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On paper, a company actually announcing that it is updating the modding tools for its online game shouldn’t be an industry-shattering event.

Sure, it gets more interesting when the game in question has generated around $30 billion in revenue over its five-year lifetime; After all, any change to a behemoth of this magnitude is automatically interesting. But even when acknowledging that Fortnite is one of the most commercially successful games in history, it’s easy to overlook how important the connection Epic has just forged between the game and its Unreal Engine tools really is – and to what extent it is could transform entire segment of the industry in the coming years.

It’s hard to overstate what a cultural phenomenon Fortnite has been within its target demographic. Viewing it as a hugely commercially successful game actually misses out on much of its success, which lies in its ability to evolve and evolve in ways that far exceed conventional definitions of a game.

Many people simply classify Fortnite as an immensely successful battle royale shooter that differs from similar rivals like Apex Legends or other online shooters like Overwatch simply by its success and ubiquity – but these comparisons miss key elements of what Fortnite has become is its creators and many of its players.

Epic’s “metaverse” not only makes it one of the most disruptive players in the industry, but one of the most important technology companies in the world

Of course, all the high-profile experimentation – like premiering in-game movie trailers or hosting virtual concerts by big artists – doesn’t change the fact that the battle royale shooter is still the beating heart of Fortnite. This is what most players spend most of their time with, at least for now – but even when they do, they often also engage in an aspect that has become even more important to Fortnite’s identity, which is that of an online social space to hang out with your friends to hang out

The actual game that most of us identify with Fortnite is just one facet of it – and Epic has made it clear that Fortnite is increasingly evolving in that direction, with the competitive online shooter that spawned it being just an option for Players will have much wider platform to engage with.

Most online games are, of course, social experiences to some degree, and the most successful online games are generally defined by the quality of their social structures – World of Warcraft has been a high watermark for many people in that regard. These are important social spaces for many players, but what Fortnite has achieved in this area is unprecedented. There’s a whole generation of gamers – many of them fairly casually engaged – for whom Fortnite is already a hub of their online socializing.

The game has focused heavily on that role, focusing on building features that allow for plenty of self-expression and social interaction, as well as creating opportunities for shared experiences – the aforementioned concerts and virtual cinemas, for example, and even the evolving narrative and story the central island of the game itself.

That’s why it pays to listen carefully when Tim Sweeney (or anyone else at Epic) talks about it, although the most up-to-date discussion of the “metaverse” deserves a healthy dose of cynicism from the listener.

UEFN effectively transforms Fortnite into a gigantic online marketplace and outlet for content created in the Unreal Engine

Unlike every other company storming the Metaverse, Epic (which seems a little shy about the word “Metaverse” at the moment, probably because it’s been so badly tainted by shysters and chancers of all stripes in recent months) actually has created a 3D online world where countless gamers spend hours every day hanging out, socializing and playing. While most rivals swam about their cyberpunk fantasies and their frankly shocking inability to recognize that William Gibson’s stories were meant to be cautionary tales, Epic quietly went out and transformed its hit online game into the closest approximation we’ve come across of an actual metaverse have seen .

By effectively turning the Unreal Engine into a content creation system for Fortnite – or perhaps more accurately turning Fortnite into a massive online marketplace and outlet for Unreal Engine-made content – Epic is taking another pretty big step in that direction.

Many see Fortnite simply as an immensely successful battle royale shooter – but they miss key elements of what Fortnite has become

User Generated Content (UGC) tools already existed for Fortnite – another reason why some people might underestimate the impact of this move as it’s not like opening the game to UGC for the first time ever – but they were extreme simple and crude, especially compared to the Unreal tools. Letting people create UGC for Fortnite with Unreal tools is a huge step forward that will enable entirely new types of creativity and interaction.

For starters, there’s a whole universe of high-quality assets, including huge libraries of assets created for games, movies, and TV shows, that can now be imported into Fortnite about as easily as dragging and dropping a file and the software developers can now build interactions and experiences around these assets and are essentially professional quality development tools.

It is no exaggeration to say that user-made additions to Fortnite could effectively be high-quality standalone games. As the platform that will host these experiences, Fortnite is becoming more of an ecosystem than a game.

The argument for evolving this platform into something Metaverse-like is simple: Fortnite is real, it works, it has millions upon millions of players, and its direction of travel has already taken it well down that path to becoming a multifaceted social space focused on shared experiences and self-expression.

Unlike many of the Metaverse pitches we’ve seen over the past few years – many of which rely on VR headsets and often propose use cases that will not appeal to anyone who isn’t a hardcore Metaverse evangelist to begin with – the Description of What You Would Actually Do in Fortnite’s Metaverse makes sense and sounds, well, fun. Building on the game-centric socialization that is already defining Fortnite for many players, Epic’s experiments with virtual concerts, real-time story events, and in-game movie trailer premieres have been about trying different things players can do while playing with them depend on each other. UGC is a way to accelerate this experimentation and development.

Frankly, the real killer apps for the metaverse are far more likely to emerge from some total strangers trying out a fancy new idea using free, readily available development tools than they are from being created in a neon-lit meeting room where one of the whiteboards was a long list of things the IP licensee says you can’t do. The battle royale genre itself, from which Fortnite emerged and grew, is a perfect example of this principle. It’s not surprising that Epic wants to capitalize on this creativity in its own burgeoning platform.

Fortnite isn’t the only game pushing in this direction and trying to position itself as a broader platform – Roblox has arguably been ahead of Epic in this process, although opening up the industry-leading Unreal toolset to Fortnite’s UGC developers will clarify some blues water between the two. Epic’s apparent commitment to avoiding walled gardens and working with competitors to develop open and interoperable standards for their various metaverses is also an interesting aspect that sets the company apart from its competitors.

The connection Epic just forged between Fortnite and Unreal Engine… could transform an entire segment of the industry in the years to come

That’s actually a potential problem – a commitment to openness and interoperability makes much less sense if no one else is willing to sit down with you, and Sweeney rightly fears that without a broader commitment to openness in the Essential could come along and steal everyone’s lunch money. It will be interesting to see to what extent Epic can convince other companies with metaverse ambitions to join Sweeney’s open, interoperable vision to mitigate this risk.

Crystal ball-watching is never a particularly productive pastime when it comes to tech trends – but following this week’s announcements, it certainly seems unwise to bet on Fortnite becoming an increasingly important part of the gaming industry, both commercially and culturally.

Epic’s ambitions to make the game a major platform have never been clearer. Microsoft has spent years transforming Xbox from a hardware platform to a hardware-agnostic gaming software and services platform, and we can now see Epic heading towards a similar goal from the other end of things, transitioning Fortnite from a popular online game to a hardware-agnostic software and services platform that hosts a variety of games, social spaces, and other experiences.

If this approach works, Epic’s “Metaverse” will not only make it one of the most important and disruptive players in the industry, but one of the most important technology companies in the world.

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