Video games engine provider Unity announced earlier today the introduction of two new machine-learning platforms, one of which in particular has developers and artists asking questions of the company that, at time of publishing, have yet to be answered.
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From Unity’s blog:
Today we’re announcing two new AI products: Unity Muse, an expansive platform for AI-driven assistance during creation, and Unity Sentis, which allows you to embed neural networks in your builds to enable previously unimaginable real-time experiences.
Muse is essentially just ChatGPT but for Unity specifically, and purports to let users ask questions about coding and resources and get instant answers. Sentis, however, is more concerning, as it “enables you to embed an AI model in the Unity Runtime for your game or application, enhancing gameplay and other functionality directly on end-user platforms.”
Because “AI” is a technology that in many cases is utterly reliant on work stolen from artists without consent or compensation, Unity’s announcement led to a lot of questions about Sentis, with particular focus on the tech’s ability to create stuff like images, models and animation. Scroll down past the announcement tweet, for example, and you’ll see a ton of variations of the same query:
just to jump on the train, which dataset y’all pull the art from???
Unity needs to be fully transparent about what ML models will be implemented, including the data they have been trained on. I don’t see any possible way ML, in current iterations, can be effective without training on countless ill gotten data.
REALLY concerning image generator stuff. What datasets?
Hi, what dataset was this trained on? Is this using artwork from artists without their permission? Animations? Materials? How was this AI trained?
You do realize that AI-created assets can’t be used commercially, so what was the rationale for adding this feature?
Which datasets were used in development of this? Did you negotiate & acquire all relevant licenses directly from copyright holders?
It’s a very specific question, one that at time of publishing Unity has yet to answer, either on Twitter or on the company’s forums (I’ve emailed the company asking the question specifically, and will update if I hear back). Those familiar with “AI”’s legal and copyright struggles can find the outline of an answer in this post by Unity employee TreyK-47, though, when he says you can’t use the tech as it exists today “for a current commercial or external project”.
Note that while there are clear dangers to jobs and the quality of games inherent in this push, those dangers are for the future; for the now, this looks (and sounds) like dogshit.
Unity, the cross-platform game engine that powers games like Rust, Hollow Knight, and Pokémon Go, has introduced a new, controversial fee for developers, set to take effect next year. Indie developers quickly responded to the announcement, with many suggesting the costs of this policy would kill smaller games, while confusion spread as devs wondered how it would affect their bottom line. Unity’s attempts to provide clarity have only fueled devs’ frustration and spawned more questions from those with both currently active and in-development games using the engine.
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The new Runtime Fee, announced in a September 12 Unity blog, is based on the number of installations a game built with the Unity engine receives, as well as the revenue it generates. Though it won’t start until January 1, 2024, the Runtime Fee will apply to any game that has reached both a previously established annual revenue threshold and a lifetime install count. Games developed with the lower-cost Unity Personal and Unity Plus plans reach that threshold at $200,000 of revenue in one year and 200,000 lifetime installs, while Unity Pro and Unity Enterprise accounts must reach $1 million in revenue and 1 million lifetime installs for the fee to kick in.
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Unity Personal and Unity Plus devs will have to pay $.20 for every game installed past their subscription-specific thresholds, Unity Pro devs will have to fork over between $.02 and $.15 for every install past theirs, and Unity Enterprise devs’ costs range from $.01 to $.125. Developers in emerging markets will have lower costs per install past their threshold. The announcement was met with widespread confusion, as devs of free-to-play games scrambled to figure out if they’d end up owing hundreds of thousands of dollars, charity bundle creators became concerned about potentially being punished for supporting a good cause, and more.
Developers react to Unity Runtime Fee
Shortly after the policy was announced, Rust developer Garry Newman wondered if “Unity [wants] us to start paying them $200k a month” before doing the math and realizing that Facepunch Studios would owe the game engine company about $410,000 total.
“While this isn’t much, here’s some stuff I don’t like,” Newman shared to X (formerly Twitter). “Unity can just start charging us a tax per install? They can do this unilaterally? They can charge whatever they want? They can add install tracking to our game? We have to trust their tracking?”
