The Unbelievable Nature of the Next Unreal Tournament

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So the news is that Epic Games is making a new Unreal Tournament game. This time around the game will be 100% free. Not “free, but with microtransactions,” but “free, actually”. It will be built in collaboration with the community and is planned for Windows, Mac, and Linux. (For the rest of the article, when I say “PC” I mean all three of these operating systems.) The game will be a collaboration between the developers at Epic and the community.

These are strange days indeed.

In the official announcement they state that, “The game will be true to its roots as a competitive FPS.” I’m really curious what they have in mind for that.

The original Unreal Tournament – along with rival Quake 3 Arena – represented the last gasp of the fast-paced twitchy ’90s shooters. It featured PvP gunfights with abrupt, lethal combat. The levels were convoluted and serpentine, with lots of vertical fighting. It was loud, colorful, absurd, and visceral. There wasn’t a lot of thematic coherence. On one map you were fighting in a medieval castle. The next was a modern urban ruin. Then a futuristic fortress. Then an alien spaceship. Then a nondescript industrial installation.

The follow-up came in 2003, and its gameplay reflected the industry move towards more console-friendly design. (Although it didn’t actually come out on consoles.) Player speed was reduced, while player models were enlarged. Instead of trying to shoot a normal person sprinting at motorcycle speeds, you were now trying to hit a ponderous linebacker. The levels opened up, replacing the blind turns and ambush corridors with broad, brightly-lit arenas. The brutal precision weapons were replaced with ones that had larger projectiles and larger splash radius, but did much less damage overall.

This made for a very different game. Instead of having peek-a-boo duels in dark rooms where victory went to the person with the most precise aim, it was a colorful and spammy brawl where the winner was the person who absorbed the least damage over the course of the exchange. The series stuck with this approach over the next few iterations.

There are a lot of reasons for this shift. Partly it was artistic, as Epic moved toward the man-tank aesthetic that would define Gears of War a couple of years later. Partly it was just following industry trends as everyone moved away from gameplay focused on mouse input and made gameplay that made sense using a typical twin-stick controller. But a lot of it was just a necessity of graphics evolution. As you get further from cartoony ’90s graphics and closer to photorealism, you need to change the way characters move. The DOOM guy ran at automobile highways speeds, and that was fine at the time. But if Marcus Fenix ran that fast it would look like a Benny Hill chase scene.

The gameplay was so drastically different that it felt like a completely different title. Unreal Tournament and Unreal Tournament 2003 are as different as Duke Nukem 3D and Deus Ex. And as different as they are, they’re both more or less relics of the past. Today the concept of “competitive FPS” has evolved into a completely different beast. Today the big games are built around the Call of Duty model: Tactical combat, quasi-realistic weapons, and RPG-esque leveling up.

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Unreal Tournament 1999 310x

I’m not a fan of the newer breed of games, but I think sales have made it pretty clear what the market really wants. The Unreal Tournament of 1999 was a brutal thing. Powerups favored people with map control, making strong players even stronger. Health pickups let you recover quickly, allowing players to keep fighting instead of getting whittled down by many encounters. The extreme speed and complex map design favored the experienced and gave them even more of an edge over the hapless newcomer, and the occasional trap only made it easier for the newbie to accidentally kill themselves. All of this exaggerated the delta between players, creating a game where a newcomer would have almost no hope of scoring a single point in a 10-minute match. In fact, since perishing in a trap subtracted a point, it was common to see new players end a match with negative scores.

These newer games even the playing field a bit. Skilled players have an advantage, but they still die sometimes and it’s always possible for a struggling newcomer to get lucky. The RPG leveling gives you a way to get stronger over time, so you can get some positive feedback right away while you wait for your skill level to catch up.

Back in the day, the hardcore players sneered at the more even playing field, but it’s pretty clear which idea won out. Call of Duty has a massive audience, far larger than anything Unreal Tournament ever achieved. The Unreal Tournament model turns out to be really unfriendly to newbies, which makes for an insular and stagnant community. I preferred the UT gameplay (I always enjoyed the ridiculous running speed of ’90s shooters) but I’ll admit the Call of Duty model just makes good business sense, while making the game fun for as many people as possible. And no, this doesn’t mean the game is “dumbed down”. Just because newbies can score a point once in a while doesn’t mean they can win. It’s not trying to negate skill, it’s just trying to make skill a little less humiliating to acquire.

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Which brings me back to my initial question: What kind of “competitive FPS” are they going to build? Are they going for the madcap cartoon action of UT 1999? Or are they aiming for the more deliberate pace of UT 2003? Or are they going for something more modern and tactical? If you’re a developer, you probably want wide appeal. If you’re a hardcore ’90s FPS fan, you probably don’t. The developers and community might be fundamentally at odds right from the start, before the first line of code is written. Note that this collaboration is taking place with PC developers, who are probably going to lean away from the console-focused controls of modern titles.

Epic is planning on releasing the game for free, but then (as far as I can tell) allowing the community to make and sell their own add-on content. Epic would then take a cut of these sales. It’s like Bethesda releasing Skyrim for free, but then allowing users to sell their mods. What do we call this? Crowdsourced DLC? Official fan-made expansions?

Note that this can only work on the PC. Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo haven’t really opened up their platforms to modders and have either forbidden or discouraged the kind of continuous patching common to this sort of setup. It’s pretty rare for a big publisher like Epic to be willing to go PC exclusive these days.

I don’t know what’s going to happen. Nobody has ever done anything quite like this before. It’s daring. It’s bold. It sounds kind of crazy. Good or bad, I can’t wait to see how it turns out.

Shamus Young is the guy behind Twenty Sided, Spoiler Warning, and How I Learned.

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