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Mobile developers boycott Unity ads in pricing change protest

Several major mobile studios are turning off ad monetization

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Three phones rendered with game characters popping out of them. Image: Azur Games
Nicole Carpenter is a senior reporter specializing in investigative features about labor issues in the game industry, as well as the business and culture of games.

Mobile game developers and publishers, with hundreds of games and millions of installs, are protesting Unity’s new controversial install-based pricing model by turning off ad monetization services for their games. In an open letter published by the mobile companies, they say they are turning off all ironSource and Unity Ads features, two services Unity offers to developers to monetize their games. They’ll turn these services back on when Unity reviews and reverses its new policy, which has developers across the entire industry upset.

“We urge others who share this stance to do the same,” a representative of the studios wrote. “The rules have changed, and the stakes are simply too high. The Runtime Fee is an unacceptable shift in our partnership with Unity that needs to be immediately canceled.”

Unity, the company behind the cross-platform game engine of the same name, announced the new pay structure earlier this week, tying a new runtime fee to game installs. The initial rollout was immediately met with anger and confusion from developers and studios who said the fees would be a major financial burden to their companies. (Game developers already pay subscription fees tied to several different tiers for use of the engine.) Game developers have expressed several concerns: How are installs tracked? How can studios ensure privacy conditions are met? How can you simply change your terms of service? To put it bluntly, it’s been a mess; Unity ended up closing its offices in San Francisco and Austin, Texas over an alleged threat to the company.

More than 18 studios have signed on to the letter since it was published on Friday morning: Azur Games, Voodoo, Homa, Century Games, SayGames, CrazyLabs, Original Games, Ducky, Burny Games, Inspired Square, Geisha Tokyo, tatsumaki games, New Story, Playgendary, Supercent, KAYAC, TapNation, Matchingham Games, and Moonee. Polygon has reached out to some of these developers to confirm their signature; several companies have published the letter on their own websites.

Unity reportedly responded to the removal of ad monetization by pausing access to one company’s user acquisition features, which help market the mobile games that use it, according to an email obtained by Polygon. In the email, a Unity ironSource representative recognized that the ad monetization pause may have been connected to the Unity pricing change before notifying the developer that user acquisition features were turned off on their end. GIMZ Agency founder Nikita Guk, representing the group of developers around the letter, said the move from Unity has the potential to threaten growth for impacted businesses.

“In the world of mobile games, advertising is the key driver to get your game into gamers’ field of view,” he said. “Unity’s new rules will impact all projects that don’t have enough revenue from one user and will force developers to switch to other game engines or focus even more on monetization rather than creating engaging gameplay.”

With ad monetization turned off in protest of the change — something that’s designed to attempt to hurt Unity financially, too — the lack of user acquisition tools becomes a problem for these studios. But the pushback against Unity overshadows that, for now: “We strongly oppose this move, which disregards the unique challenges and complexities of our industry,” the studios’ representative wrote. “To put it in relatable terms — what if automakers suddenly decided to charge us for every mile driven on the car that you bought a year ago? The impact on consumers and the industry at large would be seismic.”

Mobile game developers have the potential to get hit with major fees when the runtime structure gets implemented next year; according to Azur Games’ website, the majority of its games have well over 10 million downloads — that’s a lot of fees to rack up. The exact fees these studios could expect to pay would differ based on the subscription plan each company uses. Companies paying for Unity’s top-tier subscriptions would pay less per install. However, Unity is offering “qualifying customers” credit toward the runtime fee should they implement Unity Gaming Services or Unity LevelPay, which supports mobile ads in games.

Unity brought in more than $1 billion in revenue last year, despite not being profitable. The runtime pricing model is a bid to add profit to the company.

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