PLAY speaks with key mem­bers of the de­vel­op­ment and busi­ness teams at epic Games to in­ves­ti­gate the in­cred­i­ble rise of bat­tle royale, the state of save the world, and what the sus­tained suc­cess of these two ti­tles could mean for the fu­ture of the Games in

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Fort­nite was never sup­posed to be­come a global at­trac­tion. Then again, few cre­ations ever are, and few videogames ever do. From ca­sual play­ers to seasoned gamers, for school chil­dren and celebrity icons, Fort­nite: Bat­tle Royale has be­come some­thing of a gen­uine ob­ses­sion. It has reached a plateau re­served for those spe­cial few videogames that are able to con­fi­dently pierce the con­scious­ness of the gen­eral pub­lic while still ig­nit­ing a spark of imag­i­na­tion in the minds of play­ers around the world. The Fort­nite IP has found it­self in a po­si­tion that few in the in­dus­try ever imag­ined it was ca­pa­ble of reach­ing – and that in­cludes its creator, Epic Games.

It would be easy enough for this level of at­ten­tion and suc­cess to act as a rush of blood to the head, but the vet­eran game creator and en­gine maker is hum­ble in its as­sess­ment of the cul­tural com­pul­sion it has found it­self at the heart of af­ter a whirl­wind seven months. “We’re re­ally lucky that we’ve be­come a part of this cul­tural phe­nom­e­non,” Kim Li­breri, Epic Games’ chief tech­ni­cal of­fi­cer, tells us as we at­tempt to nav­i­gate the storm that is cur­rently en­velop­ing the in­flu­en­tial stu­dio. “We just wanted to en­ter­tain peo­ple, but we’re a part of the zeit­geist now, just like the com­mu­nity that is play­ing the game.”

“So, where has it [the suc­cess] all come from? I don’t know, was it the chicken or the egg?” laughs Li­breri, though he failed to elab­o­rate any fur­ther on the anal­ogy, so stick with us on this one. The egg, we sur­mise, is

Fort­nite: Bat­tle Royale it­self; the chicken, the play­ers that have ap­peared in their mil­lions to play it; the two ut­terly in­sep­a­ra­ble from one another when con­sid­er­ing 2018’s most un­likely suc­cess story.

But that suc­cess is there, and it is clear for all to see. There are Youtube and Twitch streams viewed mil­lions of times over; we’ve seen con­fused ca­ble news an­chors scram­ble to process its im­pact, and it has pushed politi­cians and pun­dits to crawl back out of the wood­work to once again de­cry the in­flu­ence of videogames on so­ci­ety. The in­dus­try hasn’t seen any­thing on this scale for quite some time, and it’s elec­tri­fy­ing to witness it in real-time.

It has even sur­prised Epic’s founder and CEO, Tim Sweeny – a creative force that we’d suspect has just about seen it all af­ter his 27 years at the fore­front of the in­dus­try. Sweeny is watch­ing on with in­ter­est, ea­ger to see where

Fort­nite could pos­si­bly go next. If he’s cer­tain of any­thing though, it’s that it isn’t go­ing far with­out the support of the com­mu­nity that has formed around it. “I have to say, be­cause I re­ally do wonder, but who are the real de­vel­op­ers of

Fort­nite now? By def­i­ni­tion it is Epic, but ac­tu­ally if you look at what’s hap­pen­ing on Red­dit, and be­tween the play­ers, the stream­ers and the con­tent creators on Youtube, it’s like we are all de­sign­ing the game to­gether.”

As a sen­ti­ment, it’s one that is shared by many of the de­vel­op­ers work­ing to keep

Fort­nite up on its feet and mov­ing for­wards. Eric Williamson, de­sign lead and sys­tems engi­neer over­see­ing what is ar­guably the most pop­u­lar game on the planet, is one such de­vel­oper – work­ing dili­gently to en­sure that an open and hon­est dia­logue will keep Epic from stray­ing too far in the wrong di­rec­tion as it sets its sights on bring­ing Bat­tle Royale out of early ac­cess in the com­ing months. “From the start, we wanted the de­vel­op­ment to be a con­ver­sa­tion. When we first launched Bat­tle Royale we knew we had work to do. We had an idea of where the game would go, but [we] wanted to stay open – not only to lis­ten­ing to feed­back, but ac­tu­ally be­ing able to act on it,” Williamson tells us. “We think of the game as a can­vas and a set of tools for play­ers to use and have fun with. It’s re­ally cool to see the things they come up with – whether it’s rocket rid­ing or a unique way to use build­ing. Giv­ing them new tools to play with is just a lot of fun.”

