Can Godot screw us like Unity did?
Unity has just destroyed itself and along with it an entire community of video game developers who have put their effort, money, time and hope into it.
I think that by now we are all aware of the magnitude of the tragedy: Unity is going to start charging a runtime fee of $0.2 every time a player installs a game. If the player installs your game 10 times? You pay 10 times that amount. If the player installs a pirate copy of your game? You pay for that pirated copy. If you have a mobile game and your profit margin is less than this 0.2$, which is not uncommon in the mobile industry, you're going bankrupt.
Studios of all sizes, as well as indie developers, are looking for other video game engines to be able to port their current games or as potential candidates for future projects. All this in search of a technology that can be trusted to continue working in a safe, predictable and sustainable way.
However, Unity has not only destroyed itself and its community but has managed to sow a wave of distrust toward the corporations and groups that control these engines. If Unity has done it and I decide to move to another engine, what stops the group that controls that new engine from doing the same to me in the future too? Will we always be subject to the decisions of a small group of greedy people who will control our livelihood without being able to do anything about it?
In this article, I intend to address this topic, especially concerning the open-source Godot video game engine. If you chose this engine over Unity, stay with me because I'm going to explain why Godot is probably miles away from being able to do as much damage to the community as Unity has done. Let me explain to you why.
Why is Godot's case different from Unity's?
To answer the question of why Godot is less likely to screw you than Unity, we must first understand what the contractual relationship is between a Unity user, and Unity Software Inc., the company that develops the engine.
When you download Unity Hub and proceed to install any of the versions of the engine, you accept the terms of service that they provide you. This document defines the contractual relationship between you, as a Unity user, and the company that develops it.
These terms of service include a provision that allows Unity Software Inc. to alter these terms. This may include the option to alter their rates for using the engine. It remains to be seen if how they have made these changes is completely legal, but it could be said that, unless you have agreed to a special contract with Unity and you are governed by the terms of the standard service, they can make these types of modifications unilaterally. So to be clear: yes, they can screw you any time they feel like it.
To make matters worse, the terms of service before the current version allowed you to take advantage of the terms of service in force concerning the year of release of a certain version of the Unity editor, that is, one could continue using last year's Unity version, along with the terms of service in effect last year, and that new changes to the current terms will not affect you. However, this clause was eliminated, so we could say that the current situation has been premeditated and what they've done has been done so that all developers have to pay the new runtime fee without being able to do anything.
What is the contractual relationship between you and Godot?
Now let's see under what legal basis you are offered and allowed to use the Godot open-source game engine.
When you download and use Godot, you do so under the project's open-source license, in this case, the MIT license; which can easily be found in the open repository in the LICENSE.md file.
The MIT license is known as, if not the most, one of the most permissive and least restrictive licenses in the entire open-source software ecosystem. It only takes up 20 lines and allows you to do practically anything:
Use the engine for free.
Make video games or any other type of software with it and then distribute it, sell it, or for whatever.
It does not force you to maintain the same license in the derivative works (that is, the games you make with it). You can make completely proprietary games with it.
You can even take the engine, rename it and sell it as is.
As you can see, the MIT license is designed so that you can do almost anything in almost any way. So as long as Godot is distributed under this license, one can safely use it without being afraid of hidden fees, price changes, or anything else that could turn your studio upside down from one day to the next.
Now, the question that arises next is: what if the license changes? How likely is it that Godot will no longer have the MIT license? What if it stops being open-source? Can a company acquire it?
Why I doubt Godot will deviate from the MIT license
First, let's understand what the implications are of changing the license of an open-source project: to begin with, each of the contributions that each contributor has made throughout the life of the project belongs to them. That is, the copyright of the code that you provide when you contribute to an open-source project belongs to you, which in turn you license to the end user through the license chosen by the project.
This means that from a copyright point of view, Godot belongs to every one of its contributors. Therefore, for the project to change licenses, every one of them would have to accept that license change.
At the time of writing, there are a total of 2203 people who have contributed to the engine, so all of these 2203 people should agree and accept a new license for the engine.
This is something that can certainly happen. In fact, this is exactly what happened with the Bevy engine, in which a total of 246 contributors agreed to relicense the engine, as explained in this blog post. However, in this case it was done for the good of the engine and its users.
Imagining a situation in which more than 2,000 Godot contributors agree to change the engine license and start screwing the community and its users seems quite surreal to me and unlikely to happen. Let's understand that we are not talking about greedy executives looking for money, but about technology enthusiasts who enjoy using the engine for free and contributing code to it.
You can fork the engine and create a copy for yourself
However, let's put ourselves for a moment in the worst-case scenario: all Godot contributors agree and decide to change the license to one that is much more restrictive or that somehow prevents you from continuing to create commercial games with the engine.
The solution in this case would also be relatively easy: fork the engine, create a copy for yourself and bypass the new license. It's that simple.
It would not be ideal, since you would not be able to access the new contributions and new features that would be released, but at least it would give you a window of time in which to maneuver and look for alternatives.
In any case, I think the probability of something like this happening is very small.
Godot, like many other open-source projects, is run by people with a very different profile from that of an executive who joins a company to get rich. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that using Godot is 100% safe and that in no case can anything bad happen to you, I'm just giving my opinion and my arguments as to why I think it's unlikely that a similar situation like the one that is happening with Unity will occur, and if it did happen, I believe that the resulting damages would be smaller and much more controllable.
In any case, this is my opinion, and as a Godot user, if I have to highlight something positive about the current horrible Unity situation, it is the boost this is going to give to the engine.
When one door closes, another opens, and I think the door that is opening now with Godot is very hopeful and will be beneficial for everyone in the years to come.