Twenty years ago, at the dawn of the Xbox era, Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney convinced Bill Gates to spend a billion dollars on more memory chips for the Xbox. He faced a lot of pressure, but Tim didn’t back down. After all, it was Bill Gates’ money. And it was the right thing to do for gamers.
Fast forward to today. Sweeney is at it again. Epic’s Fortnite has 350 million users and the company recently raised $1.7 billion. It also launched an antitrust lawsuit against Apple in part to eliminate 30% app store platform fees for all developers and to make the platforms for games a little more open. Sweeney believes that this the right thing to do, and it’s why he’s a good person to talk to about how to make sure that the metaverse is open and developed in the best way possible.
At the beginning of our fireside chat at the GamesBeat Summit: Into the Metaverse event, I asked Sweeney about what is the right thing to do to ensure an open metaverse.
Making it open
He replied, “I think we have to start from principles, right? Most companies focus just on their interests. And don’t think about the full reciprocity of how do I want this to work as a consumer. I think we have to look at it from all perspectives and play out basic foundational principles as opposed to just doing what we want. The popular thing now for tech companies is to just do whatever you think you can get away with. And that doesn’t really cut it.”
I brought up the benefits of walled gardens, which have their conveniences. Sweeney said it is important the metaverse is not controlled by any one corporation, but by everybody.
“Everybody from an individual participant to a major developer should participate on equal terms,” he said. “Only that way can you get a really enduring free and fair economy that is built on the same foundational principles as our country.”
To get companies to embrace enlightened self-interest, Sweeney is appealing to reason and commercial interests. He noted that when Fortnite launched in 2017, it didn’t have access to cross-platform play with any of the consoles. After long conversations, all of the console makers opened up to allow Fortnite players to play with their friends across different platforms.
That situation persisted until Epic Games and Apple got into their legal battle, and Apple pulled Fortnite from the iOS app store.
“When everybody did the final analysis, Sony and Microsoft realized that they grew significantly,” Sweeney said. “They sold a lot of consoles as a result of people being able to play together. Imagine if Facebook had seven different versions, each of which has its own rules, and it lock your social connections by platform. The benefit of more activity and openness to everybody is much stronger than any other temporary benefit to any player from having lock-in. Even though Apple and Google right now are collecting a sweet sweet tax by taking our money that they had no role in earning and they have services that they forced us to use. It’s ridiculous. They’re also stymied by each other. Microsoft is stymied by Apple policies etc.”
He added, “It’s this gigantic mess of relationships — they’re broken. As with Microsoft, in 10 years, every company will be far better off in the open world than they would have been if they kept it closed.”
Sweeney said that Metcalfe’s law applies. Bob Metcalfe, the inventor of modern networking, predicted that the value of a network — or the network effect — goes up based on the number of users on it.
The modern metaverse
Sweeney said he started thinking about the metaverse more seriously in 2017, after Fortnite succeeded. He said it became apparent that all of the science fiction writers were talking about the same thing, even though it had some crazy ideas attached to it.
“We realized that you don’t need this crazy technology to do this,” he said. “We have everything we need right now. And the limiting factor on becoming reality is not much more than that. Developers learning what elements really make for awesome online social experiences, continuity of experience, and science fiction.”
Some fiction (like the Star Trek Holodeck) focused on making the metaverse photorealistic with outstanding graphics. Epic Games has been pushed its Unreal tool in that direction. But he added, “There are different threads because if you look at the leading contenders right now, none of them are photorealistic.”
Fortnite has been bringing brands into its universe in an art style that matches the game world, which is more cartoon-like. In the future, those brand assets could be automatically stylized to match the world that they’re going to be used in.
If the metaverse is open, each company will still want to own some things.
“The principle here is every creator owns their original creations and has the right to make the profit from them,” Sweeney said. “And it’s great to choose service providers they choose to work with, without being forced to accept a massive bundle of services in order to reach the customer base. We want each component of the system to stand on its own merits and not use dominance or significant market power in any space to force adoption.”
Epic owns Fortnite and the Unreal Engine, which can be licensed to everybody. You can use that engine to create anything you want, and Epic has zero say in what you can build.
“We need to migrate from closed economies like Fortnite and Minecraft and Roblox and tens of thousands of other games to the shared world,” he said. “We make a simpler industry by having industry standards, and also laws to ensure that their practices like malware are kept in check. But we’re going to need to make this big move and it’s not going to be a single step right. We’re working to evolve in this direction with more and more openness by exposing more and more tools. Eventually, we’ll open up the economy. And the other games will do this too. And I hope that we can a decade from now have players playing Minecraft, Roblox, and Fortnite clients and be in the same world with the same social connections to each other.”
