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Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney talks the metaverse, crypto, and antitrust

After all the hype about the metaverse, it was good to talk to someone who’s actually built one.

Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney talks the metaverse, crypto, and antitrust
[Photo: Rachel Luna/Getty Images]

Of all the rudimentary forms of the metaverse out there, few if any are as fully realized and well used as Epic Games’ Fortnite. Fortnite grew from game to metaverse in an organic way: People began lingering in Fortnite‘s 3D world after they were done playing, just to hang out with friends. Picking up on this, Epic began hosting planned events for Fortniters, such as concerts and movie previews

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Earlier this month, Epic released the latest version of its gaming engine, Unreal Engine 5, which includes new tools for creating highly detailed 3D objects with automated natural lighting effects. There’s an emphasis on creating large-scale photorealistic environments with realistic sound and digital humans. Unreal Engine is, I believe, tooling up to build metaverse experiences.

In March, I went to Epic’s headquarters in Cary, North Carolina to speak to Epic CEO Tim Sweeney about those new tools, and about the metaverse of the future. This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Are we reaching a stage where graphics technology can build worlds that are so lifelike that they can spill out of games and be used as realistic simulations of things we’d normally do in person?

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That’s exactly what’s happening, and it’s making possible this phenomena they talked about in the 1990s, of convergence. Remember that? Like CD-ROMs and multimedia? The idea pitched back then was that you would have the same kinds of media capabilities across film and games, and that they would come together into a single industry that had the best of both worlds. It took 25 years extra, but we’re actually there now, and convergence is happening because you’re able to use the same sort of high-fidelity graphics on a movie set and in a video game. And in architectural visualization and automotive design, you can actually build all of these 3D objects–both a virtual twin to every object in the world, or every object in your company or in your movie. And then you can use all of those same assets across many different forms of media.

This is you talking to CNBC in 2020: “We want to make it possible for any developer to bring their content into Fortnite and for any brand to have their presence known in Fortnite . . . and to have it grow into an ongoing self-evolving ecosystem.” That was two years ago, well before the industry’s current metaverse fixation. And it sounds like you’re talking about an open sort of metaverse where developers and creators have more control.

Fortnite Creative is a set of tools that anybody can use to build their own Fortnite island. About half of Fortnite play time by users is now in content created by others, and half is in Epic content. And that’s just the very beginning. Later this year, we’re going to release the Unreal Editor for Fortnite–the full capabilities that you’ve seen [in Unreal Engine] opened up so that anybody can build very high-quality game content and code . . . and deploy it into Fortnite without having to do a deal with us–it’s open to everybody.

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Our aim is to make it a first-class outlet for reaching the consumers, just like you might look at the mobile app stores and consoles and Steam as ways to reach users. Now people are also looking at Fortnite, and at Roblox, as ways of reaching users. Along with that, we’re building an economy, and it will support creators actually building businesses around their work and making increasing amounts of profit from the commerce that arises from people playing their content.

The web we’ve got today is dominated by a few big platforms and app stores that charge high rents to reach users. The platforms and their investors spent a lot to build their technology, and they got rich. Will the financial incentives be there to build a more decentralized web?

Well, at the same time they’re burning the world down, and governments and courts are chasing them all over the world to stop their bad practices. Speaking broadly about all gatekeepers or social media, there’s the App Store monopolies, but the good news is that all the companies [app developers, brands] that participate in these ecosystems get it. They’ve now seen the trick. They were tricked 10 or 15 years ago. They got lured into this, and now large parts of their businesses are trapped within these walled gardens.

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Whenever we talk to third-party companies, world-class brands, about bringing major brand presences into Fortnite, they’re all about how they can reach customers and build direct relationships with customers themselves. They’re not going to accept any gatekeeper. So as all of the brands talk to all of the different aspiring metaverse platforms–Fortnite or Roblox or Minecraft, or more broadly maybe you start looking at PUBG Mobile, GTA Online–they’re really going to be keeping us honest and ensuring that they’re not going to support another company inserting itself as an overlord between them and their customers.

