Epic may never release a single-player, campaign driven game like Gears of War or Bulletstorm again. Those games, in Sweeney’s eyes, are now for major publishers to develop or finance and then release.
“The economics of those games forces developers to work with major publishers to succeed, and that seems to be irreversible,” he says.
In the eyes of Epic, the future for companies like Activision Blizzard, Ubisoft or Electronic Arts is either small and focused or big, online and persistent, which makes gamers hungry for ever-evolving entertainment.
For Epic's new, singular focus, that means three titles: survival game Fortnite, shooter Unreal Tournament and MOBA Paragon. Each of these games is the epitome — some more, some less — of what it means to be an Epic Games 4.0 title.
“It’s not like the retail era where a game went from God to Epic to gamers. The team is constantly listening to gamers.”
“Certainly we can support three or four games, big games,” Sweeney says. “We will also see lots of smaller games.”
Over the course of Epic’s decades-long history, Sweeney says, each new version of the company has been revealed through a single game. The original game for the first phase of the company was Sweeney’s role-playing and game creation experiment ZZT. For Epic Games 2.0 in 1998, it was Unreal, a shooter that took three and a half years to develop and was “never more than six months away from shipping.” For 3.0 in 2006, it was Gears of War.
“That started out as a small team nurtured by a small team,” Sweeney says. “It was originally set in the Unreal universe and called Unreal Warfare. It started out as a first-person shooter but ended up as a third-person game in an entirely new universe, new fiction and new graphic style. That was a three and a half year process, too.”
While that era of Epic influenced Fortnite, a game that straddled the transition from 3.0 to 4.0, Sweeney says the game that best represents Epic’s new approach to development is Paragon.
“It’s a clear picture of Epic’s values,” he says. “It’s not like the retail era where a game went from God to Epic to gamers. The team is constantly listening to gamers. This is being developed very much in partnership with them.”
Paragon started out more as an opportunity than a game.
In 2012, John Wasilczyk was fresh off a two-year stint working on Call of Duty games with Infinity Ward when he started working at Epic as a producer. Steve Superville, who had been with Epic for 14 years, struck up a conversation and the two started talking about games Wasilczyk needed to check out. Epic was given a chance to create an entirely new game and the only real rule was that it needed to be an “awesome multiplayer game.”
The two talked about DOTA, League of Legends and other multiplayer-centric titles. The duo got a small team together and spent a year working on it.
“A full year of just mashing up different game ideas, using different ingredients,” Wasilczyk says. “That is something that I've never had the chance to do. Well, usually you get a few months, then it's 'Good, bang out a game,' In this case we could spend a lot more time experimenting a ton with different things.”
Each night, the team members would gather together to discuss the different sorts of games they played, telling stories about their experiences. Quickly, Superville saw that the more traditional, scripted games resulted in the same stories of the same experiences from the team.
“But the stories that were coming out of MOBAs were about interplay between players and characters and they were creating these narratives that were really captivating,” Superville says. “So much so that the great plays were talked about weeks after they’d actually happened.”
“We learned really early on in Gears, that the community will have better players than developers.”
That got the team to start examining MOBAs. Why were they so successful? What could Epic add to the formula if it made its own?
“We figured we had an action gaming background, and MOBAs are currently top down, and they're action-based, but you're currently separated from your character. And so we decided, ‘Let's give it a shot and prototype bringing down the camera,’” says Superville, who is now the creative director on the game.
The result is a game that walks the line between an action third-person game and a strategic MOBA and looks like a playable cutscene. Early reactions, while mostly positive, seem to question how the game will set itself apart in so flooded a genre and whether the game’s system for powering up heroes using cards will work.
Internally, what makes the game stand as an example of Epic Games 4.0 isn’t how it looks or plays but how it was released. Paragon is a free-to-play game released to the public before it was finished. Instead of trying to make a polished, boxed game, the Paragon team released the title so they could get the most important aspect of development started: communicating with players.
Paragon was released for online tests late last year, and the build those testers were playing was about three days behind what developers were playing at the studio.
“That means that they are right on our heels,” Wasilczyk says, “which is great because we know, we learned really early on in Gears, that the community will have better players than developers.
“The other thing we learned is that the way we play isn’t the way that the larger population will play.”
