Why an Unreal Tournament made by modders is the best (and only) decision Epic could've made

Evan Lahti at

Thursday was stuffed with good news for FPS players. We announced Killing Floor 2, learned that Unreal Tournament was being thawed after seven years of hibernation, and, bonus some guy taught us how to Counter-Strike with a steering wheel.

The specifics of Epic’s plan to bring back the arena shooter were surprising. Yes, it was initially disappointing to learn that work on a new UT was only now beginning “from scratch,” as Epic put it. But the reason for that was encouraging—UT won’t be a conventional, “boxed” product, but “a collaboration between Epic, UT fans and UE4 developers” with created transparently and with plenty of external input, Epic promises, and with all code and content available to UE4 devs through GitHub. Splendid.

In that same spirit, Epic is making the next UT free, not simply free-to-play. Epic plans to pay for the game by allowing modders and content creators to sell what they make (and share revenue with Epic in the process), a system that will likely resemble a Steam Workshop or SOE Player Studio-like content distribution service.

To review:

  • The next UT will be developed openly
  • In collaboration with modders and the community
  • Be released for free
  • Have a PC/Mac/Linux “focus”
  • And be “true to its roots as a competitive FPS”

We’ll see how smoothly all of that goes (“A lot of this is brand new for Epic, and we don’t yet have everything figured out,” the studio admits), but on paper, in 2014, I can’t imagine a better plan for Unreal than that. Part of the reason this approach is so praiseworthy, though, is because it’s perhaps the only choice for a brand and a genre that have steadily waned over the last decade.

If Epic had announced on Thursday that it’d tasked a 150-person studio to build a AAA, multiplatform arena shooter on the latest technology, this editorial would probably be an obituary. Excepting stuff like Ratz Instagib and ShootMania Storm—arena shooters have been fully supplanted by larger-scale FPSes (Rising Storm, Battlefield, PlanetSide 2) or by FPSes that feature weapon unlocks or other forms of progression (Call of Duty, CS:GO), a tough thing to integrate when your game uses weapon spawning as a balancing element. Epic’s plan mitigates the financial risk associated with the genre while also using the Unreal brand as modder bait.

It’s an approach that will save Epic money. In an era where Ubisoft pays 7,800 people to make games and Activision is spending half a billion dollars to make and promote Destiny, asking Unreal Tournament, the genre’s equivalent of an honored but long-retired Vietnam veteran, to compete on the same stage with the Advanced Warfares of the industry would’ve been foolish. Instead, Epic positions itself to judge the success of UT by how many times it’s downloaded, how many Twitch viewers its tournaments bring in, how much affection it brings the brand (that can go toward potential future releases or paid updates), and how well its crowdsourced project stimulates interest and development in UE4, which will have to compete hard with Valve’s iteration of Source and indie-friendly platforms like Unity in the next several years.

This way of developing the next UT also demonstrates Epic’s understanding a key trait of the current generation, especially on PC—players’ time is just as valuable as their money. The aggressive, ubiquitous sales on Steam and other services have made word-of-mouth a primary currency in the gaming industry. A zero-dollar price tag equals accessibility; it’ll be easy for people to act on hearing something positive about UT from a friend, livestream, or trusted person they’re following on Twitter. I’d also love to see Epic make skill-based matchmaking a feature in the next UT, and being completely free is a great step toward deepening the pool of players swimming in that system.

We also can’t ignore that collaborative development positions Epic to capitalize on the spiking trend of mods becoming massive, multi-million-selling standalone products. You only have to look at Steam Workshop or Bohemia’s year-long, €500,000 Arma 3 modding contest to realize that it’s exponentially cheaper to create a big incentive for people to create spin-offs of your game than it is to do it yourself.

Epic being an engine and game developer makes them a unique company, and them using Unreal Tournament in a way that benefits both side of their business is very smart. It’s an approach that leverages and revives a sleeping brand as an educational and marketing vehicle for UE4. Developing and releasing Unreal Tournament any other way might’ve doomed it to another seven-year coma.