Microsoft wants to unify its desktop, mobile and game platforms through the Universal Windows Platform (UWP). At the recent Microsoft Build conference, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and two other executives insisted that Windows 10 is an open platform for developers. But Tim Sweeney, CEO of Epic Games, still isn’t convinced.
Sweeney started a discussion with bold allegations that Microsoft was slowly moving to close off the open platform of the PC. That prompted the Microsoft reaction at Build. But even after that, Sweeney isn’t satisfied. During a fireside chat on Tuesday at the GamesBeat Summit in Sausalito, California, the Epic Games founder (maker of the Unreal Engine game-making tool and games like Gears of War and Paragon), said that game industry is acting like a frog in a boiling pot. If you put a frog in boiling water, it will jump out. But if you put it in a pot of water and slowly raise the temperature, the frog won’t move and it will eventually boil, Sweeney said.
A bunch of platform owners were in the audience at our event. To them, Sweeney said, “Open platforms encourage innovation. Whenever you have a closed platform, a monopoly on commerce, and all these platform rules, it stifles innovation.”
UWP is a way for developers to build an app or game once and then publish it for Windows 10, Windows Mobile, or Xbox One. This could simplify development for a lot of studios, but Sweeney argues that you can’t release a UWP app without getting an approval from Microsoft. Additionally, end users cannot install UWP programs without first turning off a security feature that gives some dire warnings that may scare off some consumers. Microsoft has countered these concerns with claims that UWP is open, but Sweeney fears that Microsoft is taking steps to make its own platform more like Apple’s closed iOS. He also worries that Microsoft will start taking its 30 percent cut of platform revenues on the PC.
Sweeney doesn’t want to be a boiled frog.
Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.
GamesBeat: You recently criticized Microsoft for the openness of its Universal Windows Platform. What’s this really about?
Tim Sweeney: Microsoft has been taking a series of steps for a while now, towards closing down the Windows ecosystem, forcing at least consumers versions of Windows to go through Microsoft commerce. They can’t do it all at once because there would be an industry uproar and no one would buy the new operating system. One little step at a time they are taking it all over. UWP is one step in that direction. It’s a more closed Windows subsystem. It has some operating system features that are not available to all apps. When Windows 10 launched, it was closed. Now they opened parts of it. But there is no long-term future commitment. I was copying floppy disks and started sending them out to Epic customers 25 years ago, starting 1991. For a company like Epic, that’s the most important thing for all of us in this room. We want a direct relationship with our customers. To build a business and sell products to them. The most ridiculous thing is this. As a result of the digital distribution revolution, all of these giant retailers – Wal-Mart, Best Buy – were replaced by Microsoft, Apple, and Valve. It’s really critical that we fight to maintain the openness of the key platforms in our industry.
GamesBeat: Valve brought this up with Windows 8, right? They were worried about Microsoft closing down the platform, and the result was the Steam Machines. That was Valve’s solution.
Sweeney: That’s right. But the problem with Linux—it’s a fine operating system, but it lacks the billion consumers Windows has. Windows is the platform of choice for gamers. It’s the only choice for enterprise. If we want to have an open platform, we have to fight to keep Windows open. Linux is not a realistic fallback plan.
GamesBeat: You could have done this privately.
Sweeney: I spent 18 months emailing, meeting, and badgering Microsoft about this behind the scenes. There are a lot of great people at Microsoft who share the idea that Windows should be open, but there are also some bean-counters here and there. They’ve been unable to make a commitment to whether UWP will be open or closed.
Sweeney: Onstage at Build, Phil Spencer said the Xbox is an open platform. Which surprises me, because you have to get your game concept approved before you start developing it. Then you have to get every update approved. Microsoft has absolute control. You don’t know who your customers are. They sell your game through their store. It’s not your platform. It’s just propaganda mode at that point.
There are a few key mechanisms for Windows to remain an open platform. Whenever Microsoft tries to impose technology changes, we should be very careful to defend our businesses, which rely on direct relationships.
GamesBeat: What has some of the reaction been like for you?
Sweeney: A huge number of developers share the sentiment, but most of them don’t want to take on a $400 billion corporation. I’ve been told it’s a bad idea. But everybody hears this. What we’re seeing right now is that nobody is adopting UWP except for a small number of developers that Microsoft is paying to adopt UWP. The same goes for the Windows Store in Windows 8.1. It’s a dump for ports of Android games to Windows that Microsoft has paid for. If you search for “GTA” in the Windows store, there’s this mobile GTA game. Where is GTA? It’s the number one game on the PC of all time, and it’s not there.
GamesBeat: One reaction I’ve heard is that you’re pointing out a minor threat that could be coming far in the future. It’s not necessarily a universal reaction that says you’re right and they’re wrong. David Helgason at Unity said that he favors openness, but he doesn’t see the crisis right at the moment.
