When you first begin your journey into game development, you are likely to use assets or at least be tempted to do so. I recall downloading many of the free ones that were available on the Unity Asset Store. However, is there anything ethical about using them when your intent is to sell your game?
It is not unethical to use Unity assets from the Unity Asset store for commercial use unless it is specifically forbidden in the license agreement upon purchase. Typically, Unity assets on the Unity Asset store can be used commercially. It is recommended to credit the developer within the game.
Still, people seem to have a little bit of a negative view on using them for commercial games. What people really want is a bit of honesty from the developer in their creation.
My game development students compete in national-level competitions within this industry. Walking into the competition a few years back and one of the teams arrived. They look like they had it all together, matching shirts, and one of their tough-guy leaders was wearing sunglasses indoors. That should tell you something.
As they pulled out their beautiful game, many students were looking in awe. I wasn’t. I could immediately spot a familiar asset pack I had seen before. I was looking for the part they had completed themselves. Beyond a simple character controller, there was little depth to the game.
What made me frustrated was not that they used assets. It was as people were asking about their development process, they made no mention of using an asset pack to create literally everything that existed within the environment. I have no problem with people using the assets, but never should it be passed off as their own work.
Is it legal to use unity assets commercially?
Unity assets purchased from the Unity Asset Store may be used commercially unless otherwise noted in the license agreement at purchase.
Unity assets download or purchased outside of the Unity Asset Store may contain other license agreements that may limit the buyer from using them for commercial use.
If you have intentions to use them outside of Unity, I would encourage you to check out an article I wrote about how to get Unity assets exported and what type of assets may be able to be moved.
Will using unity assets hurt a games sales?
In a short answer, it depends. If your goal is to have commercial intent with your game and make money, I think there is a fundamental flaw with having a game that is too close to another. It’s not that the game mechanics cannot be similar, but there have to be some differences to keep interest.
As an example, most platformers clearly have similar mechanics. You jump over things and onto things. Those are familiar mechanics. However, beyond a bit of nostalgia to Mario, I can’t imagine someone copying the Mario character, the platforms, the green tubes, and classic blue sky filled with little white clouds and be nearly as successful. Beyond being sued by Nintendo for every dime it ever made and more, this just isn’t appealing.
The reason it isn’t appealing is not that the gameplay is bad or it’s missing something. The reason is mainly that we have been there and seen it already. The same would happen to two games using entirely downloaded assets without modification. The first using it may be okay, but many indie developers, likely a good portion of your audience who might purchase your small indie title, also have seen them already.
The remedy to this is two options.
1: Alter the Unity Assets You Purchase
If you are familiar with the texturing process, then one of the easiest solutions is to take a model and retexture or modify textures on them. This is still a very large time-saving option since you do not have to model the object. Also, simple changes to textures can really go a long way. If you are unfamiliar with this process, I wrote an article on some texturing software I recommend to pair with Maya but can be used for virtually any 3D software.
2: Use them Sparingly
There are some that simply don’t matter. For example, SpeedTree. Everyone uses SpeedTree (see below) for outdoor environments that require realistic trees. It’s simply the best resource out there for creating trees quickly. However, those assets that are highly visible and instrumental to the story of your game I would consider making those unique when it makes sense to do so.
Use an asset like a chest or a door when it makes sense to do so. Those assets have been created so many times and most of them it is difficult to tell if it is a custom or a premade asset.
Characters, furniture, lighting fixtures, weapons, and other highly visible assets I believe can and should be custom-built if possible. There are exceptions to this rule, of course.
There are some games that have done quite well, such as The First Tree, which was almost entirely built on Unity Assets and still successful. Of course, they were modified heavily to make them feel a bit more custom.
My advice is to take a hard look at your game. Do not cut corners in areas that you feel are the pillars of your game and gameplay. At the same time, use the tools that will help speed up the development without sacrificing the originality of your project.
Do AAA games use assets?
Many AAA games do use assets to help speed up their development process. They are generally not identified as assets, but more often tools or premade systems. As an example, they may use tools such as SpeedTree to help quickly develop trees for an outdoor environment (see Jason Weimann talk about his experience with SpeedTree below).
Oftentimes AAA studios do have some luxuries of having a significant budget. They can afford to invest in many tools to speed up their development. As an example, one of the many popular assets on the Unity asset store that I am familiar with is Dynamic Bones. I know that there are likely some AAA studios who can and would use this to help bring life to objects. Using this asset doens’t change the originality of their project, but saves significant time in their development.
The vast majority of AAA studios will custom build most of their models, providing an original environment for their game. By doing this, it also helps keep a consistent look from the art director of the project.
I believe on the programming side for AAA studios, it is not uncommon to use assets that might speed up the process or make it easier. It’s all about being able to use those assets to your benefit in creating that unique game.
It is up to each developer on whether they can, should, or would benefit from using Unity Assets. I would not shy away from it as long as you have confidence you can keep a unique look and feel to your game. In addition, ALWAYS suggest giving credit to the developers of the asset. Never pass off others’ work as your own. When you are upfront about it, people who see the premade assets can still be impressed with your game. I know I am.