Idle Space Navy Devnote XXVIII

The Trouble with Unity, and the Future of ISN

So, we have a little bit of a problem… who am I kidding? It’s a big problem. Within the last couple days, Unity has decided to announce a hastily-implemented runtime fee – one which basically means developers who reach any measure of success have to pay as much as 20 cents per install of their game.

Aside from the many issues with how this will be tracked, from pirated copies to “install bombing” to reinstalls or new devices, let’s just take a look at the raw numbers for Idle Space Navy.

From the beginning, my mission at Phoenix Aura has always been to provide the most content for the least cost possible, while still giving people the option to support my content and get something in return. That’s why Idle Space Navy (and almost all of my future games) are going to be free to play, but have some form of in-app purchase. In the case of Idle Space Navy, the cheapest option (3 Neutron Stars, or 30 instant Neutronium followed by a small reward of Neutronium daily) was going to be 99 cents. One can figure that many people, if they even do buy any Neutron Stars, will pick up the cheapest tier on rare occasions. I do plan to offer larger packages, but the higher the cost, the lower the uptake.

Unity’s share comes out irrespective of any revenue shares taken by the digital stores (say, Steam, in the case of ISN). Granted, it doesn’t start until the game is making $200,000 a year and has a total of 200,000 installs (but, remember, installs are tracked by Unity themselves using an as yet unknown, untested, and untrusted system), but if ISN reaches that point, here’s what it looks like.

That 99 cents from the purchase of 3 Neutron Stars? Steam immediately takes 30 cents off the top (30% revenue share), immediately making it 69 cents. Taxes will come into play as well, undoubtedly seizing another 10 cents or better. Now we’re down to 59 cents – enough to cover just three install fees from Unity. I can guarantee you that there will be far more than three installs of ISN for every one person who makes a 99 cent purchase.

This gets even worse if we factor in that one person can install ISN multiple times (every new device counts as a new install, per Unity), and since ISN is free to play, it can be installed on as many devices as a person wants. It’s easily possible – if not likely or even certain – that the 20 cent per install fee will annihilate any if not all residual revenue from ISN.

“Go to Pro or Enterprise! It increases the thresholds and decreases the costs!” This is a fair argument to make, but that only delays the problem and doesn’t mitigate it. There’s also, at this point, nothing stopping Unity from making another change and reducing the thresholds or increasing the fee.

So, what’s next? As I see it, there are three main options.

  1. Do nothing. Continue to develop ISN on Unity and monitor the situation, being aware of the fact that there may come a point where – if ISN is successful – Unity’s install fee could reduce or even reverse any sort of revenue I may gain from ISN.
  2. A subset of 1, stay on Unity Personal as long as possible, but upgrade to Pro or Enterprise right before ISN would reach any of the thresholds required. Now, under the old Unity terms, I would have had to upgrade to Unity Plus/Pro/Enterprise eventually, but I’d have preferred to make that choice under the old terms (where revenue was the only concern) rather than have to evade a potentially devastating per-install fee.
  3. Change game engines. I’ve been giving Godot a long, hard look. ISN could be ported to Godot (or any of the other C#-supporting engines) with a minimum of change, but that would force me to delay releasing a new version of ISN until the port was done. Another possibility is releasing ISN 0.08.0 on Unity, but then taking the time to port the game to Godot or some other engine before working on the 0.09 sequence.

None of these options are reassuring in the slightest. The only one that’s “easy” is option 1, but if I’m not careful, I could be devastated financially when the Unity install fee comes in (particularly if I refuse to go to a more exploitative, profit focused model – which I absolutely refuse to do). I’d be curious to hear the thoughts of the community, so please reach out to me on Discord if you have any advice (or support – contributions are always welcomed) to offer.