Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Godlike! Epic Games & Free Markets

Ah, those were the days.

Last week Epic Games announced they are making another Unreal Tournament (UT) game. Unreal Tournament is a first-person shooter franchise that helped define my college experience, with the first game providing comfort on many a lonely eve my freshman year and its successor Unreal Tournament 2004 being a go-to game for the cadre of friends I amassed over my tenure there. Years later I’d buy a brand new PC just to play Unreal Tournament 3, and though UT3 turned out to be a disappointing entry in the franchise, the idea of a new UT game is still pretty exciting. What’s especially interesting about this one is the business model Epic has put forward:

Mark Rein, the Gears of War and Unreal Tournament studio's VP, teased a new game last week. This Unreal Tournament will be a free game -- "not free to play, just free."

Fans with an Unreal Engine 4 subscription can participate in the crowdsourced development the next Unreal Tournament, with fan-created mods playing an integral role in its life post-launch. Epic intends to create a marketplace where creators can give away or sell their custom content. Epic's cut from those sales is what will pay for the game. 

Epic is certainly no stranger to giving players the freedom to modify their games. Previous UT games came with tools to build mods and maps, and players could run their own servers with these custom changes installed. The game clients even facilitated distribution of mods by automatically downloading them when someone joined the match rather than requiring that player to obtain it beforehand. Still, that’s a far cry from making user-generated content a central facet of the game and giving its creators the option to get paid for their work.

Presumably Epic hopes that this will generate some interest in and subscriptions to their Unreal Engine 4 development kit, but it’s still an intriguing way of going about it. They’re essentially betting on their player community not only being involved and productive, but actually becoming successful indie game developers as a result of that experience. I don’t think it gets much more consumer-friendly than that.

It’s just another wonderful example of capitalism at work in an industry that has largely managed to evade the grubby hands of government regulation and subsidy. Even the famed Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) that handles all those parental advisories you see on video game covers is a non-profit organization to which companies voluntarily submit their games for review. So the market is free to function like good markets do.

As a result we get literally free games and an industry that responds to the desires of the consumer, once it figures out what the consumer actually wants of course. When that desire is clear, loud, and direct like the backlash last year to some of Microsoft’s policies for the Xbox One, you’ll see even a corporate giant do an about face. When it’s a little murkier, the changes take longer. For example, overzealous Digital Rights Management (DRM) has given way to convenience-providing services like Steam, and pay-to-win freemium business models are being phased out for more balanced pay-as-you-go options like we’ve seen with The Walking Dead.

And since the big players can’t squash a little one under onerous regulation quite as easily as they can in an industry more deeply in bed with the government, they still have to worry about being upstaged by small, independent developers. One guy spending a few hours coding a simple mobile game can become a breakout hit overnight, and employees unhappy with the direction their studios take can leave to form their own development teams.

Imagine if instead we had a video game industry run like the health care one. You’d be mandated to have at least one video game system in your home, but the stores would only sell a combo pack of a Playstation 4 with a Wii U. Every time you turned the system on, you’d have to pay a $20 copay. The games themselves would cost $1,000 each, and you’d need to fill out three sets of paperwork about your gaming habits before being able to enter the store. (Though I think Game Stop does that already.) Of course the only store that would actually take your money would be the run down Walmart in the seedier section of town. Oh, and you’d occasionally be forced to buy your deadbeat neighbor the latest of Call of Duty.

Personally, I prefer the free market where Epic Games decides to try turning me into a producer and I get to play a game for which I’d gladly pay at no cost to me even if I never contribute a thing to the game’s development.

*this post cross-posted at http://www.theirfinesthour.net

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