To Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney, people are tired of how today’s Internet operates. He says the social media era of the Internet, a charge led by Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook, has separated commerce from the general audience, herding users together and directing them to targets of the company’s choosing rather than allowing free exploration.
“Now we’re in a closed platform wave, and Apple and Google are surfing that wave too,” Sweeney said. “As we get out of this, everybody is going to realize, ‘Okay we spent the last decade being taken advantage of.'"
For years now, he has eyed a solution: the metaverse. And steadily, over several years, Epic has been acquiring a number of assets and making strategic moves with the goal of making Sweeney’s vision for the metaverse a reality.
The simplest way to define the metaverse is as an evolution of how users interact with brands, intellectual properties and each other on the Internet. The metaverse, to Sweeney, would be an expansive, digitized communal space where users can mingle freely with brands and one another in ways that permit self-expression and spark joy. It would be a kind of online playground where users could join friends to play a multiplayer game like Epic’s “Fortnite” one moment, watch a movie via Netflix the next and then bring their friends to test drive a new car that’s crafted exactly the same in the real world as it would be in this virtual one. It would not be, Sweeney said, the manicured, ad-laden news feed presented by platforms like Facebook.
“The metaverse isn’t going to be that,” Sweeney said. “A carmaker who wants to make a presence in the metaverse isn’t going to run ads. They’re going to drop their car into the world in real time and you’ll be able to drive it around. And they’re going to work with lots of content creators with different experiences to ensure their car is playable here and there, and that it’s receiving the attention it deserves.”
People using the Internet in the 1990s via companies like America Online will recall how the Internet has evolved from logging in over phone lines to check their email, chat in real time over AOL Instant Messenger and perhaps check a website or bulletin board discussion before logging off. Today’s always-online, smartphone-centric culture of curated feeds revolves around social media and monetization through advertising, a dynamic Sweeney believes various companies have exploited to their benefit and the detriment of users.
Sweeney points to how Facebook has engaged with businesses over the years to illustrate his belief.
“They have all these people follow them, and then at some point, Facebook decided we’re not going to let [businesses] talk to them directly unless you pay us, and then they introduced advertising as this monetization thing,” Sweeney said. “By the time [businesses] figured it out, they were trapped.”
Sweeney believes platforms like Google and Apple have similarly grown in size while contributing to what he sees as a devolution of the Internet. He refers to the economic ecosystems created by the Silicon Valley giants as “walled gardens,” a term that came up frequently during Epic’s mostly unsuccessful antitrust lawsuit against Apple. That suit took aim at Apple’s app store, which Epic argued constituted a monopoly because Apple controls whether apps can appear in its store and receives a 30 percent cut of all financial transactions from those apps.
A federal judge ruled in Apple’s favor on all but one count, leaving that particular walled garden largely intact. In her decision, District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers noted how the actions of Epic against Apple were a calculated move to eliminate a barrier to the creation of the metaverse. Sweeney’s vision for the metaverse would give users the ability to seamlessly hop from one platform to another and not be limited by a company’s virtual ecosystem.
Even as Sweeney and Epic pursue their metaverse dream, it’s one shared by a number of massive, tech-centric companies. One of them is the same that Sweeney decried for the current state of the Internet. Facebook’s Zuckerberg recently said he hopes that users stop thinking of Facebook as a social media company and more of a metaverse company.
Months before Zuckerberg’s announcement, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella was among the first American tech executive to refer to his company’s offerings as part of an “enterprise metaverse.” Chinese conglomerate Tencent, whose holdings include everything from social media apps to stakes in Hollywood studios, has also accelerated its efforts.
The shared ambitions of these giant corporations set the stage for a high-stakes race to craft the metaverse. And Epic sees itself as well positioned in the pack.
The Washington Post interviewed a variety of executives, developers and stakeholders at Epic Games to discuss its vision for the metaverse. The messaging from Epic Games and its companies is clear: What Sweeney and his colleagues want to create is a marked departure from modern social media platforms. And the company believes it is well suited to realize its metaverse vision through its own technologies and series of acquisitions. But there remain significant obstacles, seemingly outside of Epic’s control, that present formidable barriers to Sweeney’s aspirations.
