Epics radical new Unreal Tournament is partly cynical, mostly brilliant

“Where’s Unreal Tournament 4? Where’s Unreal Tournament 4? Where’s Unreal Tournament 4? Where’s Unreal Tou…”

Over recent years, fan demands for a follow-up to Epic’s long-standing, rightly loved competitive shooter series have been reminiscent of Bart Simpson’s haranguing of the post lady for his spy camera. And understandably so. The studio’s old-school PC faithful have been rather left out in the cold of late, as the company has focused largely on engine licensing and the development of the Gears of War series for Microsoft. And besides, with a new Unreal Engine hitting for next-gen, surely the time is right to show it off with a new flagship entry in the series that bestowed its name.

It seems, finally, that Epic agrees. Last night, the studio announced that development of a new Unreal Tournament game has begun. Whichever side of the decades-long Unreal vs. Quake rivalry you find yourself on (I’ve always been a Quake man, but my overall outlook has remained non-dogmatic), the announcement of a brand-new, fast-paced, high-flying competitive shooter from one of the genre’s historical masters is an incredibly exciting event in today’s climate. But there’s something even bigger going on here.

The new Unreal Tournament is going to be entirely free. No microtransactions. No paid weapon unlocks. No “Drop $5 to jump higher”. Entirely free. What’s more, it’s going to be developed in the open, with a constant dialogue with the community taking on board desires and requests as of right now. It’s a game with the spirit of a Kickstarter or Steam Early Access project, but without the need to drop down anything by way of donation. For an entry in a series as community-driven as Unreal, that’s a fantastic revelation.

Of course, this thing isn’t being made out of pure altruism. There’s money to be made from a new Unreal Tournament, and Epic is going to make it. But once again, the methods are innovative and community-minded. Eventually, Epic is going to create a UT marketplace, where independent and amateur developers can sell new mods and content. Marketplace revenue will be split between the content creators and Epic. This is a game whose core mechanics will be forged by Epic, but whose exact shape will be hammered out by its players. It’s a brilliantly forward-thinking (and entirely logical) approach to a game like Unreal, formed of a smartly focused culmination of multiple recent shifts in game development, from Kickstarter to Steam’s Workshop.

There is, however, a secret stealth benefit for Epic here, in the form of a quiet, long-term power-play that could easily go unnoticed amid the excitement of the game’s announcement. And it all comes back that engine licensing business. Having dominated last-gen’s third-party development with its ludicrously prolific Unreal Engine 3, it’s entirely in Epic’s interests to have that happen again with UE4. And it needs to make it happen soon. While UE3 swept to ubiquity at a rapid pace after Gears of War demonstrated its power, its follow-up hasn’t yet achieved the same sort of traction. With Gears now handed off to Microsoft wholesale, a new Unreal Tournament is exactly the showcase Epic needs. And a new Unreal Tournament which incentives mass adoption of its engine is one hell of a smart idea.

Consider this: Epic puts out the new game. Its community gets hold of it and immediately starts creating new content, spurred on by the twin incentives of game ‘ownership’ and financial gain. That’s UE4 on a whole bunch of new dev machines overnight. Then indie studios get involved, using UT as an additional source of income. That’s UE4 on a whole bunch more dev machines.

Creators and modders start producing astronomically pretty and clever content for the new UT, as many modders have for big PC games over the last few years. Think Grand Theft Auto IV’s ‘realism mod’. Think Skyrim. Think the Dark Souls PC upgrade. That’s one hell of an eclectic, endless stream of advertising that Epic doesn’t even need to involve itself in, let alone pay for. Suddenly UE4’s (presumed) power and versatility is known. Then when Epic drops its touted shiny, AAA console game (or licenses the tech to Microsoft for the new Gears), all market bases are covered and the engine’s momentum is off to a great start in the opening years of this new generation.

Calculated? Certainly. Cynical? Maybe a jot, depending on your perspective on the machinations of big business. A smart, fresh, healthily forward-looking approach that might just deliver a whole boatload of magic? Categorically. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to buy a new mouse and initiate a stern workout regime for my forearms and wrists. Those twitch-aim skills aren’t going to rebuild themselves.

David Houghton
Long-time GR+ writer Dave has been gaming with immense dedication ever since he failed dismally at some '80s arcade racer on a childhood day at the seaside (due to being too small to reach the controls without help). These days he's an enigmatic blend of beard-stroking narrative discussion and hard-hitting Psycho Crushers.