Sweeney: There’s a funny story about boiling a frog that you may have heard. A lot of frogs in the industry have already been boiled. Look at Facebook. Every brand in their world, their presence on Facebook started sending out messages that their customers could receive. Then, at some point, that kind of changed. Now you have to pay for your messages to be received by the people who chose to follow you. Boiling a frog.
With Windows, Microsoft has given itself the ability to force patch updates without your authorization. It will just update itself and you can’t do anything about it. They can change the rules of the game at any time. They call it “sideloading” now, because other stores aren’t official, and they’ve launched the operating system with that disabled. They forced a patch to enable it.
They say a lot about openness, but they want us to play this game by porting all our apps to this new platform and they’re not telling us what the rules are. They reserve the right to change the rules. I don’t think they’re going to change them in our favor. That’s my fear.
GamesBeat: I believe you have every single platform maker in the room here. What’s your message to them? What do they need to know about openness?
Sweeney: The PC as an open platform has become the most vibrant platform in the world. The GPU revolution started there, well before Microsoft adopted it. We had 3DFX with Glide and all this innovation that Microsoft eventually rolled into the platform through DirectX. If that had relied on Microsoft’s initiative and Microsoft had actively blocked external drivers and apps that supported them, it never would have happened. The VR revolution is happening now with HTC Vive and Oculus. There’s no DirectVR interface from Microsoft. If you were trying to make that work within the UWP ecosystem, it never would have happened.
Open platforms encourage innovation. Whenever you have a closed platform, a monopoly on commerce, and all these platform rules, it stifles innovation. Look at what iOS has grown into.
GamesBeat: I was going to ask you how you feel about Apple.
Sweeney: Apple is an awesome company. They get a free ride from consumers because their platform is so great. It’s virus-free and people tend to associate that with the fact that it’s a walled garden. But the truth of the matter is that Apple’s OS has awesome security that ensures an app you run cannot possibly turn itself into a virus. It’s not the fact that they’re forcing all commerce to go through their store that makes it secure. It’s the OS design. That’s a good thing, but the closedness is bad.
What we have now is—John Riccitiello released a statistic that amazed me. He said there were 400,000 Unity games released in the past year. But I don’t think anybody outside the top 500 in iOS is able to run a business off their game. This closed platform has a top 20 and if you’re not in that top 20 your sales fall off radically. You have one app store, one model publicizing apps. I feel like it fails a large percentage of developers out there.
On Windows, with Steam, the tail is much longer. A much larger number of developers produce successful games. The fall-off isn’t nearly as steep.
GamesBeat: And they’re not all paying their 30 percent to Apple.
Sweeney: That’s the other funny coincidence. Not conspiracy, a coincidence. Every store in the world charges 30 percent – Steam, iOS, Android, all of them. 30 percent, across the board. You’d think that this would be a parameter where people would try to make their platform more attractive. But we’re not seeing any competition there whatsoever. If these were open platforms and there were more competitors, that would change.
GamesBeat: The game market is divided between mobile, PC, and console. How do you expect that split to change in the next decade?
Sweeney: It’s funny how this has evolved. You start out with a PC that has a pretty big monitor and then we went down to these handheld devices. We reset expectations back to the 1990s with 2D sprite-based games. It was a weird inversion for the game industry. But the opposite trend is starting to happen now with AR and VR.
If you look at a PC monitor, it takes up about 30 degrees of your field of view. A smartphone is maybe 15 degrees, which is a much more limited experience. VR and AR are filling your entire field of view with an immersive experience. It’ll lead to a much more visceral, believable experience. That will be the most innovative platform ever launched. We’re going to reinvent user interface paradigms, game paradigms. Movies, and the format and technology powering movies, will be completely reinvented around these new media.
It’s not going to happen instantly. How many VR headsets are out there now at the high end? Only 30,000 or 40,000. But that number will double, triple, or quadruple every year to a point where there might be 250 million units in seven years. Then augmented reality will come in, which is a harder technology to implement, but much more fundamental. Imagine reducing VR to the form factor of a pair of sunglasses and having a pervasive entertainment device that has all the power of a high-end PC and the convenience of a smartphone or beyond.
That’s going to be revolutionary. It’ll bring gaming to billions of users. And not just gaming in the sense of playing little smartphone games in front of you, but fully immersive, high-end, visceral gaming.
GamesBeat: We won’t need our displays anymore.
Sweeney: That’s right. Once you have an augmented reality device, imagine an 8K display per eye. Then you can put a screen anywhere you want and watch any media on any service. You don’t need a TV or monitor or anything else.
GamesBeat: Or a movie theater.
Sweeney: It’ll change entertainment pretty fundamentally. And it’s not just another display screen, but a fully interactive media technology. These future movies that are built for VR will have to be running in real time on your machine so you can move around and participate. The pace of the experience can change dynamically. It’s going to be an entirely new world.
GamesBeat: What do you think is going to carry VR between now and, say, 2026?
