At the 2020 DICE Summit in Las Vegas Tuesday, Epic Games founder and CEO Tim Sweeney was blunt about the current state of the video game business, and what the game industry needs to do see real growth in the decade ahead.
Many of Sweeney's points revolved around player freedom as well as publisher and developer freedom to choose which devices to play and sell games on, with his keynote eventually swerving into topics of "gamer rights" and "divorcing" game companies from politics.
It was a rare, candid talk from one of the most powerful people in today's game industry.
"Gaming is becoming a first-class social activity," said Sweeney. "…Gaming will be as much as a communication platform as an entertainment experience."
He added, "Whether we like it or not we have to accept gaming as a platform for world discourse."
Sweeney often used Epic's hit game Fortnite as a possible indicator of what games of the future will look like. Sweeney said that games may eventually be "pervasively available" across all kinds of devices no matter what store or platform they were purchased on.
"A huge chasm of interoperability"
But in order for the game industry as a whole to make this kind of platform freedom happen, platform holders will need to have some difficult discussions to break down walled gardens.
He envisioned a game industry where "we'll all be free to mix and match platforms and engines, online services, free of lockdown…a level playing field where everyone can complete on equal terms."
Sweeney said that platforms need to open up their social systems instead of keeping the current standard of disparate systems of various platform holders. "This creates a huge chasm for interoperability," he said, saying the future is in "connecting and federating all of these different systems together."
"This idea that publishers should 'own' the customers… it's just a bad idea and opposite of what Fortnite is built on," he added.
Sweeney broke down the role of game developers in practical terms, saying "we're participants in the supply chain" where developers create the content that is moved through this chain to eventually reach the customers (i.e. the players).
But, Sweeney said, there are certain non-creators who've taken an "undue" amount of revenue by leveraging their platform control and lording that over the people and companies that supply the games.
While that may seem to be a reference to Microsoft, Sony, and Nintendo, Sweeney said those companies have been good partners, helping Epic bring Fortnite across platforms despite their walled garden models.
Against "customer-adversarial" business models
Sweeney was more referencing online tech giants, naming Google and Facebook as companies that have adopted "customer-adversarial" business models that take advantage of users. These companies also have caused a "loss of privacy and loss of freedom" and "a lot of collateral damage for companies like [Epic]," he said.
It's no secret that Sweeney has personally butt heads with Google recently. Sweeny did not—and still does not—agree with the Google Play's 30/70 revenue split so the company opted to not release the game on the storefront and instead circumvented the store by offering a game download directly from Epic's website. "What we have in the case of Android is a fake open platform," he said, calling its practices "devious."
He also railed against Apple's App Store cut, which is also 30 percent, calling that ratio "completely decoupled from any cost equation whatsoever" when compared to other businesses in other industries that build huge margins on a tiny fraction of that share.
The Epic Games Store, on the other hand, takes an 12 percent cut, a share that Sweeney said Epic could "build a very profitable business around."
Many of Sweeney's points had to do with game creators having the freedom to target as many platforms as possible, on an equal playing field, and letting competition act as the vehicle to bring about the best solutions to problems.
He also emphasized that players should have the ability to buy a game on one platform and own—and play it—across all devices on which it's available with other people no matter what platform they're on.
"Cross platform and cross platform ecosystems are the future," Sweeney said.
"Divorce ourselves from politics"
He also took time to target lootbox-based design and pay-to-win models, asking the roomful of developers at the Vegas-based DICE, "What do we want to be when we grow up?...Do we want to be Las Vegas, or worldwide, highly-respected creators of entertainment products that customers can trust?"
Sweeney eventually merged his open market perspective into commentary about game companies' role in the current political discourse in U.S., coming to the conclusion, "we as companies need to divorce ourselves from politics," particularly when it comes to player discourse and content creation.
"We have to create a very clear separation between church and state," he added, saying that "there's no reason to drag divisive topics...into gaming at all." He also laughed at the notion of someone allowing political affiliations to dictate where they might buy a chicken sandwich, a not so subtle reference to fast food chain Chick-Fil-A's past anti-gay political contributions and commentary.
"We need to respect gamer rights and freedoms," said Sweeney. "…We're all going to have to be steadfast in fighting for these things."
Update: Sweeney further elaborated on his keynote's points on Twitter, saying: "If a game tackles politics, as To Kill a Mockingbird did as a novel, it should come from the heart of creatives and not from marketing departments seeking to capitalize on division.
"And when a company operates an ecosystem where users and creators can express themselves, they should should be a neutral moderator. Else the potential for undue influence from within or without is far too high."
Changed headline from "Epic's Tim Sweeney: Games should strive to be platform agnostic and free from politics" to "Epic's Sweeney: Game companies should be platform agnostic, 'divorce' from politics"