The killer attraction of the metaverse
I asked Sweeney what the killer attraction of the metaverse would be. He said the killer feature is simply getting together with your friends to have great social experiences, like going outdoors for a walk. That’s more fun than just sitting on a couch and talking.
“In a game environment, you can constantly go back and forth between the real world stuff and what’s happening in-game and it’s constantly engaging and constantly messing up the conversation,” he said. “I think that’s a key ingredient. And I think this mechanic is essential. It’s been mechanically proven out in dozens of different genres of games. Every genre that we know is going to be represented.”
I noted that Fortnite has added concerts and brands, and so I wonder if Fortnite will evolve into its own metaverse.
Sweeney said, “I think I think there will be a linear evolution. It’s not going to be a massive sudden disruption. It’s going to be a meeting place for individuals and creators of all sizes, including brands. Every company will be there at some point. If you are a car manufacturer, your brand presence in the metaverse isn’t going to be a bunch of advertising for your cars. It’s going to be a place where you can actually drive the cars around and feel the experience of it. You can use a Corvette in the game. We have an opportunity for much, much more interesting interactions.”
Sweeney said we will need a lot of technologies to create the metaverse. Fortnite can fit 100 players into a game battle now, but it can’t fit a million or tens of millions into the same simulation. He said we need a shardless world, where players aren’t separated from each other in small groups. (See our related story on RP1).
The simulations have to scale to huge sizes without creating a “nasty programming model or engineering model that is unreliable and creates broken experiences,” he said. The metaverse will require a new programming model as an open and live evolving platform, where you go from one world to another and the code all interacts, he said. That requires an open world programming model that doesn’t exist, Sweeney said.
“We need something that’s truly scaled to robust interactions with millions,” he said. “That’s one thing where we need to do some more work in graphics because even though we can be genuinely photorealistic digital teams now, we’re still pretty far short of being able to create completely convincing humans that you can’t distinguish from real humans.”
VR and blockchain
As for virtual reality, Sweeney said it is an important step forward but it isn’t a fit for all experiences. If you turn too fast in a VR world, you can get motion sickness. Augmented reality glasses where you have overlays on the real world will also be popular, and they may get rid of big screens altogether.
In the future, he said, “For like the price of a smartphone today, you’ll be able to get augmented reality hardware in the future that is better than the physical experience with the 60-inch television, which is going to be a lot more expensive. Because the manufacturing costs and materials used are so much less and more efficient. They’re one thread of this idea that we’re living more of our lives online.”
I also asked about blockchain technology’s importance to the metaverse. He agreed that if we buy something, then the basic principles would require that the user owns that item exclusively for good. And that item shouldn’t be locked down to one platform. Fortnite has a cross-platform economy, which means that if you buy an item on one platform then you can use it in the same game on another platform.
Users should also be able to make money from the items that they create in the digital world. The blockchain is “an indisputably neutral, distributed way of expressing individual ownership,” Sweeney said.
It has a lot of attractions, but it also operates too slow right now. It can take minutes for blockchain networks to resolve transactions, as they take pains to make sure that everything transaction is backed up and not fraudulent. But games have to operate in simulations that update 60 times a second, Sweeney said.
“We’re far from any sort of blockchain technology that would achieve that,” he said. “Right now, you have a lot of have serial single-threaded blockchain implementations. And what we need is a massively parallel blockchain implementation that is regionalized. So that you can have really fast interactions that are definitive and optimized for your geography.”
I noted that the pandemic has sped up interest in accelerating the creation of the metaverse, as we are all sick of the Zoomverse. And I noted that gaming has done so well that investing in the metaverse will be a lot easier.
“The pandemic severed a lot of real world physical contact that people had,” Sweeney said. “Everyone quickly migrated to replacing that with virtual connections, with social network usage, Fortnite, Minecraft, Roblox, and Zoom. Occasionally, I have a meeting with some coworkers in Fortnite, which is like 70% meeting and 30% like, ‘Oh no, we need to fight these guys.’ But it’s awesome.”
To get to the best possible outcome for the metaverse, we have to make sure that principles underlie the metaverse, rather than individual plans to grab a lot of money, Sweeney said.
“If we create it without principles, overall harm will be done to everybody,” he said. “We need to be very open about it.”
This requires common standards and agreements about moving through worlds. It could take at least a decade to work a lot of that out, Sweeney said.
“The metaverse has to overcome the critical challenge of any entertainment platform, which is that it needs to provide a better experience than everything else that is competing for hours in your life. It needs to be better than Fortnite, Minecraft, Roblox, and Netflix. The stakes are high, and it’s not going to be a tiny team that creates it.”
As for Epic Games, it will eventually become one more source of user-generated content, as a creator of Fortnite, which will coexist with everyone else’s metaverse applications.
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