Since the late 90s, Epic has been both releasing its own games and its own Unreal Engine software for other people to use. But recently, this synergy between the two halves of the company has become rather interesting.
One of the games that uses the firm's most recent Unreal Engine 4 was last year's smash hit success, Playerunknown's Battlegrounds. While the battle royale market existed before, this title took it to a whole new level. In September, Epic released its own take on the genre with the Battle Royale addition to its crafting and survival game, Fortnite, something that brought the company into conflict with PUBG Corp.
This was a high-profile spat, and honestly, one that we're surprised hadn't happened before; Epic provides an engine service used by a good portion of developers, while also making its own games.
"Epic has always made both games and technology side-by-side," CEO and founder Tim Sweeney says.
"A lot of great things come of that. We are constantly honing our engine based on real-world experience. As a result, it's a much more usable engine for these games, especially high-end games that push the platform so hard they're on the verge of being impossible."
But as well as being a source of ire for Epic, its synergy between being a middleware firm and a game developer has proved to be very useful with another of its games. Paragon was a MOBA announced back in 2015 that the firm announced earlier this year would be closing. Rather than letting all the hard work that had gone into the title go to waste, however, Epic revealed that it would be giving $12m of assets from the game to the Unreal Engine 4 community. Not only is this a way of providing value to its community, Sweeney sees the engine side as letting the games development side of things be risky.
"Epic has been around for 27 years. There aren't many companies that are that old," he says.
"It's not because there weren't a lot of game companies 27 years ago, it's because most of them died. And this is a brutal business to be in because of the ups and downs. You can produce several hits in a row and then there's one miss that can wipe out a company. At Epic we've been very fortunate to have the support from a variety of customers who use the engine and we have a source of revenue that sustains the company throughout these downtimes between successful games."
Asked what went wrong with Paragon, Sweeney says that ultimately the team working on it just never found that special something to make it appealing to a huge number of people.
"There's a variety of questions about why, but then there's the operational questions of why," he says.
"A lot of people came to the game and started playing it and generally respected it. But a relatively small number of those players were continuing to play. We poured our hearts and souls into tuning the game and taking it in several different directions to see if one of them would capture that magical spark and mainstream acceptance. We never really found the formula that worked to sustain the game at a level we needed for a triple-A production value project like that. It was a sad day when we closed Paragon, but the very next day the artists came in and started polishing up the Paragon content so that we can give it away to the Unreal community. Hopefully, we'll see some other great efforts come out of the work we produced."
Paragon might not have found a market, but Epic's Fortnite certainly has. The free-to-play battle royale title has skyrocketed in popularity, overtaking genre rival PUBG in terms of concurrent users. Before launch, however, Sweeney says the Epic teams did not know what to expect.
"We really loved playing it. We thought it had some of the magic you need for success but we never anticipated it being like this," he says.
"How do you predict something like this? From the moment we began playtesting Fortnite: Battle Royale mode, it was clear that it was really clear that that it was really awesome to play. That visual style with a large open world, combat and the building mechanic has meant a lot of new gameplay for us."
As said before, the game is free-to-play, which is a tricky business model to get right. On the one hand, your game needs to make money, while also not being deceptive or manipulative. Sweeney reckons - as he would - that Fortnite has got this balance right.
"With Battle Royale, we launched the game without any monetisation," he explains.
"You can now only spend money to improve your appearance and character. You can't affect gameplay. Players have been very responsive with that and positive about it. They genuinely appreciate that the game isn't overly greedy. They reward us by spending money and buying cool-looking things. That's a win-win for everybody."
One of the big announcements at Epic's keynote event at GDC was the release of highlight tools for Fortnite. The intention here is to allow YouTubers and streamers to create better quality videos from their games.
"YouTube content creators like Ali-A [who was part of the announcement] are making videos that are not just a linear playthrough of a game session. They are mining snippets and commentary and hokey dialogue and all kinds of things to create these really interesting entertainment experiences," Sweeney says.
"If you look far enough back you can trace that to the early days of Counter-Strike when people would make these cheesy movies from gameplay footage. To produce a tool that enables you to record a gameplay session and then play back at every angle, add commentary is one way of providing a commented gameplay session but it's also a machinima production tool. THere's nothing saying you can't dub sound over things happening in-game."
One of the other big reveals from Epic's keynote, and indeed one of the biggest trends seen at this year's GDC, was raytracing. The firm showed a real-time demo made in collaboration with Industrial Light and Magic featuring Star Wars' stormtroopers and shiny character extraordinaire Captain Phasma (pictured) which showed this rendering process in real time.
"Raytracing is the most physically accurate, but also the most expensive, way to produce a 3D scene," Sweeney explains.
"It captures all the physical phenomenon you see in the real world which are very hard to capture with traditional methods. It's taken a very long time to be ready for gaming because of the huge performance demands. Hardware is now just on the cusp of being fast enough to enable it. There have always been sceptics but I'd like to point out that about 20 years ago, the film industry started moving away from traditional rendering, rasterisation, to raytracing and that took about ten years, and that transition was completed about ten years ago. Since then, all film work aimed at photorealism has been produced through ray tracing. THere's a clear precedent for it being valuable as soon as the hardware performance was available for it. We showed a really cool ray tracing demo that used a hybrid of raytracing and rendering techniques to produce very realistic lights and reflections in a scene that was created in partnership with ILM. That's running in real time on a box containing four very high-end Nvidia GPUs."
These GPUs weren't just high-end; they were Nvidia's enterprise-grade Volta graphics cards. So, it might be some time before we see this in the wild.
"You say so, but the hardware industry moves fast," Sweeney retorts.
"Something that's available in a very expensive form factor like that might be in a consumer product in two years. You never know."
Asked what trends he sees in the next year, Sweeney says that he sees cross-platform play being more prevalent and that gamers are going to become even more of a social experience.
"We have been building up this amazing set of technologies to support games across all platforms," he says.
"Fortnite is one game that you can play on PC, Mac, Xbox, PlayStation, iOS and soon Android. It's the same experience across all platforms. Those six platforms and 36 combinations, 35 support full interoperability. I hope this time next year all platforms will interoperate, all customers will be connected and we'll have shared game experiences across all platforms with Fortnite and many other games. Games is going to evolve into a much more social experience involving players, their real-world friends and influences and content creators on YouTube and all kinds of people who together form this community and the involvement isn't a team of monks going up to the monastery for two years to produce an experience and finally unveiling it to the world. It's a dynamic process that happens every day. That's a feature of great games; you've seen that with PUBG, Rocket League and Fortnite."