Fortnite developer Epic Games continues to make power plays in its quest to become a true superpower. In recent months, it’s locked down more high-profile exclusives for the Epic Games Store, introduced an uncanny new character-creation tool, and now bought one of the hottest studios on the market in Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout developer Mediatonic.
It’s clear that something big is brewing behind the scenes at Epic, but what exactly is it? The company has been clear about its plans for years — it’s trying to build the metaverse. The more moves Epic makes, the more that science fiction dream becomes a looming reality.
What exactly is a metaverse and what does a cute elimination game about sentient jellybeans have to do with it? Here’s what to expect from Epic’s ambitious vision for the future.
What is a metaverse?
If the word “metaverse” sounds like something out of science fiction media, that’s because it quite literally is. The term first appeared in the 1992 sci-fi novel Snow Crash and has since appeared in other popular media from Ready Player One to Persona 5.
There are some nuances to how one defines a metaverse, but the simple answer is that it’s a shared virtual space. The idea is to invent a persistent digital world that users coexist in, taking the idea of the internet to a new level. In its most extreme iteration, a metaverse even has its own functioning economy.
Many big-name tech companies have been eyeing the idea for decades, but Epic Games has been most vocal about its attempts to actualize the concept. CEO Tim Sweeney is an especially strong proponent of it, shouting his ideas from the rooftops for years. In an interview with GameMakers last July, he laid out his vision for Epic’s metaverse.
“The metaverse is going to be some sort of real-time 3D social medium,” Sweeney explained, “where instead of sending messages and pictures to each other asynchronously, you’re together with them and in a virtual world, and interacting and having fun experiences which might span anything from purely games to purely social experiences.”
That concept probably doesn’t sound too far out there for Fortnite players. While Epic’s multiplayer phenomenon started out as a battle royale game, it’s morphed into a full-on social platform over the past year thanks to special events. Epic made its biggest swing at the concept last April by hosting a Travis Scott concert event in the game, which became one of 2020’s biggest digital water cooler moments during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fortnite is a starting point, but it’s still too limited to reach Epic’s grander vision on its own. The social events and V-Bucks economy are there, but they serve as experiments for a bigger picture. Just look at the game’s somewhat depressing Super Bowl event this year. If Epic wants to create a true metaverse, it’ll have to expand past Fortnite. That’s where Mediatonic comes in.
Falling into place
In Epic’s press release announcing its Mediatonic acquisition, Sweeney focused on what the deal meant for his grand plans. “It’s no secret that Epic is invested in building the metaverse and Tonic Games shares this goal,” Sweeney says. “As Epic works to build this virtual future, we need great creative talent who know how to build powerful games, content, and experiences.”
By that logic, it’s clear why Epic was interested in locking down Tonic Games and, by extension, Mediatonic. Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout was a smash hit in 2020, providing the kind of social moment that Epic values. The colorful elimination game became a must-play hit among gamers, spawning its own little world of inside jokes and memes.
At first glance, it may seem like Epic would want to get the game under its roof to take out the competition and bring another sensation to the Epic Games Store. In reality, the game itself isn’t what’s valuable for Epic — it’s the social experience Mediatonic has proved it’s capable of creating.
Fall Guys found success by creating its own self-contained universe in and outside of the game. Its meme-fueled Twitter account created a large community of fans who were ready to joke along with the team. That netted the account over a million followers, which is unheard of for a game of this scale. If Mediatonic could unite that many people on an indie budget, what can it do with a Epic-sized one?
Epic’s constant refrain is that it seeks to empower its creators. The Tonic Games deal is an example of the company putting its money where its mouth is and giving the team space to grow. Fortnite is a successful test of how Epic can create digital worlds for players, but it’s going to take some extra help to really bring something as ambitious as the metaverse to life. Sometimes, it takes a full squad to secure that victory royale.