The next wave of social media
At the core of Epic’s metaverse vision is a change in how people socialize on the Internet. Sima Sistani, co-founder of the video chat social network Houseparty that was acquired by Epic in 2019, believes interactions will move away from “likes,” comments and posts about people’s personal lives and toward more complex interactions where users share and participate in experiences across various services.
“If the last generation is about sharing, the next generation of social is going to be about participating,” said Sistani, who has held positions at Tumblr and Yahoo before starting Houseparty. “Maybe I didn’t call it the metaverse then, but that’s what it is. It’s people, interactive experiences, coming together and moving from one experience to another, having this shareability to move beyond walled gardens.”
Sistani’s description closely resembles the innate, interactive nature of video games, which offer more ways to engage with brands and other users than simple ad-filled timelines.
“We’ve seen this happen in the past,” Sistani said. “I come from a media background, and people moved from traditional media to social media. And this new generation is moving from social media to games. That’s where they’re having these conversations. That’s where it’s beyond the ‘like,’ beyond the news feed. And that, that’s the metaverse.”
Nowhere has this been more visible in Epic’s portfolio than its flagship title, “Fortnite,” the 100-player, battle royale-style game that surged in popularity in 2018. As The Washington Post reported last year, Epic Games has become a front-runner in creating the metaverse in part thanks to the hundreds of millions of users who log into “Fortnite” every month to create, talk and, of course, shoot each other with digital guns in multiplayer arena combat. The game is a forum in which players interact in real time with intellectual properties from Marvel or Star Wars, one that both pulls from and inspires pop culture. It has even been a showcase for premium consumer goods.
Earlier this year, the Ferrari 296 GTB was dropped into “Fortnite,” which became a test drive, so to speak, of how the automobile industry may use the metaverse. The game has become a sort of experiential lab and incubator of these ideas, said Donald Mustard, chief creative officer at Epic Games.
Mustard sees “Fortnite” as an ever-changing virtual world that’s molded by feedback from players and the brands with which Epic partners, whether it’s Marvel directors Anthony and Joseph Russo to rapper Travis Scott, all of whom were heavily involved with the direction and creative process of their respective in-game events. Players have molded the game as far back as the literal game-changing “meteor landing” event in 2018, he said.
“It’s led to this world that feels like it’s got some real history to it, shaped by the community,” Mustard said. “That was all a reaction to us looking at what the community was doing and trying to get back to them in a way that felt authentic and part of the world being built.”
That community interaction is a central concept of the metaverse and how it evolves the Internet from the social media era.
“What exists right now, it’s based on algorithmic feeds that are driven by ad revenue, not a model,” Sistani said. “That instantly takes you into polarized worlds. If you are putting joy at the center of what you’re doing, and not ads, and the goal is collaboration, the goal is fun, the goal is participating, making new friends, those are just super different incentives and motivations.”
The Internet of creators
Epic’s tool kit is well suited for creating the kind of collaborative and fun experiences Sistani describes. Long before “Fortnite” took the world by storm, a 1998 game made by Sweeney himself debuted and became a centerpiece of Epic’s business. The game was titled “Unreal,” and it was powered by what is now known as Unreal Engine. Simply put, a game engine is a suite of software tools used to build virtual characters and worlds. Unreal Engine is used by at least 7 million people, especially game developers, around the world, but it is also heavily used outside of the video game industry. The most famous and recent example is how it powers the sets and backdrops of TV shows like “The Mandalorian.” Car manufacturers, like Ferrari, have used Unreal Engine to model their vehicles.
Part of Epic’s strategy for the metaverse will require a continual stream of content creation to keep users engaged. To that end, Epic is making Unreal Engine as accessible as possible to novices.
“We’re trying to turn it into a process that’s very, very straightforward,” Marc Petit, general manager of Unreal Engine, said. “We tried to create this super-sophisticated technology to power the metaverse and try to make it accessible to millions of people.”
