#40: Trust nobody

Today, an object lesson in what happens when a company gets too big.

That, at least, is the kinder interpretation of what’s going on at Epic Games. Yesterday the company behind Unreal Engine, Fortnite and an all-out legal assault on Big Tech unveiled a new game mode for Fortnite, called Impostors. It is lockdown-era breakout hit Among Us in all but name, right down to the level map. It is, I am afraid, what is known in these parts as a clone.

Among Us developer Innersloth sounds understandably put out. “We would have loved to [officially] collab,” community director Victoria Tran told Axios, “and found out about it the same time as everyone else.” Innersloth programmer Adriel Wallick was rather more blunt: “Everything in the world was already insurmountable, so this was just another fun reminder of how tiny we all really are.”

Well, not all of us. This is what I mean about a company getting too big — so large that the left hand often has no idea what the right hand is doing. I can only assume Tim Sweeney had no idea about this. A man who has spent the last year railing at companies like Apple and Google — these huge technology organisations that use their money and power to push around the little guys — would surely not sign off on so brazen a clone, of such a massively popular game, made by a team too tiny to meaningfully fight back. Surely Sweeney, his day taken up by meetings with lawyers and the day-to-day travails of running a multibillion-dollar business and maintaining a winningly sardonic Twitter account, simply can’t know every last thing being done in every single one of his company’s products. I assume all that, because the alternative is that he’s been having us on all this time.

That alternative view is not without merit. The greatest trick Epic has pulled is convincing the world it is somehow small, somehow oppressed, while simultaneously following many chapters of the big-tech playbook to the letter. It has acquired over a dozen companies, many of them potential or actual competitors, in the last three years. Among them (ha!) have been tools providers to bolster the Unreal Engine side of the business, and Tonic Games Group, whose knockabout multiplayer hit Fall Guys briefly stole some of Fortnite’s thunder when it launched last year. Impostors represents the ‘if you can’t buy it, copy it’ ethos perhaps most famously associated with Facebook. It bought Instagram, correctly perceiving it as a threat to Facebook Photos; later, after a $3 billion bid to buy Snapchat was knocked back, it built its own equivalent within Instagram. Stories was outperforming Snapchat within a few years.

Yet what really sucks about Impostors is the severe imbalance of power it represents. What recourse does Innersloth have, beyond a few comments to press and a handful of grumpy tweets? Among Us was, its own developers admit, hardly an original idea, and in this industry few successes go uncopied for long. But some things are easier, both logistically and legally, to copy than others. Fortnite is a cross-cultural phenomenon, its collabs with established transmedia IP a cornerstone of its success and longevity. But Epic would not dare put Batman, John Wick, Thanos or Ariana Grande in Fortnite without first clearing them with their respective licence holders. But Among Us? A game originally made by three people? What are they going to do about it? Tweet?

I like Tim Sweeney. He is the rare sort of billionaire that actually seems to have his heart in the right place (and, indeed, that even has one). He is absolutely right that the download-store gatekeepers on PC and mobile have had it too good for too long, and are making it unnecessarily difficult for smaller developers to survive. But Epic is not small any more, if ever it was. It has made billions from those stores — and is now using those resources to push around, even force out, the smaller, nimbler companies that its public face would have you believe it is trying to protect. It may well backfire. You fancy that lawyers at Apple and Google, contemplating their next courtroom salvos, are looking at Among Us and Impostors, and eagerly licking their lips.


  • Outriders developer People Can Fly says it is yet to earn any profits from the game, despite its success on Game Pass and publisher Square Enix touting its 3.5 million launch players. A couple of things to note here. First, the economics of subscription services are obviously different to retail: royalties are paid over time, so there will be no gajillion-dollar launch weeks, and PCF may find that better news is yet to come. This is, broadly, a healthy enough thing. But it also exposes the uncomfortable fact that there is no such thing as a ‘hit’ on a subscription service, at least as far as developers are concerned, unless they’ve negotiated a royalty deal based on engagement. I doubt that’s the case for Outriders, a game it is very difficult to play for more than about 30 hours before the content well runs dry — and which, anecdotally, most people appear to have dropped long before that. This is a long bullet point and I’m sorry, but there’s lots to talk about around this stuff, and before Epic shat the bed with Impostors I’d planned for this to be the main story today. Onwards!
  • In brighter news, Stephen Spohn’s accessibility charity AbleGamers has raised over a million dollars. Hats off to him, and all those that contributed.
  • Consolidation’s Embracer Group has 180 games in development. It has also acquired another three studios, because of course it has. I would say that this is getting silly, but we’re well past that.
  • California’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing — the body that is suing Activision Blizzard for misconduct — has hit out at Riot Games, accusing it of stalling the DFEH investigation into Riot’s own murky past.
  • Meanwhile, recent reports of sexual harassment and discrimination at Ubisoft Singapore have drawn the attention of the local employment watchdog, which has begun an investigation.
  • Nine months after launch, Cyberpunk 2077’s first DLC has been unveiled. The free update includes… this, basically.
  • This isn’t news, but I found it rather sweet and thought it worth sharing. Ken and Roberta Williams, long-retired founders of Sierra On-Line, spend most of their time these days on a boat, and Ken blogs about their adventures every so often. The latest one went up yesterday and makes owning a boat sound like even more of a pain in the arse than I thought it was.

That’s it for today. Please do the usual thing with the buttons below, and I’ll see you on Friday.