It is a lot of fun; so much so, that it’s easy to for­get that, for Epic, this is also a crit­i­cal time. There is no prece­dent set for man­ag­ing this level of sus­tained suc­cess; there is no play­book for cater­ing to an au­di­ence as large and var­ied as the one that has formed around Bat­tle Royale. It has un­der­gone a pe­riod of sus­tained and fo­cused it­er­a­tion, growth and ex­pan­sion since its low-key launch in Septem­ber 2017. Epic is pro­cess­ing and act­ing on feed­back from the com­mu­nity in record time, and the com­mu­nity is re­spond­ing in kind by pump­ing more and more of their time into it.

It’s funny, be­cause in spite of the suc­cess, this wasn’t the fu­ture Epic had orig­i­nally en­vi­sioned for Fort­nite – a game that the stu­dio had in­cu­bated in one way or another since

2011. It took six years to get Fort­nite: Save The World (as the core PVE co-op mode is now known to the pub­lic) to a stage in which Epic felt com­fort­able re­leas­ing it into paid early ac­cess on 25 July 2017. It also took just two more months for it to ap­proach vir­tual ir­rel­e­vancy in the eyes of many.

Save The World amassed a pas­sion­ate and ded­i­cated au­di­ence, but some­thing about it clearly failed to res­onate with the masses. Some in the in­dus­try – us in­cluded – had started to worry that Epic would even­tu­ally be­gin to di­vert its re­sources and per­son­nel towards its other early-ac­cess ex­per­i­ment, Paragon. Per­haps pub­lic per­cep­tion isn’t ev­ery­thing. Fort­nite’s VP of pub­lish­ing Ed Zo­brist would later ex­pand on the cur­rent state of Save The World at GDC in a rare com­ment about the sur­vival co-op mode. “It ex­ceeded our ex­pec­ta­tions. It laid the ground­work for our game to con­tinue to grow as it marches on towards its free-to-play sta­tus that will be out later this year. I’m happy to say that re­ten­tion is high, and here we are over six months later, and our player base is larger than it has ever been – [and that’s] for Save The World, not just for BR. This has worked out ex­tremely well for us.”

While Save The World is still fight­ing for at­ten­tion, it’s im­pos­si­ble to over­look the im­pact of Bat­tle Royale. It landed out of nowhere, and there’s no clear ex­pla­na­tion as to how it has con­tin­ued to defy all ex­pec­ta­tion. It ar­rived, in Septem­ber 2017, just as the bat­tle royale genre had be­gan to reach its zenith, with con­sole and mo­bile play­ers ea­ger to try the ex­pe­ri­ence for them­selves af­ter lis­ten­ing to PC play­ers and me­dia out­lets prat­tle on about Play­erun­known’s Bat­tle­grounds for the bet­ter part of a year. And bet­ter still, Fort­nite’s fam­ily-friendly ver­sion of the game mode was free-to-play, en­ter­tain­ing to spec­tate, and easy to get to grips with.

This is a part of the story that we are all in­ti­mately fa­mil­iar with. There have been hun­dreds of thou­sands of words writ­ten about the launch of Bat­tle Royale with out­lets at­tempt­ing to sur­mise its suc­cess. We aren’t go­ing to waste your time with another such spec­u­la­tive pur­suit. In­stead, we wanted to use our time and ac­cess to the de­vel­op­ment team and stu­dio to un­cover how any of this was made pos­si­ble; to un­der­stand how Epic po­si­tioned it­self in such a way that it could spend six years devel­op­ing a core ex­pe­ri­ence, only to take over the world on a whim just two months later.