Epic Games is applying this strategy in another way by working with outside companies like Manticore Games. Manticore Games was founded by Jordan Maynard and Frederic Descamps to start “Core,” a game creation platform built on top of Unreal Engine. It’s similar to “Roblox” but with more high-budget visuals, and gives people the ability to conjure game worlds with easy-to-use tools. “Core” is attempting to bridge the gap between players and creatives and is further incentivizing development on the platform by offering a 50-50 revenue split with developers.
“It’s a different way of thinking, a productization of the interaction with the community,” Descamps said. “All of a sudden, you’re not just thinking about players, you’re thinking of player creators.”
Epic sees those creators as another cornerstone in constructing the metaverse. The desire to shift “Fortnite” to a more creator-friendly business model was discussed at length during Epic’s trial with Apple. That pivot would also mirror an ongoing Internet trend.
In the last decade, Internet culture has evolved to embrace and be driven by tens of millions of content creators all over the world. The most popular have used their massive audiences to attract lucrative deals that have turned many from creators into influencers, the personalities that shape pop culture.
“Some of the top entertainment people in the world today are not found in Hollywood,” Descamps said, pointing to the example of Justin Bieber, who famously started his career when he was discovered on YouTube. Video games have similarly minted celebrities in ways that would have been impossible at the Internet’s outset.
Video game personalities have become a new tier of celebrity class, sometimes dwarfing traditional celebrities. In 2019, a study by Morning Consult discovered that among Generation Z, PewDiePie, YouTube’s most subscribed individual who grew that audience through gaming, is more popular than LeBron James. Tyler Blevins, better known as Ninja, started a wave of streamers seeking and winning professional contracts with social media companies. In a landmark, multimillion-dollar deal with Microsoft’s now-defunct Mixer live-streaming service in 2019, Blevins started a trend of other companies like YouTube and Twitch attempting to secure contracts with their biggest stars. Many of those stars employ professional agencies and public relations teams. (Blevins subsequently rejoined Twitch on a new contract after Mixer was shut down.)
Facebook may be the leading social network, but the New York Times reported in July the company is playing catch-up in courting creatives in its spaces, which include Instagram. This effort included trying to lock well-known video game personalities on Twitch and YouTube into contracts to stream exclusively on Facebook.
Epic has already shown it can attract gamers like Blevins, who rose to popularity playing “Fortnite,” but also more traditional celebrities in the music world. DJ Marshmello, Travis Scott and Ariana Grande have held groundbreaking concerts in “Fortnite." And in Microsoft’s “Minecraft,” Gen Z darling 100 gecs hosted an ambitious “Minecraft” music festival.
For its part, “Core” is leaning more into the creative process when it comes to music. Producer and DJ deadmau5 will be filming his next music video using “Core” and has asked users to help contribute to his vision.
These kinds of creative projects play to the strengths of a game company like Epic. As analysts in the space have pointed out in the last two years, not only are video game companies most adept at creating imaginary virtual spaces, but the audience would be well equipped with the technology to navigate it thanks to high-powered PCs and machines needed to play a modern game. Simply put, it all makes for fertile ground for creators, particularly compared to current social media platforms.
For creators like Sean Noell of Michigan, who builds maps and experiences in “Fortnite,” the promise of the Internet goes beyond haggling for likes and competing for space on an infinitely scrolling feed. Noelle, who goes by the online handle “ChaseJackman,” was one of the creators responsible in building the recent “March Through Time” Martin Luther King Jr. event, which was built in “Fortnite” in partnership with Time Magazine. According to Epic Games, the event was attended by more than 8.1 million players.
“I’d really love to see an Internet where social media isn’t about followers, but is instead about the quality of your work,” he said. “I don’t want to put my all into a project and see it fail because I don’t have any followers.
“A place where people with like minds and ideas can meet and make something great would mean that someone would be able to flourish based on their skill, not their popularity.”
