By The Washington Post · Gene Park
Sweeney gave the keynote at the DICE Summit Wednesday, a talk that was pitched as a discussion of the future of the games industry. He took the opportunity to air his concerns about closed platforms - not just in gaming, but across the Internet.
"It's a mind virus, this idea that publishers should 'own' the customer or have a monopoly on the customer relationship through some form of login or e-commerce," said Sweeney. "We need to give up our attempts to each create our own private walled garden and private monopoly and agree to work together and recognize that we're all far better off if we connect our systems to grow our social graphs together."
Last year, Epic Games released its own new digital storefront. The store has stirred up controversy by offering exclusivity deals to game developers and publishers in what critics have described as an effort to undercut its direct competitor in the space, Valve's Steam storefront. The Epic Games Store allows sign-in connectivity to a number of other platforms, including Xbox Live, PlayStation Network and Facebook.
Sweeney's most biting comments were left for Facebook and Google, two companies he has not been shy about criticizing in the past.
"What we have now is a massive scale devolvement of industries that are based on adversarial business models, businesses that profit from doing customers harm, and doing their supportive ecosystems harm," Sweeney said. "Facebook and Google have been leaders in this trend. They give you a service for free, and they make you pay for it in the form of currency that's dearer than money . . . loss of privacy and loss of freedom."
Sweeney said the games industry must lead in shifting Silicon Valley away from anti-consumer models and practices, such as loot boxes. He noted that the industry engages in predatory practices similar to Las Vegas' gambling industry, except with zero promise of any money returning to the player.
"We have to ask ourselves as an industry: what do we want to be when we grow up? Do we wanna be Las Vegas, or do we want to be worldwide, highly respected creators of entertainment products customers can trust?" Sweeney said.
Sweeney also advocated for more open platforms and cross-platform economies. Fortnite, an Epic Games property, allows purchases on one platform (be it a game console like PlayStation or your smartphone) to be available on any other platform. Activision's Call of Duty franchise introducing cross-platform play with its latest Modern Warfare title (allowing players on different gaming platforms to play together) was a sign of progress, he said, while also noting that players who bought the game on Xbox should have it available for play on other platforms as well.
Sweeney recalled the difficult conversations Epic had with Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo when asking them to work together to make Fortnite a universal, standardized experience. Developers big and small, he said, must be prepared to have more "uncomfortable conversations" if the industry is to achieve this vision.
Renee Gittins, executive director of the International Game Developers Association, said Sweeney's comments about publishers and studios working together make a lot of sense.
"I think a lot of progress is based around uncomfortable conversations, and when you're pushing forward to try to do new things, it is uncomfortable," Gittins said.
Epic Games is still working to achieve these goals, said Sweeney. Fortnite hosted an in-game concert by the electronic musician Marshmello last year that was viewed by 10 million people. Sweeney described an ideal end goal as one where any performer or musician could host their own concert without significant coordination with Epic Games.
"We can go a lot further with the creation tools built into games, and where this is ultimately headed is games becoming more open platforms for creators to build their own stuff, independent of the companies," Sweeney said. "In the future, we'd like for any musician to hold their concert of that sort without having to coordinate with us."
He also called traditional display advertising obsolete. Display ads (such as 15-second ads before a YouTube video) distract from the content viewers actually want to engage with; Sweeney said he hoped for more natural cooperation with intellectual property holders that doesn't detract from the core product. He pointed to Fortnite's collaboration with Marvel and Star Wars, where players can simply use the characters from these respective brands without ever interrupting play.
Sweeney then dove into the topic of discourse around gaming companies. He briefly aired his bewilderment at the idea of people choosing where to buy chicken sandwiches based on a company's politics, referring to Chick-fil-A's support of anti-gay groups. To that end, he called for a separation of church and state as it pertains to politics and video game publishers.
"I think we're seeing a lot of controversy of political censorship of social media. To get through that we need to divorce ourselves from politics," Sweeney said. "When we're making decisions on content moderation, we should very clearly establish rules as almost a judicial branch of the company."
It's unclear what prompted the comments. Epic Games was one of the few big publishers who said they'd stand by their player's rights to express any political opinion in response to Blizzard's controversial handling of a competitive Hearthstone player who broadcast his support for the protesters in Hong Kong last year.
Sweeney later took to Twitter to clarify his comments.