Fortnite creator Epic Games is in a unique position. Not only is the company overseeing development of one of the most popular and lucrative games on the planet, but it’s also now utilizing the success of that software to make its Unreal Engine development tools and, more recently, its online PC game store two of the most ubiquitous and disruptive elements in the industry.
One of the main architects of this dramatic shift at Epic is CEO Tim Sweeney who hasn’t shied away from using his company’s renewed influence and stature to bring about bold changes to the status quo. One of the bigger challenges the company is pushing forward of late is its Epic Store, a new marketplace for PC games with an 88 / 12 percent revenue split that stands in stark contrast to Valve’s Steam, with its more traditional 70 / 30 percent split. (Valve has since altered its terms to make them more developer-friendly, but the terms are not as generous as Epic’s.)
“We’ll turn down crappy games that are submitted to the Epic Store.”
In an interview with The Verge earlier this week, ahead of the company’s State of Unreal presentation at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, Sweeney outlined some of his positions on the Epic Store. In particular, he was willing to address the issue of content moderation and whether the marketplace middlemen of the tech industry can be replaced. The former is of particularly high interest in light of recent news that Valve took multiple days to consider whether it should ban a visual novel called Rape Day, which glorified sexual violence and featured disturbing scenarios set in a post-apocalyptic setting.
“Epic has two different philosophies,” Sweeney says of moderating the Epic Store. “When we’re building tools, we respect developers’ complete creative freedom. It can be used for the development for anything that’s legal. You can make a game we disagree with.” But when it comes to the store, Epic’s marketing, and Fortnite, Sweeney says the company prioritizes “high-quality experiences.”
“We’ll turn down crappy games that are submitted to the Epic Store,” he adds. “We’re not going to accept pornographic or shock content of any kind. We’re not in the porn business here. PC is an open platform, and those devs can reach gamers in any other way they want.”
Last year, Valve announced a hands-off approach to Steam that would allow anything onto the platform “except for things that we decide are illegal, or straight up trolling.” In addition to the Rape Day controversy, that policy has pushed Valve to take hardline stances on content revolving around child exploitation, school shootings, and most recently around tributes memorializing the New Zealand shooter. Sweeney, it seems, does not see the value it trying to protect content that pushes up against that amorphous line.
That stringent approach to curation, as well as Epic’s more generous revenue split and its support-a-creator program that lets customers contribute purchase revenue to Twitch and YouTube personalities, has yielded the company’s store some big wins. Publisher Deep Silver made Metro Exodus an Epic Store exclusive back in January, while Ubisoft made its PC release of The Division 2 exclusive to the storefront as well. Epic says that Exodus has sold 2.5 times as much on the Epic Store compared to the previous Metro title on Steam. And the relationship between Epic and Ubisoft is expanding; the two have said more games are coming to Epic’s store, and today, they announced that users can link their Epic and Uplay accounts for the first time.
Epic also announced today more store exclusives, including French studio Quantic Dream’s trio of interactive storytelling games, starting with 2010’s Heavy Rain, and a handful of indie heavyweights like Solar Ash (from Hyper Light Drifter developer Heart Machine) and Remedy Entertainment’s Control. Since the store’s launch, a number of other indie titles have jumped on the bandwagon, too, though many developers are still publishing across as many storefronts as possible, including Epic’s and Valve’s. (Epic doesn’t broadly require developers to publish only on its store, though it does require exclusivity as part of special deals, like the one it struck with Deep Silver for Metro Exodus.)
“Apple and Google ... do not in any way justify the 30 percent cut.”
As for why Epic is so keen to shake up software marketplaces, Sweeney has long harbored distaste for middlemen, as well as the 30 percent cut established by companies like Apple, Google, and Valve that he sees as unfair and exploitative. Epic was forced to agree to those terms and publish Fortnite’s mobile version on iOS through the App Store. Yet the company notably sidestepped Google’s Play Store last August when it distributed Fortnite on Android using a special installer downloadable from a mobile browser.
“It’s time for change. In the early days of Steam, 70 / 30 [percent cut] was a revolutionary split because you could compare it to 70 / 30 in favor of the retailer,” Sweeney says. But now, given how large app stores have become and how little companies like Apple and Google have to invest to continue maintaining them, Sweeney says it’s not a fair deal to expect developers or app makers of any kind to hand over nearly a third of all revenue just to sell on a dominant marketplace.
“Visa and Mastercard process transactions for 3 percent on average,” he says. “Apple, Google, and Android manufacturers make vast, vast profits from the sale of their devices and do not in any way justify the 30 percent cut.”