Though many devs initially thought this new fee would apply to all games made in Unity (including free ones), and reacted accordingly, it soon became clear that the fee will only apply to monetized titles. Axios’ Stephen Totilo shared some clarification he’d received from Unity a few hours after the initial announcement, including that charity games and bundles are excluded from fees. But some of Unity’s clarifications only served to further suggest the notion that it didn’t really think this initiative through.
“If a player deletes a game and re-installs it, that’s 2 installs, 2 charges,” Totilo posted. “Same if they install on 2 devices.” This means that developers could be “vulnerable to abuse” from bad actors who repeatedly uninstall and reinstall their games. “Unity says it would use fraud detection tools and allow developers to report possible instances of fraud to a compliance team.” So, if you get a massive bill from Unity, you’ll just have to wait on their customer support line. Shouldn’t be an issue, right?
Xalavier Nelson Jr., head of Strange Scaffold, the indie studio behind games like El Paso, Elsewhere and An Airport For Aliens Currently Run By Dogs, expressed concerns about the entire situation. “This is the danger of modern games and game development cycles becoming exponentially more complicated, lengthy, and prone to immense dependency,” he told Kotaku via DM. “When a decision like this gets announced, and you’re three years into a five-year journey, you have little to no choice. You’re stuck with a partner who may be actively working against your interest, and who you increasingly cannot trust.”
Tiani Pixel, indie developer and co-founder of Studio Pixel Punk, the studio behind the 2021 Metroidvania Unsighted, told Kotaku via DM that “there’s a lot of things in Unity’s statement that aren’t clear and are very worrying.” She brought up not only how complicated it is to measure actual installs, but the privacy issues inherent with such a policy.
“There are some certifications you need for having such service in your game and releasing it on consoles and other platforms. You need an end-user license agreement (EULA), because you’ll be sending info from the player’s device to an external server. So, will indies be forced to add such DRMs on their games so they can track the installs? Again, Unity does not make it clear. Forcing DRM on games has a long (and bad) history in gaming. Many tools used for this are literally indistinguishable from malwares…There’s no benefit to the devs or the user here.”
She also pointed out how these new fees could affect indie developers. “Small indie games, like our game Unsighted, which had the chance to appear on services like Xbox Game Pass, (in which the game isn’t sold directly to the consumer), might be penalized for becoming popular there, because we will be charged for every install,” she said.
Brandon Sheffield, creative director at Necrosoft Games, warned game developers off the engine in a scathing op-ed for Insert Credit. “But now I can say, unequivocally, if you’re starting a new game project, do not use Unity,” he wrote. “If you started a project 4 months ago, it’s worth switching to something else. Unity is quite simply not a company to be trusted.”
The op-ed ends by stating that Unity is “digging its own grave in search for gold.”
Unity continues to court controversy
Shortly after Unity’s blog post went live, game developer John Draisey posted that Unity had “eliminated Unity Plus subscriptions” and that the company was automatically switching members to its Pro subscription next month. Draisey shared an image showing the price difference between the two subs, which are billed annually, and it was nearly $3,300. “Be careful not to have auto-renew on your account if you can’t afford the price. And this is with just 2 people on my team with project access,” he warned.
It’s unclear how the potential change in subscription options will translate to the newly minted Runtime Fee, as the thresholds are different for each sub. Kotaku reached out for clarification, and a Unity spokesperson pointed us to their FAQ page. When asked for further clarification, the spokesperson sent this statement: “Unity Plus is being retired for new subscribers effective today, September 12, 2023, to simplify the number of plans we offer. Existing subscribers do not need to take immediate action and will receive an email mid-October with an offer to upgrade to Unity Pro, for one year, at the current Unity Plus price.”
The bigwigs at Unity have been making some, uh, interesting decisions as of late. In June, the company announced two new machine-learning platforms that would be integrated into its engine: Unity Muse (essentially ChatGPT for using Unity, a service that would allow devs to ask questions about coding and get answers from a bot) and Unity Sentis, which “enables you to embed an AI model in the Unity Runtime for your game or application, enhancing gameplay and other functionality directly on end-user platforms.” As former Kotaku writer Luke Plunkett pointed out at the time of the announcement, AI technology heavily relies on “work stolen from artists without consent or compensation,” so Unity Sentis raised a ton of eyebrows.
