The Epic FPS Unreal Tournament is returning with a bold new approach. The last version of UT (3) sold for $60 at launch, but Epic Games, the developer of the Unreal franchise, is giving the newest installment away for free. But that is not even the best part: this could be a pioneering moment in the history of open-source entertainment. Epic’s opening of the Unreal Tournament floor to modders and fans could be a great example to the rest of the video game development community.
Now, Epic is not doing something completely unheard of, here. Valve, developer and digital distributor responsible for Half-Life (1998), is probably king of the mod market. Rather than fighting their fans, they embraced the idea of post-market alterations. Valve took advantage of the free dev hours by hiring the modders and giving the games more polish and publicity. Modded versions of their original games resulted in titles like Team Fortress and Counter Strike, franchises that are still going strong. Since then, many developers have decided to support the modding community (mod comm) by putting out construction sets to help fans and players alter their paid content. DayZ, the massively multi-player online game that recently made news for its intensity, began life as a mod for Arma 2 and Operation Arrowhead. The 2012 award-winning mod will become the standalone 2014 game, currently selling for $30 on STEAM. This is where Epic’s good example comes in, and mod comm rule begins.
Instead of starting with a finished new game, modders will be in on the development from the beginning. Epic Unreal Tournament Lead Designer Steve Polge says the game will be developed “in close and open collaboration with the community.” Fans can begin participating in the development “before the first line of code has been written.” This is a break from the norm, and could end up as a committee and produce a camel, or a democracy that produces Athens. Instead of charging up front for the game, Epic plans to reverse the model and take advantage of aftermarket development by setting up a marketplace where modders can offer their wares and taking a piece of the sales. Time will ultimately reveal the wisdom of this model, but it is definitely encouraging and intriguing for fans.
Imagine for a minute if Rockstar — developer of Grand Theft Auto — or Bethesda – developer of the Elder Scrolls games — decided to try this mod comm style of development for a triple-A title. Mods already abound for the PC versions of the multimillion dollar hits; perhaps Epic’s competitors are already considering how to follow in UT4‘s footsteps. Gamers can hope that this will lead to some positive changes in the relationship between players and content developers – maybe they will realize when they look at each other they are sometimes looking in a mirror. The forums are already heating up with discussions on everything Unreal-Engine. Epic’s decision to use open community development for the new UT can be either a great example or a horrible warning. If Unreal Tournament is successful and the marketplace makes a bundle other developers may go in the same direction, which would foster an upsurge in armchair developers as well as real content producers. In addition, players would have more active control over how their games turn out, and so would begin the rule of the mod comm.
Opinion by Aliya Tyus-Barnwell