Interview: Tim Sweeney and Saxs Persson on What’s Holding Back True Next-Gen Gaming
Epic’s leadership on Fortnite’s new creation tools and the state of Unreal Engine 5.
Tim Sweeney isn’t a fan of what blockchain has done to game development. Epic’s CEO bemoans “a whole generation” of computer scientists focusing on technlogy such as cryptocurrency, which he believes is impacting the core technology needed to make truly revolutionary game experiences
“There’s been a lot of neglect, as everybody’s going off…we’re missing a generation of computer scientists who would traditionally be pushing forward that set,” Sweeney says. “So, we’re trying to fill in the gaps in building the research team we have here. I think there are new genres of games that will emerge from the technologies that are just in the pipeline being built right now.”
Saxs Persson, Epic’s executive in charge of Fortnite’s ecosystem, agrees.
“I think it’s non-obvious because it’s not like the thing you put on screen right now, but most… all game engines really… commercial game engines, their architecture is what it’s been for, I don’t know, 20, 30 years,” he says. “Nothing really has changed. It has to change, or you’re just trying to squeeze more blood from that stone. The fundamental programming model has to change in order to break into beyond what battle royale really can do.”
The pair is fresh off Epic’s State of Unreal presentation, which last week saw the company unveil Unreal Engine 5.2 while rolling out new creation tools and revenue sharing for Fortnite players.
Speaking with IGN in an interview conducted during the Game Developers Conference [GDC], they talked about the potential of the Unreal Editor for Fortnite [UEFN] toolset, which they liken to an evolution of the modding scene that has birthed a host of new genres over the years. They also reflected on state of gaming tech in 2023, which is so heavily driven by Epic’s Unreal Engine.
Looking toward the future
Both are planning ahead, as they so often do, with Sweeney regularly bringing up the concept of the metaverse – a term that tends to serve a punchline in gaming circles, but makes more sense when paired with Fortnite’s flourishing ecosystem. Epic’s latest developments, which empower Fortnite’s creators while giving them a share of revenue, are intended to make good on the common sentiment that Epic’s battle royale is the real metaverse, though Persson cautions against calling it a “platform.”
“It’s not a technology platform; it’s a place people go to get entertained and we need to entertain them, and more and more of them. That’s the challenge: how do we find a way for people that don’t care about shooters? They should be welcome too…The real challenge for us is, in the maturation of Fortnite, is to embrace that we are much broader than just the day one shooter that was launched,” Persson says.
Epic recently announced a new revenue-sharing plan, setting aside 40% of the game’s net revenue for creators. Payments are based on overall engagement with custom islands and other creations. It’s a major change that seeks to push Fortnite further beyond the bounds of the battle royale genre.
But even as Epic looks to grow Fortnite’s ecosystem, fans are looking back with growing nostalgia for the original battle royale. When the UEFN tools became available, players immediately scrambled to remake the original Fortnite Battle Royale as it existed in 2018. Asked for his reaction to this development, Sweeney said “we have nostalgia for it too,” but that for him it “immediately highlighted a topic about intellectual property.”
How do we find a way for people that don’t care about shooters? They should be welcome too.
“You can’t just remake a Call of Duty map. And we were digging into what was happening with Fortnite Chapter One map, and we decided that was a really cool thing to happen because it was for Fortnite, so we gave permission to do it on a non-monetized basis. But I think the real innovations here have got to be an original new work, right?” Sweeney said. “Because some of these things… Works of nostalgia are cool, but most of the time they’re going to be other people’s work and they’re likely not going to give permission. And we really urge everybody to think about what can we really do to create news genres or games and really very original things”
Persson added that “nostalgia is often the first thing that comes to people’s mind when you get capabilities,” but that Epic “wants people to make their own [stories and characters].”
What they really want is something like what happened with Defense of the Ancients, better-known as DOTA, which was popularized by Warcraft 3’s map editor scene, or PlayerUnknown’s Battleground [PUBG], which sprang out of Arma 3. In fact, Sweeney says he recently ran into PUBG creator Brendan Greene at GDC, whom he credits with “really reinvigorating shooters.”
The problem, Sweeney claims, was that map developers on platforms like Warcraft 3 couldn’t easily profit on their creations, leading them to create standalone games elsewhere. It’s a problem that he claims Fortnite’s newly updated revenue-sharing system will solve.
“The tragic thing that happened there was, in order to succeed on their own scale, they had to leave their own ecosystem behind and build a new one. That’s a failure we don’t want to have in our system. We would love to be able to grow Fortnite and the financial opportunities for all creators, to the point where if you build a really successful game, you don’t have to leave and build it as a standalone game in Unreal Engine,” Sweeney says. “Now, you’ll be able to, and we’ll support you in doing that if that’s what you want. We really want the best opportunity to stay in this as we build the open metaverse together.”
Biggest Games of 2023
‘Underestimating the opportunity’
Elsewhere, Sweeney says that he’s interested in further advances in proceduralism, calling the implications “really awesome.” He’s also impressed by the growth of content marketplaces, which are making it easier for game developers to obtain generic assets that allow them to save time. But there are still a lot of improvements to be made, he says.
“I think people are underestimating the opportunity for advances in the programming, language technology, and programming stack to improve the state of game development. Fortnite Battle Royale is 100 players because we can’t support more. That’s as many players as we can fit on a single server, on a single floor, on a machine,” Sweeney says. “We don’t have the technologies to scale up to lots of cores or a core data center. Nobody’s just built technology for doing that without really dire loss of quality in the programming model. I think there’s a lot of core computer-science level improvements that can be made there.”
With the release of Unreal Engine 5.2, though, Sweeney is hopeful developers will “jump right in” to the new tools.
Fortnite Battle Royale is 100 players because we can’t support more.
“I start using this month, and of course the pipelines… building a game of the caliber that uses this kind of tools is generally pretty long. But I think people can immediately use the procedural systems, the MetaHuman animator capabilities and these things, and they’re all just designed to take away the existing flows developers already use, make them more productive and higher quality. I think what the big impact you’ll see is that just quality goes up without an increase in cost or development time,” Sweeney says.
Persson claims that developers are already reaching out to him about the possibilities of the tech.
“The first demo we did with the Rivian R1T demo… two separate indie developers that were in the audience that I know both texted, and one of them was like, ‘That’s the workflow that will enable us to make the game we want. Taking custom-built areas, but turning them into procedural assemblies.’
“And the second one had a comment about MetaHuman and how this is what was missing for them to unlock the last bit of how they can make a range of NPCs, not just the one NPC that they could afford. I think that’s the beauty of it. A lot of these tools they lay upon workflows that already exist. They just make them more productive.”
That’s ultimately one of the biggest themes in the games industry right now: streamlining game development in a way that makes today’s increasingly ambitious projects more achievable. Otherwise, game development teams will be forced to continue scaling up in a way that’s unsustainable.
In the meantime, AAA developers are still working to unlock the secrets of Unreal Engine 5. While several Unreal Engine 5 games are currently under development, with others pivoting to the technology, it has yet to reach mass adoption.
We’ll see it gain more of a foothold later this year, with S.T.A.L.K.E.R. 2: Heart of Chornobyl and Ark 2 among the games that will utilize Epic’s tech. For now, Epic will try to realize its dreams for the future elsewhere, with its new Fortnite ecosystem serving as the starting point.
Kat Bailey is a Senior News Editor at IGN as well as co-host of Nintendo Voice Chat. Have a tip? Send her a DM at @the_katbot.