And be­lieve us, it re­ally was a whim: “Bat­tle Royale was the nu­cleus of about 20 peo­ple,” Sweeny tells us ex­cit­edly. “It was ba­si­cally the Un­real Tour­na­ment team that [came in] and de­cided, ‘Hey, we love these bat­tle royale games, lets build one on top of Fort­nite’. That’s how the game emerged.”

Given that Fort­nite was orig­i­nally con­ceived as part of an in­ter­nal game jam back in 2011, it seems only fit­ting that a mod – from the team be­hind Un­real Tour­na­ment no less, a fran­chise that has found ex­treme sus­tain­abil­ity over the decades largely be­cause of such support – should ul­ti­mately be the cat­a­lyst for Fort­nite’s as­cen­sion on the world stage.

Zo­brist would later ex­pand on this process. Be­cause if Bat­tle Royale’s ori­gins weren’t spec­tac­u­lar enough al­ready, we were pretty shocked to dis­cover how quickly the team at Epic put this thing to­gether and got it out into the hands of the pub­lic. “We started work­ing on this just about the time Save The World was com­ing out,” Zo­brist re­vealed, reaf­firm­ing how ea­ger the team were to make a com­pet­i­tive PVP shooter work within the boundaries of the orig­i­nal Pvedriven de­sign. “So let’s do some math: Save The World, the PVE game, launched 21 July. [Bat­tle Royale] comes out 26 Septem­ber… that’s just two months in de­vel­op­ment.”

There’s an ele­ment of ‘right place at the right time’ be­hind the suc­cess of Bat­tle Royale, but there’s some­thing more pur­pose­ful and de­fined be­hind this story too. This was all made pos­si­ble be­cause of how ag­ile Epic can be in the de­vel­op­ment space. It’s that ele­ment of the com­pany that, ul­ti­mately, saved Bat­tle Royale from launch­ing into rel­a­tive ob­scu­rity – trapped be­hind the same pay wall that has held Save The World at arm's length for so many play­ers.

Epic had planned for Bat­tle Royale to be a mere com­pan­ion to the co-op ex­pe­ri­ence, enough of a draw that it could bring in some of the com­pet­i­tive play­ers that had put their trust in Epic so many times over the years with­out di­lut­ing the core of the game. “Then things changed,” Zo­brist noted. “We were getting re­ally close to launch. We had al­ready started mar­ket­ing it as this PVP

“Now that the core of the game Is mostly IN place, we’re able to have a lot of fun”

mode that was go­ing to be in­side of Save The World. From what we can tell, peo­ple even started to buy Save The World in an­tic­i­pa­tion of be­ing able to play it…”

It’s around this time, just two weeks out from Bat­tle Royale go­ing live on pub­lic servers, that Epic saw an op­por­tu­nity and grasped at it with both hands. It de­cided to take a huge risk, to sep­a­rate Bat­tle Royale out from Save The World and launch it as a free-to-play early ac­cess ex­pe­ri­ence – one that runs through the same client, but ul­ti­mately cir­cum­vents the in­her­ent re­stric­tions and un­cer­tain­ties at­tached to paid early ac­cess. “You can imag­ine how dif­fi­cult this was in just two weeks time to get through,” Zo­brist said de­fi­antly. “I doubt any ma­jor pub­lisher could have pulled off this kind of pivot in the time we ended up do­ing it.”

To be fair to him, he isn’t wrong. That sort of her­culean ef­fort from ev­ery depart­ment across Epic – from those charged with game cre­ation and op­ti­mi­sa­tion right down to UX designers and mar­ket­ing – rep­re­sents an agility and de­ter­mi­na­tion that sim­ply isn’t re­flected in many other ‘triple-a’ game com­pa­nies, if any.

So how has Epic found it­self in this po­si­tion? It’s been a long, ar­du­ous process of self-re­flec­tion and trans­for­ma­tion. In­ter­nally the com­pany refers to it­self as Epic 4.0 now, a ti­tle that re­flects its ded­i­ca­tion to pur­su­ing on­li­ne­ex­pe­ri­ences and live game de­vel­op­ment. This process be­gan fives years ago, just ahead of the launch of the PS4 in 2013.

