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blogs by Gio

Your engine hasn’t earned your rent

YoYo Games announced today that they’re switching GameMaker to a subscription model. You know, I was planning on doing a high-effort article about this some day, but what the heck, let’s do it now.

First, here are the actual details of the GameMaker change. Instead of buying development tools you can use to develop things, YoYo is making its latest version of GameMaker — GameMaker Studio 2 — free to use. You can download it for free, learn how it works, and invest as much time making your game in it as you want. You only have to pay if you want to ship a game. And if you decide you really want to ship your game, it’s a whopping $80/yr for as long as you want your game on the shelves.

Subscriptions🔗

This idea of a company turning a product into a subscription service is probably familiar to you. Famously, Photoshop and Adobe’s other creative products switched from one-time purchases of software to indefinite recurring subscription fees, after having locked in most of the creative industry.

Earlier this year, a very similar thing happened with Buildbox, another “no code” game maker program. Buildbox changed their terms and conditions to demand revenue from all Buildbox games, including games and in-app purchases. In the normal tier, 70% of your total revenue goes straight to Buildbox. Even if you’re in the highest tier, you can’t stop them siphoning your revenue.

The subscription model is appealing to companies, of course. Taking a cut of the profits of other people’s work has always been the holy grail. It’s called rent-seeking. Of course, there are things it makes sense to charge “rent” for. If you have something like a game storefront like Steam that requires someone else to run servers, marketing, and payment processing, there’s a built-in recurring cost there. Since it really is a recurring cost, it makes sense that the customer would pay that. And, as the customer, you’re probably happy paying for the added value. But for things like development software, where you create a tool and that’s it, trying to charge people indefinitely for work you only had to do once is pure greed. None of that money goes towards any kind of service you want, it’s just pure profit.

Now obviously that isn’t sustainable, because if everyone takes a cut, you end up with studios who have been completely looted before they even get the chance to sell anything.

The ol' bait-and-switch🔗

But the really hideous thing about the Buildbox story (and others like it) is how the change happened. Overnight. The company just decided they wanted more money and, with a wave of a pen, made it so. Everyone who invested their time and energy developing with Buildbox with the assumption that the service would be relatively stable was suddenly held at gunpoint. Either you pay, or you lose your work.

This is really one of the things that makes the “service” software model hideous, especially as part of a serious production pipeline. It’s not enough to never build with anything that takes 70% of your revenue, you have to never build with anything that MIGHT take 70% of your revenue down the line. And, since companies generally like reserving the right to take more of your money down the road, that’s a right they reserve. Every company will reserve the right to change its terms of service at any time, and no company will voluntarily agree to maintain a stable service, unless you’re a huge enterprise with enough leverage to work out your own contract.

Constant vigilance🔗

So, if you shouldn’t work with companies who reserve the right to screw you over, what’s left? How do you make sure your work is your own, and not something that can be taken from you? This is a hard question, but a good start is making a conscious effort to avoid that vendor lock-in that gives companies leverage over you in the first place. Look for software that exports to portable formats, rather than proprietary ones. Ideally, find software like Godot that’s explicitly licensed as open-source. Remember how companies don’t go out of their way to give you leverage over them? Godot does! That’s how open source works.

People need to learn to be extremely wary of these investment traps. Companies dangle out “free” tools and competitive monetization strategies, but once people have invested in the system they can pull a bait-and-switch, and you’re already hooked. You have to learn how to judge things by their architecture: “Am I paying for a product, or am I just going into debt? Do the recurring fees correspond to a real service, or are they just extortion?” We have to ask these questions of everything. With the prevalence of these predatory strategies, people are going to have to be constantly on-guard against these sorts of unfavourable power dynamics, and learn to seek out and reward technologies that let people really own the work they make.

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