And as Rust’s Newman shared shortly after the latest Unity announcement, it seems these changes are having a negative impact on the company at large: their market shares tanked as of 11:17 a.m. EST. Let’s see if Unity sticks with these changes, or makes adjustments based on feedback from developers.
Unity responds to negative feedback
At 6:38 p.m. EST, the official Unity X account shared a post on the game engine’s official forums titled “Unity plan pricing and packaging updates.” The post contains a series of frequently asked questions that cropped up shortly after the announcement of the Runtime Fee, many of which were focused on game installations.
As many devs worried on social media before these FAQs were released, under Unity’s new policy, multiple reinstalls or redownloads of games will have to be paid for by creators—and the definition of “install” also includes a user making changes to their hardware. Further, any “early access, beta, or a demo of the full game” will induce install charges, according to the FAQs, as can even streamed or web-based games. And Unity won’t reveal how it’s counting these installs, posting that “We leverage our own proprietary data model, so you can appreciate that we won’t go into a lot of detail, but we believe it gives an accurate determination of the number of times the runtime is distributed for a given project.”
The FAQ does not clarify how Unity will ensure it does not count installations of charity games or bundled games with its “proprietary software.”
The Verge’s Ash Parrish was quick to point out that the multiple install charges could give right-wing reactionaries a new way to damage a game and/or studio: revenue bombing. If certain groups are angered by, say, a queer character in a game or a Black woman lead (both of which have whipped gamers into a frenzy before), then they could repeatedly install said game over and over again, racking up Unity’s Runtime Fee for the studio.
“I can tell you right now that the folks at risk of this are women devs, queer devs, trans devs, devs of color, devs pushing for accessibility, devs pushing for inclusion—we’ve seen countless malicious actors work together to tank their game scores or ratings,” developer Rami Ismail wrote on X.
Nelson confirmed to Kotaku via DM on the evening of September 12that “concrete talks are happening among some of the most significant developers in the space” regarding a class-action lawsuit against Unity.
After its announcement was met with an almost universally negative response, and the FAQ forum post did not seem to allay concerns, Unity “regrouped” in the evening of September 12 to discuss the terms of its Runtime Fee, Axios reports. Despite initially confirming that the fee would apply multiple times “if a player deletes a game and re-installs it,” Unity is now saying that it will “only charge for an initial installation.”
Unity executive Marc Whitten “hoped [that this policy clarification] would allay fears of ‘install-bombing,’” a concern many devs expressed not long after the initial Unity blog post announcing the new revenue scheme.
The company also reassured Axios that “games offered for charity or included in charities will be exempt from the fees” as there will be a way for devs to inform the company of their charity status. Whitten also said that, in regards to things like Xbox Game Pass, “developers like Aggro Crab would not be on the hook, as the fees are charged to distributors, which in the Game Pass example would be Microsoft.”
Finally, Whitten suggested only about about 10% of developers who use Unity will have to pay fees because of the thresholds the company has established.
Update 09/12/2023 7:35 p.m. ET: Updated to include information from an official Unity forum post, more reactions from devs, and the confirmation of a potential class-action lawsuit.
Yesterday, the cross-platform game engine company Unity announced a controversial new Runtime Fee, which would charge developers per installation for games built with the Unity engine after those games reached a certain threshold. Everyone disliked that, and Unity’s stock prices took a pretty significant dip shortly after its contentious announcement. It’s since been reported that several Unity executives sold thousands of shares of the company’s stock in recent weeks.
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According to Guru Focus, Unity CEO John Riccitiello, one of the highest-paid bosses in gaming, sold 2,000 Unity shares on September 6, a week prior to its September 12 announcement. Guru Focus notes that this follows a trend, reporting that Riccitiello has sold a total of 50,610 shares this year, and purchased none.
Kotaku reached out to a Unity spokesperson for comment.
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Riccitiello isn’t the only executive at Unity to sell a bunch of stock the week before the company’s Runtime Fee announcement. According to Unity’s market activity on the Nasdaq, several other Unity board members sold significant numbers of shares leading up to its “plan pricing and packaging updates.” Chief among them being Tomer Bar-Zeev, Unity’s president of growth, who sold 37,500 shares on September 1 for roughly $1,406,250, and board director Shlomo Dovrat, who sold 68,454 shares on August 30 for around $2,576,608.
