Epic and Improbable pledge $25M to rescue MMO studios affected by Unity’s SpatialOS license suspension

For a given definition of drift.

We’ve continued updating this post at the end as more events unfold, including Unity’s rebuttal and Unreal’s intervention. The original post from 9:55 a.m. EST January 10th is as follows.

Bad news today for MMO companies using Improbable’s SpatialOS and Unity. Back in October, the SpatialOS company rolled out a GDK specifically to enable integration with Unity development. But as of today, Improbable says that Unity has updated its licensing terms such that “all existing SpatialOS games using Unity, including production games and in development games of all developers, are now in breach” of those terms. The new terms apparently went into effect December 5th but were confirmed to Improbable by Unity only yesterday, in spite of the fact that the integration “was previously freely possible in their terms, as with other major engines.”

“Unity has clarified to us that this change effectively makes it a breach of terms to operate or create SpatialOS games using Unity, including in development and production games,” says Improbable. “Worryingly, this change occurred during an open commercial negotiation with the company to find a way to do more together. […] In addition, Unity has revoked our ability to continue working with the engine for breaching the newly changed terms of service in an unspecified way. This will affect our ability to support games.”

Non-Unity games are not affected, but Unity games? You might be screwed. As Improbable puts it,

“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. All customers who entered into a relationship with us and Unity previously did so on the good faith understanding that the terms they signed up to, sometimes years ago, would allow them to be successful and not carry additional charges.”

Improbable says it will “do everything in [its] power to solve this issue in good faith with Unity,” as well as aid companies left in the lurch here with an emergency fund.

SpatialOS, as we’ve been covering over the last few years, is essentially a platform that allows studios to make complex, single-shard MMOs – “distributed computing platform for building large virtual worlds for gaming.”

“I want the industry to believe in online games again,” Improbable CEO Herman Narula said back in 2017. “We went through a bit of a nuclear winter, with MMOs in particular, and part of that was technological, part of that was gameplay and part of that was consumer expectation. But now the time is right to revitalise the notion of worlds where actions can be meaningful and where we can create these experiences that we’ve dreamed of. I am hoping that with us having this cash and having this stability, it’s going to make people excited about investing in that.”

And invest they did: The company has raised at least $552M internationally – just that we know about – in the last few years, including funds from ubiquitous Chinese company Netease.

It hasn’t all been good news, however; Chronicles of Elyria studio Soulbound started out with SpatialOS and Unreal Engine 4 but ultimately found it incompatible (not to mention was too expensive for the scale of the MMO and its playerbase), leading it to drop its SpatialOS integration.

Worlds Adrift studio Bossa, which has made extensive use of SpatialOS, posted this message on Twitter this morning in an apparent attempt to assuage concerns, but it doesn’t make any promises.

“We’ve just been made aware there is a situation developing between Improbable (makers of SpatialOS, the technology underpinning the Worlds Adrift servers) and Unity (the technology we use to create the game itself). The details are still sparse. Bossa’s main priority is you, our players. Whatever is happening in the background outside of our control, our focus is ensuring players are looked after and your memorable experiences in the game are protected. Rest assured you will be the first ones to know if this situation causes any disruption to your experience. For now, Worlds Adrift is operating as normal.”

Unfortunately, MMO players are all too cognizant of the worst-case scenario when engine disputes arise. Let’s hope this one’s resolved amicably.

Further reading:

Source: Improbable, Twitter. Cheers, Zahri.

Bossa Studios now says Unity’s told it Worlds Adrift won’t be affected. It’s not clear why precisely WA is immune or whether Unity’s largesse is extended to all games in similar situations.

In comments to The Guardian today, Narula speculates that Unity’s move was “either an accident or a negotiating tactic” and says that he was “waiting for someone in the west coast to wake up and make some ransom demands.” The Guardian also notes that at least one London-based MMO, Lazarus, has shut down indefinitely until the dispute is resolved, although current tweets indicate that it’s already back up.

Fractured also tweeted about the crisis, calling it a “disaster” and pulling its pre-alpha servers offline.

