So, the news broke today that the reboot of Unreal Tournament was no longer in active development. It’s not much of a surprise: not only has there not been an update to the title in nearly a year, there hasn’t been an update to their development blog in over a year, either.
Now, in addition to being a general fan of the title, the business model was a favorite of mine, too: the game was free with no in-app purchases or lootboxes. A store where users could sell skins and mods and character models was available with Epic Games skimming off the top, and the Unreal Engine 4 powering it would be available for developers of other games to use, with royalties paid on the engine after a certain threshold.
However, Epic Games struck gold with Fortnite. If you haven’t at least heard of it by now, you probably haven’t spoken to an adolescent since the Obama administration. It’s so popular, Sony reversed their stance on cross-platform play for the first time ever in their Playstation ecosystem. Epic released the Android app on its own website, rather than in the Google Play store…and got 15 million downloads in three weeks; by contrast, I’m having a rough time trying to come up with another app not in the Play Store that has broke the first million. It’s that big. The fact that Epic has been focusing on printing money with Fortnite rather than developing Unreal Tournament is not just common sense, it’s almost absurd to try and justify the inverse.
While the unbridled success of Fortnite is undoubtedly a major reason why UT development has stalled, I submit that it’s far from the only reason. After all, Epic Games has been in the business since the 1990s. They are fully aware that empires come and empires go. Minecraft, Angry Birds, Halo, and Doom before it all testify to this fact. I think there’s a deeper reason why.
Unreal Tournament hails from a completely different era in gaming. UT2004 shipped with a level editor and dedicated server software. For some, a part of the fun was making one’s own maps, character models, and even total conversion mods, frequently distributing them for others to enjoy. While quality levels varied significantly, communities formed around map and mod development. Even if you weren’t a developer, one of the major draws to the game was that downloadable content was free, and created by the players.
Fast forward to 2018, and that’s not at all how things work anymore. I can’t recall the last major game release that allowed players to self-host their servers or add their own created content, let alone ship with the tools to do so. New maps and character models are almost exclusively paid add-ons now, and few players remember it any other way. Even those who made their own content for UT in its heyday are likely either employed in some form of design or development, or have moved on to other things.
Those who are still doing this sort of development have a plethora of options, from the open source Alien Arena and FreeDoom to GoldenEye Source and straight up developing their own indie games to release on Steam. With lots of options courting a dwindling number of skilled individuals, Epic counting on ‘bringing the band back together’ was going to be an uphill battle. Moreover, even the sheer player stats probably weren’t great; Quake Champions, Toxikk, and other arena shooters are available as great options for players who aren’t perfectly happy playing UT2004, a game whose mechanics and balance are so well done that the graphics which reflect their era can be readily overlooked.
I don’t think this is really the end of UT development, though. Like I said, empires come and empires go, and while it makes sense for Epic to cash in on Fortnite while it’s a household name, by 2021 (if that long), there will be another game to take the crown. While Fortnite will still probably be popular enough to handle the payroll, the focus will likely shift back to developing and licensing Unreal Engine 4. With hundreds of games utilizing the engine including some heavy hitters like Mortal Kombat X, Spec Ops: The Line, Rocket League, Infinity Blade, the Batman: Arkham series, and of course the Mass Effect trilogy, licensing the engine is far and away the best source of steady income for Epic.
And when game developers are looking around for the engine upon which their next title should be based, there is no better way for Epic to showcase the Unreal Engine to have its namesake available for free.