Sony Invests $250M in Epic Games, Here's What it Could Mean for VR

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Sony Corporation announced today that it will invest $250 million in Epic Games, the company well known for its hit game Fortnite and the Unreal Engine game engine that powers it. Unreal Engine is the second most popular game engine for building VR content, and has powered PSVR games like FarpointMoss,and Firewall: Zero Hour.

Interestingly, the investment in Unreal Engine is being made on behalf of a wholly-owned subsidiary of parent company Sony Corporation rather than by Sony Interactive Entertainment (AKA PlayStation). Whether that’s for legal structure reasons, or because the company plans to leverage its new stake in Epic Games beyond just gaming isn’t clear.

Going Beyond Gaming

While Epic’s Unreal Engine is certainly most relevant to PlayStation and gaming, the engine is increasingly seeing use in non-gaming contexts like visualization and virtual film production, both of which have clear relevance to Sony Pictures (the company’s film division) and Sony Corporation (which focuses on the company’s consumer electronics business).

But it’s clear that the nearer implications of the investment will be on the interactive side of things, of which the company’s PlayStation 4 console is a major platform for Epic’s massively popular game, Fortnite. In recent years the game has broken new ground as a sort of proto-metaverse by hosting interactive events like virtual concerts, film debuts, and more to the game’s tens of millions of active players.

“Epic’s powerful technology in areas such as graphics places them at the forefront of game engine development with Unreal Engine and other innovations. There’s no better example of this than the revolutionary entertainment experience, Fortnite. Through our investment, we will explore opportunities for further collaboration with Epic to delight and bring value to consumers and the industry at large, not only in games, but also across the rapidly evolving digital entertainment landscape,” said Sony Corporation’s CEO, Kenichiro Yoshida.

Notice that Yoshida calls Fortnite a “revolutionary entertainment experience,” rather than a “revolutionary game.” This is a key hint about the company’s future ambitions.

“Sony and Epic have both built businesses at the intersection of creativity and technology, and we share a vision of real-time 3D social experiences leading to a convergence of gaming, film, and music. Together we strive to build an even more open and accessible digital ecosystem for all consumers and content creators alike,” said Epic Game’s CEO Tim Sweeney.

It’s the “convergence of gaming, film, and music” part which speaks to where the long-term synergies between Sony and Epic lie. Sony is a global player in all three of those spaces presently, and clearly has the vision of a future where these three sectors meld far closer together than ever before. The foundation of that future, from Sony and Epic’s standpoint, appears to be interactivity and real-time rendering.

Unifying One of PlayStation’s Greatest Assets

Another, less lofty synergy between the companies could be that Sony Interactive Entertainment (SIE) wants to move its first-party game studios away from proprietary in-house game engines and toward Unreal Engine to increase cohesion and leverage game-engine R&D across studios.

SIE’s first-party studios have been increasingly important for PlayStation over the last console generation, having given the company’s console a significant edge thanks to exclusive hit titles like Uncharted 4Horizon: Zero DawnMarvel’s Spider-ManGod of War, and The Last of Us Part 2.

The growing importance of company’s first-party game studios to Sony’s console business was made even more apparent when it was recently announced that the company will rebrand the studio group from Sony Interactive Entertainment Worldwide Studios to, simply, PlayStation Studios.

While Sony may well want to leave the studios’ present level of autonomy untouched (including their choice of using different in-house engines), it’s clear how moving the group toward a singular game engine would capitalize on existing investments by allowing studios to much more easily share both engine technology and developer talent. Unifying under a single game engine would mean less replication of game engine R&D as much as developer training and experience.

EA’s Game Engine Case Study

Mega-game publisher Electronic Arts pulled a similar move when it acquired DICE, the studio behind Battlefield, back in 2006. The acquisition not only brought the popular game franchise under EA’s umbrella, but also the studio’s Frostbite game engine. Since then EA has leveraged that acquisition by investing deeply in Frostbite and making it widely used across the company’s studios.

Frostbite now powers many EA-published game franchises like Mass Effect, Madden NFL, FIFA, Need for Speed, and, of course, Battlefield. The engine has even been adapted for use with VR; it will power the upcoming VR-supported Star Wars: Squadrons, and was already used in Star Wars Battlefront Rogue One: VR Mission (2016) which was released for PSVR.

Streamlining EA studios with Frostbite as a technological foundation has been a clear success as the company and the engine has been behind some of the most visually ambitious games ever made—Battlefield 5 (2018) being a stunning example.

What It Could Mean for VR

If Sony moves toward making Unreal Engine the engine of choice for PlayStation Studios, it could also impact the company’s VR strategy. Unreal Engine already supports VR development across all major headsets, including PSVR. It has powered PSVR games like of Farpoint (2017)Moss (2018), and Firewall: Zero Point (2018).

While some PlayStation Studios teams have released VR games—like JAPAN Studios’ ASTRO BOT: Rescue Mission (2018) and London Studios’ Blood & Truth (2019)still many of the company’s studios have not.

While adapting a studio’s in-house game engine for VR rendering isn’t necessarily the hardest part of developing a VR game, building into that engine a full suite of developer tools to meet the specific needs of VR development is a much larger task. Fortunately, it’s something that Epic Games has been doing with Unreal Engine for years. In fact, the company released its own VR game, Robo Recall (2017), which still stands as an impressive example of the engine’s VR prowess.

Streamlining PlayStation Studios with Unreal Engine would mean that all of Sony’s game studios would already be working with a game engine that has fully-featured VR capabilities; that would reduce the friction for the company’s other studios to commit to building VR games.

Unreal Engine on PlayStation 5

Unreal Engine isn’t just relevant to PlayStation Studios, it’s also relevant to Sony’s upcoming PS5 and its community of third-party developers. Even prior to today’s investment announcement, Sony had already been apparently working in close collaboration with Epic to optimize Unreal Engine for PS5’s new hardware architecture.

The fruit of that work was revealed back in May in an Unreal Engine 5 tech demo specially built to take advantage of PS5’s hardware.

The demo showed off key new features of the upcoming Unreal Engine 5: advanced lighting thanks to dynamic global illumination and incredible geometric detail with ‘virtualized micropolygon geometry’, which Epic says will allow “film-quality source art comprising hundreds of millions or billions of polygons” to be imported into Unreal Engine 5 and run in real-time.

Epic says that theses features will be supported in VR content, though it isn’t clear how much they will be limited by VR’s high-performance requirements.

And we haven’t even really touched on the Epic Game Store, the company’s new digital distribution platform which has brought much needed competition to Steam’s dominance.

Overall, Sony’s investment in Epic is an ambitious move and one which will have nearer-term and decades-long implications for Sony and Epic Games, both of which are deeply intertwined with the VR industry. While Microsoft is only just catching up to the powerhouse of development talent that’s accumulated in PlayStation Studios, this forward-looking move may well keep PlayStation one step ahead of its competition in the next generation.

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