Unity is not a virus

In case you’re not in the loop, Unity just made a very poor decision in one of their many aquisitions. After laying off like 400 employees worldwide, they decided to drop like 4x the price of the esteemed Weta CG studio on an ad tech company with a sketchy past, which, frankly, isn’t quite the danger it seems. Were it not for the unique combination of timing, reputation, and price that’s sent Unity’s stock price plummeting, it’s unlikely there’d be any harm at all. Ignoring that stock price has nothing to do with a company’s actual health, that’s about as clear a vote of no confidence as people can make, but the whole thing is clickbait.

I’ve had some time to mull this over as someone who’s looked to Unity as my most reasonable pathway to releasing something and my biggest worry isn’t that Unity is going to start installing adware on your PC; it’s that this frankly stupid decision is going to cause a chain reaction that Unity might not be able to afford.

Let’s look at the facts here.

A plague of ads

When you’re talking about the sketchy past of this company, be aware that they’ve already been through a merger because the specific bad behavior everyone’s worried about got blocked by Windows Defender years ago, which took all four legs out from under their business model. In effect, they looked for someone to buy them out so their team could be trained to do something else rather than all being out of a job. Granted, the company that absorbed them was a mobile ad tech firm, but it represented a complete pivot on their core operation. Maybe you can say something about the company you keep, but ultimately the end result was a lot more benign than everyone is panicking about.

The reason this buyout is stupid is because Unity already has their own mobile ad tech. In effect, the only thing Unity is getting out of this deal is a trove of marketing data and the fact that’s worth multiple times as much as a respected special effects studio is what’s really stuck in the larger Unity team’s craw right now.

Now, I will say that corporations live and die on information. I don’t care what kind of information that is, the business of business is business. If it’s a corporation, it’s dealing in some form of information because in our world, that’s the most valuable resource you can amass. As far as Unity is concerned, this has to be the motherlode, and given everything we know, they’re probably right, for better or worse. But that’s marketing data, which is, to put it gently, not what Unity is best known for as their primary business. Which is why all the workers whose teams were ripped apart during a "refocusing of resources" are steamed right now. Unity’s just told them in no uncertain terms that their primary efforts are less valuable than selling your information for a quick buck. It would be like McDonald’s closing hundreds of stores to buy DoorDash so they could sell everyone’s food consumption habits to health insurance companies.

Poison pill

The reason I don’t think Unity is going to actually start slinging adware is simple: they stand to lose a LOT if they do. Square Enix has used Unity to remaster multiple Final Fantasy games at this point and they’re a company with thousands of seats. Unity is a very simple and mature pipeline and because the paid version lets you remove the Unity logo from the game boot sequence, it’s actually used for quite a lot by larger studios without their games’ names being dragged through the mud of Unity’s general reputation (though a little bravery to leave it in would maybe improve that reputation). It’s not the kid making asset flips after homework that actually makes Unity money; it’s the subscription from developers who make significant money off video games annually. Unity’s Enterprise edition is $4000 a month per 20 seats, which over 1000 seats means a cool $200k per month in lost revenue if that subscription suddenly stops, adding up to a $2.4 million annual loss. You could argue that maybe they could just disable the nastiness for their paid plans, but really, is anyone actually going to trust that? A major studio isn’t going to want to find out that Unity accidentally exfiltrated their data a year ago because an intern hit the wrong button. Unity simply cannot afford anyone questioning their primary business, no matter how lucrative marketing data might be, because their primary business is a major part of what gets them that data.

Let me also reiterate that Unity already has a business unit for this. Of course they do! Everything does! Look, even working at a financial institution for 10 years, let me lift the blinds a little bit: every company you interact with has data on you, even the innocent ones. Unless you keep your money in a sock under the mattress, whoever is storing it for you is keeping tabs on any loans you have or might want based on your demographic information. Even if they’re a good one (like my former employer) they’ll use it to send you offers and specials that might sound useful to you. Tellers cross-sell. They don’t just throw your money into a labeled sock in the vault; there’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes. Your grocery store has a specific percentage of coupons it prints based on your purchase history so you get some that sound useful without it being so many that it’s immediately creepy. All of this is engineered and it’s very hard to avoid, because unless you pay everything in cash and don’t use discount cards, something in the process is tracking you and throwing it into your file. That’s why privacy policies are so important. If everyone was allowed to share everything, they’d basically be able to replace you with a robot and nobody would notice, except that the robot would probably know more about you than you know yourself.

Unity as such isn’t going to be doing anything they aren’t already and while that thought is absolutely creepy, what they’re really buying here is a database full of all the goodies someone else has collected.

What’s actually happening

Of course bringing up illegal behavior is good for a headline and everyone is predictably in a tizzy because that means clicks. The problem for Unity is that their own decisions have made it very hard to attach their reputation to anything good becuase paid versions get to remove the Unity logo from their product. Unity has very little public goodwill on a good day and this combination of recent and current actions means they’re knee-deep in their decision without a good way of saying anything in their own defense. Unity will likely lose market share over this, but probably not market share where it matters most in the Enterprise column. Unity’s best option is really just to stay as silent as possible and slog through until it blows over, because the vulture press isn’t about to let them point out that the actual activities everyone is worried about ceased operation years ago now without twisting it.

My personal concern for Unity is that small developers who can’t afford a paid subscription are going to suffer because nobody trusts their games. This is likely going to end a lot of dreams because $400 a year is not something everyone can afford, and games that would have been a way out of that are now going to struggle to do that. Unity will probably survive this if they’re smart, though if they’re not smart they could absolutely go under, which is a scary thought on its own for people who need its particular set of features for their projects or have things in progress they can’t afford to start over.

The problem, ultimately, is that by calling Unity a virus before the ink is dry, the panic, which by a reasonable analysis of the information so far is unnecessary, is going to irreparably damage the Unity image in ways that hurt people who aren’t Unity.