Sweeney commits to human moderators & quality filters for Epic's Games Store

"So we're not going to see asset flips," the Epic founder told Gamasutra at GDC this week. "And we're going to explicitly say no to porn games or other intentionally controversial games."

"We have a storefront now too, big whoop -- our storefront isn't going to be the be-all or end-all either."

That's Epic Games founder Tim Sweeney, speaking to Gamasutra at GDC 2019 earlier this week about how the launch of Epic's new Games Store is going. 

While the Epic Games Store's debut late last year drew devs' attention (and games), in large part due to a lean rev-share rate that sees game makers taking home 88 percent of their revenues, Sweeney is keen to frame it as just a "funny early version of a thing that's going to ultimately be a lot bigger and a lot different."

"I think the future of game discovery cannot just be about storefronts," he said. "It's going to be a lot of mechanisms," citing everything from mobile chat clients like WeChat to Twitch streamers as increasingly valuable avenues for getting your game in front of potential players.

All valid, but Epic's spartan storefront seems to be rapidly filling up with prominent games, and devs could be forgiven for wondering whether Epic's generous rev-share rate (compared to the industry-standard 70/30) might change in the future once the Epic Games Store has a large enough customer base.  

"This isn't like a loss leader type of business for us. 12 percent is our permanent rate, and it includes plenty of margin for Epic to run a healthy and profitable business," Sweeney told Gamasutra. "We could have gone lower, but we also really wanted to build a lasting business that works for us, and we feel a natural revulsion to services where they're either free or subsidized, and they're paid for through a tax that is worse than money."

It was a less-than-subtle shot at companies like Google, Apple, and Facebook, all of which offer games and services at low (or no) cost but, in Sweeney's eyes, expect too much in return.  

"There's nothing worse for paying for a good in a price that's worse than money. And with Google Search or Facebook, that price is your privacy. And in some walled garden storefronts, that price is your rights as a customer," he continued. 

Of course the Epic Games Store has already caught some public criticism for the way it handles user data, most notably the way in which the EGS launcher pulls Steam friends data from users' machines before they elect to import their Steam friends list into the Epic launcher.

Sweeney has already said it was an unintended oversight that'll be corrected in an upcoming update, and today he noted that another unintended (albeit fruitful) consequence of the Epic Games Store's practice of giving out free games to registered users.

Paying devs to bring you customers reportedly beats paying for ads

"The process of releasing a free game every two weeks arose for one reason, but we're hugely doubling down on it for another reason," Sweeney said. "The initial reason was we felt we had to acquire....we had to bring in a lot of users who hadn't otherwise seen our store. And releasing cool games for free seemed like a good way to do that. So we put tens of millions of dollars towards that initiative."

"But what we've seen since is that that's been far more successful than ever expected. Subnautica brought in four and a half million downloads, and it turns out that by paying developers in order for the right to release their game for two weeks, we're actually supporting those developers and we're also building awareness of their games."

Roughly four and a half million Epic store customers downloaded a copy of Unknown Worlds' Subnautica during the two weeks it was available for free.

Sweeney pitches this a big ol' value add for everyone involved: devs get paid and grow their audience even as Epic does the same. 

"We actually find its more economical to bring users to the Epic Store by giving away free games than by paying Facebook or Google to run ads for their store," he adds. "And that's awesome, because that money would just be going into the pockets of a giant corporation, whereas the money we're spending now is going towards developers to make more games."

A stream of customers are now pouring into Epic's new storefront as a result of those developers' games, and Sweeney claims the company will continue to regulate the flow of games launching on the Store in order to try and ensure each one has a reasonable expectation of getting customers' attention.

"In the very early days we're hand-curating all of the games on our storefront," he said. "We wanted to make sure that the pace of games coming into the store didn't outpace the rate of customers coming into the store. It's been a very deliberate process."

Self-publishing is coming, with a "reasonably high quality filter"

In the future, the plan is to open the Epic Games Store up to self-publishing, though Sweeney is quick to note that "we're going to apply a reasonably high quality filter."

"So we're not going to see asset flips, and we're going to explicitly say no to porn games or other intentionally controversial games," Sweeney continued. "We're perfectly fine with M-rated experiences like GTA or Far Cry, but we're not the place for the other stuff. For the bigger anti-social things."

That's significantly different from Valve, which broadly takes a hands-off approach to moderating which games are allowed on Steam in favor of giving customers tools to filter what they see.

It's also a much clearer stance than Steam's owners tend to take, given that Valve recently managed to both ban a game about sexual violence and also not explicitly condemn it.

So what decides whether a game is a good fit for the Epic Games Store?

"Oh, there will be humans," Sweeney said. "We have people working that already, for example in the Unreal Engine Marketplace. We have standards and existing processes we can apply to moderate the Epic Games Store."

Amid all this talk of standards, Sweeney explicitly draws a line between the Unreal Engine side of the business and the storefront side. 

"[Unreal Engine] is a way of expressing your ideas. Anybody, under our standard license, is free to use Unreal Engine for building anything that's legal, and we have no say over it," he said. "We've renounced that ability in our license. But on the other hand, where Epic is making something available to our customers, like in Fortnite or on the Epic Games Store, we're going to apply an Epic quality standard to it."

This dovetails a bit too cleanly with Sweeney's vision of a future game industry where storefronts are more competitive and up against more varied ways of distributing games; in that future a rejection from the Epic Games Store won't hurt a game's prospects, because it will have so many other ways to find an audience.

Sweeney thinks that's already the case, given that the PC is now brimming with competing online game storefronts, and he says he's not terribly worried about unduly harming a game that doesn't make the cut.

"We're not discriminating against any games based on their speech because the PC is an open platform," he said. "If we don't choose to carry their game, they can release it directly to customers, or sell it through other stores if they choose. And so it's kind of a dichotomy there: on the one hand we make tools for creative expression that are unconstrained, and on the other hand we sell products to customers, and we have a responsibility there."

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