Epic sensed this change on the near hori­zon. It could see the rise of games-as-aser­vice and be­gan to pivot its busi­ness in pur­suit of it. Look back five years ago and you’ll find a com­pany with fewer than 100 em­ploy­ees, with an iden­tity largely in­sep­a­ra­ble from the Xbox exclusive Gears Of War IP.

Gears Of War: Judge­ment would be Epic’s fi­nal flir­ta­tion with a fran­chise that helped Epic be­come syn­ony­mous with core gamers on the con­sole plat­form, and ef­fec­tively es­tab­lished the Un­real En­gine 3 as the last gen­er­a­tion’s most pow­er­ful and ver­sa­tile game cre­ation tool. Many of the com­pany’s big­gest stars would walk away in search of a fresh start, all of this com­ing to a head as the ink dried on a con­tract giv­ing Chi­nese In­ter­net be­he­moth Ten­cent a 40 per cent stake in Epic for an es­ti­mated $330 mil­lion.

It was a cul­tural shift as much as it was any­thing else for Epic – a move made in earnest to get ahead of a trend. To be frank, a game like Bat­tle Royale sim­ply wouldn’t have been pos­si­ble with­out it.

The model of tra­di­tional game de­sign that served Epic so well in the past was be­com­ing un­sus­tain­able, too slow and cum­ber­some to give the stu­dio any real agility or lever­age to re­spond to in­creas­ing de­mands and in­ter­est from play­ers. Epic sensed the de­vel­op­ment space was qui­etly shift­ing be­neath its feet, and it knew it needed a re­sponse. It’s the re­sults of that re­sponse that

is de­liv­er­ing new weapons and modes through

Bat­tle Royale to us ev­ery week.

“We’re on a weekly re­lease cy­cle [now], and the team works re­ally fast. The Un­real En­gine 4 en­ables a re­ally quick work­flow where you can make changes, you can test them quickly and, you know, within a few days you’ve de­ployed them to five plat­forms across this huge set of de­vice fam­i­lies,” Sweeny tell us, not­ing how happy he is with the launch of Bat­tle Royale on the IOS and An­droid plat­forms to com­ple­ment the PC, PS4 and Xbox One re­leases. “It’s a re­ally won­der­ful process, and I think that’s kind of the model of the fu­ture, right?”

“With Gears Of War we would put out a game, and then we would get player feed­back. ‘Oh they liked this, didn’t like that’ and so, okay, we’ll in­cor­po­rate all of that in the next ver­sion,” Sweeny laughs, giv­ing us an in­sight into how gru­elling tra­di­tional triple-a game pro­duc­tion can be on a stu­dio ea­ger to please its fans. “And then three years later it fi­nally re­leases… no, now it’s ev­ery week!”

Main­tain­ing this gru­elling weekly sched­ule isn’t easy. In fact, Epic has had to quickly in­crease its team size to man­age the work­flow.

Fort­nite’s com­bined de­vel­op­ment team has bal­looned from 60-strong to now en­com­pass­ing an out­fit that is “big­ger than the Gears Of War 3 team” Sweeny con­firms with a smile, “but not by a huge amount”. This is nec­es­sary due to the huge ef­fort that is go­ing in to op­ti­mi­sa­tion, con­tent cre­ation and com­mu­nity en­gage­ment.

“It wasn’t al­ways that way,” con­firms Li­breri. “But it’s now [nec­es­sary] be­cause we have to sus­tain this mas­sive player base; they want new stuff all the time.”

It might have been a suc­cess­ful trans­for­ma­tion for Epic, but it hasn’t been an easy one. Shrewd busi­ness ma­noeu­vres and shift­ing in­ter­nal philoso­phies are only one part of the pic­ture; the road to Bat­tle Royale’s suc­cess, to this epic in­ter­nal trans­for­ma­tion, has also been paved by dif­fi­cult de­ci­sions and can­celled videogames.

