I need to start with one simple fact: I really don’t like Fortnite. The good news is that you don’t need to like Fortnite to like the company that makes it. Epic Games has spent the better part of the last couple years using their unbelievable wealth for good. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not about to sit here and tell you the higher-ups at Epic are some bastion of gaming integrity and sainthood. However, in the grand scheme of where gaming is at, you’d be remiss not recognize that Epic has taken some bold steps in reshaping the way games are produced and sold.
Epic Games Publishing
To that end, this week saw the announcement of Epic Games Publishing. Epic has brokered partnerships with three major developers to begin the initiative. They include Gen Design, Playdead, and Remedy Entertainment. Gen Design is best known for Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, and The Last Guardian. Playdead would be best known for Limbo, and Remedy most recently made noise at The Game Awards with 2019’s Control. The publishing deals are pretty sweet, especially in an era of game development where true AAA experiences have become cost-prohibitive to all but the biggest developers.
Developers working with Epic Games will maintain full creative freedom and ownership. This is especially important in an era where gamers have watched companies like Bioware be swallowed up and changed by EA. Of the three major benefits outlined, I think this may actually be the biggest. Secondly, projects can be fully funded by Epic. Up to 100% of costs, including salaries and go-to-market expenses will be covered by Epic’s sizable treasury. Lastly, they’re looking at a 50/50 profit sharing model. Developers will get a 50/50 split on all profits after expenses are recouped. Now, of course, that last bit is important. Expenses have to be recouped before the profit sharing kicks in. However, since Epic is footing the entire bill and giving the developer creative control, I think that pretty fair.
Following up on the work that the Epic Store began
Now, if the gaming industry has disillusioned you as much as it has me, you probably started reading this and thought the games would have to be Epic Store exclusives. But no, this is not the case. Epic Games Publishing is a multi-platform publisher, indicating both console and PC releases. That said, we do need to talk a bit about the Epic Store, because it’s the reason I’m excited about the new publishing division.
The Epic Store released at the height of Fortnite-mania. It was met with a very loud, if small, opposition. That opposition was based on two prevailing thoughts. “Why do I need a new storefront when I have Steam?” And “Boo! Fortnite sucks!” Epic attempted to at least address the first one, outlining their major complaints with the way Valve ran the Steam Storefront and describing how their platform would fix it. Of the changes they outlined, one of the most key was a better revenue split for developers.
A little over a year later, and the Epic Store is doing very well for itself. Money is coming in hand over fist, Epic can afford to give away games for free, and developers are seeing a better cut of sales. Steam, for its part, has also changed some of its terms to be more favorable to developers. Sometimes, all it takes is one company to do something that betters the practices of the gaming industry to get others to follow suit. It doesn’t hurt when that company presumably has a Scrooge McDuck money vault at corporate HQ.
Looking towards the future
Listen, I don’t think it’s some big revelation to say that game development is broken. Bloated budgets, insane expectations, and a stagnant price point have put game development into an unsustainable place. Microtransactions, loot boxes, paid DLC, developer crunch time, awful working conditions, terrible contracts for voice cast, they’re all symptoms of a broken system. And while Epic Games Publishing isn’t going to fix all of those issues, it could be the first step. If Remedy, Gen Design, and Playdead see success under this model, you can bet that others will look to replicate it. Is there a danger? Absolutely. We could end up seeing basically all of game development working under a big-3 type umbrella. But the sad truth is that we’re already on the road to that scenario, even before something like this.
If Epic can step in and provide a better model, one that leads to better working conditions, more sustainable development practices, and creative freedom to developers, then we need to at least explore it. So if you’re out there, and remain in the “Boo! Fortnite sucks!” crowd, then remember this. Epic makes the Unreal Engine too. They are responsible for so many games that you love. And while the accounting books at Epic would probably argue that Fortnite is all that matters, philosophically, it’s everything else Epic is doing that could make the difference.
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