Improbable vs. Unity: Why enterprise cloud users should take notice

Enterprise cloud users may have written off the spate between gaming companies Improbable and Unity as nothing more than industry in-fighting, but there are some cautionary tales emerging from the dispute they would do well to take note of, argues Caroline Donnelly.

The bun fight that has broken out over the last day or so between UK-based gaming company Improbable and its long-time technology partner Unity has (most likely) gone unnoticed by the majority of enterprise cloud users.

After all, what does a terms and conditions (T&Cs)-related dispute between two gaming firms have to do with them?

But, within the claims and counter claims being bandied about online by both parties (and other assorted gaming industry stakeholders) are some important points that should give enterprises, in the throes of a cloud migration, some degree of pause.

In amongst all the bickering (which we will get on to shortly) there are cautionary notes to be found about why it is so important for enterprises not to rush blindly into the cloud, and to take steps to protect themselves from undue risk. To ensure they won’t be left high and dry if, for example, their preferred cloud partner should alter their service terms without due warning.

From a provider standpoint too, the case also highlights a problem lots of tech firms run into, where their products end up being used in ways they hadn’t quite planned on that might – in turn – negatively affect their commercial interests or corporate ethics.

Improbable vs. Unity: The enterprise angle

For those who haven’t been following (or simply have no clue who either of these two firms are), Improbable is the creator of a game development platform called SpatialOS that some gaming firms pair with Unity’s graphics engine to render their creations and bring them to life.

But, since Thursday 10 January 2019, the two companies have been embroiled in an online war of words. This started with the emergence of a blog by Improbable that claimed any game built using the Unity engine and SpatialOS is now in breach of Unity’s recently tweaked T&Cs.

This could have serious ramifications for developers who have games in production or under development that make use of the combined Unity-Improbable platform, the blog post warned.

“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.”

Concerns were raised, in response to the blog, on social media that this might lead to some in production games being pulled, the release dates of those in development being massively delayed, and some development studios going under as a result.

Unity later responded with a blog post of its own, where it moved to address some of these concerns by declaring that any existing projects that rely on the combined might of Unity and Improbable  to run will be unaffected by the dispute.

When users go rogue

The post also goes on to call into question Improbable’s take on the situation, before accusing the firm of making “unauthorised and improper use” of Unity’s technology and branding while developing, selling and marketing its own wares ,which is why it is allegedly in breach of  Unity’s T&Cs.

“If you want to run your Unity-based game-server, on your own servers, or a cloud provider that [gives] you instances to run your own server for your game, you are covered by our end-user license agreement [EULA],” the Unity blog post continued.

“However, if a third-party service wants to run the Unity Runtime in the cloud with their additional software development kit [SDK], we consider this a platform. In these cases, we require the service to be an approved Unity platform partner.

“These partnerships enable broad and robust platform support so developers can be successful. We enter into these partnerships all the time. This kind of partnership is what we have continuously worked towards with Improbable,” the blog post concludes.

Now, the story does not stop there. Since Unity’s blog post went live, Improbable has released a follow-up post. It has also separately announced a collaboration with Unity rival Epic Games that will see the pair establish a $25m fund to help support developers that need to migrate their projects “left in limbo” by the Unity dispute. There will undoubtedly be more to come before the week is out.

Calls for a cloud code of conduct

While all that plays out, though, there is an acknowledgement made in the second blog post from Improbable about how the overall growth in online gaming platforms is putting the livelihoods of developers in a precarious position, and increasingly at the mercy of others.

Namely the ever-broadening ecosystem of platform providers they have to rely upon to get their games out there. And there are definite parallels to be drawn here for enterprises that are in the throes of building out their cloud-based software and infrastructure footprints too.

“As we move towards more online, more complex, more rapidly-evolving worlds, we will become increasingly interdependent on a plethora of platforms that will end up having enormous power over developers. The games we want to make are too hard and too expensive to make alone,” the blog post reads.

“In the near future, as more and more people transition from entertainment to earning a real income playing games, a platform going down or changing its Terms of Service could have devastating repercussions on a scale much worse than today.”

The company then goes on to make a case for the creation of a “code of conduct” that would offer developers a degree of protection in disputes like this, by laying down some rules about what is (and what is not) permissible behaviour for suppliers within the ecosystem to indulge in.

There are similar efforts afoot within the enterprise cloud space focused on this, led by various governing bodies and trade associations. Yet still reports of providers introducing unexpected price hikes or shutting down services with little notice still occur. So one wonders if a renewed, more coordinated push on this front might be worthwhile within the B2B space as well?

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