Gears taught Epic that no matter how balanced an online game may seem at launch, it likely isn’t. The first weekend of launch for the original Gears showed that 80 percent of kills were coming from one weapon, a sure sign of a balancing issue.
“We knew that we'd never have a team that's as large as the community,” Wasilczyk says. “So we decided to just engage with them as early as possible. That means doing things like turning on features before they are fully done, as there is no reason to finish them if the community goes, ‘That's not what we want.’ We save a lot of time and they feel invested and it's a great partnership.”
“I think that's part of the excitement, knowing that the game is never really finished and kind of dragged from your hands.”
While the team is confident that it was the right decision to deliberately release an unfinished game, it was still a hard adjustment to make.
“I think, just mindset-wise, that was probably one of the biggest challenges,” Superville says. “The group that started on this project [is] all people who, for the most part, worked on Gears and worked at Epic for a long time. You get used to that cycle of, you're going to work for three straight years in total silence and hope that it all turns out perfectly. Then you put it in a box and give it to someone and if they don't like it, you're kind of left flat footed because you don't have the time to make changes.”
With the knowledge that Paragon launched as a work in progress also comes the concept that even when “finished,” the team’s work will never be done.
“I think that's part of the excitement, knowing that the game is never really finished and kind of dragged from your hands,” Wasilczyk says. “Having it be something that grows and changes over time was something we intended to happen right from the very beginning.”
The new workflow also opens the door to a lot more creativity, allowing the team to quickly pop in prototyped ideas or switch out elements, he says.
While the game is free to play, it does have a way of making money: skins and characters. Paragon went live in March with a baker’s dozen of characters. (Compare that to League of Legends, which has more than 120.) There’s a lot of room for Paragon to grow and a lot of opportunity for the game to make money without chiseling away at the core experience for those players not interested in spending.
While Paragon is the title Sweeney sees as the best example of this latest era for his studio, it’s not the first game he counts as part of the new era. That's Fortnite, a game that started development just as Epic was starting to puzzle out what path the company would take next.
Survival action game Fortnite is currently in its fourth year of development, but Sweeney promises it’s the game coming out next.
“Paragon ended up being an easier game to design than Fortnite because it’s based on a fairly known formula,” he says. Fortnite also straddles the line between Epic 3.0 and 4.0.
Fortnite started out as a game meant for Xbox arcade. But Sweeney says the company quickly recognized in the game an opportunity to significantly build out some of the game’s systems and to turn it into a title with a long, evolving life.
Now, it seems, after evolving from a short, small arcade game, to a drawn-out survival title, Fortnite seems to be aiming for the same sort of audience as Ubisoft’s The Division and Bungie’s Destiny. Sweeney says the game is in the same category. That would mean a game that seamlessly shifts between single player and massively multiplayer while providing gamers with a living world. Both Destiny and The Division endured prolonged development but didn't go through the same shifting goals as Fortnite.
That could explain Fortnite’s prolonged development.
“Our best estimate is it's an action building game with deep RPG elements.”
“We didn’t realize how long it would take to develop the game,” Sweeney says. “It’s been a major learning process.”
A learning process like the ones that led to the first Unreal and Gears of War, he adds.
Darren Sugg, lead designer on Fortnite for about four years now, calls the game a kind of test case. As Epic’s online ambitions grew, so did Fortnite’s, he says.
What started out as a relatively small undertaking is now a genre-mashing action building game with “fairly deep RPG elements,” Sugg says. As the game continues to grow and change, it seems to become more difficult for the people working on it to describe what, exactly, it is.
Asked to do just that, Sugg responds:
“Our best estimate is it's an action building game with deep RPG elements,” he says. “That being basically defined as what we think building should be: quick, fun, easy and creative. We want strong action gameplay, so if you like to shoot, melee, move around and be in an awesome 3-D scape, you can do that. If you're a player that enjoys RPG mechanics, we combine all that together into a fortress defense. So over the years, we've tried to bring it down to a few simple phrases but it always grows just a little bit bigger than that. Back in the day, we were like, ‘Oh, it's a super-sized horde mode.’ But then we were like, ‘Yeah, but as it is now, it doesn’t describe how we blew up the RPG in the way that we did.’ We’ve talked about other analogs that are pretty defense based, but none of them had a procedurally generated world so that didn't describe the scope that we had.”
