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Inside Epic Games' big 'games as a service' pivot

One of the game industry's most prominent game studios became a games as a service company so gradually that you might not have even realized it.

Kris Graft, Contributor

March 15, 2017

6 Min Read

One of the game industry’s most prominent game studios became a games as a service company so gradually that you might not have even realized it.

North Carolina-based Epic Games, the same one of Gears of War and Unreal Engine fame, today sees itself as a company that has completely abandoned the ship-and-forget model, instead embracing ongoing service-based games and open development.

Certainly, other companies big and small have been operating as “games as a service” for years, but this is a major pivot for Epic – a larger, more established studio whose structure was absolutely not set up for this model just a few years prior.

“Up until about five years ago, we were very much a smaller, one game at a time studio,” said Donald Mustard in an interview with Gamasutra. He’s the founder of Shadow Complex and Infinity Blade studio Chair Entertainment, which Epic acquired in 2008. Now he oversees Epic’s evolving portfolio as worldwide creative director.

It was around that time five years ago that Tim Sweeney, founder of Epic, started seeing how retail, boxed games were on their way out of the triple-A space in particular. Sweeney previously had the foresight to move Epic into PC-based games with 3D graphics, then evolved the studio into an engine provider, then shifted focus to console development. Sweeney believed Epic needed yet another major realignment in terms of business and product.

Over the past five years, Epic has been gradually – and rather quietly – repositioning itself as a service-centric publisher, developer, and tech provider. That involved establishing the required infrastructure that would support such a plan on a global basis.

With Epic’s rise to prominence in terms of game and tech development, and its growth as a company (Epic employs around 500 full-timers and 200 contractors), Mustard said it’s easy to forget that Epic is still an independent business that is funding and publishing its own games, exercising direct control over all of its products and services on its own terms.

"Our design process is to start small and fast...We try to keep things very loose at an early stage."

“We had to build the backend to not only publish all these games, but to host all these games, to run the servers that would allow us to do that," said Mustard. "As part of that transition, we began making several products – we have six different games in development.”

Once you step back and actually look at those six games as a group – Paragon, Fortnite, Spyjinx, Battle Breakers, Robo Recall, Unreal Tournament – you realize that Epic has gone full-on “GaaS.”

How design works at Epic

Mustard said about a year ago, he became the worldwide creative director of Epic to oversee the company’s evolving game portfolio. He’s taking his experience working directly on games and applying it on a broader, company-wide scale.

“Our design process is to start small and fast,” he said. “A lot of our games start from a core initial concept. We try to keep things very loose at an early stage.”

He used the example of the recently-announced Epic mobile game Battle Breakers. That game started out with a team of three people who came up with an interesting prototype and a fun core gameplay loop. After building more meta-mechanics on top of that promising loop, Epic saw that the team was onto something, and then committed more time, resources, and people from around Epic to the concept. In the past year, Battle Breakers became the product it is today, and recently soft-launched in the Philippines, Mustard said.

“That’s pretty similar to how [all our games are developed],” he said. The higher-profile MOBA-styled action shooter Paragon started with around 10 people working on that game for a year or year-and-a-half. Once the vision for the game was clear, more people joined development. Today the team stands at 150 due to the game’s scope.

When it comes to very early prototyping at Epic, Mustard said that the company tries to avoid starting projects that are rooted in random ideas. Even at the earliest development stages, developers have some semblance of purpose and direction.

“We try to begin life on a new [game] with at least a general direction,” he said. He explained that with the mobile game Spyjinx – an effort between Epic’s Chair Games and Hollywood director JJ Abrams’ company Bad Robot – the team listed out a few high-level design goals to strive toward. In the case of Spyjinx, the game needed to be free-to-play, highly accessible on a global basis, and it had to be “beloved by people who played it,” Mustard said.

"What is the language of interactive entertainment? What are the best practices of interactive entertainment? I still think 50 years from now, we’ll still be defining what that is."

Those broad guidelines were set before prototyping or conceptual design began. Eventually, those pillars led to an espionage theme with a bit of Disney influence, and a partnership with a movie director who knows a thing or two about action and espionage. Mustard said it was important to set those early boundaries in order to create a product that makes sense for the company’s overarching commercial goals.

“Have kind of a goal” when starting development, he said.

A big adjustment

Mustard compared the way Epic had approached the game market in the past to the way films were released: Make the movie, launch it, and if it’s successful, make the next movie.

“Now,” he said, “the games that are resonating with people are more like television: you write a pilot, you put out the pilot, you make season one, through season one you’re really discovering the essence of your show, and your hope is to make many seasons of that TV show.”

While the design process still has roots in the boxed product business, Mustard said what Epic is doing today is drastically different from the games of the company’s past. “[Boxed game development is] worlds apart from now, when we say ‘let’s build a systemic game that could engage people for five years.’ It’s just a totally different art form,” he said.

Mustard said when the conversation of a company transition first surfaced, Epic had to decide exactly how it would manage the shift. Epic realized it would have to publish the games on its own. That involved building an infrastructure, including hiring new teams to support games as a service, opening offices overseas to serve a global audience, adding localization capabilities, and many more mundane logistics such as making sure the company can accept payments from various countries. “All this stuff we had never done before,” said Mustard.

It’s been a big adjustment for the director, who said he’s always preferred not to show anyone anything until it’s totally done. “That doesn’t really work nowadays. Now it’s like, ‘No, we’re going to show everyone everything when it’s totally still a pile of crap!’” he laughed, “and we’re going to refine it with our community as it builds up around [the game].”

This likely isn’t the last major shift for Epic – in game dev, dealing with sweeping change comes with the territory.

“We’re still such a young industry, and there’s still so much to discover,” said Mustard. “What is the language of interactive entertainment? What are the best practices of interactive entertainment? I still think 50 years from now, we’ll still be defining what that is.”

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