Game developer Derek Smart has speculated that Unity’s motivation revolves around its 2017 acquisition of Multiplay. Former Trion boss Scott Hartsman and Epic Games’ Tim Sweeney also weighed in on the “crazy” Unity EULA.

Improbable has released another recap of the drama unfolding, apologizing to the developers who are affected by the current mess and suggesting that a “code of conduct” within the industry might be in order.

“Honestly, we don’t believe that today was about Unity or for that matter Improbable. Ultimately a commercial dispute between two companies, in which both sides have certainly made errors, should never threaten access to essential technology used by a large number of developers. A world where this happens frequently is a world with very little innovation in gaming. We think this incident shows that as an industry, we might need to consider making some changes which hugely increase the rate of innovation and collective success we could all experience. […] As a platform company, we believe humility and introspection are critical responses to the suffering of your community, however it comes about. We invite every company involved in today’s discourse to do a little of that. We also invite Unity to participate in this broader thinking with us, whatever the outcome of our misunderstanding. You are an incredibly important company and one bad day doesn’t take away from all you’ve given us. Let’s fix this for our community, you know our number.”

The company also says its review of its own terms of service revealed similar weaknesses that could lead to confusion and will be rectified.

Update – Thursday evening
Now Unity has issued a statement denying some of what Improbable’s blog posts have said, claiming that it ended its “relationship” with Improbable following a “failed negotiation.”

“We terminated our relationship with Improbable due to a failed negotiation with them after they violated our Terms of Service. We’ve made it clear that anyone using SpatialOS will not be affected. 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 does not explain what the failed negotiation was about specifically nor address speculation that it was about the Multiplay acquisition. The company claims it communicated to Improbable “more than a year ago” and then again half a year ago that Improbable was in violation of Unity’s TOS/ULA, so “recent actions did not come as a surprise to Improbable.” “Two weeks ago we took the action of turning off Improbable’s Unity Editor license keys,” Unity writes. “This is a unique case — and not a situation we take lightly — but Improbable left us no choice. This was the only course of action to protect the integrity and value of our technology and Unity developers.” (Worth noting here is that the EULA change was seemingly made in December, so we assume Unity here means it notified Improbable of a future risk of violation, rather than an active one.)

Unity also effectively accuses Improbable of dishonesty – of “misrepresenting” how individual games would be affected, or won’t be, in this case, as Unity says it was always clear that “games currently in production and/or games that are live are unaffected.” However, Unity does not expressly state how it is that developers using both Unity and SpatialOS will be served now that Unity has revoked Improbable’s license – no mechanism has been posted publicly.

Unity also does not address the comments of developers – again, like Epic’s Tim Sweeney – who have raised the alarm over the current nonsensical version of the TOS and its many contradictions with Unity’s stated policies, except to say that it is once again revising that TOS.

Thursday night
Now Epic/Unreal and Improbable have committed $25M to helping devs escape this mess. Kinda handed them that one, Unity. “To assist developers who are left in limbo by the new engine and service incompatibilities that were introduced today, Epic Games and Improbable are together establishing a US $25,000,000 combined fund to help developers transition to more open engines, services, and ecosystems,” Epic writes. “This funding will come from a variety of sources including Unreal Dev Grants, Improbable developer assistance funds, and Epic Games store funding.”

There’s more:

“Epic Games and Improbable would like to jointly reaffirm our commitment to giving game developers the best combination of engine and other technology backed by interoperable standards that work for everyone, while respecting developers’ ability to choose partners and software components freely. First, we want to reaffirm our partnership. Unreal Engine provides full C++ source code for everyone, and its license ensures it remains open to all game developers and middleware providers, and enables all to collaborate together through SDKs, services, and forks of the source code. Likewise, Improbable is developing a completely open Unreal integration for its online game development platform, SpatialOS. The combination enables developers to rapidly build and deploy both session-based and persistent online worlds across all platforms with the functionality of Unreal Engine and the increased possibilities of distributed computing and cloud services. Epic Games’ partnership with Improbable, and the integration of Improbable’s cloud-based development platform SpatialOS, is based on shared values, and a shared belief in how companies should work together to support mutual customers in a straightforward, no-surprises way.”

Update Friday
Continuing updates, including the new statements from Improbable, are in our latest article.
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