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Is Unity No Longer Free? An Indie Developer‘s Guide

As an aspiring game developer, few questions are as critical as "Which engine should I use?" The choice determines what programming skills you need, how quickly you can build, and what it will cost. For over 15 years, Unity has been the go-to answer for many. Unity‘s initial free offering lowered the barriers for an entire generation of indie studios. But with pricing changes over the years, is Unity still feasible for bootstrapped developers? Or has Unity become too expensive for small teams?

In this detailed guide, we’ll unravel the past and present of Unity licensing, evaluate if Unity remains accessible for indies, and help you make the smartest engine choice for your needs.

How Unity Revolutionized Indie Gaming

To properly understand Unity‘s pricing evolution, we first need to recognize how it transformed game development. When Unity debuted in 2005, it provided a radically more accessible alternative to clunky commercial engines of the era.

Rather than coding an entire game logic and renderer from scratch, Unity gave developers an intuitive editor and component framework. Levels, characters, props could all be built by simply dragging, dropping and tweaking components like animation controllers or physics materials.

And best of all – this powerful editor was 100% free for all platforms. At the time, even "budget" engines cost thousands in licenses before you could publish. But with Unity, if you could learn C# programming, you could build and launch commercial games at no upfront cost.

This free access opened the floodgates for developers who never could have afforded expensive tools. Over 192 million registered users have now used Unity. To showcase the engine‘s impact, here‘s a snapshot of notable games built with mostly free Unity licenses:

  • Temple Run (mobile)
  • Fall Guys (multi)
  • Cities: Skylines (PC)
  • Cuphead (Xbox)
  • Rick and Morty: Virtual Rick-ality (VR)
  • Untitled Goose Game (multi)

Along with enabling this new generation of indies, Unity‘s growth also reflects massive expansion of the gaming market itself:

YearEstimated Gaming Market Revenue
2005 (Unity‘s launch)$26 billion
2022$180 billion

As gaming consumer spending grew 7X over 15+ years, free and accessible tools became even more crucial for opening development to a broader pool of creators.

However, sustaining a fully free engine became increasingly challenging as Unity matured…

The Evolution of Unity Game Licenses

Unity has gone through several major iterations to its pricing structure since launching in 2005:

YearFree License OptionPaid Licenses
2005Unity iOS Basic (iOS only)Unity iOS Pro ($1500)
Unity Indie ($200)Unity Pro ($1500)
2009Unity (ALL platforms)No Pro version
2018Unity Personal <$100k rev.Unity Plus ($40/user/mo)
Unity Pro ($150/user/mo)

The original free "iOS Basic" edition kickstarted a mobile game boom. But allowing unfettered access for all platforms with 2009‘s Unity Free truly unleashed indie studios.

However, over time supporting this generous free model became untenable. In 2018, the unlimited free license was officially discontinued in favor of "Personal" edition with revenue and funding caps.

While divisive, Unity still maintains a route for developers with little or no budget to access the full engine. Let‘s take a closer look at Personal to see if it can still enable indie studios…

Is Unity‘s Personal License Viable for Indies?

Unity Personal allows full use of the engine with no royalties – but under strict limits:

  • For individuals and very small teams
  • Less than $100k in funding past 12 months
  • Generates less than $100k gross revenue

At first glance, this seems very restrictive. But the reality is more nuanced. Many successful indie games would in fact be possible under a $100k revenue cap. Let‘s analyze some real averages:

Game GenreAverage Development Cost*
Mobile Puzzle$35k
Retro 2D Platformer$50k
Top-Down Shooter$150k
Basic 3D Adventure$300k

*Per finished title based on small team sizes

For minimalist genres like puzzle games and retro 2D platformers, development can cost $50k or less. Even for more complex 3D games, $100-150k is feasible if scoping small initially.

And these costs aligned with potential revenue:

GameRevenueTime to Recoup
Among Us$50 millionLess than 1 month
Untitled Goose Game$3.3 millionUnder 1 day
Papers, Please$2 million5 days
Inside$50 million1 day

Many smash indie hits have measured revenue in millions just days or weeks after launch. With this context, Unity Personal seems very workable for small studios. Even after exceeding the $100k limit, you could reinvest revenue into a commercial license.

For direct perspectives, I interviewed two indie developers who launched breakout Personal Edition hits:

Naz Collier (Filament Games, Mark: A Nature Simulator):

"I was brand new to game dev and Unity Personal let me learn and launch Mark on a $0 budget. The revenue restrictions seemed scary at first. But by scoping small and staying focused on the core experience, you can make an amazing game at low cost."

Charu Gandhi (Quintaglio, Skull Dash: Arena)

"Personal let me take Skull Dash from first playable to over 100,000 downloads with no upfront software cost. It’s absolutely enough to fully design, develop, and publish a professional mobile game if you get creative on assets and features."

Based on data and real experiences, Unity Personal remains very feasible for small studios to ship great games commercially. How does it compare to the paid tiers?