It’s funny to think, but there was a time when Fort­nite’s ex­is­tence was be­ing called into ques­tion by the very com­mu­nity that now calls it home. There seemed to be no end in sight to its pro­tracted de­vel­op­ment, and (ex­ter­nally at least) Epic looked to be di­vert­ing more and more re­sources into its com­mu­nity-driven MOBA, Paragon. “You know we poured our hearts and souls into the game. We set out to build a MOBA that had triple-a pro­duc­tion val­ues that put you right in the cen­tre of the ac­tion,” laments Sweeny. “I feel the team re­ally achieved that and did an amaz­ing job build­ing a game that re­ally lived up to that goal.”

Sadly for Epic, it wasn’t meant to be. The re­lease of Bat­tle Royale would act as a sur­prise death knell for Paragon. With Epic strug­gling to im­prove player re­ten­tion, it made the de­ci­sion to give fans what they wanted: more of a good thing. By Jan­u­ary 2018, most of Paragon’s team had moved on to Bat­tle Royale – as­sist­ing with qual­ity of life im­prove­ments to the map, help­ing to de­velop new weapons, and get the re­cently-re­vealed Re­play sys­tem into play. Even­tu­ally, Epic was forced to shut the MOBA down for good – is­su­ing re­funds to the play­ers that had stuck with them over the years and bid farewell to the game that ex­isted in one state or another for three years. “It was kind of a heart­break­ing ex­er­cise within Epic, to can­cel a pro­ject that was so dear to our hearts,” Sweeny considers. “The dif­fi­culty with Paragon is that for ev­ery hun­dred play­ers who came in, a month later less than five were still play­ing. Over time we made a lot of in­cre­men­tal im­prove­ments; we made some big leaps – some were liked, some were hated – but noth­ing re­ally fun­da­men­tally changed those num­bers much.”

“We came to that re­al­i­sa­tion af­ter Fort­nite

came out, with num­bers that were many­many-many times higher than [Paragon’s]. There was just some magic there and the best thing we could do was to put all of our re­sources into that.”

Epic is now fully fo­cused on two dis­tinct ar­eas of busi­ness: getting the full Fort­nite pack­age – en­com­pass­ing Save The World and

Bat­tle Royale – out of early ac­cess as ful­lyfledged free-to-play games and on con­tin­u­ing to push in­no­va­tion through its Un­real En­gine 4. While these fo­cuses may sound as if they are sep­a­rate from one another, they are in ac­tu­al­ity tied to­gether in a very fun­da­men­tal way.

The im­pact Fort­nite’s sus­tained growth and ex­pan­sion could have over the games in­dus­try is quite un­prece­dented. When it comes to fig­ur­ing out what the fu­ture holds for Fort­nite,

there’s more to con­sider here than the mere in­tro­duc­tion of new maps, modes and weapons to the sprawl­ing car­ni­val of death that is Bat­tle Royale. The fu­ture of Fort­nite is in­trin­si­cally tied to the fu­ture of Epic Games, the Un­real En­gine and, in many ways, to the fu­ture of the games in­dus­try it­self.

“Fort­nite is a lead­ing edge re­search ve­hi­cle for driv­ing the Un­real En­gine for­ward. All of the sys­tems we’re build­ing are ben­e­fit­ing ev­ery­body,” says Sweeny, who is clearly over­joyed that Fort­nite is fi­nally ful­fill­ing its role – it’s hard to be­lieve, but Fort­nite was, once upon a time, to be the very first game to utilise the Un­real En­gine 4. It has ef­fec­tively be­come the Gears Of War for the cur­rent gen­er­a­tion, the tip of the spear, as it were, for show­cas­ing the power and po­ten­tial

“we had al­ready started mar­ket­ing It as this pvp mode that was go­ing to be In­side of save the world”

The Youtube and Twitch communities have re­ally ral­lied around Epic’s lat­est in a big way. Sta­tis­tics would in­di­cate that, as of writ­ing, Fort­nite is the most watched game in the world. It’s av­er­ag­ing close to 140,000 views on Twitch ev­ery week, which...

Fort­nite: Bat­tle Royale has emerged as one of the big­gest and most pop­u­lar games in the world in just seven months. Its lack of ex­plicit vi­o­lence, the fact that its free-to-play, its vivid art-style and fast round time all fac­tor­ing into its huge...

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