Epic’s Tim Sweeney reveals a more connected, ‘Fortnite’-driven, game-unified world

Epic Games created a mock PlayStation 5 game to show off its Unreal Engine 5.

Epic Games created a mock PlayStation 5 game to show off its Unreal Engine 5. <span class="copyright">(Epic Games)</span>
Epic Games created a mock PlayStation 5 game to show off its Unreal Engine 5. (Epic Games)

Pandemic-era previews of next-generation home console games have been sporadic and short so far, but “Fortnite” creator Epic Games has offered a glimpse at what a game running on Sony’s PlayStation 5 could look like. Unveiling an update to the public for its game creation suite the Unreal Engine on Wednesday, the North Carolina company pulled back the curtain on the potential future of games, showcasing a tech demo of a fictional “Tomb Raider”-esque game.

Epic’s key promise is that its Unreal Engine 5, due in early 2021, will essentially render cinematic-quality, CGI-like effects in real time, complete with realistic lighting that had previously been more hardware-driven. Even in the current generation of high-tech games there’s a difference between strictly narrative scenes and game-play moments. But eventually, promises Epic, those barriers will be blurred to the point of nonexistence.

It’s one of many media-based walls Epic wants to demolish. After all, the company’s goals extend far beyond prettier games. Epic also announced Wednesday that it is making its set of online tools for cross-platform play — the back-end tech that allows “Fortnite” players of various game platforms to compete against one another — available for free to all developers. It’s worth noting that Epic’s mission of of making it easy to connect online is intertwined with its desire to advance 3D creation tools.

Television and film productions increasingly use game engines — “The Mandalorian” on Disney+ is heavily reliant on Epic’s Unreal while competing game engine Unity was instrumental in the production of last year’s “The Lion King” — and game engines are prevalent in the automotive industry, from concept design to consumer-facing showroom experiences. Epic’s Unreal can also be found at Disneyland and Walt Disney World; its tech powers the flight simulator ride Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run.

And amid coronavirus-era stay-at-home orders, the power of virtual worlds to connect is becoming readily apparent to a non-gaming audience, from creatives finding new ways to utilize “Animal Crossing” to musicians such as Travis Scott staging virtual events in “Fortnite.” In fact, “Fortnite” has become a testing ground of sorts, where limited-time digital events that showcase Disney universes such as Marvel and “Star Wars”can coexist inside an in-game landscape with those promoting everything from Batman to the NFL.

Epic's Unreal Engine 5, due in 2021, promises more realistic lighting effects. <span class="copyright">(Epic Games)</span>
Epic’s Unreal Engine 5, due in 2021, promises more realistic lighting effects. (Epic Games)

Even the political world has noticed. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) has become an “Animal Crossing” convert, and this week a quote from Lis Smith, a top advisor to former presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, went viral when she said the Joe Biden presidential campaign could learn lessons from Scott’s takeover of “Fortnite.” While plenty will be impressed at Epic’s peek into the power of Unreal 5, in which we see a heroine traverse photo-like mountainous environments, the worlds that Epic hopes to build are those that unify the virtual one with ours.

“If you look beyond the huge improvements in pixel quality and lighting that you just see superficially here, I think we are at the very beginning of a collision that’s going to occur between all the different parts of the world,” Epic CEO Tim Sweeney says in touting the benefits of software that constructs 3D universes in real time.

“Ford has nothing to do with ‘The Mandalorian,’ which has nothing to do with with ‘Fortnite,’ but as ‘Fortnite’ has demonstrated, there are huge opportunities to bring real-world brands into real time 3D in awesome engaging ways for consumers. You saw Marvel content in ‘Fortnite.’ You’ve seen concerts in ‘Fortnite.’ You’ve seen Star Wars characters in ‘Fortnite.’

“What this really is,” continues Sweeney, speaking on a Zoom call Tuesday that also included the Washington Post, “is all of these different brands starting to reach consumers without running advertisements. It’s super intensive to run ads on Facebook or Google, but what they’re doing is they’re bringing this content directly to consumers in a fun engaging game-oriented-way through ‘Fortnite,’ and this is just the tip of the iceberg.”

As part of furthering its goals, Epic hopes to make its software more enticing for developers to use. The company is restructuring how it collects royalty payments for those who use Unreal, and Epic Online Services, which will currently connect players across Windows, Mac, Linux, PlayStation, Xbox and the Nintendo Switch — mobile to come — is free to use. The company in announcing the initiatives wrote in a new FAQ on its site, which was previewed to media, that it is currently “operating at enormous economies of scale.”

“Fortnite,” for instance, boasts more than 350 million registered users and is reported to have brought in $1.8 billion in 2019. Thus, the company states that its current goal is “wider adoption of all of Epic’s offerings.”

“Just as every company a few decades ago created a webpage, and then at some point every company created a Facebook page, I think we’re approaching the point where every company will have a real-time live 3D presence, through partnerships with game companies or through games like ‘Fortnite’ and ‘Minecraft’ and ‘Roblox,'” says Sweeney. “That’s starting to happen now. It’s going to be a much bigger thing than these previous generational shifts. Not only will it be a boon for game developers, but it will be the beginning of tearing down the barriers not just between platforms but between games.”

Sweeney envisions a future when gamers can not only play together irregardless of platform but also more seamlessly move among types of games, services and entertainment. Long seen as a barrier to game adoption has been multiple competing and closed platforms.

Consoles and gaming hardware are expensive, and gamers who commit to one product don’t always have the means to experience works on a competing system. While today’s gaming platforms aren’t exactly unified in the way Sweeney predicts — “We do not know exactly how this is going to happen, but we see more and more of it happening every day,” he says — Epic Online Services is pitched as a step in such a direction.

Epic promises photo-real environments in Unreal Engine 5. <span class="copyright">(Epic Games)</span>
Epic promises photo-real environments in Unreal Engine 5. (Epic Games)

“There was a lot of trepidation,” Sweeney says, referencing “Fortnite’s” push to connect gamers across competing systems. “The old view from the past was that by keeping a platform closed off from competitors it would give it an advantage, but what we saw with ‘Fortnite’ was the moment we opened up Xbox, PlayStation and Switch players being able to play together across all platforms, usage increased across all platforms.

“I think everybody realizes there’s a much bigger opportunity in connecting people than keeping people apart,” Sweeney adds. “For the console makers, in the best case they have 100 million unique players in their ecosystem. But that’s really small compared to the billions of people in the world who have smartphones. Everybody with high-end game platforms, including console and PC, should look at how to connect all players together in order to create an awesome upgrade path so that people playing on the lowest smartphone screens today can buy a PlayStation or Switch … That’s the engine of growth.”

Epic has drastically changed its royalty structure to make Unreal more appealing to smaller and independent developers.

In the past, developers owed Epic 5% of royalties when gross revenues of a game exceeded $3,000 per quarter. Effective Wednesday, Epic has increased its royalty exemption rate to $1 million. Thus, if a developer’s revenues on a single game, in an example provided by Epic, are $1.2 million, they would owe 5% on the $200,000.

Sweeney said the game industry has long been full of “regressive taxes.”

“So many of the systems in the game industry are designed to reinforce the success of existing companies and create ever increasing barriers to new ones to enter,” he says. “We want to help be factor in the opposite and opening it up.”