Four years into development with the title seemingly ever growing, it’s easy to wonder if it will ever be done.
“I don't think, in the modern age, that online games are ever done,” Sugg says. “I think it's an evolution: more polish, more features, things that players want we get to put into the game. We get to react to what they want as they play the game. I don't think most games will be done, as long as we have the ability to update them and the players are interested in us doing it.”
“We have a model I would say that is pretty close to a Hearthstone model.”
And releasing the game won’t slow its development.
“We'll still be developing content for it. We'll continue to support Fortnite for as long as there is interest from the community to do that,” Sugg said. “We have a feature backlog that we've been gathering from the community all the way back to almost a year ago, and we go through the things that are high bang for your buck and add them into the game as we can and harden some of the game's systems.”
In terms of making money off of the game, Epic hasn’t announced that yet. Sugg, though, has his own ideas.
“We haven't said what we're going to be doing about that quite yet, but we have a model I would say that is pretty close to a Hearthstone model where we allow players to buy cards through the system, and they can earn that currency by playing the game.”
Because Fortnite started when Epic’s vision for its latest version of itself was still being formed, the game has been a sort of vanguard for this new approach.
“Fortnite has been right in the thick of things,” Sugg said. “Fortnite was the initial guide through the door to build out technology, and that's been enabling us to gain greater velocity with whatever we've worked on since.”
It’s because of Fortnite that Epic Games first created a launcher, adding the ability to patch live games early on, and Fortnite led to a deeper examination of how Epic supports games online in general.
While Fortnite and Paragon are the first two entirely new IPs coming from the new Epic, the latest Unreal Tournament shows the most noticeable difference from the Epic of old. Where the original Unreal was a boxed project, this version was deliberately released incomplete and is being essentially co-developed with fans.
Epic teased Unreal Tournament, the latest version of the company’s flagship first-person shooter, on May 2, 2014, about a week before it started working on the game.
The shooter is a product of open development with a team of 12 regularly updating two versions of the game. One build is sent out to Epic’s game launcher for anyone to play for free and another is sent to GitHub, where gamers can play around with the developer build still in progress.
The project started with just six people working on it, under the assumption that the game would be created hand in hand with hobbyist developers and fans.
Where a game like Paragon or Fortnite has 50 to 100 internal quality assurance staff working on it, Unreal Tournament has just three.
“So our community is our QA team; our community is our development team,” Brown says. “People who play the development build can play exactly the same stages as they are in development and give us feedback on levels and everything. People who play the game build really vett it as if it were a fully shipped game, so we can test some of the larger retention systems and leveling.
“Our community is our QA team; our community is our development team.”
“It's really interesting as they are kind of along on this ride with us. They are not approaching it as ‘Hey, this is a shipped game.’ They are giving us very useful feedback and then they can see the impact of that immediately.”
Brown says he doesn’t think the game is quite yet ready to leave alpha, despite being playable by anyone who wants to download it. It’s missing the breadth of maps, weapons and characters that it would need to move on, he says. The matchmaking systems aren’t quite finished, and it’s not as stable as they’d like it to be.
“Also at that point we'll have something that's new, something that's modernizing the franchise and brings it to speak to modern gamers so it's not just speaking to the older UT fans,” Brown says. “Once we nail that, that's when we hope to start building and growing beyond beta.”
While making money is, of course, important for any game — and Unreal Tournament will likely make its through skins — it seems this game has a bigger purpose.
“It's interesting because there are our individual goals, our game goals, our company goals,” Brown says. “In terms of the company, we want a successful game that builds the audience for the Epic Games brand.”
Above all else, is Epic’s desire is build an audience on its relatively new game launcher. It’s through the game launcher that players will access Fortnite, Paragon and Unreal Tournament. Going to the launcher will also give Epic a chance to promote all of its titles.
“We appear in the launcher, so when you go to play Paragon, you'll see the Unreal tab,” Brown says. “When you go to play Fortnite you'll see Paragon. So it's kinda like folding everybody into this Epic community. Building that friends list, that social connection and getting people to play your games. Which is huge.”