Row breaks out between Unity and Improbable over terms of service, then Epic steps in

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It would seem that a spat between game and engine developers has been thrown out for all to see and witness, in regards to the use and future of the Unity game engine.

On Thursday, British developer Improbable published a post on their official blog stating that games that made use of the Unity engine would no longer be able to use the SpatialOS cloud platform, owing to a change in Unity’s terms of service at the end of last year. According to Improbable, the cloud will not run or simulate a Unity game, even if on a remote server, without special permission or licensing from Unity. Moreover, the announcement comes as the two parties were busy negotiating for future projects and agreements, and that Unity had also revoked Improbable’s license to use the engine. Improbable made their feelings known in the post:

Overnight, this is an action by Unity that has immediately done harm to projects across the industry, including those of extremely vulnerable or small scale developers and damaged major projects in development over many years. Games that have been funded based on the promise of SpatialOS to deliver next-generation multiplayer are now endangered due to their choice of game engine. Live games are now in legal limbo.

In an interview with the Guardian newspaper, Improbable co-founder Herman Narula speculated that Unity’s decision was either an accident or a negotiation tactic, adding in regards to the latter, “We’re waiting for someone in the West Coast to wake up and make some ransom demands, basically”.

Meanwhile, founder of Unreal Engine developer Epic Games Tim Sweeney, suggested in a tweet that Unity’s new terms of service could potentially affect other multiplayer titles that don’t use the SpatialOS platform, saying “You couldn’t operate Fortnite, PUBG, or Rocket League under these terms”.

As one might expect, developers using Unity and SpatialOS have been caught off-guard by the announcement, and the reactions have been diverse. Bossa Studios, the company behind the sandbox MMO Worlds Adrift, stated that the game would not affected following a confirming correspondence with Unity. Split Milk Studios have also stated that Lazarus, currently in Early Access along with Worlds Adrift, would also remain online until the game’s servers are shut down or when they are notified to do so.

Others have not been able to respond with the same positive tone. Waleed Amer, lead developer at Arcane Reality and the upcoming indie title Overduty VR, noted that the terms of service change meant that the studio rewriting and converting to another engine would take several months or even a year, wasting valuable time and resource. Same went for Dynamight Studios, whose crowdfunded MMO Fractured, expected to be released in alpha during the first quarter of 2019, would be further delayed owing to the transition to a new engine. “Moving to the Unreal Engine, the most likely choice, would mean first hiring several new developers with the right skillset, then re-writing the game code from scratch.”

Following Improbable’s blog post, Unity responded with its own stating that Improbable’s account of events was categorically “incorrect”:

Projects that are currently in production or live using SpatialOS are not affected by any actions we have taken with Improbable. If a game developer runs a Unity-based game server on their own servers or generic cloud instances (like GCP, AWS or Azure), they are covered by our EULA. We have never communicated to any game developer that they should stop operating a game that runs using Improbable as a service.

Unity has also provided explanations from their side regarding their working relationship with Improbable. According to Unity, Improbable had started to use its engine without proper authorization more than a year ago, and that the subsequent marketing, sales and development of their products while using the engine was in violation of Unity’s EULA. Six months ago, Unity once again notified Improbable of the violation, but seemingly no action was taken. Then two weeks ago, Unity switched off Improbable’s license keys, barring them access from the engine and stating that the developer “had left us no choice”.

Improbable then responded to Unity’s response apologizing for the confusion and uncertainty. While not taking responsibility for the chaos, the response went on to suggest that the gaming industry needs to rethink how it business is conducted between developers and content creators.

But that was not all. In a joint statement with Improbable’s Herman Narula, Tim Sweeney of Epic Games announced that they had partnered up to establish a $25 million transition fund to assist and encourage developers to leave Unity in favour of other platforms. Sweeney said that the funding will come from a variety of different sources, including Improbable developer assistance funds and the Epic Games store. He concluded by saying:

We believe we are at the beginning of an unprecedented age of inclusive online games that become parts of our everyday lives. Enabling this will take much more than Epic or Improbable; it will take a vastly more mature, broad-based industry to enable this future: a community of companies connected by values such as fair and openly disclosed business terms, respect for developer choice, and full interoperability between platforms, software, and services. We encourage others with a similar vision to reach out, so we can find ways to make it come sooner.

While it is still early days and we have yet to see a full response from other game developers and the greater community, be it a speculation, but a massive industry coup has just happened. It will be interesting to see what happens next.

Last Updated: January 11, 2019

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