Game fads have always come and gone, falling as surely as they rise, but Fortnite continues to act like it's never heard of gravity. At Epic Games' annual Game Developer Conference address yesterday in San Francisco, the company announced that its battle royale juggernaut had grown to 250 million registered players—up 25 percent in just four months. Epic also showed off a number of improvements to its widely used game engine, Unreal 4, and announced a number of new exclusives coming to its new PC game store.
What got lost amid the headlines, though, was that Epic—both with Fortnite and through companies like Magic Leap using Unreal Engine to build mixed-reality AI characters—is shaping our virtual future in subtle but surprising ways. After the company's address, we sat down with Epic CTO Kim Libreri and founder and CEO Tim Sweeney, long a backer of VR and other immersive technologies, to discuss their vision for a million-person connected experience.
WIRED: Epic has been around for nearly 30 years, but over the past year and a half it seems like the rest of the world has come to think of it for one thing and one thing only, and that's Fortnite. Does that ever feel reductive?
Sweeney: Fortnite's the only game we've had with this magnitude of success at all. It's kind of unprecedented in a lot of ways, but it's a culmination of all the things we've done—with our engine, our services, and all the other elements we've been working on for decades. It's wonderful to see it come together in this way that feels like something you might see in the metaverse in the future.
How early did that begin to emerge as an intention for the game—not just to create mystery through the narrative, but to branch out and use it as a metaverse of sorts?
Sweeney: As with most things at Epic, players had already done it by the time we recognized it was happening. Creative Mode, where players can go and create their own island and build their own work, including collaboratively with others, is now driving a large number of players. They're building maps, they're sharing them with friends, and we're seeing more and more new types of gameplay emerge from that. It's taken on a life of its own, and I think that's going to be the driving force for Fortnite in the future.
You and the rest of Epic have been early backers of immersive technologies since VR resurfaced in 2012. Do you think of Creative Mode explicitly as a test bed for an age when this might be a more embodied play experience?
Sweeney: Oh, absolutely. This is the wonderful part of Epic and Fortnite. Every week we release a new update with more development work towards what we think is going to be the foundation of the future. Some weeks we're right and we advance the game; some weeks we're wrong, but it's always making progress in a bunch of different directions simultaneously. The Marshmello concert was a real marker that showed how far we've come in going beyond just being a game experience, but it's just the very beginning—and that was a heavily produced partnership between Epic and Marshmello. In the future, things will become more and more achievable without Epic even being involved.
Libreri: To truly see the future of collaborative gameplay and social experiences, you need a large-scale community to help that happen. This idea that a computer programmer in a basement invents the metaverse, it's just not true. We need a planet full of people to really help guide these things.
In a 2012 WIRED feature about Unreal Engine, [Epic's onetime design director] Cliff Bleszinski said it would need to "damn near render Avatar in real time." At the time, no one had heard of the Oculus Rift, but his comment was prescient: Magic Leap used the Unreal Engine to create its AI character, Mica, and Epic recently acquired digital-human company 3Lateral. Given the progress in virtual avatars and digital humans, what do you see as the role of these outside of gaming specifically?
Libreri: We're working on this perpetual pursuit of trying to bring a believable virtual world into being. It's funny that our megagame is a super-stylized, joyful cartoon world, as opposed to something more mature and realistic. Ten years from now, the same way as kids and adults are playing Fortnite together as families across every platform, I think we'll see AR and VR join that world, and I think we're going to have a lot of shared experiences across all mediums. It would be almost foolish to try to predict where things will go, but we'll keep giving people the foundation to build social worlds.
The kind of interactive person-to-person toxicity that can plague other games doesn't seem to have a foothold in Fortnite.
Sweeney: There were some very explicit decisions that went into that. For example, there's only chat between you and your squadmates. There's no proximity chat, so it's not possible for one person to grief another person they don't know, out in the open world. Those decisions are critically important. That proximity chat griefing was a factor in PUBG's early launch. We work really, really hard with Fortnite to maintain a safe experience online.
How has the creative process changed since the lawsuits around Fortnite's emotes began? How does that change the way the team continues to build out the game?
Sweeney: For a long time, dance moves, like expressions that people might say, have not been subject to copyright law. If you have three steps that are copyrightable, then how can people even dance in the future? So we work very hard to stay in the bounds of that, and I think there's an attempt in some of these cases to establish a very different legal precedent that has currently been tested around what comprises copyrightable IP.
This is a company that always tries to remain on the right side of people's rights about intellectual property, but stuff that is just part of the creative commons of the world we live in is part of the inspiration all developers in the world can draw from—including from the battle royale genre itself, which arose from a Japanese movie, then became an American game from an Australian game designer and now inspired Fortnite, which inspired Apex Legends. This is the common language of gaming, and it's all open to everyone.
I don't know if I've ever seen anything as acute and ubiquitous as the rush into the battle royale space.
Sweeney: This is a type of game that could not have been built 15 years ago. Hardware was simply not powerful enough for it. You can trace a lot of the ideas of games now back to first-person shooters like Doom and Quake and Unreal. Battle royale was another evolution on top of that, in which you have an open world, you have a very large number of players, and there's quite a lot of player volition about how you want to strategize.
It makes me wonder where the future evolutions of these types of games will go that we can't possibly build today. Our peak is 10.7 million players in Fortnite—but that's 100,000 hundred-player sessions. Can we eventually put them all together in this shared world? And what would that experience look like? There are whole new genres that cannot even be invented yet because of the ever upward trend of technology.
How do you see cloud gaming changing this? At Google's big announcement yesterday, head of cloud gaming Phil Harrison said there's no reason to think you couldn't have thousands of players in a battle royale match.
Sweeney: The thing for game developers is we can go to the game. It can run on your device or it can run on the cloud, and we can build either way. We're very happy to have more tools and options for the future. The promise of cloud gaming is instead of having to implement a game universe among hundreds of machines in very, very different locations with different latencies, to have the power of an entire data center all operating together.
Libreri: Assuming that the internet is ready to be able to host cloud gaming at a scale that we would like to see, the potential for designing games in completely new ways is there, and that will create the next mega-genre.
After Google's announcement, there seemed to be a lot of reflexive doomsdaying that because of the integration with YouTube, that this was going to worsen all the bad stuff about YouTube. That people would use the ability to jump into somebody's game nefariously.
Libreri: You have to be careful about online pessimism. We run the biggest games in the world. If you were to just look at the forums and see how people are not happy, and then you look at what actually happens in the game, there are two different things. Most people that are joyful don't talk about it. They just play the game.
Sweeney: But these are all real concerns. We don't want massive tech companies to have huge power over our lives. As gamers and as game developers, we need to fight and work to connect all the platforms and services and open up the whole ecosystem so that users own their data, and game developers have access to a lot of platforms, all on equal terms.
Do you have any one unrealized item on your wish list for something in the world of play?
Sweeney: There was this funny item on my to-do list in 1998 when we shipped the first Unreal game. It was to enable game servers to talk to each other so we can just have an unbounded number of players in a single game session—and it seems to still be on our wish list. The question of whether you can build one game that many millions of players can play, all in one shared world, together, that's a really interesting challenge for the game industry now.