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Why the former Borderlands boss is betting big on UEFN development

Barnyard Games' Matthew Armstrong says making games for Unreal Engine in Fortnite offers stability for workers burned out on long dev cycles.

Bryant Francis, Senior Editor

March 7, 2024

7 Min Read
Key art for Barnyard games. A chicken holds a golf club in its mouth in the foreground.

At a Glance

  • The founders of Barnyard Games built their company specifically to make "islands" using Unreal Engine for Fortnite.
  • Co-founders Matthew Armstrong and Mark Cieslar say UEFN has its flaws, but it's letting them make games faster.
  • According to them, the combination of short dev cycles and fast feedback feels more "stable" than regular game development.

Barnyard Games head of production Mark Cieslar has one major problem with making games (or "islands") in Unreal Engine for Fortnite: he doesn't know where the heck his ball is.

That might be a problem when you're running a game studio and your current project is one like Mega Golf Fun Zone. As he and head of creative vision Matthew Armstrong explained in a recent chat with Game Developer, the ball that players knock around in Mega Golf Fun Zone is not something Barnyard Games can modify in their developer tools. It's available to them as an object in the game, and they have ways to help players interact with it, but they can't reference the ball or change the physics of it when designing maps for players to play golf on.

"I would love for the ball to be something I can actually control!" Cieslar exclaimed. "We built a golf game, and we have no access to the ball or of knowledge of where it is. I literally can't ever tell you where the ball is in our game, and yet we succeeded in building a game about putting a ball in a hole."

This sounds like a problem hobbyist developers may face while playing around with a modding kit—but Cieslar and Armstrong are not hobbyist developers. Armstrong is the former head of the Borderlands franchise, Cieslar was a technical director at Daybreak on games like DC Universe Online and Planetside 2, and Barnyard Games is a studio that raised $3.4 million in seed funding to make games for Epic's creator's platform.

Related:New dev Barnyard Games formed to make games within Fortnite

And yet a missing ball is the exact kind of problem Cieslar, Armstrong, and their colleagues want to be solving right now. Why? Because they earnestly believe the platform's short development cycles and built-in Fortnite player base make UEFN a safe harbor in a tumultuous moment for the game development industry.

Barnyard Games wants to ship smaller titles every month instead of titanic games every five years

Cieslar and Armstrong are proud of the games they worked on before joining forces at Barnyard, but when they describe their experiences, the exhaustion at how long it took to develop or even just prototype games is palpable. "All the projects I've worked on were five-plus year dev cycles, and then another two, three, five-years of life on those afterwards," Cieslar said. "You only get so many of those in your career."

By comparison, Armstrong said it only took a few weeks of hacking together solutions to bring Mega Golf Fun Zone to the point where it could enter full production. And when the team wanted to experiment with another game idea from Cieslar, it only took another week to finish a prototype that helped them realize it wasn't something they could fully commit to.

Five games made by Barnyard Games

"We took a week to build that prototype," he said. "Not a year, not 18 months with millions of dollars—we took a week of two people's time, played the prototype, and said 'this doesn't quite work.'"

The reason that particular prototype didn't work out speaks to a trade-off Armstrong is the first to acknowledge: Fortnite is a game with big, well-lit open environments. Its weapons, health values, and character speeds are all locked (for now), and developers have to make games that work within those rulesets. "The fact is that opens up creativity," Armstrong argued. "You don't have the blue sky, you don't have the infinite possibilities."

Being able to iterate fast and learn what games are and aren't possible in those boundaries is what makes those boundaries feel less constricting.

If what Armstrong is describing sounds familiar to any of the modders or Flash-era game developers in our audience, that's probably because Armstrong began his career in video games working on the Quake mod Team Fortress. He's quick to compare the current user-generated content (UGC) fad to '90s and '2000s modding, and pointed out the modding landscape offers some context for the kinds of games that are popular on platforms like UEFN and Roblox.