The last time Riccitiello’s name was in the news in a prominent way was when he said mobile game developers who don’t utilize Unity’s suite of ad technology are “fucking idiots.” Riccitiello would later issue an apology saying, “I am listening and I will do better.”
Meanwhile, since yesterday multiple developers have declared their intention to stop using Unity as a result of these changes, citing the unpredictability and vagueness of the company’s intention to charge a per-installation fee after a certain number of sales. Cult of the Lamb developer Massive Monster has gone as far as to announce its intention to stop sales of that game come January 1, when the change is supposed to come in.
A death threat made against two of video game technology vendor Unity’s U.S.-based offices was deemed “credible,” prompting the company to take precautionary measures.
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As reported by Bloomberg’s Jason Schreier, Unity CEO John Riccitiello said that a scheduled September 14 company town hall meeting has been canceled, while both the Austin, Texas and San Francisco, California offices will remain closed for the day. This is due to a “credible death threat” that was made against the tech company, though the nature of this potential violence hasn’t yet been detailed.
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When reached for comment via email, a Unity spokesperson confirmed to Kotaku that the office closures will extend to at least Friday, September 15.
“Today, we have been made aware of a potential threat to some of our offices,” the spokesperson said. “We have taken immediate and proactive measures to ensure the safety of our employees, which is our top priority. We are closing our offices today and tomorrow that could be potential targets for this threat, and are fully cooperating with law enforcement on the investigation.”
This comes amid a flurry of criticism lobbed at Unity for its rather controversial move to change how it charges game developers for making games with its Unity Engine software. The new scheme, which will see certain developers paying Unity 20 cents every time an end-user installs (or even sometimes reinstalls) their game, did not go over well with the online game-making community.
Many reacted with frustration, saying that the massive middleware vendor can no longer be trusted. Following the ire it provoked, the company has somewhat changed its tune on the plan, confirming it will “only charge for an initial installation.” Game developers largely don’t seem to be buying it, though, with some even seeking to migrate current projects off of Unity’s extremely popular technology.
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Unity went public in September 2020 but suffered a 5x decline in stock price by the middle of 2022, followed by over a thousand layoffs. Unity executives, including CEO John Riccitiello, have been observed selling off a portion of their shares in the interim.
Unity, the game engine used in popular titles like Cuphead, Fall Guys, and Among Us, has apologized for the “confusion and angst” caused by a newly announced fee. On September 12, the company released a lengthy post announcing its Runtime Fee, which would charge developers for each game installation past a certain threshold.
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Developers reacted swiftly and angrily to the announcement, pointing to a host of problems the fee might cause, from charity bundles costing developers hundreds of thousands of dollars to the potential for bad actors to revenue-bomb games by repeatedly uninstalling and reinstalling them. The reaction was wide-reaching, with the heads of major indie studios behind games like Cult of the Lamb and Rust lambasting the new fee—even Game Awards host Geoff Keighley got involved to express his displeasure.
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Unity apologized in a post shared to X (formerly Twitter) on September 17. It reads, “We have heard you. We apologize for the confusion and angst the runtime fee policy we announced on Tuesday caused. We are listening, talking to our team members, community, customers, and partners, and will be making changes to the policy. We will share an update in a couple of days. Thank you for your honest and critical feedback.” A response from Keighley asking to “see the changes” is currently the top comment under the post.
Bloomberg reports that, though the company has not gone public with any concrete changes to the policy, it has plans to overhaul it. “Under the tentative new plan, Unity will limit fees to 4% of a game’s revenue for customers making over $1 million,” the report reads. The new approach will also reportedly not retroactively count installations that took place before the policy goes into effect.
The controversial new Runtime Fee, set to go into effect on January 1, 2024, is based on the amount of revenue a game generates as well as the number of times it’s installed past a certain point. Unity Personal and Unity Plus plans reach the Runtime Fee threshold by earning $200,000 in a year and 200,000 lifetime installs; Unity Pro and Unity Enterprise accounts hit it at $1 million annual revenue and 1 million lifetime installs. But developers and other industry leaders were quick to point out how difficult it is to determine how many times a game is installed, especially since keeping track of those installations would require wading into some murky privacy waters.
