If we're talking about influential multiplayer first-person shooters of a bygone era, we need look no further than Epic Games' Unreal Tournament series. First released in the early 2000s, Unreal Tournament went on to spawn several sequels and achieve high status within the multiplayer world and the then-young rising esports scene. However, developer Epic Games have shifted gears on the series ever since, placing their focus and attention on other projects as the Unreal Tournament brand slowly faded into the background and made way for successors in the arena shooter genre to shine. What exactly happened to Unreal Tournament, and will we ever see it again? Let's explore.
Unreal Tournament wasn't actually the first of its kind. Before the first entry released in 1999, Epic Games designed a first-person shooter called Unreal which acted as an exhibition piece for their new Unreal Engine. Unreal would later spawn a sequel and expansion pack, Unreal II: Awakening, before morphing into the multiplayer-focused Unreal Tournament. Epic Games, along with Digital Extremes, were still finding their footing with the Unreal Engine, but Unreal Tournament's unprecedented success earned them critical acclaim and recognition in the gaming industry - enough that it would spawn a few sequels, Unreal Tournament 2003, Unreal Tournament 2004 (arguably the most popular entry in the franchise), and finally Unreal Tournament 3.
The first nail in the coffin was Unreal Tournament 3. While it received praise from critics at the time and also sold over a million copies, it released at a highly competitive time in the first-person shooter genre. Unreal Tournament 3, despite its name still carrying plenty of weight and legacy, failed to trade blows with more demanded shooters in the genre like Call of Duty. Fan reception was mostly mixed, though, as fans felt that the magic of the Unreal Tournament series was lost somewhere in the mix of Epic Games implementing more modern design choices and over-complicating its simple and successful formula of the past. With Epic Games shifting gears (no pun intended) towards Gears of War, it would be several years before Unreal Tournament would re-appear in the gaming spotlight.
In 2014, Epic Games would attempt to revitalize the franchise with the now-abandoned Unreal Tournament. Development of the project had actually progressed well, as it even received a pre-alpha build that would remain in a playable state. Unfortunately, Epic Games halted development of the project in December 2018 as several staff members working on the game were migrated over to Fortnite Battle Royale (an extremely lucrative move for the company). Unreal Tournament also had a few things to contend with in the modern gaming scene if it ever were to get a proper resurgence, though.
Epic Games' attempts to revive Unreal Tournament failed due to a number of factors, but we can't help but look at the landscape of the crowded first-person shooter genre, especially the multiplayer scene, at the time. Unreal existed at a time when the first-person shooter genre was still trying to find its feet. Sure, following 1993's release of Doom, we had a number of similar shooters burst onto the scene in the 90s - with Unreal Tournament being one of them - but the competition was far less cluttered to allow Epic's tentpole shooter to shine. In 2014, the market had become saturated by a number of shooters each with their own strengths, catering to a larger variety of gamers. It was always going to be an incredibly steep uphill climb for Unreal Tournament, and with the release of competitive multiplayer shooters like Blizzard's Overwatch, it may have simply been the right place at the wrong time.
The "wrong time" still stands till today. I believe it's incredibly difficult for any older shooter to revive itself in such a competitive market of major shooters dominating the gaming world every second month. Competitive multiplayer has also evolved to wildly ambitious heights, and it's still difficult for any new shooter to even find its footing in the esports scene now (see Rocket Arena, Valorant, and a number of other projects). Though they hold stable fanbases and recurring players, they still fall in the shadow of bigger multiplayer machines like Overwatch and Call of Duty. For Unreal Tournament to be revived and receive the same attention, it would need to at least compete with these titles.
Sure, DOOM's revival in 2016 may have been the exception, but it placed a stronger emphasis on its single-player content that allowed it to thrive beyond its middling multiplayer efforts (the same could be applied to DOOM Eternal). Unless Unreal Tournament returns with a single-player campaign (for which it's not exactly known for), a multiplayer-focused return would need to shine extremely bright and somehow find its footing again in the upper echelon of multiplayer shooters. As difficult a task as that is right now, is there still room for Unreal Tournament to thrive again?
The answer isn't that simple. Epic Games' cancellation of the latest Unreal Tournament revival serves as a reminder of just how priorities may shift in development according to the market. Fortnite is undoubtedly Epic's big money-maker, and to top it off, the Unreal Engines have become acclaimed across gaming development. Epic Games are perfectly nestled in a position where they've chosen the high road, and understandably so. If it meant leaving Unreal Tournament in its untimely grave, that's the risk-and-reward play they've chosen.
But I leave the question to you: would you be open to seeing Unreal Tournament revived yet again?
Writer. Enthusiast of all things geek. Legend has it he completed Final Fantasy VII without a memory card.
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