“Fortnite” fan creator Dequan Dawson, also known as “GQuanoe,” who worked on the Martin Luther King Jr. experience as well said the discovery of creative work needs to be key in helping creators in any iteration of the Internet.
“I’d love to see a quick way for people to find my work via a search by having a much more direct link to my portfolio, whether it be the top search result with images and videos displaying my work, or maybe a way to support me outside of ‘Fortnite,’” he said. “Right now, there aren’t a lot of ways to accurately showcase my work because of the barriers between different products online, but broader tools to showcase my work and in places outside of the game would definitely help.”
Real obstacles to a virtual world
If video game worlds can be considered buildings of interactivity, Epic Games has been one of the biggest providers of construction materials thanks to the widespread use of Unreal Engine. Now Sweeney wants to help build bridges between those buildings.
For years, Unreal Engine has been used by a number of different industries outside of video games. Global architecture firms like HOK and Zaha Hadid already use Unreal Engine and Epic Games’s Twinmotion business for architectural visualization. Epic Games isn’t just a games manufacturer. It’s already a contractor providing construction materials for virtual worlds.
“I think [Epic] is a unique company because we’ve always served both the consumer audience and the developer audience, and we’ve built our business on the synergy between the two,” Sweeney said. “It’s the same position to build an ecosystem. It’s both great for consumers and for developers and to avoid the kind of pitfalls which turn consumer ecosystem companies into overlords that exert too much power.”
Critics may point to the prospect that Epic Games itself is a walled garden for the moment, much like the companies Sweeney has pilloried. Sweeney acknowledges this. Outside of log-ins using various other services like Microsoft or social media, Epic’s own storefront, the Epic Games Store is still a closed-off marketplace. But Epic Games has become a major influence on the current wave of cross-platform interoperability between game consoles and PCs. Epic Games was able to convince Nintendo, Xbox and Sony to open their multiplayer bases to comingle with other platforms while playing “Fortnite." Since then, games like “Rocket League” (also now owned by Epic) and the Call of Duty franchise have adopted cross-platform, cross-save-data standards.
Sweeney pointed out that even if the last year of quarantine accelerated the acceptance of persistent online worlds operating like our real one, there’s a host of standards and practices that need to be ironed out to create any kind of metaverse, not unlike how government-funded researchers in 1986 formed the Internet Engineering Task Force to formally develop and promote Internet standards.
“You need an entire suite of standards, and the Web is based on several,” said Sweeney, citing such factors like HTML becoming the standard file format for displaying web browser pages. “The metaverse will require a lot of them, file formats for describing a 3-D scene, networking protocols for describing how players are interacting in real time. Every multiplayer game has a networking protocol of some sort. They don’t all agree, but eventually they ought to be lined up and made to communicate.”
And therein lies Sweeney’s biggest challenge in realizing his vision. While Epic could weave a kind of metaverse out of its many creations and others built on Unreal Engine, it would not be “The metaverse” that Sweeney and others envision until the barriers between some of the world’s biggest brands are broken down.
“I think the real force that’s going to shape the metaverse into an open platform is the power of all the brands to participate in it,” Sweeney said.
In that regard, the verdict in Epic’s lawsuit against Apple was a blow, but Epic has already filed an appeal. If it can’t find a legal mechanism to bring down the walled gardens, it may need to follow a similar blueprint to how it successfully pushed for cross-play in “Fortnite,” the biggest example to date of how Epic Games has opened up traditionally closed ecosystems.
Sweeney said he’s optimistic and hopeful that the Internet’s next evolution may return to the spirit of cooperation — and the fear of monopoly — that drove the AIM alliance of 1991, the landmark agreement between Apple, IBM and Motorola to standardize personal computer technology.
“You’re going to have hundreds of industries entering this, each one cognizant of the need to protect their brand,” Sweeney said. “I think that’s going to be the ultimate checks and balance system in a way that it was not in the social media revolution. … I think that’s going to lead to very robust development in the way the Internet was.”
Shannon Liao contributed to this report.