Bloomberg also reports that Unity executive Marc Whitten said the latest changes aren’t public yet because “executives are still running them by partners and don’t want to repeat last week’s communications debacle.”
Unity attempted to right the ship shortly after the announcement, releasing a set of FAQs that only further worried developers. At first, the company reconfirmed that multiple reinstalls or redownloads of games would count towards the fee, but later backtracked that statement after “regrouping,” according to Axios’ Stephen Totilo. Then Whitten assured concerned developers that “games offered for charity or included in charities will be exempt from the fees,” though many pointed out the (still unclear) process to apply for redemption would likely be needlessly tedious. Unity also refused to release information about how it would be keeping track of installs, instead only saying that it would rely on “proprietary software.”
The company then sent out another set of clarifying information via X on September 13, asserting that only about 10% of developers would be affected by the new policy. The post was quickly hit with a clarification badge pointing out that this meant roughly 23,000 developers would be affected by the change, based on a 2022 gaming report from Unity that stated about 230,000 developers used the game engine. The post was then taken down.
A credible death threat closed the Unity offices just days later on September 14.
It’s unclear what the upcoming changes to the runtime fee policy will entail, but we’ll update this story accordingly. Kotaku reached out to Unity for comment.
Update 09/18/2023 at 1:10 p.m. EST: Updated with new info from Bloomberg report.
In an open letter published on Friday, Unity’s president and general manager Marc Whitten apologized for the controversial changes announced on September 12 and announced that it was walking back some of the worst changes, including charging install fees for previously published games.
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The controversial changes were revealed in a blog post on the company’s website earlier this month. Unity—a popular cross-platform game engine that powers titles like Hollow Knight and Pokémon Go—announced that a new Runtime Fee would take effect on January 1, 2024. The controversial fee, which many indie devs pushed back on, is calculated using game installs after a game crosses a certain revenue and installation threshold. At the time, Unity said the Runtime Fee would be applied retroactively to games that meet the revenue and install thresholds. But those plans have changed.
Whitten’s open letter starts with an apology and then the president continues, admitting that Unity should have probably, you know, talked to all the developers out there using their engine before announcing such massive changes.
“We should have spoken with more of you and we should have incorporated more of your feedback before announcing our new Runtime Fee policy,” said Whitten.
Then Whitten laid out new changes, which I assume Unity is hoping receive a better reaction this time around.
The new changes Unity is making following the backlash
First up, Unity confirmed its Personal plan will remain free. It also said that it now has no plans to charge the controversial Runtime Fee on games built with Unity Personal. It also is increasing how much revenue devs can make on games made using this free version of the engine. The old limit was $100,000 and the new limit is now $200,000. Whitten also said Unity is removing the requirement to have a “Made With Unity” splash screen appear when players boot up the game.
Unity also says no game with less than $1 million in trailing 12-month revenue will be subject to the runtime fee.
Next, the letter announces that the fee will only apply to software developed using the next LTS version of Unity, which ships in 2024.
“Your games that are currently shipped and the projects you are currently working on will not be included – unless you choose to upgrade them to this new version of Unity,” explained Whitten.
Unity also promises that developers will be able to stay on the terms that apply to their version of the Unity engine as long as devs don’t upgrade.
Runtime fees aren’t going away, though
However, Unity isn’t removing the runtime fee or reversing its plans completely and the last part of the open letter confirms this, with the company president referencing the runtime fee and explaining that developers will now have a choice.
“For games that are subject to the runtime fee, we are giving you a choice of either a 2.5% revenue share or the calculated amount based on the number of new people engaging with your game each month,” said Whitten.
Unity says both of these numbers are “self-reported” from data developers already have access to and that studios will “always” be billed for the lesser amount.
“We want to continue to build the best engine for creators. We truly love this industry and you are the reason why. Thank you for caring as deeply as you do, and thank you for giving us hard feedback,” concluded Whitten in the letter.
Developers react to the new (new) changes
Some of the first responses from devs were cautiously optimistic and mostly positive. Developer Rami Ismail posted on X, in response to the open letter, “You know what, on first glance, I think this works?”
