even if they reverse it, points at deeper unresolved issues in the digital economy.

By Ernie Smith

Over the last year or two, I’ve started to get back into gaming after a long break—and a lot of the games I have been appreciating have been of the indie variety. The starting point for me came with a Stadia subscription in which I really got into Celeste. (I died a lot.) I eventually switched to the better-in-every-way Xbox Game Pass—which gave me my first embrace of such amazing modern titles as Chained Echoes and Hollow Knight, but then finally landed in the Steam ecosystem, where I found myself embracing Dave The Diver over the summer. (In case you’re curious, I’m just starting to embrace the insanity of Pizza Tower.)

Gaming has become a mental chill zone for me, a way to hit the pause button on a busy mind.

I’m not a console gamer at this point—and I admit my taste leans a little more in the retro direction, largely because of what I grew up with. But if you were to ask me who created these games, I would most assuredly say their developers. I understand that, at a higher level, developers use tools that come with their own sunk costs—they have to pay for the laptops, the development environments, and the tooling. But when it comes down to it, the spark of creation is all theirs.

Which is why the Unity situation is so infuriating. It’s not that we don’t understand the fact that Unity, in creating a gaming-oriented development environment, created something important by building a development infrastructure and ecosystem—of course they did. But at some point, their role in the creation should end. They should remain the helping hand behind the scenes—not the constant reminder in front of them.

But with some policy sleight-of-hand and a sudden rate change, that is very much not the case. They want to charge developers per install for the right to use their runtime. It’s a classic case of the studio upstaging the director and the cast which … is kind of a trend right now.


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I’m not revelaing any new information by stating that this went over really poorly and ended up biting Unity pretty hard. They are going to course-correct, but my guess is that the stain it left behind will be permanent.

I think the Unity news points to the the same disconnect that a lot of people feel when we hear that Apple gets 30 percent of the cut for your App Store purchase. Apple made the phone and the ecosystem—at which point do they stop getting a cut? It’s not like Apple can’t live with $70 billion in quarterly revenue rather than $80 billion.

From a preservation perspective, this news introduces all sorts of new, messy problems that I anticipate will only get worse over time. We are going to see old games disappear from the internet, games that should simply be able to stay alive for people who want to enjoy them. But instead, we’re stuck dealing with corporate greed from a company that sold itself on the promise of supporting developer independence.

It’s a reminder, one we have so desperately needed someone to make: All corporations, even the ones with good intentions, are at risk of breaking the unspoken contract of fairness with their users. When the technology is mature and the motivation to innovate with the tools starts to fade, the force of commercial interests will eventually bend on that contract, until it breaks … causing untold damage. This is especially true if stockholders are the ones calling the shots at a higher level.

(Unity, of course, does not have its market to itself, but if you’ve been developing your game in Unity for four years, you’re stuck using them.)

When you could simply buy a box in a store, it limited the ways that companies could damage your bottom line over time. Now, we live in a world where everything is a potential ongoing bill. That changes ownership, it changes copyright, and it changes our relationship with stuff. End users, suddenly stuck with a dozen ongoing bills for random things they somehow can’t get rid of, are on a treadmill that threatens to knock them over—and it’s likely that you may have to pay for some of those bills even after you’ve been dead in the ground for 50 years.

Unity adding this additional charge onto indie developers, even if they cancel it, shows how these pressures are just going to get worse and worse as market power consolidates. Every level of society is just going to find itself buried by ongoing charges from an as-a-service model that powers an economic machine that too often takes more than it gives.

It’s brutal. We need to get out of this trap.

Unity is the warning sign. It is the alarm we need to understand that we need to build more of our technology infrastructure on fundamental, renewable models. In the case of Unity, it is the sign to go open source. In the case of end users, we need to embrace technology that do one of three things:

  • First, sell us products with a designated end point, when possible, and no need for an ongoing relationship if we so choose.
  • Second, give us options to extend the things we bought outside of their respective ecosystems.
  • Finally, allow for the use of technology in a free-as-in-speech open source format. If they want to charge on an ongoing basis, there should be ongoing value in exchange, not rent-seeking. If you’re getting free beer, you’re getting pitched something a mile down the road.

Let’s look at the Unity situation as what it is: A company using the strength of its tree trunk to shake a few more pears out of the tree. It knows it will not fall over, no matter how hard someone shakes.

But the people stuck up in the branches might. Perhaps we should stop relying on trees to secure our fortunes.

Awakening Links

I must say, it’s nice to see Rolling Stone so willing to not go to bat for its cofounder and longtime leader over some pretty awful comments [NYTimes link]. Justice for Joni and Stevie!

Did you know you could once buy silence on jukeboxes back in the 1940s and 1950s? VWestlife has the scoop on something I kinda wish I could get at a Starbucks sometime.

If you want some stronger understanding of the strike, I recommend this Hollywood Reporter breakdown of the AMPTP, the key negotiating arm of the studios.

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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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