'Fortnite' CEO Isn't Worried About Competing With Netflix, Touts Game Store Plans

Courtesy of Epic Games; Mike Coppola/Getty Images for Samsung
'Fortnite' (Inset: Tim Sweeney)

Tim Sweeney on Wednesday unveiled the launch of a new $100 million grant program and also revealed new titles coming to the company's digital store front.

In January, Netflix said in a letter to shareholders that it competes (and loses) more with Epic Games' Battle Royale video game Fortnite than with HBO. 

The comment shouldn't be surprising given the runaway success of the game, which earned $2.4 billion in 2018 and has boasted up to 78.3 million monthly active users. Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney on Wednesday spoke about Fortnite's success during his company's keynote address at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, where he announced the launch of a new $100 million grant program and also revealed new titles coming to the company's digital store front, the Epic Games Store.

As companies compete for viewership across games, television and film, Sweeney and his team at Epic have secured one of the most valuable titles currently in media. Last month, an in-game concert by DJ Marshmello drew an audience of 10 million to Fortnite.

The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Sweeney shortly after his presentation, where the exec talked about the influence Fortnite has had on media, both in games and beyond, as well as future plans for the title, more in-game special events, the Epic Games Store and the trend of digital gaming across the industry.

Netflix said it competes with, and loses to, Fortnite more than other television outlets. Who do you compete with for people’s time?

I suppose at this point we’re talking not just about games but how people choose to spend non-working time in their life. I think it’s a very positive trend that they’re spending time in social experiences. That’s the thing you have to appreciate with Fortnite. Most people are playing together in squads with their friends, they’re on voice chat. They’re playing a video game, but what they’re really doing is spending time with their friends and chatting all night. When I was a kid, before we had this level of hardware, we’d go out and build real forts in the woods, things like that. These are social activities, first and foremost, and a great way for people to stay in touch with their friends.

Do you compete with Netflix? Do you have a competitor?

We don’t stress about those things. We build a fun game and add new stuff to it every week, and I think it’s up to everyone to come up with a healthy balance of their time between all the different things that entertain them. I’m tickled that so many people come back to Fortnite so frequently.

The Marshmello concert held in Fortnite attracted over 10 million viewers. Do you have similar events planned for the future?

Nope, we’re done. (Laughs) Just kidding. Yes, gaming is evolving rapidly. We’re seeing all sorts of things come out of the real world and make their way into the game universe. Fortnite special events are one of these things. We’re working as hard as we can to enable all kinds of interesting things like that and also to give players more abilities to do these sorts of things themselves. The very first version of this was a very intense collaboration between Epic and Marshmello and his team to make all the technical elements of it work, but in the future we’d love to make it so anybody can do that, including your garage band. Just like anybody could create a Facebook page, anybody should be able to express themselves in Fortnite in a huge variety of ways.

Are you interested in courting any Hollywood talent? Maybe hosting a movie premiere in Fortnite?

We’ll see.

Any chance there will be a film or TV show based on the Fortnite brand?

That’s interesting. We try to push forward what the leading edge of entertainment means to people, right? There’s a lot of possibilities to bring the new into the old and the old into the new, but we’re not planning anything at this point.

The Epic Games Store has landed a number of exclusive titles. How are you courting these developers?

We’re going around to game developers and giving them deals that make it worth everyone’s while to come to the Epic Games Store. Where they have concerns whether they’ll be able to make as much revenue from their huge investment into developing their game from our store vs. Steam, we’ve made some revenue guarantees and done anything we can to make sure developers succeed. Epic’s mission is very broad, it’s to help all developers succeed in the way that we’ve succeeded with our games. We’re also releasing a free game every two weeks on the Epic Games Store. It’s a way of introducing gamers to games they might not have experienced before and we want game developers to reach audiences they may not have reached before. It’s super valuable, especially when a team is working on a new game or a sequel, to release an old one in partnership with us. It’s doing it in a way that’s a great deal for everyone, including Epic. We can actually bring more users in and make developers happy and gamers happy, all at the same time, by paying developers to enable us to give away free games and spending money on Facebook or Google ads. This means all the money we’re spending on this is going to good things: fostering development of new games and helping developers build their businesses as opposed to being drained out of the system.

Do you think that the entire gaming industry is moving to being entirely digital?

Yeah. We’ve been seeing that coming for, like, 15 years now. It’s a great trend; it means everything is that much more convenient to access and there are more choices.

Was that trend behind the decision to develop the Epic Games Store?

Yeah, we built the Epic Games Launcher to serve the Unreal Engine and then Paragon and Fortnite. We built it for our own games, but we always planned to open it up to developers eventually and late last year turned out to be the opportune time.

Fortnite’s success has influenced the industry in big ways. How do you keep it fresh and keep users coming back to your game?

We update Fortnite every week and we’re constantly trying new things and being inspired by community feedback and following their thoughts and excitement. We try a lot of new things, some work out and we double down on them and some experiments fail and we go back and try again. It’s a really great process. We’re able to move so quickly this way and not have to theorize about what we ought to do in a game that we’re shipping in two years like back in the Gears of War days of Epic. I think it’s just the best possible means of developing games in the future for the whole game industry.

Do games have shelf lives anymore?

No, I think games can last as long as the developers can keep them fresh and fun and exciting. If you look at League of Legends, it’s as big now as we ever remember it being. Same with a lot of other major games. The nature of gaming is changing and this is a good thing. We were really disappointed when we built the first Unreal Tournament [in 1999]. We released the game, we spent a year and a half improving it but we reached the point where we were like, "Gee, we really need to make a new game so we can make some money to fund our future projects." We released the game, we were done and there was no notion of selling cosmetic items like in Fortnite. There was no business model to support it. We thought that maintaining a game for the long term would be the ideal, and we’re finally at that point where we’re able to do it and there’s a business model with free-to-play.

How important are e-sports in the gaming landscape?

I think the games come first. If gamers love to play a game competitively then there’s an opportunity for that and e-sports becomes a way to bring competitors, spectators and the whole community together to have a good time with it. I think it’s important to not put the cart before the horse. Our efforts with Fortnite e-sports have all been driven by looking at how people play the game and structuring events around that as opposed to trying to retro-fit some kind of e-sports structure into the game.

Viewing others playing games and streaming gameplay content has grown significantly in recent years, thanks in large part to Fortnite’s popularity. Do you factor in how people will watch your games during the development process?

You look at Fortnite, it’s highly spectate-able and you might think that we did that, but actually we were just building a fun game that we liked playing ourselves and it happened to have some great attributes that make it good for Twitch streaming.

What’s the future of Fortnite?

One week at a time!