“It’s effectively a 2.5% revenue share for $1M+p/y earners? No retroactivity left, LTS stability, no black-box data, yeah? I think that works for every use-case,” said Ismail.
“This is looking reasonable,” posted game developer Dan Goodayle, “Though they’ve got a lot of work to do to repair the trust. Nothing stopping them from U-turning in another week.”
“Very happy that Unity removed the retroactivity of their new fees,” said Juan Linietsky, the creator of the Godot engine. “I happy for anyone moving to Godot but, as I said before, at their own pace and will. Doing it forced by a stressful situation can never be a good experience.”
Of course, none of this would be happening right now, and Unity wouldn’t have to be putting out all these fires, if it hadn’t created this massive shitshow in the first place with the original announcement of the runtime fee.
So while initial reactions to the open letter and its changes are somewhat positive, especially compared to the feedback Unity received from devs last time they announced changes, it doesn’t change that many feel like they can’t trust the company anymore. Partially fixing a problem you created isn’t a great way to win people back.
CEO John Riccitiello has retired from game development software company Unity after possibly its worst month of bad headlines ever. The tech company that’s slowly morphed into an in-game advertising firm announced a confusing and seemingly predatory new set of fees for game makers in September, only to walk the policy back after studios threatened to abandon the Unity engine moving forward.
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James M. Whitehurst, former head of the IBM-acquired open source software company Red Hat, will take over from Riccitiello as interim CEO while Unity’s board of directors search for a new long-term replacement. “It’s been a privilege to lead Unity for nearly a decade and serve our employees, customers, developers and partners, all of whom have been instrumental to the Company’s growth,” Riccitiello said in a press release. “I look forward to supporting Unity through this transition and following the Company’s future success.”
Riccitiello joined Unity back in 2014 shortly after leaving Electoronic Arts. He oversaw the game engine company’s shift from one-time licensing fees to an ongoing subscription model, launched the IPO in 2020, and made a series of acquisitions, including the in-app monetization firm IronSource in 2022. When Unity first went public, its stock price was around $68. Today it’s just over $30.
Once synonymous with the explosion of creativity and experimental design in the indie gaming space, Unity is being left by Riccitiello a month after a bungled new monetization strategy rollout burned bridges with tons of game makers. The initial messaging made it sound like game developers might be charged fees every time their game was installed, including retroactively.
A follow-up apology by president and general manager Marc Whitten later clarified that the new terms would only apply beginning in 2024, and laid out much bigger carve-outs for smaller studios whose games don’t hit a certain threshold of income. But for many developers it was too late. Their trust in the company had already been irrevocably shaken. Re-logic, maker of the Steam hit Terraria, pledged $200,000 toward the creation of a Unity competitor, and Slay the Spire dev, Mega Crit, says it will still move to rival game software platform Godot.
Rethinking monetization more aggressively was also one of Riccitiello’s legacies at EA. His seven years at the FIFA (now EA Sports FC) and Battlefield publisher saw it experiment with day-one DLC, microtransactions, and a focus on post-launch content. While there was no week-long crisis moment on the scale of what happened at Unity last month, it’s clear he helped usher in the company’s current live-service era, which many players now feel nickel-and-dimed by. Madden and FIFA’s lootbox modes were both added while he was head of EA, though they didn’t become the billion-dollar windfalls they are today until the tenure of his successor, current CEO Andrew Wilson.
Perhaps nothing summed up Riccitiello’s time at both EA and Unity better than another controvertial incident last year. In an interview with Pocketgamer.biz in July 2022, he called developers who don’t think about monetization early in the process “fucking idiots.” He immediately walked the comments back the next week, calling articles about it “clickbait” that took his comment out of context, but later apologized, saying he should have chosen his words more carefully.
That unforced error came shortly after the company revealed hundreds of layoffs at the same time it was buying IronSource in a $4.4 billion all-stock deal. Six hundred more were laid off at Unity earlier this year. Meanwhile, Riccitiello, in addition to the millions he has in Unity stock, will be kept on salary until April of 2024.
Update 10/11/2023 4:50 p.m. ET:SFGate reports that Riccitiello is set to earn up to $8.4 million through stock options over the next six months. That’s in addition to the roughly $253 million he already holds in current Unity stock.