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What Unreal Engine for <i>Fortnite</i> is like for an indie dev

Fortnite has long evolved from just being an enormously popular online game to a social platform featuring different events and brand collaborations, where users can create their very own experiences. Earlier this year, it also opened the doors for professional developers to create games for the platform, with Epic promising 40 percent of its revenue shared with creators.

But is making games in Unreal Engine for Fortnite (UEFN) the next gold rush for game development and a sign of the industry’s future in Epic’s vision of the metaverse? It’s still too early to know for sure, but two-person studio Cabbage Systems has certainly been fascinated with figuring out this new frontier as it set up shop in Tokyo this summer solely making games in Fortnite.

“It was not our explicit plan from the get-go when we moved [to Tokyo],” says co-founder Kevin Cancienne. Cancienne started the company with partner Margaret Robertson back in New York, initially as a client-based consultancy with the aim of also creating their own original products. “But when Epic announced UEFN, I think that the promise of being able to build and release a thing that quickly for that big of an audience, with at least the potential of actually getting paid to do it sounded pretty attractive and exactly the kind of thing that might be a good fit for us.”

Compared to Roblox, which he feels is already saturated with a lot of established best practices, there’s an excitement to the newness of UEFN reminiscent of the early days of developing for the App Store. In that time, on top of potentially making a hit, there was a chance to help contribute to figuring out a new market and platform.

UEFN lets developers iterate quickly for an eager playerbase

In the space of just a few months, the pair have already launched two games (or “islands,” in UEFN’s parlance), with a third coming imminently. The company’s first islands are called Fast Feud and Only Up: Top Gun.

The hyper-accelerated development cycles afforded by the platform have been especially intoxicating for Cancienne and Robertson. “They’re definitely kind of [one-more syndrome] where you finish one, then you just think, ‘oh why don’t we just do another one?’” says Robertson. “It’s really interesting to be where you can go from an idea to a polished multiplatform game in two to three weeks.”

Each game has also served as a learning process to pivot from one idea to a completely different one, as they adapt to not just the tools and limitations of the platform but also the Fortnite audience. While the idea is that creators can make whatever game they want, the reality is that the experiences still take Fortnite itself—having a player character running around in a 3D map in third-person, most likely holding a gun—as its base. In its current state, it’s not even possible to create new items or guns that don’t already exist in the battle royale game.

Discoverability is still the name of the game in Fortnite

Cancienne concedes some of the most popular games on the platform tend to be related to Fortnite’s battle royale experience. Trying to emulate that with Fast Feud—which sees two teams competing to be the best pizza restaurant—was not so simple. While you might be able to share your island code via social media or by word of mouth, Fortnite Creative itself has no search function nor a way for creators to promote their islands in-game, so success entirely hinges on whether or not your creation surfaces on a limited number of Discover feeds on the home page.

“It’s tough to build that audience,” admits Cancienne. “Because of the way these algorithms work, popularity breeds popularity. You need to have a ladder for how this thing is going to get more and more popular.”

What they learned was that a game needn’t be multiplayer to get noticed, but something that can be played asynchronously alongside other people is key. This was the case for UEFN’s most popular hit to date, Only Up Fortnite, itself a clone of the viral breakout hit Only Up that had been controversially removed from Steam last month by its creator.

Naturally, Cabbage Systems decided to piggyback off this with its second game, Only Up: Top Gun, with essentially the same gameplay but where the player at the highest point at any time also has access to a gun.

It feels reminiscent of the mobile market where one successful title spawns countless clones, though it’s a practice that’s almost encouraged in UEFN—lest we forget that Fortnite had also taken its battle royale gameplay from PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (now called PUBG Battlegrounds), itself based on a mod of DayZ, a mod based on Arma 2.

It would be reasonable for indie developers looking to create original games in UEFN to feel discouraged—it may be technically possible to cook up interesting game ideas, but the audience for them may not be easy to lure in.

“If you want to have success here, more than your pure blue-sky vision, you need to be thinking of your audience,” Cancienee explains. “That audience is people who are already into Fortnite, maybe between battle royale matches. If you want to make things that are going to pull other people in, other people are gonna have to know about it and possibly overcome some of their preconceived ideas about what Fortnite is, like ‘it’s for teenagers’, or ‘it’s about silly dances.’”

But if UEFN is going to serve as the foundation of Epic’s big picture metaverse platform, whatever Epic 5.0 is reportedly going to be, then Robertson is hopeful that the platform will enable more divergent experiences in Fortnite, while drawing more users that aren’t necessarily there for the main game: “There’s definitely a lot of growth that needs to happen, and should be able to happen.”

While still far from seeing any profit, the pair are already on track to launch their third UEFN game, a completely different idea that Robertson admits is so silly that they would have never invested a traditional development cycle in.

Cancienne concurs: “On Itch or Steam, you would have no reason to think this goofy multiplayer game we’re making would succeed. But it only took us two weeks to do it, then we throw it into this ecosystem where there is an audience churning through it, and maybe it has more of a chance to float to the top than a release somewhere else.”

If that ease and agility of development also makes the products sound somewhat disposable, in a future where games are the equivalent of a TikTok video consumed in between waiting for a battle royale match, Cancienne at least appears to be open to the possibilities.

“What if what’s important in a game is that it’s a funny place to make fart jokes with my friends? Is there something interesting about thinking about digital game-like spaces as places where people can blow off steam and build relationships and just hang out? And what do I have to say as a game designer about that?” he posits.

“That’s scary for game developers who are very invested in making games that are super expensive and full of intentional narrative, high production values, and design intentions. But maybe there’s still something interesting about making disposable potato chips.”

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