What’s it going to take to build a metaverse that’s not dominated by such “overlords”?

I think we can build this open version of the metaverse over the next decade on the foundation of open systems, open standards, and companies being willing to work together on the basis of respecting their mutual customer relationships. You can come in with an account from one ecosystem and play in another, and everybody just respects those relationships. And there’s a healthy competition for every facet of the ecosystem.

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That’s the thing that the world had in the early days of the web. But that’s been torn down by the walled gardens and their monopolization processes. Right now, you don’t have a competitive app store economy. You don’t have a competitive advertising online advertising economy. And you can probably pick out a dozen economies which are not competitive because they’re controlled by tied services where a monopoly ties use of one category of its services to its uses of its others, and so you’re forced to take on them all or to leave entirely.

That’s the big focus of worldwide antitrust efforts–ensuring each market participant can compete fairly in their market without monopoly ties. That’s going to open the path to the open metaverse. Without that, even if you did build the open metaverse, Apple and Google would still end up dictating all the terms to everybody.

When you look at the current antitrust debate through that lens, the lens of how power might be concentrated, or not, in a future metaverse, it makes the stakes seem even higher.

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I think it’s not just the foremost economic issue and the world economy now, I also think you can’t have a free world if you don’t have freedom online and freedom on platforms. If you have two corporations controlling all world discourse and kowtowing to governments–especially oppressive governments–to act as agents on their behalf and spy on users and sources of opinion and dissent, then I think the world you end up with isn’t one we’d want to live in. I think it would be quite a horrible place. So, I think it’s a first-class social issue that we don’t let any of these giant mega-corporations control online commerce, discourse, and control the metaverse. Really.

Will it take this kind of openness and cooperation among companies to create the metaverse people will want?

So yeah, the metaverse is the intersection of everybody’s ecosystem, kind of like back in the early history of the internet. In the early 1980s, you had a lot of different research universities and companies with their own local area networks. They’re all separate from each other, and somebody realized, well, we could run some cables between them all across the nation, and the internet came from that. Then they realized we need to connect our email systems, and so at some point somebody invented that address system where if you were employed at X and your name was X, that would be your email address. They put the @ into email addresses.

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Being able to connect all of these different ecosystems together into an internet of ecosystems, or a metaverse of ecosystems, is one of the critical steps. We don’t want a dozen companies to fight each other to create the one monopoly that rules them all, and one wins and now everybody is locked into their proprietary thing. We want to work with all of the companies to help build one open system that arises over the next decade. Every year, we want more of it. It’s not going to magically appear all at once, because it’s monstrously complicated. Every year, we want to get closer and closer to this connected ideal, where every company can participate.

Those standards and protocols you mentioned are what made the internet what it is. But that was a long time ago. Do we have the will to go through that process again and create standards and protocols for the metaverse?

Epic does. We’re doing more and more of this all the time. I think Roblox is also another really good-spirited company. You know, after IPO-ing and facing enormous investor expectations, they took their scripting language that powers all of Roblox and they released it, permissively licensed, open source, so any game developer can decide to use that. It’s quite an incredible move toward openness.

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You have Microsoft adopting Linux and making long-term commitments to partners and the world about the openness of their Microsoft Store and how they will not use the tying practices Apple uses. I think you can find a good enough set of companies that are all willing to work together on this. And I think even for the companies that currently aren’t, they’ll be going through generational changes in which the next generation of leadership might actually take a completely different view of the world. And then it’s blue skies ahead.

This larger ecosystem, the metaverse, is going to arise from a lot of different things coming together over time. One of them is going to be massive groups of players and their friends, which are represented in social graphs. Epic has one with 600 million accounts and 4.7 billion social connections. Microsoft has a huge one with Xbox Live, and PlayStation has one, and Nintendo has one, and Steam has one. We’d really like to work with other partners to connect them all together.

