Epic Games has evolved into a much different game studio since Chinese tech giant Tencent invested $330 million for 48 percent of the independent studio back in July 2012. The company sold its bestselling Gears of War franchise to Microsoft, withstood the departure of many of its key creatives, and opened up its Unreal Engine 4 to the world for free, with a royalty structure for those selling games.
Last year, Donald Mustard, co-founder of Epic-owned Chair Entertainment, was promoted to chief creative officer of Epic Games. He’s overseeing a slate of games that includes Battle Breakers, Unreal Tournament, Fortnite, Robo Recall, Paragon and SpyJinx. Mustard talks to [a]listdaily about how Epic’s approach toward game development has changed and how that has impacted its brand.
How did your background with console and mobile development help with Epic’s evolution into games as a service?
I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve had the opportunity to develop traditional retail products and I’ve had the opportunity to work on less-traditional digital products. I’ve had lots of experience with mobile as it was really becoming a thing. In 2017, the types of games that people really seem to enjoy are the ones that are good combinations of the learnings of all of those different kinds of games. You look at the successes of Destiny or For Honor, a lot of these games are really learning lessons from all of these different markets, and bringing them into these collective experiences. That’s what you’ll see across our entire product lineup—whether that’s SpyJinx, Battle Breakers or Paragon. You start to see the blending of these different engagement systems, whether it’s at the highest end of console and PC or the bleeding edge of mobile, and everything in between.
A lot more people watch people play games instead of playing themselves. How is that influencing what you guys are doing?
It’s having a huge influence on what we’re doing. Just look at the rise of eSports or streaming. One of the next trends we’re going to see is games that play themselves, and that that will be a big thing. There will be a strong desire for people to just flip a button and allow the game to play itself, and then they just engage more on the meta-mechanics of it.
So, that’s something that’s influencing us a lot, too. This is something that’s huge in the more Eastern markets right now, and coming soon to the West. Fortnite is a game that we’ve been working on for awhile, and we’ll have lots of cool stuff to announce later this year. But we’re exploring how we can innovate in the streaming space, and how we can make it not just fun to watch someone streaming a game, but to actually make that meaningful in the gameplay itself.
Does Gears of War still influence Epic’s approach when developing games that might be picked up as an eSport?
It doesn’t seem like it’s wise to set out and be like, “we’re making an eSport.” It’s more like, “Let’s build games that we think are really fun; stuff that we’re very passionate about; stuff that we want to play.” If the community builds around that, that’s exactly what we want. If that community desires a more competitive aspect to it, we will work with them to provide that. That’s the only way we can do that, and that’s what we want at the end of the day. Our main goal is to delight our players every step of the way.
We want to be actively building our games with our communities, which is why we’ve moved away from putting a game in a box and moving on to the next thing. We get our software to the point that we think is viable, fun and engaging, and then we get it in front of our community and to refine and iterate the game with them. At the end of the day, it’s their game, and we’re just developing it.
For a long time, Epic Games was synonymous with Gears of War, Unreal Tournament and Infinity Blade. Outside of Gears, where does that leave Epic’s original properties, such as Shadow Complex?
Infinity Blade has been such a hugely successful title for us. It still regularly appears in the top charts and is still going strong and doing great. We have lots of ideas of stuff that we could continue to do with Infinity Blade, but nothing to speak of at this time. Last year, we released Shadow Complex Remastered on every viable platform. Again, we have many ideas where we could extend that franchise as well.
How do you approach making games for a global audience, especially post-Tencent investment?
It’s been incredible, being able to access the resources and the data of Tencent alone, let alone having a worldwide studio. But we are definitely trying to consider a global audience in our approach to games. We want to make games that are accessible to all the gamers that want to play them. It’s wonderful to be able to consider, and to be able to have access to, feedback from different cultural viewpoints.
It’s awesome to be able to have our team in Korea look at the games we’re making and give us feedback on what we’re doing. Our teams in Japan give us feedback, and so do our partners at Tencent. Tencent allows us to analyze data and really talk through—with great specificity—the things that we could be doing in our games to make them engage well with players in China. We have our teams in Germany and in England to really help give us that perspective, but also to establish communities in those countries that we can respond to. So it’s very much part of our thinking.
Are there things you can learn from eSports’ massive global community?
Beyond the language barrier—beyond any cultural barriers—there is this love of digital interactive entertainment. ESports, particularly, has really shined a light on how much we all share this love of specific games. It’s crazy how much our world has shrunk in our lifetimes and how rapidly it’s shrinking even more every day.
In several of the games I play, I’m in clans or groups where I have made real relationships and friendships with people in many different countries. Sometimes they don’t even speak the same language, but we speak the language of the game we’re playing, and we work together, and we play regularly.