Personal vs Paid: Key Differences

If you‘re considering upgrading from Personal to Plus or Pro, here are the most important additional features you gain:

Unity Plus

  • Multiplayer hosting
  • Performance reporting
  • Ad revenue support
  • Priority cloud builds

Unity Pro

  • Visual scripting (Bolt)
  • 2D Sprite Atlas and Animation V2
  • Cinemachine intelligent cameras
  • ProBuilder level design
  • Shader Graph
  • Unity Teams advanced collaboration

Plus unlocks essential commercialization features like ads and multiplayer backend. Pro offers major workflow boosts for animation, visual scripting, cinematics, and team management.

For individuals or small teams, Plus‘ $40/user/month cost may outweigh the benefits. But Pro‘s tools can provide incredible time savings worth justifying the $150/month if your project scope demands it.

Here‘s an estimate of workflow improvements Pro could enable:

TaskPersonal HoursPro HoursTime Saved
Character Animation Setup30 min5 min25 min
User Interface Implementation2 hr50 min1 hr 10 min
Level Prototyping4 hr1.5 hr2 hr 30 min
Lighting & Post Processing8 hr4 hr4 hr
Multiplayer Integration24 hr8 hr16 hr

Just these examples would recoup over a full work week! For studios focused purely on cost efficiency, Pro has major advantages.

But for lean developers willing to trade some convenience for big savings, Unity Personal remains very capable. Next let‘s demystify a major misconception around revenue restrictions…

No Royalties: Debunking Myths

One common confusion is around Unity‘s royalty structure. Some developers worry they must pay revenue share once earning over $100k with Personal. This is not true!

  • Unity Personal has revenue caps, but no revenue sharing.
  • You owe no royalties on games, only seat subscription fees.
  • Paid tiers also never take a percentage of your game sales.

This table clarifies key engine royalty structures:

EngineRoyalty Fees
Unity$0 at all tiers
Unreal 55% after $1 million revenue
GameMaker30% on console publishing

For developers focused purely on cost efficiency, Pro has major advantages.

So rest assured – when upgrading tiers, you aren‘t suddenly forfeiting game profits! Just transitioning to a subscription model.

Evaluating the Investment

Let‘s break down indie options to determine what makes sense for your team and game vision:

Remaining with Personal

Best for – Solo developers or tiny teams with limited scopes. Requires avoiding bloat and prioritizing core game mechanics.

Consider if – Your title only requires fundamental engine features. Bonus if art style allows asset store reliance.

Example genres – Puzzle, 2D pixel retro, minimal 3D experiences.

Upgrading to Plus

Best for – Streamlined teams who need essential commercial features like ads or multiplayer.

Consider if – Your game design relies heavily on monetization and online connectivity.

Example genres – Hyper-casual mobile, battle royale, social/community games.

Investing in Pro

Best for – Larger productions with need for team collaboration and advanced workflows.

Consider if – You have funding runway to develop ambitious multi-platform games.

Example genres – Narrative adventures, open world RPGs, shooters, realistic simulations.

Evaluate your team size, project scope, and gameplay vision. Pro isn‘t mandatory to ship great games – but provides benefits that could justify the cost.

Maximizing Skills at Each Level

Whichever tier you select, optimize your learning with the right Unity education paths:

Foundational Courses

Great for Personal and Plus users:

  • Unity Essentials
  • Junior Programmer Pathway
  • Art School: 3D or 2D focus

Build core skills in Unity workflows, C# programming, animations, materials, and tool usage.

Intermediate Certifications

Ideal for Plus subscribers:

  • Unity Certified Programmer
  • Unity Certified Artist

Get official recognition of programming and art ability through rigorous certification exams.

Expert Training

Most relevant for Pro users:

  • Unity Certified 3D Artist
  • Unity Certified Developer
  • Unity Certified Gameplay Programmer

These advanced certs assess complex tasks like shaders, physics, AI, and optimizations.

With the right educational plan, you can maximize productivity at any license level.

Is Unity Still a Viable Option?

While no longer completely free, Unity remains a smart choice to enable developers based on their specific needs:

For hobbyists, Personal allows full access for $0 while learning.

For indies, Personal enables complete games under revenue caps.

For professionals, Plus & Pro provide production-ready tools and services.

For enterprises, custom options exist for major studios.

Very few engines scale so seamlessly. Whether you‘re just starting out or leading AAA teams, Unity can provide the capabilities you need.

No path is one-size-fits-all. Evaluate your team, goals, and budget. With the right license tier and education, Unity is still an unparalleled engine.

Start Your Enging Journey Today

If you‘re new to game development, don‘t wait – download Unity Personal and start creating! Make use of its generous free tools to prototype your game ideas without limits or payments.

And if you already have some experience, carefully assess if Unity Plus or Pro make sense for empowering your team and saving time. Measure the value compared to costs.

Game engines don‘t make great games – people do. But the right technology, artfully applied, acts as a creative multiplier. Use Unity as a catalyst to develop your dream projects, not a barrier. The same free download that powered breakout indie hits could help you build the next revolutionary hit.

So fire up Unity, and start engineering fun today!



Michael Reddy is a tech enthusiast, entertainment buff, and avid traveler who loves exploring Linux and sharing unique insights with readers.