'Fortnite' CEO Takes Aim at Google, Facebook for "Loss of Privacy, Freedom"

Digital Disrupters-Tim Sweeney-Getty-H 2018
Mike Coppola/Getty Images for Samsung

Tim Sweeney delivered the keynote speech at the DICE Summit in Las Vegas, where he gave his thoughts on the future of the games industry and warned against "customer adversarial" business practices.

Tim Sweeney, CEO and co-founder of Fortnite maker Epic Games, took the stage at the DICE Summit in Las Vegas on Wednesday to discuss video games' growing status as a social media platform.

“Over the years, we’ve seen a lot of precedents announced as ground rules of the industry. We need to step back and take stock of them,” Sweeney told the crowd. "Over the next decade, we’ll see the continuing trend of gaming becoming first-class social activity. Games are as much a communication platform as an entertainment experience."

As a result, Sweeney said, games have become major platforms for discourse, "whether we like it or not."

“As an industry, we’ll have special responsibilities that we’ll have to take very seriously," he added.

Sweeney also noted that games are becoming an "economy of their own," noting examples such as Minecraft and Fortnite.

Though player spending in Fortnite was down in 2019 from 2018's record $2.4 billion, the free-to-play game still generated $1.8 billion last year, topping all other titles.

Another feature that Sweeney sees as the future of gaming is cross-play, the ability to play games with other players regardless of the platform they're using.

"What we all really want and need to accept is equal access to all customers and give up our attempts to create our own private wall guard or private monopoly," said Sweeney. "In Fortnite, the player who spends with friends plays for twice as long and spends more money. Cross-platform is the future, and we all have to do our part."

Turning to the "bad and the ugly" aspects of the industry, Sweeney pointed to the "customer adversarial model."

"We have businesses that profit by doing their customers harm," he said. "Facebook and Google have been the leaders in this. ... They provide free services, then make you pay for their service in loss of privacy and loss of freedom."

Sweeney said it was "critical" to move away from adversarial models for the game and tech industries at large.

Stressing the need for mobile platforms to "open up" for publishers to freely put their products on their marketplace, Sweeney said his company had tested the current system by submitting Fortnite to the Google Play store. "Fortnite was rejected ... just because it used a different payment method than was supported," he said. "That needs to change, and it will change."

Speaking specifically of the video game industry, Sweeney criticized "pay to win" (buying in-game upgrades to gain a competitive advantage) and loot box business models: "We have to ask ourselves, as an industry, what we want to be when we grow up. Do we want to be like Las Vegas, with slot machines ... or do we want to be widely respected as creators of products that customers can trust? I think we will see more and more publishers move away from loot boxes."

“We should be very reticent of creating an experience where the outcome can be influenced by spending money,” Sweeney told the crowd. “Loot boxes play on all the mechanics of gambling except for the ability to get more money out in the end.”

Referencing recent partnerships with Marvel and Star Wars in Fortnite, Sweeney said he saw it as a future of advertising. “The future of this, if you have an awesome new product, you start releasing free stuff in games and people get [engaged with it].”

Sweeney ended his presentation by once again addressing the discourse in gaming. “We should get the marketing departments out of politics,” he said. “We live in a world where your political affiliation determines what chicken restaurant you go to. There’s no reason to drag divisive topics like that into gaming.”

“We need to create a very clear separation between church and state … employees, customers and everyone else should be able to express themselves," he said. "We as companies need to divorce ourselves from politics … platforms should be neutral.”