Unity and the destruction of imagination infrastructure
Dr. Joost Vervoort is an Associate Professor of Transformative Imagination at Utrecht University. His work focuses on connecting games and creative practices, politics and action to create better futures. Email: email@example.com Twitter: @Vervoort_Joost
Five days ago, cross-platform game engine Unity announced that they would start charging game developers for every install of any games made using their engine. This would include a single game owner installing a game multiple times — on new machines, for instance. Though there are some vague boundary conditions that might exempt some games from this new fee, the news was received as pretty much completely catastrophic across the game industry.
There are many very good reasons for this uproar, as discussed by Rami Ismail and other indie developers and experts in this article. The majority of independent games are built in Unity. This new fee would make success with games a dangerous and potentially costly proposition for small studios. Existing successful games built with Unity would suddenly become a threat for their developers. Free bundles, giveaways and subscription services like Microsoft’s Game Pass that include many games for one standard price would no longer really be viable. What’s more, players could weaponize the install fee against developers they dislike or disagree with politically, to potentially bankrupt them.
I want to talk about this crisis caused by Unity’s business decisions in terms of what it reveals about the game industry as imagination infrastructure. Cassie Robinson, a UK-based systems innovator, and her colleagues developed the term imagination infrastructuring to describe the infrastructural preconditions for societal imagination. What infrastructures are required to help support wide participation in the political, cultural, economic and ecological imaginations that shape societal change? For the International Architecture Biennale Rotterdam I applied this notion of imagination infrastructuring to the game industry.
Games are, by some measures, bigger than music and film combined. A good part of the planet’s inhabitants are game players, many of whom spend many hours engaged with games. As the Anticiplay research team and the wider Games for Better Futures community we care deeply about the utopian potential of games as a medium. At their best, games can offer deep engagement with new worlds, new roles, and new ways of interacting with each other. They can be a real force for positive societal change, and can and do offer many spaces for collective imagination and experimentation with societal change. Independent games made by smaller teams are where much of this potential for collective imagination lies. And there are specific infrastructures that both enable and block this potential. These include digital platforms for selling games like Steam and the console game stores; ways to get access to and try many games like Game Pass and Humble Bundle; and game engines like Unity.
What happens if we as societies, as policy makers, as funders, as activists, think of the game industry not as just a commercial sector, but as imagination infrastructure that can and does play a vital role in shaping societal imaginations? What happens if we organize our funding, our laws and governance and our networks around realizing this societal potential of gaming? What if we didn’t leave the infrastructural decisions to companies like Unity who seem to have a shocking lack of care for their crucial infrastructural roles?
A few weeks ago I was at the massive games convention Gamescom in Cologne, Germany, together with Niels Monshouwer, producer of our climate court case game All Rise and ex-Guerilla Games producer. We were there to pitch All Rise to publishers. We spent most of our time in the business part of the conference, but we also took some time to wander the halls set up for the public — for gamers. There were halls dedicated to big flagship titles, the so-called ‘AAA’ games, where each of these massive games took up lots of real estate and so each hall only featured a few games. I found these spaces to be a bit depressing personally. This was the games industry at its most dystopian, most nakedly capitalist — games designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator. The games equivalent of Hollywood-produced slush.
But elsewhere at Gamescom, the indie games could be found. In the same space that would hold maybe 20–30 AAA games, hundreds of small booths were set up side by side, with the game developers themselves standing around them, hoping players would come and try out their games. I don’t want to pretend the indie game space is free from capitalist impulses and trend chasing, far from it. But these spaces were bursting with creativity and energy in comparison. Originality can be a real boon and advantage for indie games, and they try to distinguish themselves and stand out — through new game play, new art, new worlds to explore. We chatted with the creators of the stunningly original game Viewfinder where photos and artwork turn into real traversable spaces; and I managed to connect to the creators of the deeply somber game Blasphemous, one of my most admired games of recent years. We talked about the challenges they faced building games in the sweltering heat of climate change era Seville, Spain. Both of these games were made in Unity.
These indie developers are working from and living off shoestring budgets, and a lot of what you see in this space is pure passion. It would be a real shame if next year, the indie space at Gamescom would be significantly more empty due to Unity’s decision. Unity’s decision hits our own game development team as well. All Rise has, so far, also been developed in Unity. Luckily, we are in the beginning stages of development and a switch to another engine is still possible. Many developers are not so lucky.
Unity’s business decision kills off many possible future seeds for game development in one move. Among all the projects that infrastructures like Unity, Game Pass and steam make possible there may be games that have a profound impact on social organization, on societal discourse, on political choices, on people’s values.
If we understand the game industry itself as imagination infrastructure, I think that what follows is that we understand that this societal activity is an important common good. This means we should safeguard the infrastructural elements that allow for more creative, more diverse, more risky, more expressive games to be developed. Game developers are organizing collectively around the Unity plans from the bottom up. But what happens if policy makers and other governing bodies step? What policies and programs might be possible? How can indie game developers be protected against idiotic business decisions like this? Or going further, what would more public ownership of game engines and platforms look like? As someone who started looking at all of this from the perspective of the planet’s future, I don’t think we can afford for our collective imaginative capacities to be held hostage by profoundly unimaginative, heartless and short-sighted cash grabbing decisions like this.
Anticiplay is an NWO Vidi-funded research project that aims to establish a new design paradigm for the gaming sector in collaboration with CreaTures EU. You can find our mission statement here! In short: we’re all about Games For Better Futures and Futures for Better Games. Follow us @anticiplay on Twitter, and feel free to engage us with any questions, games that you think are inspiring, and anything else!