In the sense that we’re talking about a move away from platform dominance and toward creator autonomy, we’re talking about a decentralization. Since decentralization is foundational to crypto and the blockchain, do you think those technologies might play a role in the metaverse?

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There are some great ideas and principles driving that work. The idea of a digital economy that’s not gate-kept by any one company, which is decentralized and open to all participants and has incredibly low transaction fees, that’s an awesome aspiration. I support the idea of universal ownership–the idea that if you were to buy an avatar in one place that you’d own it in every other place where it’s conceptually compatible. That’s an awesome idea. I think there’s a lot of incredibly interesting technology foundation work being done there. The field of zero knowledge proofs–the idea that you can verify that something happened without receiving any private details about it–that powers a number of the cryptocurrencies in protecting privacy while running a decentralized system, I think that’s going to be the backbone of a large part of the next century in technology.

But, unfortunately right now it’s bundled up with a lot of speculation and a lot of outright scams, and a lot of efforts are scammy by construction in that the thing they’re pursuing doesn’t achieve a plausible version of the stated goals. You know, like the blockchain avatar economies for example, there are a bunch of companies aspiring to make avatars that you universally own, but none of them I’ve found, not a single one, has actually made any effort to foster actual adoption of these avatars by any actual games or ecosystems. They just want to build this thing and sell people avatars, but they’re completely useless in practice.

I firmly believe there’s going to be a multi-trillion dollar economy around digital goods in the future. But I think so much of the crypto currency effort, especially touching the gaming space, doesn’t address that problem of utility. They’re showing you digital goods you can’t do anything with except to say that you own it. You can cryptographically prove that you own it, but who cares?

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Is there room for both AR and VR in the metaverse?

I think these are both incredibly important facets of the metaverse. The metaverse is going to have purely digital manifestations, places that don’t exist in the real world. If you want to go up to a space station or another planet, that’s going to be purely digital. And there will be real-world manifestations, too, which integrate virtual overlays on top of it, like Pokémon Go does. Imagine the entire world being a beehive of different activity. In some places, there are Pokemons running around. In some places, there are other game assets. And [there are] protocols for disambiguating what should be there at any time. And that’s going to be massive.

And I think there’s a lot of magic to be had by converging both parts of this, so sometimes you’re in the physical world with virtual enhancements and sometimes you’re in the purely virtual world. And the economy is going to be highly linked. Every maker of fashion products of all sorts would like that in the future when you buy the physical clothing you own it in the metaverse. And when you’re in the metaverse, to see some cool item of clothing and buy it and own it both digitally and physically, and it will be a way better way to find new clothing. Looking at photos of it in low resolution on Amazon.com isn’t that great compared to seeing how it flows in a physics system, simulating cloth and your character.

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This has been great. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I think it’s really interesting. We’re releasing this engine [Unreal Engine 5] with a bunch of code and a bunch of tools, but it’s really exciting to probe what it does for the world–what really happens as a result of this and how it fits into the bigger picture. It’s a shame that the metaverse is so over-hyped right now. There’s all this gas and blockchain and this, but you add up the users and we found [there are] about 600 million people playing metaverse types of experiences socially with their friends.

That’s impressive, and telling. I just hope people don’t get overly excited about the Web3 stuff and then get disappointed when it doesn’t all materialize at once.

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I think it’s like 1999 [part] two and [there’s] going to be some reckoning with reality for the companies that are building things that don’t quite or don’t really work. But it’s also a renaissance. When the foundations for the future are actually being built right now.

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About the author

Fast Company Senior Writer Mark Sullivan covers emerging technology, politics, artificial intelligence, large tech companies, and misinformation. An award-winning San Francisco-based journalist, Sullivan's work has appeared in Wired, Al Jazeera, CNN, ABC News, CNET, and many others.

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