Dis/Unity: Why game engines are central to the metaverse

In September 2023, Unity had to eat its words as the game production community “united” against the platform (Parrish, 2023b). Developers vociferously proclaimed boycotts and that the company was greedy, adding that titles made from its software of the same name would be removed from distribution store shelves (Parrish, 2023a). Their angst, directed at the pricing of game downloads, may seem obscure to those outside of studios. However, the ongoing battle highlights some troubling issues surrounding the construction of the metaverse.

That is the thrust of this article. Underlying debates over Unity’s pricing model reflect significant stakes surrounding the production, distribution, and monetization of these future virtual spaces. I will first briefly relay the core concerns in the Unity controversy and then discuss how the application can reinforce power imbalances and ideologies inherent to the game industry.

A Unitary Decision

Unity’s importance to the metaverse stems from its longstanding tendency to expand into novel markets. In previous work, I wrote about how, since its 2009 founding, the company distinguished itself from other “game engines”—software frameworks that include physics, lighting, and control integration for building content (Foxman, 2019). Unity capitalized on the popularity of computer “modding” and the rise of mobile media to buck traditional pricing schemes and only charge producers grossing around US$100,000 or more in revenue from products made with its app. As a result, their engine became the de facto tool for many would-be design students and makers—while competitors like Epic’s Unreal and the open-source Godot scrambled to catch up. As of 2022, 70% of mobile games were created with Unity, with thousands of projects generated daily; the tool is particularly lauded for creating VR apps (Dealessandri & Calvin, 2020).

Furthermore, Unity prides its platform on being integral to all parts of game-making. It permits users to take an idea into production by supporting—and providing a store for—a variety of objects, backgrounds, and code. Evangelists go as far as to suggest that a game can be developed without almost any programming required (Dealessandri & Calvin, 2020). The engine is also a valuable part of implementation and distribution, with hardware providers building software packages of essential components to integrate standard controllers and interfaces; additionally, Unity’s “build and run” function enables the same content to be deployed on dozens of systems and consoles. Figure 1 showcases this process.

Diagram with four sections depicting four stages of Unity's production pipeline: ideation (concepts brought into Unity for production); production (assets imported from existing modelling programs and Unity Asset Store); implementation (defaults, SDKs, and Unity packages provide easy to use interfaces for existing platforms controls); and distribution (unity publishes to existing platforms and related marketplaces)
Figure 1: Unity’s use in the game production pipeline; from Foxman 2019

This may explain developers’ consternation when the company proposed a drastic change to its business model in 2023, charging 20 cents per game installed for those earning $200,000 in revenue. That the fee was based on a per-download basis was particularly vexing, with someone who owned a single game installed on multiple computers incurring extra fees for the studio producing the content (Parrish, 2023a). Unity appeared to be capitalizing on its engine’s ease of distribution and implementation. At the same time, developers felt locked into the platform: “[We] have no option to say no, since we are close to release and this change is 4 months out. You can’t simply remake an entire game in another engine when you’ve been working on it for 4+ years” (Parrish, 2023a). Their frustration speaks not just to unexpected costs suddenly leveraged for an individual sale but was complicated by how ingrained the program is in the gaming economy.

Now to the Metaverse

Given this background, game engines may particularly interest VR scholars because they provocatively sit at the nexus of many components of the proposed metaverse. In a sweeping early effort to articulate its infrastructure during the peak of the concept’s recent hype cycle, Lee et al. (2021) note the metaverse’s multiple layers of infrastructural innovation, ranging from artificial intelligence to computer vision, extended reality (XR), and robotics. Above these are ecosystems comprising avatars, content creation, virtual economy, social acceptability, security and privacy, and trust and accountability (see Figure 2). In theory, ecosystem components would be interoperable, with, for instance, a single avatar passing through metaverse, digital, and physical spaces.

Figure 2: Layers of the metaverse; from Lee et al., 2021

Unity acts as a bridge between the technological and ecosystem levels. The “production pipeline” depicted above allows digital content to be configured and distributed efficiently. Not only does the company do this well, but they already have the edge over other entrants. For instance, Amazon quickly abandoned attempts to make a comparable free-to-use engine (Halfacree, 2021) after a $50 million acquisition (Schreier, 2015). By contrast, Unity has established significant partnerships with Apple to provide tools for creating the first set of their “Vision Pro” headset’s programs (Heater, 2023).

Accompanying this centrality, however, are particular ideologies and expectations about what it means to make content. In a separate paper (Foxman, 2022), I point to a “playbor production system,” which is already standardizing in VR production and based on normative gaming expectations. “Playbour” (Kücklich, 2005) refers to the (often) uncompensated labor expected from fans, who provide excess content based on their passion for gaming (e.g., Bulut, 2020). This relationship haphazardly consolidates power in hardware providers, game engines like Unity, and distribution platforms, with each taking full advantage of avid users to extend the life of and get feedback about their products (see Figure 3). Microcosms of the system already exist in platforms like Roblox, which even contains its own “Unity”-like game engine. Roblox (as expected) produces mostly game-related content, keeping a percentage of all profits (Peters, 2023), while only a small percentage (300) of the thousands of developers on the platform make a significant living from their labor (Levy, 2021).

Figure 3: The “Playbor Production System”; from Foxman, 2022

This is only one example: ideologies from user labor to body representation in avatars and content monetization have the potential to “calcify” (Foxman, 2022) when gaming tools become widely used in novel contexts.A swathe of research has emerged linking game production and the metaverse (e.g., Bay, 2023; Chia, 2022; Freedman, 2022; Jungherr & Schlarb, 2022; Thorhauge, 2023) and emphasizes not only how engines are instrumental in plans for financial gain (Jungherr & Schlarb, 2022) and production (Chia, 2022; Jungherr & Schlarb, 2022), but also ultimately will impact perceptions of the self, memory and even, at its extreme, reality (Bay, 2023). Aleena Chia (2022) poignantly lays out the stakes of this state: “As we anticipate the arrival of the metaverse, we risk overlooking its infrastructure that is currently being laid and the alternative configurations it can still take.” In sum, such debates over Unity’s payment modifications deserve closer attention because game developers’ seemingly isolated battles may foreshadow the future of how we consume and produce content.


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