Businesses inspired by that era of modding are often fishing for the Team Fortress or Defense of the Ancients phenomenon—those moments when a mod is so popular it can be spun out into its own game. But each of those mods emerged through iteration on other popular mods that preceded them, and that means if you're not looking closely, the sea of popular PvP islands in the Fortnite creative wheelhouse won't look any more appealing than the 10,000 tower defense spinoffs you'd find in the custom games section of Warcraft 3.

Barnyard's betting that somewhere in that ocean of simple islands are the seeds of bigger games. To find them, Armstrong says the studio is experimenting with Fortnite's discoverability tools and avoiding chasing the obvious trends, with the hope of building something "fresh and interesting" in that space. "It's the risky move, but it's the one that wins," he said, noting that even while being risky, he and his coworkers are "having fun" in a year where many of his friends aren't.

Epic Games has to figure out monetization and discoverability for devs to find stability on UEFN

It's to Armstrong and Cieslar's credit that they were as passionate about talking about the problems they face making Fortnite Islands as they were about the advantages. And unlike the "creative limitations," these problems don't necessarily become advantages if you just change your perspective.

First, there's the obvious fact that the tools are limited. Developers on UEFN can't make their own guns, are stuck with the core movement speeds and animations of Fortnite, and obviously can't figure out where those dang balls are.

Second, there are problems with discoverability. Epic's competing platform Roblox has been dinged for turning its games marketplace into a nightmare of pay-to-win visibility, and Fortnite's Islands are at risk of being drowned out by creators who understand how to game the algorithms. "I've seen some really good, interesting things, and they're just buried because they don't have the right thumbnail, because they don't appeal to the audience immediately, and because they don't get on the tabs that are algorithmically chosen and decide what will succeed," Armstrong observed.

And third, Epic Games' monetization method for developer making Fortnite Islands isn't stable—yet. Armstrong has faith that UEFN's development team is all-in on making a business that supports developers, but he's worried the finance side of the company isn't willing to take big risks. The glaring issue right now he said, is that Epic effectively "double dips" with its engagement-based monetization model.

Here's how: right now, Epic Games distributes 40 percent of net revenue from Fortnite to developers operating in the Fortnite ecosystem. So that's 60 percent for itself, 40 percent for what is in theory this massive pool of developers.

That 40 percent should be a big chunk of change for third-party creators—but it isn't. Epic itself gets to pull money from that pool because its Fortnite islands—including its Battle Royale mode, are considered part of the ecosystem. Epic has explained that the initial 60 percent of revenue pays for "servers, customer service, back-end development, fraud protection, and all the things needed to run this ecosystem," and that the money it receives from the shared 40 percent pool "funds its game teams moving forward."

Armstrong thinks that model is keeping many talented developers from jumping in. He'd even rather Epic reduce the amount of revenue shared with creators to as low as 30 percent, but then just remove itself from the pool of eligible recipients. "All of a sudden, the professional developers that they want to come in here and be doing this will come in because that's when it turns into profitability."

But Armstrong and Cieslar were still enthusiastic about Epic's vision for Fortnite-based game development. Put into perspective, the pair have decided that they would rather wrestle with the discoverability challenges of a new platform and the uncertain revenue model than slog away on a longer cycle to compete on PC or consoles.

Epic, Roblox Corp., and other companies are offering something developers want: platforms with built-in audiences and easy-to-use tools that let players access games with the click of a button. But it will be how fast they can improve their technology and establish effective monetization tools that will determine if they're stable enough to build proper studios on.

About the Author(s)

Bryant Francis

Senior Editor, GameDeveloper.com

Bryant Francis is a writer, journalist, and narrative designer based in Boston, MA. He currently writes for Game Developer, a leading B2B publication for the video game industry. His credits include Proxy Studios' upcoming 4X strategy game Zephon and Amplitude Studio's 2017 game Endless Space 2.

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