What the Unity debacle tells us about open data ecosystems

Unity is an extremely popular game engine, enjoying a significant market share. However, Unity hasn’t been very good at monetizing this success, and the company has been losing a catastrophic amount of money over the last few years. Game engines are vast and complex pieces of software, and Unity has spent a lot of money on development. You can read more on Axios, but here is a brief overview of how the Unity disaster unfolded:

Until 2023, Unity allowed developers with less and 200.000USD in revenue to use the engine for free. Developers above the threshold had to pay a recurring subscription. Losses kept piling up and, desperate to turn things around, Unity picked a new CEO, who in turn made a drastic change to the licensing terms.

Unity announced it would collect a “runtime fee”, charging developers for every installation of their games (even free-to-play ones). This, combined with a rather poor communication strategy, created an uprising among game developers.

Unity is so popular, and the change in licensing was so drastic that some developers refer to this event as the “unity singularity”. Unity is proprietary software, so it cannot be forked and maintained independently. Existing versions of Unity are still covered by their original license, but eventually most developers will be forced to upgrade to newer versions in order to get the latest features. Keep in mind that many studios make games exclusively in Unity. Depending on the architecture of the game, it can be very difficult to switch game engines. As a result, the entire business model of certain game development companies relies on Unity having reasonable, affordable licensing terms.

Similar scenarios are present in a number of data ecosystems. Proprietary data and software is at the cornerstone of some companies’ entire business model, and a change in licensing can put at risk the viability of the business.

There is nothing wrong with using proprietary software and data, sometimes the support and functionality is just worth the licensing fees. However, if they are core components and not easily replaceable, proprietary tools inevitably add an additional level of risk to business operations. As we saw with Unity, sometimes leadership changes, priorities shift, money runs out, and licensing fees increase. Open source software removes many of these complications. The community is usually much more involved in big decisions, and, whatever happens, anyone is free to make a fork and go their own way.

Each developer should look at their own situation and pick the best tool for the job. Whether this tool has a free license is an important consideration, and one that might have significant ramifications further down the road.