We’re racing toward a world where Fortnite and Roblox could rival Steam and the App Store in terms of the size of their game libraries. Both have growing ecosystems of millions of players who build and spend time in custom battle royales, chat rooms, and all kinds of other games. We’re looking at the fight for what could be the next YouTube.
While the two giants may be the biggest in the space, they are far from the only companies building out a catalog of tools that make the jump from game playing to game making far simpler than traditional game engines Unity or Unreal. All sorts of platforms, including the browser-based dot big bang and the top-down-focused CliCli, are looking for a piece of a market that already holds the attention of hundreds of millions of players.
“[UGC] is a very critical thing, right?” Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney tells The Verge of how user-generated content and his vision of the metaverse mix. “The future is primarily about the work of everybody in the world, and we’re a very small, small part of that.”
Epic confirmed that Fortnite currently carries 70 million monthly average users, while Roblox has reported that 250 million players bounce from game to game every month on its platform. That’s a far cry from the more than 2 billion people who use YouTube every month, but it’s not hard to imagine one or more of these platforms gaining that type of audience in the next 20 years. We’ll likely see the tools and economies of these systems evolve significantly over that time.
Since the tools that players use to build experiences are simple, many of the games they build are simple as well. The bones of many games found on either Roblox or Fortnite resemble the games that they came from. Other platforms aren’t very different in their complexity, either. Tools have a long way to go before the quality and variety of games can be greater.
Epic has taken a huge step in that direction with Unreal Editor for Fortnite. It brings some Unreal Engine functionality, including a proprietary coding language in Verse, to Fortnite Creative. The tool has only been available for a couple weeks, and players have already designed portals, made games of custom checkers, and designed maps with visuals that look so stunning that’d you’d hardly know it was Fortnite.
The showcase at the Game Developers Conference failed to showcase how the Unreal Editor can help Fortnite developers make different kinds of experiences. That’s a key focus for Epic going forward.
“We need to build a lot more features into the development kit.”
“We need to build a lot more features into the development kit. Right now, there’s a set of APIs, there’s a diverse programming language, and there’s a set of APIs that can use interfaces to enable creating games in a bunch of genres,” Sweeney said about what can be made in Fortnite Creative. “But they don’t expose everything we want to expose. We have a lot of work, a couple years’ worth of work, which will result in improvements and new versions until [we have] essentially everything one would need to have every game genre represented in Fortnite.”
Developers are already doing interesting things with the limited tools available in these platforms. They’ve reshaped Roblox maps into something that looks identical to Call of Duty and turned a Fortnite lobby room into a trivia party. They’ve imported and recreated the terrain from the entire Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild map on a Fortnite Creative island. A handful of developers have even developed their own Spider-Man web-slinging mechanics within Roblox. Those are only a handful of examples of hundreds, and the things players can accomplish with these tools are becoming more complex with every update. The drive to embrace that complexity isn’t as deep, though.
People looking to make a living on one of these platforms, just like those doing so on YouTube, find themselves at the whim of the platform. These game designers have learned that they need to cater their creations to the audience that’s already there to enjoy Fortnite and Roblox. Making something that’s too different may not succeed.
“If you grind players too hard on Roblox, they’ll just go play something else. Roblox players play six to eight games in a session,” said Gamefam CEO and founder Joe Ferencz about how players log on to Roblox for a specific type of content. “Roblox will tell you that they have a 2.5-hour average session per player [...] and the highest session per game, it’s 25 minutes. You have to be aware that they are jumping around to multiple games, and you have to treat them that way.”
Ferencz, who runs the Roblox studio Gamefam, is one of several game makers who have built a studio that works exclusively within the confines of Roblox. Roadblocks like uneven revenue split numbers and a lack of discoverability on a platform like Roblox make it difficult to bring in money without looking outside the platform for funding. Some of the most successful developers — several of which have come together to form entire studios like Gamefam — in the space rely on branded deals with companies like Coca-Cola, Sega, and the NFL.
That sort of arrangement isn’t sustainable for the majority of creators, and the platforms may not succeed in the long run if developers can’t find a way to support themselves within them.
“If you think about YouTube and what it did for video creators, you know, it lets people start small with no barrier to entry. It lets them get a kind of modest income, just kind of do it as a side thing, grow a channel, and then become a full-time creative with equitable pay,” said ControlZee CEO and co-founder Robert Anderberg. “I think that’s really the future, but from my perspective, the thing that we’re focused on is building something that really does pay people equitably.”
“The thing that we’re focused on is building something that really does pay people equitably.”
Anderberg, whose company currently runs the browser-based UGC platform dot big bang, has been adamant that platforms should give developers a fair share of the revenue. He, and many others in the space, believe that the more platforms do for their people trying to make a living on them, the more they’ll succeed.
That’s the primary motivation behind one of Epic’s big announcements at the Game Developers Conference. The Fortnite creator is now giving its creators 40 percent of revenue from all of Fortnite, including the incredibly popular battle royale mode. Roblox developers earn closer to 25 percent of the money from their creations. Roblox could see Fortnite’s revenue split change as a direct challenge.
One thing that Sweeney and Epic SVP Sax Persson made clear multiple times is that they believe in an open ecosystem. They believe that Fortnite could become such a sophisticated game-creating tool that players will be able to pull their games off of it and sell them on Steam or elsewhere. The key, they hope, is that creators will be so happy within Fortnite that they won’t want to go elsewhere.
“It’s not a conflict to believe in an open [ecosystem] and still want people to stay in your ecosystem because you’re better than other ecosystems,” Persson said. “I don’t think that’s a conflicting standpoint by having a principle of open but offering the best opportunity for creators. We think that’s a path forward. I don’t think it benefits us to make the transition to another ecosystem really hard. We want people to be here because they want to be here, not because they’re stuck there.”
User-generated content has been a staple of the games industry for decades. Titles like PUBG, Counter-Strike, and Dota 2 began as mods of other games and eventually became global sensations in their own right. The creative energy that drives modders and hobby-level game makers has only become more prevalent today — and now we’re witnessing some of the biggest companies in the space attempt to harness and systemize it within their own ecosystem.