Epic’s ‘biggest ever bet’ is a Web3 game creativity tool

Colin Campbell, Thursday, March 23rd, 2023 7:01 pm

Tim Sweeney’s stage presence isn’t likely to attract the attention of the Oscars or Grammys live show organizers, but in yesterday’s State of Unreal presentation at Game Developer Conference, he fairly electrified his audience.

The Epic Games boss lacks the flash and manufactured charisma of many tech execs. Even in high profile, widely distributed live presentations, he dresses like a person who just woke up and really needs to go get a cup of coffee. His nerdy mannerisms aren’t something he decided to develop in order to gain social favor. He is who he is. And who he is, is fearsome.

Sweeney has been making solid calls in the notoriously mercurial game industry for more than three decades. He is chief of one of the most powerful organizations in entertainment, overseeing the outstanding development tool Unreal Engine, the aggressive online retail portal Epic Games Store, as well as Fortnite, one of the world’s most valuable properties.

He dared to take on the likes of Apple and Google, and their appalling mobile games duopoly, and although he hasn’t exactly triumphed in the law courts, he’s been a serious thorn in their sides.

None of Epic’s business pillars were fully born of his imagination. Game engines existed before Unreal. Steam existed a very, very long time before EGS. Fortnite was a ho-hum game, before Sweeney saw the potential of battle royales, as embodied by the likes of PUBG, and seized a ripe opportunity.

His success comes from a useful mixture of fierce intellect, watchfulness, and flexibility. His words are worth far more than a thousand pollyanna statements from web3 start-up execs, for sure. How much then, are his actions worth?

Make or break

At Tuesday’s State of Unreal, he book-ended a bunch of presentations about Epic’s newest plans. Mainly, he stated his belief in the thing we call metaverse.

He made the excellent point that stuff like VR goggles and NFTs do not make or break the metaverse. “Every gamer understands,” he said, “it’s you and your friends getting together online and going around as a group, having a fun time in social entertainment experiences.” He allowed that those experiences ranged from enjoying shooting games, to attending virtual concerts.

Referencing rival metaverse platforms like Roblox and Minecraft, he pointed out an “identifiable audience of over 600 million active users in these virtual worlds, and it’s on a growth trajectory that will put that in the billions inside this decade.” While companies like Meta are spending billions on creating their version of the metaverse, he referenced the importance of creating “on-ramps to the future metaverse”.

Which brings us to the biggest, and most eagerly anticipated section of State of Unreal – Unreal Editor for Fortnite (UEFN). This is a game engine of layered sophistication, that allows anyone to create mini-game worlds, based on Fortnite.

Creative ecosystem

Now, it’s been four years since Fortnite Creative was first launched, in which anyone could take a blank or templated Fortnite island, and populate it with buildings, topography, features and items. And UEFN does much the same job, except at a far higher level of potential.

Epic’s launch of UEFN – it’s available for free on Epic Game Store right now – comes with a Web3 commitment to share revenues with creators. Sax Persson, executive vice president of the Fortnite ecosystem, made the UEFN presentation, and pointed out that “we will distribute 40 percent of Fortnite’s net revenue to eligible creators”.

It took the audience a moment to react (to be fair, it’s still too early to comprehend the full details), but once the applause finally came, he sighed and said that, yes, this really is a big deal.

“The money in the economy comes from players spending in the item shop,” he said. “Fortnite generates billions of dollars a year in revenue from player purchases. Creators who create popular islands are bringing real value to the Fortnite ecosystem and we’re going to share the resulting revenue with them.”

Later, Sweeney said that the future of gaming is “not about Epic’s work but about the work of independent creators”.

Developer rewards

Persson said that “islands built with creative tools already account for roughly 40 percent of playtime in Fortnite … we expect that number to keep growing with UEFN.” He added: “Fortnite is becoming an ecosystem … a new economy that rewards developers,’ and claimed that UEFN is “one step closer to a connected metaverse where billions of player enjoy high quality creations made by millions of developers.”

UEFN is already being compared to popular – and easy-to-use – game creation tools like Roblox. It remains to be seen if it will spawn the same amount of engagement. UEFN looks like something that might be easy enough to use in its most elemental state, but more challenging at skill levels that are likely to generate serious revenues. (I could probably play with it all weekend and make something playable, but I doubt I’d be able to churn out the next God of War.)

But Epic is making an effort to connect the dots, meaning that the promise of profitable creativity is there for the taking (for regular people who qualify) while more serious developers can work with other Epic tools like asset storefront Fab and programming language Verse, as well as promised features like the integration of character creator Metahuman.

During a shooting game demo sequence, the voiceover pointed out that UEFN creations can “make content that looks nothing like Fortnite”.

Persson was at pains to argue that all this effort is part of an ambition to ensure that Epic is part of a wider, interoperable metaverse world. “Your original IP and your assets are yours to take anywhere,” he said.

Epic’s presentation left a lot of questions unanswered, but in an age of endlessly vapid Web3 / blockchain, metaverse pitches, it carried weight.

“We imagine thousands of third party development teams building businesses and thriving with this model,” said Persson. “There is no need to design cunning monetization loops or extractive gating items. You make an island that the players love, that is all you need to be part of the new economy.”

This, he said, is “Epic’s biggest bet ever,” adding that “the release of advanced tools that publish directly into Fortnite [are] lowering the barrier for developers to be part of one of the world’s biggest entertainment ecosystems.”

Colin Campbell

Colin Campbell has been reporting on the gaming industry for more than three decades, including for Polygon, IGN, The Guardian, Next Generation, and The Economist.

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