Sweeney: We’re going to have a very viable VR market for developers in about two and a half years. In the meantime it’s powered by indie enthusiasm, investments from bigger companies that are experimenting with smaller VR experiences—you can’t ship a big tentpole project when there are only 40,000 units available, but it’s such a good investment right now to be building teams and investing in VR. If you can afford to do it I highly encourage that. It’ll redefine entertainment. The teams that have the experience now will be the innovators when it becomes practical.
GamesBeat: You didn’t mention Magic Leap, given that you’re under NDA, but I understand that what they’re doing is pretty amazing.
Sweeney: It’s important to realize that we’re all experienced with VR. VR is just built on regular consumer hardware that’s been repurposed. Palmer Luckey duct-taped the first Oculus together. Now they’re manufacturing it as a consumer product, but it’s all technology that’s existed for a long time.
With augmented reality we’ll need an entirely new repertoire of building blocks, including wave guide optics. Basically science-fiction optical technology, where you print holograms on a small glass surface and the holograms contain millions of microscopic mirrors that redirect light throughout the device to place it in the right location. All sorts of other display technology is required.
We want to seamlessly combine the real world, what you see with your eyes through a transparent surface, with computer-generated imagery and an alpha channel run between the two, so the computer-generated imagery an properly occlude relative to objects in the real world. You need incredible innovations in output, in the devices used to display, and input, so you can scan the environment and figure out what objects are there so you can place virtual objects relative to the real objects.
GamesBeat: John Carmack was a big game engine guy for a long time. He saw this coming and put aside his old work to go to Oculus. Have you felt that temptation as well?
Sweeney: I’m tempted to build a lot of different things. I’d like to build a flying car, but that probably doesn’t have a lot to do with my core expertise.
GamesBeat: What does this mean for game engines, though?
Sweeney: The move to VR and AR creates expectations. Your brain inherently expects realism in that environment, especially if you’re going to blend virtual objects in a real scene. Your eyes aren’t going to tolerate flat shading or any sorts of uncanny-valley artifacts. We need huge investments in super-optimized technology to display 120-plus frames per second and re-create digital characters.
At Facebook’s conference recently Mike Schroepfer did one of the first demos of VR Social, where two people were wearing VR headsets in different locations and chatting back and forth. You could see their heads and their hands tracking, but just that. Three objects. The next step is tracking your entire facial motion and re-creating it from any angle, along with your body motion, so you can have shared virtual worlds.
GamesBeat: The demo of Hellblade at GDC was pretty awesome.
Sweeney: It’s just barely on the cusp, demonstrating that it’s possible to do this kind of real-time facial motion capture with enormously complex and expensive custom hardware rigs. The next step is to reduce it down to a mainstream size and put it in every consumer headset, so you have outward-facing cameras scanning the environment and inward-facing cameras scanning you. We’ll be able to render these very realistic characters in a real-world environment. We’ll get to the other side of the uncanny valley.
Question: The demo of the Unreal Engine working in VR at GDC showed a developer actually working with a game environment through a VR interface. Have you seen a lot of uptake on that yet?
Sweeney: We have a huge number of developers experimenting with that, yeah. For those who haven’t seen this, you’re in VR. You can walk in your environment at real scale, or you can pinch to zoom in 3D with a motion controller, zoom the world in and out like it’s a model on your desk that you can manipulate with the controller. Zoom back, place objects, move around.
If you’ve ever tried using CAD software, you probably know that it’s very hard and not at all fun. But you already know how to use the Unreal editor because you’ve been doing this your whole life. It’s like playing with a dollhouse or building a garage. There’s a huge amount of experimentation going on in the community. A lot of work has to be done, but over the course of the next year or two, we’re going to see a very large percentage of content editing done in VR, both for VR and traditional content. The productivity gains and ability to visualize are so much higher.
GamesBeat: Is that something those who don’t code could use to design games?
Sweeney: Kindergartners could use this technology. That’s where it’s ultimately heading. That’s the goal, to create continuity between high-end professional game-making tools and user-generated content.
Question: What’s your one dream that you hope to accomplish through VR?
Sweeney: It goes back to the very first game I created in 1991. Epic’s mission has always been not only to create games, but to create technology that enables other people to create their own environments. Right now it takes the form of a very high-end professional tool, the Unreal editor, but we want to bring this content creation ability to everybody in the world, just as Minecraft has done with low-fidelity voxel editing.
Minecraft brought in 25 million 3D content creators, or maybe 50 million now. They want to move on to building bigger, better, more realistic things. I’d love to be able to enable everyone to have tools that are as easy to use as that, but scale to creating photorealistic worlds, and let them do all of that together in a social environment.
As a game programmer, building games, that’s always been the dream. Everybody is in it. It’s all together. It’s shared. It’s incredibly powerful and incredibly realistic. It’s going to take a while, but I think that just gives me job security.